60 seconds: a simple vocabulary review game

So, at our school, it’s that ‘nearly time for the final test’ kind of time, but as any self-respecting teacher will tell you, review (especially of the spaced variety) is an important part of language learning. So hopefully this activity will be useful to you, at whatever point in your courses you may be! The amount of preparation required for this game ranges from minimal to none…

Goal: 

Encourage active recall of previously studied vocabulary; push learners to think about the co-text of vocabulary not just the basic meaning.

Level: 

Pre-intermediate upwards. For lower levels, give them more time to come up with examples, and perhaps provide a sample example on the card to get them going. It kind of grades itself by the vocabulary used. Each level will be capable of putting different words into example sentences, each level’s sentences will vary in complexity.

Materials: 

Small pieces of paper, each with a piece of target vocabulary on one side. (You can prepare these yourself [minimal] or get your learners to do it in groups, which case you only need to provide paper! [none] )

Procedure:

  • Put learners into groups of four. Within the four, each learner has a partner and two opponents.
  • Give each group a set of cards (or if your students made the cards, get each group to swap their pack of cards with another group)
  • Each student takes it in turn to pick a card and think of example sentences into which that word could fit. They tell their group as many sentences as they can in sixty seconds, substituting ‘banana’ or similar for the target word.
  • If their partner guesses the word first, they as a pair get a point. If one of the other pair guess the word first, they as a pair get the point.
  • The game continues until you want to stop it or until all cards are finished.
  • If you use a vocabulary box/bag, you could get them to put the words that weren’t guessed into it, for future review. You could also play this game using vocabulary from the box/bag.

Benefits:

Learners, whether providing examples or guessing the target word, have to think about various aspects of the word in question, not only the meaning. I.e. They need to think about the word grammar, about collocates, about register etc. I think this makes it more useful than simply describing/defining the word.

Variations:

If the focus is something like word pairs (which I have needed to review with my Level 9/Upper Intermediate learners), you could provide only half of the word pair on the pieces of paper, so that the learner who is providing the example sentences has to recall what the full word pair is, as well as how to use it.

Enjoy!

60 seconds...starting now! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org, licensed for commercial re-use with modification

60 seconds…starting now!              Image taken from en.wikipedia.org, licensed for commercial re-use with modification

Things I have learnt about Quizlet from Leo Sellivan’s Webinar!

IATEFL run regular webinars for English Language Teachers to participate in, fortunately for us, and this afternoon I was lucky enough to be able to spend an hour listening to Leo Selivan share his knowledge of the power of Quizlet. For those who don’t know, Quizlet is a website that enables you to create sets of flashcards, using words and/or images. I am a big fan of Quizlet, having used it for my own language learning, and have tried to help learners use it too, by creating self-access materials for them to use. Coincidentally, as the webinar started, I received notifications saying a learner of mine was adding a set to one of my Quizlet classes!

Here is what I have taken away today:

To help you navigate this blogpost, the structure of webinar went thus:

  • Key principles for learning vocabulary
  • Quizlet functions
  • Writing definitions
  • Tweaks and tips

Key points I took away:

  • Memorable and manageable is what vocabulary recording should be!
  • Disadvantages of lexical notebooks:

– Students’ reluctance to go back and add in new items to existing topics. (If organised by topic or key words)

– Students view it as time consuming, possibly waste of time and prefer to record vocabulary in a linear fashion rather than elaborating on existent entries.

– Students’ notes and your notes not in synch.

– The notebooks do not provide active recall practice (ARP is necessary to commit new vocab to long term memory): Students can see the words in front of them, so they don’t need to try and retrieve them. Whereas ARP aids memorisation process.

  • Research shows that incidental learning of vocabulary is not enough.

Learners need practice activities. (This is the principle I applied to my Italian learning by transferring language from sources e.g. books, audio books etc to Quizlet!)

Decontextualised vocabulary practice is perfectly justifiable and learners, especially adults, can learn vocabulary out of context. (Like I did with Quizlet and my Italian!)

– We need a combination of both contextualised and decontextualised practice and use.

– The Communicative Approach sees language as a tool but vocabulary experts today say that it is justified to treat vocabulary as an object of study, not just a tool for communication.

NB: Leo cited Laufer B (2005) – I think the title was Focus on form in second language vocabulary learning but check his reference slide to be sure – as the source for this information

To learn vocabulary we need frequent encounters with new items. 5-15.However vocabulary learning isn’t only increasing the size but also how well you can use the words that you know. E.g. depth as well as breadth. Depth is all about the how of the word rather than just the what.

Meaning is important but form is too. Students may think they know a word because it looks like they a word they know. E.g. adopt – adapt. This leads to over-estimation of vocabulary knowledge.

We should exploit L1. Especially in a monolingual setting.

– We should provide focused engagement with new language. Opportunities to manipulate, use it in different contexts etc.

Enter Quizlet!!! <drum roll!!!>

Functions: 

When you access the website, you are presented with the functions of: Flashcards, Learn, Speller, Scatter, Space Race and Test. 

However, Flashcards, Scatter, Speller, Learn, Space race, Test  is Leo’s suggestion of the order in which students should use the functions, as this represents easy to difficult, or receptive to productive with increasing challenge. (This I found particularly interesting, as I had never thought about it before, though in my own use of Quizlet have tended to go for the Learn function as it gave me the right level of challenge (also because I got used to using it on my iPad, in preference to the easier alternative of the matching mode), but once I was used to the language would use the test function and the space race function too, on my computer. I had never analysed my usage in this way before and now it makes more sense!)

  • You can create classes. Yup. But as a free user, can only have 8. If you want more, you can create folders.
  • It has as a mobile app, so you can practice on the go.

Writing Definitions:

  • Gapped definitions can be more useful for co-text, also more personalised as it is your example sentence.
  • Dictionary.com not useful for learners, as definition uses more complex language than the word being defined. Use good online dictionaries e.g. Cambridge, Macmillan, Longman dictionaries. Leo’s blog has a section called essential lexical tools, well worth checking out.

Don’t:

– define a word with its synonym: This gives the false impression that the words are interchangeable, whereas they collocate differently etc. E.g. What’s happened to you? Ok. What’s occurred to you? Not the same.

– rely on user generated content: you can add your own definitions, you can select from list of readymade definitions from other users, learners may not know the synonyms and they don’t work in the same way. Be careful, or becomes ‘usergenerated nonsense’

Bear in mind:

– 9 different aspects of knowing a word: spoken and written form, meaning, spelling, collocation, grammatical patterns, constraints e.g. appropriate in informal or formal context, connotation etc. Textbooks tend to only pay attention to form-meaning links, neglecting other aspects. In classroom interactions, teachers also tend to focus on teaching means rather than the other aspects of word knowledge: “The tip of the lexical iceberg” as Leo put it!

The collocation of a word may result in different translations in another language: E.g. heart conditions vs terms and conditions.

– Co-text is important for learning a word. NB: Context is the story or situation happening around a word whereas co-text is the words immediately surrounding the word e.g. have an accident or by accident. “The linguistic environment”.

Alternatives to definitions

(You can find Leo’s example flashcards to see that he practices what he preaches and have a play!)

  • Example sentence with a blank plus definition in brackets at the bottom. And word on other side.
  • Give example collocations
  • Multiple Prompts
  • Collocation chains e.g. lots of adjectives which collocate with the same word, being the target word. (works really well on Scatter)
  • Phrase and translation: perfectly acceptable and you can also negotiate the translation in class.
  • Phrase in a conversation: Provide phrases within a conversation, e.g. the phrase is taken out of a dialogue. But in learn mode, all that conversation is what you have type in in learn mode, so it is difficult. Less text is easier for the learn mode.
  • Word and collocate in co-text sentences with first letter clues. You can increase or decrease challenge in this way, e.g. by adding the last letter too, or not.

Useful to know:

  • “…” multiple dots indicate whether it is the first part or the latter part of the collocation, which is useful information when trying to access the correct answer in your brain! e.g. fallen into… …disrepair

In learn mode, do you have type in all those multiple dots. If learners type the answer correctly without multiple dots does that means Quizlet would reject the answer? Fortunately not!

  • What happens if you have a few instances of the same word, e.g. prepositions, when using scatter mode? You can use any instance of a word with any correct match. As long as it fits the sentence correctly it will be considered correct by clever Quizlet. (Good to know!)
  • You can bold certain items! When you enter the definition, you put stars on both sides of the word or group of words that you would like to bold. So, you can highlight dependent prepositions, for example. Or bold the gapped sentence and leave the definition normal.

Another tip Leo offered was to encourage students to take screen captures of their scores and times from their out of class study and compare in class!

Finally, I discovered that he introduces learners to Quizlet in a similar way to me, but including his special order of use of the functions (see above) that I will be bearing in mind from now on!

This was a fantastic webinar, which this post only gives the merest overview of, and I fully recommend accessing the recording on the IATEFL website if you can, or if/when Leo publishes his slides or any blog posts about it, visit his blog. Leo blogs at Leoxicon, which is well worth a visit, with plenty of quality content.

Thank you, Leo!

 

British Council Videos: ‘Teacher Talk’

One of the perks of being a British Council Associate is that as well as having had the opportunity to deliver a webinar (with another on the cards for next year!) I have also been able to participate in a project called ‘Teacher Talk‘. This is a series of videos edited by the British Council, which feature some of the BCAs talking about various ELT-related issues.

So far, you can watch short video clips about:

(Click on the title to be taken to the relevant video – I think there may be more forthcoming, but I can’t actually remember at this stage how many topics there were in all!)

I think part of the beauty of these clips is that they are so short – within a few minutes you can either pick up a few new ideas or remind yourself of things you knew but hadn’t been uppermost in your mind recently, becoming buried amongst the myriad other things that we, as teachers, have to juggle.

The other thing I like about them is that you hear a range of voices on a single subject, particularly as the British Council has edited the videos very cleverly, so that although they cut from one person to another, the flow of ideas is seamless and easy to follow.

From my own selfish developmental point of view, making the videos, which I sent to the British Council to be included in the editing process, encouraged me to reflect on and synthesise (very succinctly by my standards – the videos had to be fairly brief!)  my views on these various important elements of ELT. Watching the videos now, months down the line, it encourages me to question whether I practice what I (and the others in the video clips) ‘preach’ and how I could try and do so more effectively.

All in all, a very rewarding project to have been part of. Thank you, British Council, for this fantastic opportunity! 🙂

Learning Contracts and Language Learning (part 3): another month of outcomes

On the 4th June this year, a day after I arrived back in the UK from la bella Sicilia, I considered the potential utility of learning contracts and then proceeded to make myself one, with the vague goal of maintaining my Italian while in a non-Italian-speaking environment. A month later, on the 4th July, I posted my first update. Time has done that speeding by thing again, and the day has come, 4th August, for update number 2!

The main theme of update number 1 was discovery. I had discovered how the activities I do link in with one another, I learnt more about various language learning activities e.g. dictations, I realised how difficult in some ways, and how easy in other ways, it is to stick to a learning contract. In my post, I explored all these discoveries and how I could apply them in my teaching. Since then, I’ve also written blog posts about it, for example one about graded readers and one about text-mining, as well as the one on dictations which I had already produced by the time of my last update.

This month, my main theme is development. Both linguistic development and contract development (albeit only mentally – I haven’t physically made any changes to my contract but mentally I have added a few activities).

Have I kept to my contract?

Yes! I haven’t missed a single day. NB: this does not mean I have heaps of spare time. (Il da fare non manca mai, davvero!) As well as working full time, I’ve also visited people overnight in other towns, graduated and in so doing spent time with the family, prepared for an online conference and so the list goes on. It just means I’m practising what I preached to my learners for the whole of last academic year: Anything is better than nothing. Use the time you do have rather than waiting for time you will never have. Be it listening to ten minutes of audiobook over breakfast, watching 20mins of a film over dinner, doing a few rounds of Quizlet on the bus on the way into town when going to the supermarket, or a few go’s of Scrabble, the ten and twenty minutes grabbed here and there all add up. On any given day, I manage to do a variety of activities.

This is my learning contract, dutifully copied and pasted into Evernote.

A reminder of my learning contract!

What has changed?

In my last post, I explained that I tended to do more than the contract stipulates, as the contract stipulates minimums. In addition to what’s listed, I now:

  • regularly use an app. for learning verb conjugations. Some things just need be memorised and verb-endings are one of them! The app is a fun way of drilling my verbs. It gives me a verb and tells me how I should conjugate it. E.g. riuscire, third person singular, present subjunctive. If I get it right, I get a green “correct” stamp. If I get it wrong, I get a red “incorrect” stamp and the correction. I’ve noticed that sometimes I just don’t pay enough attention. It asks me for 3rd person plural present subjunctive and I gaily key in 3rd person singular conditional or something. (It often seems to be subjunctive and conditional that I mix up in this way! Am improving though...)The app records running statistics, e.g. how many verbs I’ve got right out of the total number of verbs I’ve attempted (yep, that’s right 608 so far!), and then also breaks that down into different verb types (-are, -ire, -ere; regular/irregular, tenses). I’ve now got the total overall percentage to 62%. I have to admit, breaking into the 60’s was very exciting after spending rather a while languishing in the high 50’s!

    When I first downloaded the complete app (at a whopping £1.69), I got over-excited and ticked all the different tenses. Then I realised that wasn’t going to work and got rid of the absolute past and subjunctive pluperfect (less urgent to learn!!) amongst others. Hence the 2/5 statistic for it! Further down the list (not seen in this pic) can be found conditionals and subjunctives…  I’m a lot more rubbish at past participles than I had realised before using this app. I’m not too bad at imperfect, and obviously present is easiest…

Yay! 62%!

Yay! 62%!

  • regularly play scrabble – both the real live version (minus the board with my own special rules and scoring!) and the app version. I enjoy this, I drill myself stupid trying to think of all the words I know and working out which I can make with my letters!
    Bumper-scrabble!

    Bumper-scrabble!

    Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

    Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

  • have broken down “extensive listening” into smaller components. In any given day, I aim to listen to some audiobook, watch some news and watch some of a DVD. I’ve become more aware of the value of variety and push myself to ensure I get it! I’ve also downloaded a free RAI app, to get 24hr news-on-tap in Italian:
RAI: News on tap!

RAI: News on tap!

  • have broken down “extensive reading” into smaller components. In any given day I try to read some authentic Italian i.e. original language Italian book as well as all the translations of more familiar things that I’m chowing my way through. Again, for the sake of variety. But also because I think it’s important to experience original language texts.
  • play Storyonics in Italian! 🙂 Storyonics is a storytelling card game. There is a pack of cards, each of which has 4 pictures on it. You pick a card and incorporate either all the pictures, or the picture ringed by the colour you’ve chosen, into your story. This morning I worked my way through the purple-ringed pictures and had lots of fun! I also recorded myself doing so. This is so that over time I can make comparisons between earlier and later recordings, and also go back and try to correct any errors I might notice.
Storyonics!

Storyonics!

  • make fewer new sets on Quizlet but on the other hand I have been adding to existent sets. I now have 7 sets on Quizlet. What I also now find useful is gathering examples related to a language point I’ve struggled with e.g. personal pronouns and learning those. The idea is that if I have learnt a few correct examples, when I’m not sure, I can mentally compare between what I’m trying to say and the examples and try to work out if I’ve got it right or not. So far so good!
My Quizlet sets!

My Quizlet sets!

  • have started doing my weekly reflections in Italian! I thought I had better since I always expect my learners to reflect in English…!  I write a reflection once a week, looking back over the week and what I’ve achieved, what I’ve noticed etc. I was doing them in English, of course, but two weeks ago I did my first one in Italian. I’ve done one more since and plan to continue with this.
  • have become vegan and done most of my learning about that in Italian – using Italian websites, watching documentaries in Italian, cooking recipes that are in Italian… E.g this frittata:
Vegan cooking in Italian!

Vegan cooking in Italian!

What progress have I made?

Lots.

  • My listening is heaps better than it was. I can understand most of what I listen to, without exaggeration. Recently I particularly enjoyed watching Life is Beautiful in original Italian with no subtitles and being able to understand most of it. I’m also currently working my through a 7ish hour audiobook of The Secret Garden in Italian (done 4hrs15mins so far!), which I’m loving. I find the news the hardest in terms of understanding, I probably only understand about 80% of it. Il Giardino Segreto, I understand about 90%. My DVDs also about 90%. I miss the odd word, essentially. I put this down to a combination of working on decoding skills through intensive listening activities such as dictations, using my graded reader as a listening activity etc. and lots of extensive listening. I did a listening test on an Italian learning website. I managed 93% on the advanced test. Not saying it was an especially valid test, and I don’t think I am an advanced listener by any means, but it still made me feel rather chuffed! 🙂 I was also chuffed to do the second part of the gatto e topo intermediate dictation recently, as in part 1 I got about 27 mistakes, whereas in part 2 I only had 9 mistakes. I don’t really know how good I am in the great scheme of things, but I do know I’ve improved substantially, so I’m satisfied!
Il giardino segreto!

Il giardino segreto!

  • I can write at greater length, expressing myself more easily and quickly. I now have 15 posts on my little Italian learning blog.
  • When recording myself speaking, I notice that I hesitate less than I used to now. I.e. I have longer runs of fluid speech before pausing for thought. Pauses are becoming more in line with thought groups rather than language lack. There are still some of the latter, naturally, but fewer than there were.
  • My productive vocabulary continues to grow. Interplay between Quizlet, my extensive reading/listening and chats on Facebook has helped in this department. Text-mining has become a regular feature of my learning.
  • I’m a lot more organised than I was in the first month. I know exactly what activities I want to do when, depending on what time I have available. I’ve got my resources organised so that I can maximise on any train journeys. I’ve even organised my iPad:
All organised!

All organised!

  • I can think in Italian rather than thinking in English and translating into Italian. Not all the time, but I have enough language that I’m comfortable doing to be able to do it a fair bit.
  • Still getting to grips with the magnetic poetry (which was on the to-do list for I made in my last post, for this month!), but I can report that I have found a new way of using it, which involves choosing 5 or 6 words at random, with my eyes closed, then using those as the basis for production (a story, a poem, whatever).

What have I learnt about language learning?

  • Sometimes success can be demotivating!! Counterintuitive but true. One of those ‘things clicking into place and an improvement jump’ moments seemed to be followed by ‘mmmm can’t be bothered to study…‘ (I just wanted to read and listen extensively instead!) But I got back on track pretty quickly, thanks to my contract, so that was alright. So perhaps another role they can play, then, is in ensuring that you don’t get complacent!
  • Variety really is the spice of life. My success in this learning malarkey is, I believe, largely down to the variety of activities that I do on a regular basis. Lots of input, lots of output, varied use of language.
  • Listening skills can be developed autonomously if you combine work on decoding skills with extensive listening. I have lots of ideas for active autonomous listening that I look forward to passing on to my students.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition! It really does help for some things. Apps like Quizlet and my conjugations app make it fairly palatable too.
  • Being organised helps! In the first month I lost a few days due to lack of it. This month, no.
  • Perseverance is key: doing a variety of activities for a few days and then kicking back and relaxing the rest of the time won’t make much difference. Doing a variety of activities every day for a month, and nearly every day for two months, really does!
  • Having somebody to talk to in the language (even if by “talk to” we mean on Facebook messenger!) really helps. Having that opportunity to use the language and get feedback (in terms of how the conversation goes, not necessarily error correction, though I enjoy that too when it arises!).
  • Speaking skills can be developed autonomously. Using voice-recording tools, telling stories doing storyonics, anything that encourages language production contributes positively, I think. Of course there is nothing like speaking to another human being and generally learners (who aren’t on holiday) do at least get that opportunity on a regular basis. Outside class-time, the activities alluded to above can also be useful.
  • For every little moment where you notice improvement, there a hundred where it seems like it’s never going to happen and you have to push through all of them!  Remembering those occasional ‘break-through’ moments, and knowing that the only way to get one again is to keep working, and sticking to the damn contract, are all useful in these circumstances.

What comes next?

  • Work, work and more work! I have under two months before I will be back in Sicily. I have to make the most of that time. My major motivation has become that I want to go back to Palermo and be able to talk with the Italians I know in Italian. And I want to be able to do so without making an utter d*** of myself in the process! I know I’ll make mistakes and I’ll continue to have moments where my tongue gets in knots and I feel like I’m back at A1 level again, but if they can become fewer and further between, those moments, then so much the better!
  • I want to sort out my pronouns, my prepositions and my conjugations. I want that percentage on my conjugation app to get up to 80% by the end of my next month. Pronouns I’m beginning to get my head around but need to spend more time looking at. On the other hand, I think prepositions will always be a work in progress…
  • I want to be able to understand more of the news bulletins that I watch. I want to be able to understand as much of the news as I do of other things that I watch/listen to. So that means more intensive listening work, as well as continuing to listen extensively.
  • I want to continue to develop my productive vocabulary. The current method (extensive reading/listening, FB chats, text mining, Quizlet), is working, so I will stick with it, but more so!
  • When I get back to Palermo, I want to apply everything I’ve learnt about learning autonomously to my learner autonomy projects and help my learners benefit from it all.

As for my research questions:

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 19.43.10

A reminder of my ‘research questions’

  • So far, the LC has helped keep me motivated for two months. Obviously this still doesn’t yet count as “a longer period”, so the jury is still out!
  • For two months, yes. Plus, plus! It’s made a big difference so far, in terms of making me do a variety of activities and discover links between them, then add to the variety according to what I’ve learnt. I think they are a powerful autonomous learning tool.

Let me know if you use learning contracts with your learners – I’d love to hear about it! In turn, once I’m back in Sicilia, and apply everything I’ve learnt in my quest to help my learners become more autonomous, I’ll report back from time to time too. 

As for my own learning, the next report is due on the 4th September. As I finish my full-time summer job on the 5th, I rather suspect that there will be a slight (day or two!) delay for that one…! 

Autonomous learning (4) – Graded Readers

This is the fourth in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their language skills autonomously. The first two posts are specific to listening. The first post, which focuses on perception of connected speech can be read here , the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here and the third on “text mining” can be read here.  The first two posts focus on listening, the third on autonomous use of reading and listening texts, and, in keeping with my expansion of the series focus, this post is focusing on graded readers as means of autonomous learning – language development and skill development

What?

 Graded readers are books that are written in the target language, graded to suit learners of that language rather than being geared towards native speakers of that language. They exist for a range of levels, generally corresponding to those within the Common European Framework of Languages. Graded readers often (but don’t always) contain activities related to the text, either dispersed throughout the text or gathered at the end of the book.

A variety of well-known publishers have published collections of graded readers, information about which can be found on their websites. Here are some links to the graded reader sections of some of the publishers that do graded readers:

 Choosing a Graded Reader

As the list of links above might suggest, there is no shortage of choice where graded readers are concerned. Of course each publisher produces one or more different types of graded reader. Graded readers can be:

  • a text, graded to a particular level.
  • a text and an audio disc recording of the text.
  • a text, an audio recording of the text and questions/activities that accompany the text.
  • an e-book, with above-mentioned features integrated.
  • probably other versions exist as well…!

I recently discovered that graded readers do not only exist in English for learners of English but in other languages for learners of those languages. Including Italian! The main focus for this post will be book-plus-audio graded readers, based on my recent experience of working my way through Villa dei Mughetti, published by Black Cat.

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Screenshot from Blackcat-cideb website

Having worked my way through a graded reader, I now feel a lot better placed to help my learners get the most out of theirs, where before I tended to leave them to it, within the remit of my reading project.

In terms of choosing a graded reader, availability will be the major factor. When I bought my graded reader, in Palermo, it was the only one they had in Italian! I would recommend choosing one that comes with an audio recording, if possible, as this is a very valuable additional resource. Fortunately for me, Black Cat readers generally seem to come with accompanying cd.

Getting Started

My top tips for getting started with a graded reader would be:

  • Locate the answer key for the accompanying activities (if you have a version with activities!): with some, that’s as easy as checking the back of the book and finding that they are there. With Villa dei Mughetti I had to go to the Black Cat website, register as a teacher and then I was able to download them. Not the easiest, and if students are expecting the usual back-of-the-book scenario, they may be a bit perplexed and therefore a bit of help might not go amiss!
  • Decide how to begin: Think about your goals in using the reader and the different approaches you could take (dependent on what kind of graded reader you have chosen). Decide which approach(es) you want to try.

Different Approaches

Here are some approaches a learner could use:

  1. Read through the text without looking at the questions.
  2. Read the text and answer the questions/do the activities as you go along.
  3. Listen to the complete audio cd without looking at the questions or text.
  4. Listen to/read a section first, then read it/listen to it, then answer questions as you go along.
  5. Listen to a section first, then answer questions, then read it to check.
  6. Listen and read simultaneously, the whole text, without looking at any questions.
  7. Listen and read simultaneously, answering the questions as you go

A learner might use the same approach throughout or vary the approach from chapter to chapter. As mentioned above, learners’ goals will/should influence the choice of approach. For example, my dominant approach was to listen to a chapter, do the activities, read to check, then mark the score-able activities using the answer key. I.e. (5) above. My goal was to work intensively on my listening.

Here is how I perceive the above activities could match to different goals:

  1. Extensive reading
  2. Intensive reading/language work
  3. Extensive listening
  4. Supported intensive listening/reading (depending which you are stronger at and which you are weaker at, the other supports it)/language work
  5. Intensive listening/language work
  6. Sound-spelling awareness/pronunciation
  7. Sound-spelling awareness/pronunciation, plus comprehension/language work.

It could be useful to discuss different approaches with learners, to raise awareness of how different approaches map to different learning goals. Encourage them to experiment with different approaches and report back to their peers, so that they are encouraged to reflect on their experience of trying the various approaches – they could initially all experiment with the same approach and then compare notes, even if they were all using different graded readers (provided the graded readers all had the same resources e.g. audio and activities), and then move on to deciding which they prefer, or they could all experiment with whichever approach they wanted to and report back on whatever they have done. They could also group themselves according to what approach they wanted to try.

This experimentation and discussion would fit in quite nicely with both my Experimentation with English and Reading Project approaches. As mentioned in those projects, it needn’t be very time-consuming in class.

Graded Reader Activities

In Villa dei Mughetti, there was a chunk of activities at the end of each chapter. Each chunk included a mixture of score-able and un-score-able activities.

There were:

  • Comprehension activities: T/F; Y/N; ordering events; matching utterances and characters etc.
  • Language focus activities: grammar explanation plus practice activity, vocabulary activities e.g. matching pictures and words, a crossword, matching words and definitions etc.
  • Productive skills-focused activities: each chunk of activities had both a writing activity and a speaking activity.

Comprehension activities

These are straightforward and can be done as a reading exercise or a listening exercise. If learners choose to listen and answer the questions, as I did, it would be useful to encourage them to use the text as a transcript to identify why they make any mistakes. Of course this would be easier for them to do if you have done with them in class before, in your listening lessons.

Language focus activities

Vocabulary: learners need to be selective in deciding what to do with the vocabulary that the activities encourage them to focus on. Is it vocabulary they want to actually learn? It won’t necessarily be – some of the vocabulary in Villa dei Mughetti was very random and I wouldn’t choose to focus on it sufficiently for it become part of my productive linguistic resources (e.g. names of flowers whose names I don’t even know in English – I’m happy for the flowers to be pretty, I’m happy enough to learn what the names are in Italian, but I’m really not fussed about *learning* all their Italian names.)

So, if the vocabulary isn’t useful, that’s fine, do the activities and move on. However, if is vocabulary that learners want to learn, then they  need to do something with it beyond the activities in the book. For example, input it into Quizlet and use the various study and game modes; try to use it in the writing activities etc.

Grammar: This (at least in Villa dei Mughetti) is generally based on language/examples from the text. If a learner is familiar with the grammar and gets all the questions in the practice activity right, great. Move on but don’t forget to look out for more examples, in context, in the ensuing text and in other texts that you encounter. However, if there are a few mistakes, it could be worth using a website or book with grammar explanations and activities, to try and clarify any misunderstanding. Once it’s under control, at least on a declarative level, it’s even more important to look out for further examples of it in context – in future chapters and other texts (written or spoken). In this way, the grammar activities become diagnostic, either confirming what you are familiar with or acting as a springboard to working on what you are less familiar with.

Productive skills focus activities

These activities, at least in Villa dei Mughetti, are the un-score-able ones. I’m of the opinion that self-study material doesn’t have to be score-able to be useful, so I am glad these activities feature in my current preferred graded reader series!

In order to get the most out of them, it is useful to have tools to use alongside them: i.e. a blog for the writing and a voice-recording tool (e.g. Audioboo, Audacity, a mobile phone, vocaroo etc, for the speaking. That way, you can collect your writing activities on your blog, and accumulate a series of voice recordings too. If using a website to record your voice, you can usually link to the recording in your blog, or if you make files on your computer, this can usually be uploaded. Evernote could be used in a similar way.

This enables progress to be charted. You could also encourage learners to share blog links with each other, and compare their production. Or, if you use Edmodo with them, they could post things on it instead of creating blogs etc. Of course a class blog could be used too. Once learners have reached the end of the graded reader, they could go back through their recorded written and spoken activities, to see if they can identify progress and identify/correct any errors.

Some of the activities might seem a bit lame (in my limited experience) but they may be able to be combined, with a bit of imagination. Thus, as you might have picked up on, I don’t think it’s necessary to complete the productive activities before moving on to the next chapter. As long as you are doing the activities regularly, then it just becomes a matter of how it best fits the time frame you have available. Writing a text takes longer than answering a few T/F questions, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop doing the T/F questions until you have time to do a longer activity.

Other Activities

Graded Readers can yield activities beyond those contained in the book (if it’s the type of reader with activities):

  • Dictations: A great additional use for the accompanying audio disc. Dictations may not immediately come to mind as a potential activity but actually it works well, as the language is graded to the reader’s level and it tends to be read clearly. Of course it won’t be a dictation speed or with built in pauses, but as one has control of the recording, one can repeat a short passage (a minute at most) multiple times and see how many times it takes to get everything done. If the activity is repeated at regular intervals, comparisons regarding number of times necessary can enable progress to be tracked. Comparison with the transcript, as with standard dictations, can indicate weaknesses in decoding skills.
  • Writing/speaking: As mentioned, those in the book may not seem the most exciting, but the concept is sound. So, if a group of students are using the same graded reader, then get them to come up with alternative ideas for productive activities, that they actually want to do. You as the teacher could collect these and over time build up a collection of supplementary materials to share with future students. If your school has a library of graded readers, copies of those materials could live with the collection of readers.Students may be concerned about lack of feedback with the productive activities, so it may be useful to explain that a) it’s still a useful activity even without feedback, as it helps the development of fluency (of writing or of speaking) and b) it’s also useful to go back over the texts produced (written or spoken) and see if any mistakes can be identified, especially as time passes and language level (hopefully) consolidates.
  • Gapping the text: A bit more work is involved with this activity, but it should be worth it. Learners type up a small portion of the text. (A similar length to that used for the dictation) and then gap some words. This could be words that they struggled to hear/decode the first time round (to facilitate this, after they listen to a chapter, do exercises and read to check, they could also check if they read anything different from what they had heard. Alternatively, listening first and then listening/reading simultaneously to compare). It could be chunks relating to the language/grammar point in that chapter, or a previous chapter. It could be any chunks that they understand but wouldn’t produce unprompted, that they think might be useful to activate. (See my post on text mining for more information about this approach.) Students then leave the reproduced, gapped text aside for a while. Later, they come back to it to play the audio and attempt to fill in the gaps. (NB: If you think this would be too easy, I can only say that I have done something similar with dictations: I’ve listened, made mistakes, identified mistakes through transcript comparison, marked mistakes but not corrected them, left it aside for awhile, come back to it and tried to listen and correct the mistakes – now gaps where something is wrong – and struggled! Generally I’ve been able to correct some and still failed on some, even though I’ve seen the correct answer previously.)

Is it extensive reading?

Some might argue that with all the activities breaking the text into small portions, reading graded readers doesn’t count as “proper” extensive reading. However, I would say that:

  • a graded reader can still be used for extensive reading/listening if the text is heard/read through first time round without using the activities. Or, after the activities have all been done, one could read/listen through the whole text without stopping for activities, enjoying a greater understanding of the text.
  • a graded reader is a beneficial learning resource that can be used as well as more traditional texts. E.g. I read other things to read extensively and use my graded readers mainly for intensive listening. As with anything, alone it might be insufficient but as part of a varied diet of activities, including extensive reading/listening without activities, it can be very valuable.

So, I don’t think it’s such an important issue to worry about. As long as students are aware of different ways of using their graded readers, of how these ways map to different learning goals, which may change as they progress through their graded reader, and, finally, of the benefits and limitations of graded readers as learning resource, then they can use their graded readers as suits their purpose and get as much out of them as possible.

Conclusion

Graded readers are a rich resource of learning, perfect for autonomous study. This is particularly true if you have access to an audio recording as well. A wide range of approaches can be used with a graded reader, depending on learning aims. There is also potential for a students to do further activities not stipulated by the graded reader, and create supplementary materials for use with them. Both the process of creation and the use of these can be another valuable part of the process of using a graded reader. Some teacher guidance could be helpful in enabling learners to make the most of their graded reader, through a cycle of experimentation and metacognitive discussion. This could be achieved without the graded readers necessarily becoming a teacher-led/controlled activity.

I’ve really enjoyed using my graded reader in Italian and look forward to using more! (And, I confess, I do still have a couple of productive activities to do – one of which is next on my agenda for this afternoon!) I also look forward to being able to help my learners get more out of their graded readers when I re-launch my reading project at IHPA in October! 🙂

If you have any more ideas for helping learners use graded readers more effectively as an autonomous learning tool, please share them by commenting on this post. 

Delta Notes 3: Issues in teaching lexis

This Delta Notes series came about because I was packing up all my stuff to move out of my flat and found my Delta notebooks. I didn’t want to put them in a box (got plenty to store as it is plus it’s pointless…) and let them gather dust, so thought I’d write up the notes I was interested in keeping and get rid of the notebooks instead! The project is on-going, the notebooks didn’t get stored or binned but I am getting tired of carrying them round the world…  

Feel free to share opinions, add ideas, argue against any ideas you disagree with etc by commenting using the comment box beneath the posts. (These are just some of my notes from Delta input sessions – I may have misunderstood or missed something: there was a lot of information flying around that semester!)

[NB: The sessions during which I took these note were delivered by Dr Ivor Timmis of Leeds Metropolitan University, so all credit to him for the insightful input.]

Lexis

 

Lexis! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification

Lexis! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification

Why do we need to plan how we teach lexis?

  • It doesn’t happen automatically: 

Focus on lexis is needed for learners to remember and be able to use lexis effectively. When acquiring L1, exposure – massive exposure – may suffice but in a classroom context, the exposure available is not sufficient for lexis to be acquired efficiently without focus and careful planning.

  • It’s a big task!

To understand an unknown item in a text, one needs to be able to understand 95% of the co-text. Fortunately, 2000 words accounts for about 80% of what you hear or read. Unfortunately, there is a law of diminishing returns at work thereafter: 3000 words would that figure up to about 82%, and so on. Calculating vocabulary size is complex because it depends on whether we count lexemes only or each word of a family. (NB: Lexeme = a basic root word with no inflections)

  • It’s a vital task!

Without grammar, little can be conveyed, without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.” – Wilkins, 1972.

How do we choose what lexis to teach? What criteria can we use for selection?

There are several criteria we can choose to apply to selection of lexis:

  • frequency
  • coverage
  • learners’ needs and interests
  • learnability
  • opportunism

Frequency

We could teach learners the most frequently used words. We have frequency lists that would enable us to do this. However, there are limitations to this approach.

  • The top 50 most frequent words are mostly grammar words e.g. “and”.
  • Frequency can clash with “teaching convenience” e.g. days of the week have different frequencies.
  • Words may have great interactional value but little referential value. E.g. “just” is very commonly used as a softener but has little meaning on its own.
  • Written vs. spoken: “though” is in the top 300 but it is used very differently in spoken discourse from how it is used in written discourse. Compare “Though it wasn’t a very good film, it was quite funny.” and S1: “It wasn’t a very good film.” S2: “It was quite funny though.”
  • Frequency lists include single words rather than collocations whereas many collocations would feature more than individual words if lists allowed it.
  • It raises the questions of whose frequency. British English frequency? American English frequency? Frequency in language used by pilots?

Coverage

We could teach learners words with broader coverage first. E.g. Teaching “go” before “walk” or “drive”; “book” before “notebook” or “textbook”, in terms of word specificity, and teaching words that appear in a greater number of different kinds of texts before those that are very specific to a particular text type. As with frequency, there are limitations to this approach:

  • Context and learner needs may mean that more specific vocabulary is required from the outset.

Learners’ needs and interests

These may be more apparent in an ESP or EAP class than in a general English class. If you are teaching in a very specific context, then this will influence your vocabulary selection more than other criteria will.

Learnability

There are a lot of factors that influence the learnability of a piece of lexis.

  • Tangibility. Is it abstract or concrete? Concrete lexis is easier to learn and remember. e.g. apple vs. distraction
  • Grammatical behaviour. How does it behave grammatically? E.g. accuse -> accuse somebody of doing something; suggest -> suggest that; depend -> depend on; responsible -> responsible for.
  • L1 aid/interference: Is it a cognate or a false friend? False friends mean meaning is easily confused.
  • Confusability: similarity of words e.g. raise (transitive) /rise (intransitive), similarity of root word e.g. take over/take after.
  • Cultural distance: How familiar is the concept? E.g. “moor” or “sleet” in North Africa…

Opportunism

What about language that emerges in class? Do we ignore “Dogme moments” because it is a low frequency item or an item with low coverage etc.? Or do we take advantage of learners’ desire to know something?

Going beyond words

There are many collocations that we use frequently: many would feature more than individual words if they were allowed in frequency lists.

Language is grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar.” – Michael Lewis (1993)

When we produce language, we go to lexis first and then use grammar to control it.

  • Delexical verbs and their collocations: e.g. have a bath; make a cake; have a word; do a runner; get lost; get drunk. These verbs are meaning-light (light lexical content) but commonly used in combination. Some combinations are more common than others.They are a common source of error. E.g. doing a Masters (“native”) vs. studying a Masters (“learner”)
  • Verb and adjective collocations of content nouns: e.g. teach “set the table” rather than just “table”. In order to be able to use nouns, we need to know the verb and adjective collocations that we can use them with.
  • Exploit metaphorical links: e.g. money commonly collocates with spend; make; waste; save; invest; spare – and so does time!”Bet” – the metaphorical meaning is more common than the literal meaning – “I bet you’re right.”
    “See” – used more commonly to mean “understand” than for its literal meaning.

“far more general utility in the recombination of known elements than in the addition of less easily useable items” (Sinclair and Renauf, 1988)

– do we need to rethink our priorities? It could be better to teach learners to use what they already know in a wider range of uses.

e.g. instead of just “enjoy” – enjoy, enjoyable, enjoyment, enjoy a reputation (different word types and different combinations)

Processes in lexis building

Here are a range of processes we can engage learners in, as we help them to learn lexis:

  • recognise – do they know it when they see it?
  • identify – do they know it when they see it within a text?
  • match – can they put it together with its definition? with common collocates? with synonyms? with antonyms?
  • categorise – can they link it with the correct word type? topic? metaphorical v literal? etc.
  • retrieve – can they remember it without a visual or aural stimulus?
  • contextualise – can they use it in a sentence or as part of discourse?
  • activate – can they use it without prompting?
  • extend – can they use it in a variety of ways?
  • manipulate – can they convert it into a different word type? can they use it in combination with other words?
  • rank – can they compare it with other lexis?
  • deduce – can they guess what it means when in an unfamiliar combination?

Depth of processing

This refers to the number of times the brain touches the word: identify and rank = two processes. The more processes used, the greater the depth of processing becomes. The greater the depth of processing used, the greater the chances of retention. It is important for learners to use a variety of processes when learning lexis.

Teaching lexis

There are two main approaches to vocabulary teaching: “Front door” and “Back door”

“Front door” teaching means identifying a group of words and teaching them. This can be done in two ways.

  • “verbal”: by eliciting, explaining or defining, using a matching activity (NB: this must be carefully graded to be of any use!), translating, getting learners to deduce the meaning from context (NB: learners must be able to understand a lot of the co-text)
  • “non-verbal” : using pictures/images (e.g. photos, from the internet, flashcards), symbols, actions (mime, gesture, facial expression), realia, drawings, sound effects.

“Back door” teaching means using a text-based approach, in which you highlight/draw attention to words/chunks within a text.

Elicitation

Elicitation is a commonly used technique in the language classroom. It is when we get learners to provide information rather than simply telling them something. Like many techniques, it has benefits and limitations. This means we need to keep certain things in mind when we want to use elicitation.

Benefits: 

  • It can be engaging for learners.

Limitations:

  • You can’t elicit what learners don’t know.
  • Can be time-consuming

To remember:

  • You must be precise.
  • You must ensure that the language you use to elicit is well graded.
  • You cannot use terms that are more difficult than the concept itself when defining/explaining it.
  • Once you have explained or elicited something, you must check that a learner has understood. (Concept checking questions are a common way of doing this – for more on this see Jonny Ingham’s detailed post on it.)

Review

How often should we review vocabulary? Very frequently, otherwise vocabulary books become “word cemeteries” – long lists buried and forgotten!

  • Students are very tolerant of recycling and revisiting, more so than we tend to assume.
  • It is useful to use the concept of expanding rehearsal: increase the gap between recycling each time. E.g. review after a week, then after two weeks, then after a month etc.

There are many ways of reviewing vocabulary, but that’s for another post!

References:

Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach: The state of ELT and the way forward. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Sinclair, J. M., & Renouf, A. (Eds.). (1988). A lexical syllabus for language learning. In R. Carter & M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary and language teaching (pp. 140-158). Harlow: Longman.

Wilkins, David A. (1972) Linguistics and Language Teaching. London: Edward Arnold.

 

12 things I’ve learnt about language learning by being a language learner!

Italian and I…

We had barely met when I first arrived in Palermo. I called bruschetta “brooshetta” , pizzeria “pizzERia” and could barely string a sentence together. I had a few Memrise chunks – they meant I could ask where the vatican is (might have got some odd looks from the good people of Palermo if I tried that!*) and comment on the large number of taxies in sight, or surmise that something might be dangerous (me attempting to do anything in Italian, perhaps?) but when I went into a bar/cafe near where I work, I didn’t have the confidence to attract their attention or the language to follow it up with getting what I wanted.

I did have a few lessons but dropped out fairly early on because of a combination of lack of time and being driven slightly mad (much as it was interesting to see the classroom from the learner point of view!). I was, however, very motivated to learn, so worked my way through an A1/A2 coursebook and picked up some useful stuff and some less than useful (the only time I’ve needed to describe my daily routine at length was in a speaking test which formed part of an entrance test when I was thinking of joining a class again! :-p ). I’ve watched a load of dvds, films and series, with then without subtitles. I’ve read extensively. I’ve used what little language I have with various people. The latter three things I’ve kept up while the coursebook (the B1 version now) has fallen by the wayside. Though now that I’ve decided to do another year here, I have renewed my intentions to pick it up and continue…

I love Italian and have enjoyed the learning process thus far. Having just been on holiday around Sicily and having succeeded in putting my language to good use, I feel extra positive about it now! So I thought I’d pull together some things I’ve learnt on my journey as a learner up til now…

12 things I’ve learnt so far from my language learning:

  • 20 mins morning and evening is worthwhile. It must be-it’s all I’ve ever have time to do during the week and I’ve dragged myself from zero to A2 in my 7 months here so far. (In my entrance test I was one point off B1 for the written bit and my speaking was in the same general ball park). However, learners often think that if they don’t have an hour or so to spend, it’s not worth starting. Being busy people, finding that hour is, of course, difficult. 20 mins could be much easier! (I’ve a project under way currently to work on making small slots of time more appealing and likely to be used!)
  • Read, read, read! When I started Harry Potter one, I was looking up rather a lot of words and I also used a parallel English text alongside the Italian, varying which I’d read first; but now (I’m half way through Order of the Phoenix) I can read, understand and only look up the occasional word (or ignore it and read on!) Also, just because I was a (very) basic user, that didn’t mean I couldn’t start reading books in Italian. Familiar stories can be very useful for soaking up new language. My experiences of extensive reading have fed into my reading project.
  • I should listen more. I’ve done well with dvd films and series but I haven’t mined radio – took ages to discover I could get it through my ipod and plug that into speakers then promptly forgot ever to do so. (Internet radio is no go because I have a limited monthly data allowance which streaming radio would kill!) I really need to dig out my ipod again…
  • (Related to above point) getting into a learning routine is really useful! I automatically do my reading each evening (and often with lunch too); for a while (3 months?) I also opened my coursebook religiously each morning with my morning cuppa. Then it just becomes what you do as part of a day rather than an added extra that can be forgotten. How can we help our learners develop helpful routines?
  • Mapping to other languages is so helpful. French is related to Italian and I have reasonable French, which I’ve used to my advantage in looking for similarities and differences, both of which are useful memory aids. Not to mention just being really *interesting*! While on holiday, my aunt (who has good Spanish and French, but little Italian) and I (good French, basic Italian) were often making comparisons between these languages and also German (we both have a smattering of that too) for both of the reasons mentioned above. So, other languages should be welcomed in the classroom, I think.
  • I can do more than I perceive. Have just been on this holiday around Sicily, which involved doing a lot of taking charge, as my aunt and uncle, who travelled round Sicily with me, have little (her) to no (him) Italian. I managed. Including several phone calls! I found I had more vocabulary than I realised and could make myself understood fairly easily. When I first arrived, as I said earlier, I once went into a bar to try and get a slice of pizza or similar, but didn’t even have enough language to get their attention and was also too scared to say anything. Progress has definitely been made and that is hugely motivating! (Which underlines how important it is to help learners discover that they can use language – a bit like the budding readers in my classes have done with reading in English…)
  • Though I didn’t give myself another (Italian) name in the end (see my post about identity here), I’ve noticed that before I speak in Italian, there is a split-second moment where my Italian mindset slips into place, just before I open my mouth. It’s not a “how do you say xxx?” type switch, more of a changing channels to my Italian channel. Maybe this is slightly related to second language identity? (I have to become “Lizzie who CAN speak Italian”…) I’ve also noticed that I respond in Italian automatically when, for example, I bump into someone and need to apologise or what have you. Without thinking. So maybe the Italian mindset is on more than I realise, but when I speak with purpose, I become aware of it?
  • I have found myself at times trying to apply what I teach to my own learning, especially, for example, the metacognitive approach for listening to stuff, and at times going completely against it (e.g. all the words I looked up initially in Harry Potter!)  I have concluded that all is very useful to be aware of, but it’s important to feel the freedom to break rules too: language learning is so personal. Rather than tell a learner you should/shouldn’t do this or that, I’d involve them in a discussion about possible ways of doing things and benefits/limitations of each.
  • Living in a country doesn’t necessarily mean you do tons of speaking to native speakers, especially if you are low level. But nevertheless, being surrounded by the language counts for a lot. Even just in terms of reminding you to study :-p But also you hear it and see it regularly, even if you don’t do much speaking. When I went to UK at Christmas, I found it much harder to study, a) having lost my routine and b) being surrounded by English again. However, as time passes, and you become more comfortable in your use of the language, exploiting opportunities that DO arise becomes easier.
  • Losing self-consciousness and focusing on communicating definitely helps. A dash of necessity is useful in making this step. And when you are understood, and manage to do what you want to do, you feel dead chuffed! Again helpful to try and replicate this to some degree in the language classroom, at whatever level. (I think I’d have found it much more motivating to do a task where use of personal details was needed than I did the language practice activity I did have to do, which was pretty much a communicative drill. Not knocking the communicative drill, but maybe an extra task too…)
  • If you speak other languages, it’s good to try and maintain them while learning the new one. I read in French regularly – generally every evening after I’ve done my 20 mins of Italian reading. (I have a 40 min piece of music that is neatly divided into two sections, so no clock watching needed!) I think a) it’s nice not to lose the previously learnt language and b) it must be good brain gym switching between languages!
  • If you learn a new word, it’s like making a new friend – in a crowd of other words, where before it would have been just part of that “sea of faces”, once you make friends with a word, it stands out. E.g. I learnt “condividere” today and then overheard some random Italians speaking and picked out that word amongst others. (Was I primed to notice it by having focused on it earlier in the day?) But like human relationships, if you only meet someone once, you may then forget their name/face and need reminding at the next meeting, when you know you know them from somewhere but can’t place them. (Which is more likely to happen when you meet them out of what you perceive as their usual context)

And last but not least, though more being reminded than having learnt:

How much I love languages, language learning and language teaching! 🙂

(* I know – I can substitute other things too…)

Italy_flag

La bella Italia – Italian flag: from commons.wikimedia.org – licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Helping language learners become language researchers: wordandphrase.info (part 2: 3 activities)

In the first post of this series, I described the potential power of Wordandphrase.info and offered some materials I had made to introduce my students to the site. I also identified the possible issues around getting learners to use this site independently and wondered about helping them do so by bringing the site into the classroom through concordance activities based on information from it.

This post describes the first three activities that I’ve created and done with my advanced and upper intermediate learners since then. 

1) Finding the mistake

In this activity, which I did with my advanced learners on Monday evening, the starting point was a sentence taken from a learner’s homework, which had been posted on the class blog. It was a common mistake: misuse of “despite“.

  • First, learners were asked to look at the sentence and try to identify the mistake.
  • Next, their attention was focused on some concordance lines taken from Wordandphrase.info via screen-shot (to preserve the colour-coding), which they used to identify which word types can follow despite and then to make a word profile for “despite“.
  • Finally, they were redirected back to the original sentence and asked to reformulate it correctly, using the information they had gleaned from the concordance.

The learners were engaged, there was lots of discussion and they had a clearer picture of the use of “despite” by the end of it. Initially they worked in pairs, and then we discussed it as a class. The whole activity took about 15 minutes.

Here is the activity: Concordance activity for “despite”

2) Finding the missing word

This activity, which I did with my upper intermediate learners, was based on vocabulary they had met in a previous lesson. I selected two compounds – a compound noun and a compound adjective – from that set of vocabulary and prepared a set of concordance lines (again, screenshots from wordandphrase.info, to preserve the colour-coding) for each. I blanked out the compound (using tip-ex!) in each concordance.

  • First they had to look at the concordance lines and identify what the compound was.
  • Then, for each compound, learners had to answer questions which focussed them on what words can be used with it.

They worked in pairs. We did it towards the end of the lesson, and by the end of the lesson most of them had identified the compounds (following much discussion). I asked them to answer the questions about the collocations for homework, so that in the next lesson they could discuss their answers together. As with the advanced group, this gang were also engaged by the activity. With both groups, they seemed to welcome the challenge of solving this “puzzle”.

Here is the handout I made for this activity: Compound adj & noun concordance activity.

NB: As mentioned, I did the blanking of the focus word manually, so in this document they are not blanked out.

TIP: Make sure that the learners know that each concordance is for one word only, so that they don’t try and find a different word for every space… I have now updated the materials to make this clearer!! 🙂

3) Finding the missing word and guessing the frequencies

This was my second foray into concordance activities with my advanced class.

  • This time, I used two nouns, from a page of vocabulary in their course book, again preparing concordance lines using screen-shots from wordandphrase.info.
  • As with the upper intermediate class, the activity involved using these concordance lines to identify which noun had been blanked out and then focusing on adjective-noun and verb-noun collocations. (There were no questions on this page, other than “What is the missing noun?”, but we discussed the patterns anyway. If you think your learners need more scaffolding, you could always add questions, as I did with my upper intermediate learners.)

My goal here was to try and extend the vocabulary presented horizontally, as in the book it was very much a vertical list (of nouns for emotions).

In addition to focusing on concordance lines, I did screenshots of the frequency information of each word that had been the focus of the concordances, both in terms of the top 3000 words and in terms of different registers, all of which wordandphrase.info provides very visually.

  • The learners had to guess which selected word matched which frequency information (two were >3000 and one was 501-3000, so it was a case of deciding which they thought was the most commonly used)
  • Next, we looked at the frequency information, with regards to the different registers, for each word. The learners guessed which word the first two sets of frequency information referred to.
  • Then before I revealed the final set of frequency information, they made predictions about the frequency for each register – rough predictions, focusing on the size of the bars in comparison to one another, rather than on numbers.
  • Finally, we discussed intuition with regards to frequency vs actual use, and intuition with regards to structures and collocations vs actual use.

Doing both activities took about 15 minutes or so. After each activity, 1 and 2, I asked them what they thought the purpose of the activity was, to encourage them to link this work with using the website and developing their noticing skills so that they are able to use it better. I thought being explicitly aware of this might help their confidence when it comes to using the website independently. We shall see…

Here are the materials I used: Missing nouns conc. lines and Frequency info activity

NB: As above, blanking out of nouns done manually (and in the case of part 2 of the activity, not at all because the printer failed so I used the projector and got the learners to look away while I got the relevant part of the activity on the screen and hid the word with my finger!), so no words blanked out in the .pdfs.

Common themes

What I’m trying to do with all of these activities is introduce the power of Wordandphrase.info to the learners and help them develop the mindset and noticing skills necessary for successful independent use of it.

  • The activities all encouraged learners to focus on patterns and word usage, which information can be found on wordandphrase.info, and of course the final activity brought frequency information into the mix.
  • Working in pairs, and then discussing as a class, scaffolds the process by allowing learners to collaborate and combine their powers of noticing.
  • In the case of the upper intermediates, letting the learners finish the activity for homework encourages some independent effort, which was scaffolded by the in-class pair work preceding the homework task and developed by the in-class pair work done in the subsequent class.
  • For the advanced class, following the second activity, I set them the task of each finding out about 3 of the words we had focused on in that lesson: to look for patterns of use and find out frequency information. At the beginning of next lesson, they will share their findings, perhaps encouraging prediction prior to sharing.

Time issue:

It is quite time-consuming producing the activities. However, the way I see it, these can be built up into a bank, so in future, one would have plenty of such activities to draw on, whether to use as they stand, or to adapt to different learners.

What next:

I want to continue integrating these little concordancing activities and introduce activities that require learners to go away and use the website, coming back to class to share what they have discovered. Hopefully the self-access materials I made will help them be able to do this from the technical point of view, and the activities done in class will help them be able to do this because they will have had practice in noticing patterns and interpreting the information provided by the site.

I’ll continue to share the little activities I make, both for use in class and for the using-the-website homework, periodically… 🙂 And in the next post in this mini-series, I’ll probably discuss how the learners (the upper ints and the advanced) got on with their respective homework and how the subsequent in-class discussions went.

NB: I am new to this data-driven learning malarkey, and using wordandphrase.info with learners, so it’s all very experimental. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on it!! 🙂

Helping language learners become language researchers: wordandphrase.info (part 1)

What is wordandphrase.info?

Wordandphrase.info is a brilliant website. Essentially, it is a user-friendly interface for analysing a corpus. (For those of you who haven’t come across this term as yet, a corpus is a collection of texts stored electronically.) In this case, it is the COCA (Corpus Of Contemporary American English) corpus, a 450 million word corpus. It is the largest corpus that is freely available, was collected between 1990 and 2012 and contains texts from spoken, newspaper, fiction and academic registers.

Due to its user-friendliness (colour-coding for different parts of speech in the examples, colour-coding for frequency in text analysed etc.), wordandphrase.info seems ideal for use with students, a tool that could help them become more independent, by providing a means of discovering how language is used, that doesn’t rely on the teacher.

It provides information like:

  • frequency of word or phrase use (within the top 500 most-used words, 501-3000, 3000+)
  • frequency of word or phrase use within particular genres (spoken, newspapers, fiction, academic)
  • definitions, synonyms and collocates (for which it also provides frequency information, making it a very powerful collocational thesaurus, for phrases as well as words)

It allows you to:

  • input (type in or copy and paste) a paragraph of text and see at a glance (through colour-coding) how frequent words are.
  • search for a phrase from that inputted text, by clicking on the component words and generate examples of that chunk of language in use.
  • look at a list of colour-coded examples and identify, at a glance, what types of words are used before and after the word in focus (nouns? adjectives? adverbs? prepositions?), with a rough indication of frequency (in terms of how much highlighting of a particular colour you can see in comparison to another) too.

All in all, it enables you to gain a  better idea of the meaning and use of a word or phrase, as well as its potential alternatives.

However, when learners first meet it, it might seem daunting:

  • When you search commonly used words or phrases, large numbers of examples may be generated: this may be confusing for learners, especially as the examples are portions of sentences (x number of words around the word being analysed) rather than complete sentences, and are devoid of context.
  • Before the colour-coding for parts of speech can help you, you need to understand what it means!
  • There is a lot of information on the page – it can be difficult to know where to start.

How can we use this website with learners?

This is something I am still exploring. I think it has massive power but the limitations need managing carefully so that they don’t put students off.

I have already created some self-access materials (inspired by a course mate of mine – see below for more details) which guide learners through using the site, through a series of tasks, and help them to discover what they can do with it. My learners (of various levels) have used these materials and many were able to complete the tasks without too much difficulty. Some learners independently shared information they found via using the site, using our class blog. However, for the most part it “gathered dust”. 

While my materials address the “how” (at a basic level – there is more that the website can do, that I am still finding out!), they don’t help learners become better at identifying the patterns that are present in the examples generated. Perhaps in order for learners to use wordandphrase.info successfully and really harness its power, in-class scaffolding is needed, in the form of using concordances with learners, getting them to produce word profiles and generally developing their noticing skills. Of course, as teachers we are always trying to help learners develop better noticing skills, but we usually work with texts, complete with some kind of context, rather than with sentence fragments devoid of context. Transferring these noticing skills, then, may not be achieved automatically.

One of my aims in the next couple of months is to create some activities using concordances and other information from Wordandphrase.info and use them with my learners, to give them more scaffolding, and help them to develop their use of the site independently, as language researchers. I hope to integrate it so that learners use it to find out  more about the vocabulary we meet in class, as well as encourage them to apply it to language they meet out of class. What I create and how I get on with this project will form part 2 (and onwards?!) of this series of posts.

Here are the materials I have made:

Wordandphrase.info self access  – a guided discovery tour of the website, with an answer key at the end. If you aren’t familiar with the site, these might be as useful for you as for your learners?! 🙂

These materials were inspired by a course mate of mine at Leeds Met , Jane Templeton, who made some guided discovery materials to help learners use wordandphrase.info  to choose mid-frequency vocabulary from texts they encountered, as these mid-range words provide a useful learning focus, and to find out more about their choices. I wanted to use wordandphrase.com with my learners too, but wanted a more general purpose intro to the features of the site, rather than geared towards that particular purpose.  So it was I made my materials, with the example word “outfit” – which may seem a rather random choice! – taken from the page of compounds learners meet in Headway Advanced Unit 6. Though, one might well question whether guiding learners towards a particular purpose, as in Jane’s materials, might be more useful than my vaguer, more general approach… <answers on a postcard!>

How can this website help *you*, the teacher?

Wordandphrase.info enables you to:

  • copy and paste in a text that you want to use with your learners and see at a glance what percentage of high frequency (top 0-500), mid-frequency (500-3000) and low-frequency (outside the top 3000) words are present in your text and so an indication of what difficulties it is likely to present to your learners.
  • You could use this information to guide you in decisions regarding what words to pre-teach, what scaffolding your learners might need when they meet this text, or perhaps what words to adjust to more frequently used synonyms (something else the site can help you find, as it provides both synonyms and frequency information, as well as examples of use, if you are unsure whether you have found the right alternative) if you feel that would be more appropriate, depending on your goals in using the text and the level of your learners.

Conclusion:

Wordandphrase.info is a site with a lot of potential for language learners and teachers alike. I’m still learning how to use it and finding ways to tap that potential. Please let me know how you get on with using the materials I have uploaded here, and the website, whether yourself, or on behalf of your learners – I would be very interested to hear! I would also be interested to hear any ideas, you have and try out, for integrating use of Wordandphrase.info, in any context, and how it has benefited your learners.

Quizlet for learners: a step-by-step guide

Quizlet  is a website that enables anybody who wishes to learn anything to make flashcards related to that topic. In the case of English language learners, it is a very useful tool for learning and revising vocabulary.

Using Quizlet, learners can make their own sets of flashcards, then use these flashcards in various modes for studying, testing themselves and playing games to improve their recall of the vocabulary. I have just finished making a step-by-step guide to Quizlet, so that my learners can try using it themselves at home.

My materials contain step-by-step instructions and screenshots, showing learners how to:

  • find Quizlet(!)
  • sign up
  • create sets
  • use the different study, test and game modes
  • monitor their progress

Of course, if you, as a teacher, are unfamiliar with this website, you could also use these to help you get to grips with it, so that you are more comfortable recommending it to your students!

In my upper intermediate class, out of ten students only one had ever heard of Quizlet and he wasn’t sure enough how about it worked to be able to tell anything about it – he was just vaguely aware of it. Not all students use it already, then, so it can be helpful to introduce them to it, as another tool to support their learning. This is the class I have made these materials for, though I plan to use them with other classes too.

As with all my learner autonomy-related projects, I will be bringing Quizlet back into the classroom regularly, via discussion and use (along the same principles discussed in this post on scaffolding autonomy), to maximise the chances of learners using it regularly and independently, of their own volition.

Here is a link to the materials I have made: Using Quizlet!

I hope these are useful to you. (Of course I would be interested in any feedback from you or you on behalf of your learners, with regards to how user-friendly they are etc!)

I will write a follow-up post in due course (there’s a surprise! 😉 ), to let you know how my learners got on with Quizlet and these materials.