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.