More than Words: Using Graphs for Discussion

Posted April 22, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Conversation, Reading

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When I have private lessons with upper level students, we often work with articles on a range of topics. We study the vocabulary, look at grammar in context, develop a summary of the key points, and react to the content. Recently, I considered the value of purposefully choosing articles with graphs. A different kind of reading skill is used when a learner has to process facts presented visually beyond words.

A couple of recent articles on sleep habits allowed for the opportunity to synthesize information and draw conclusions about how sleep habits vary from country to country and from profession to profession. I felt it was easier to make personal connections to the topic because one could first visualize his or her own place on a particular graph and then start articulating that thought.

What else might you do with graphs?

  • Reflect on our dependency on smartphones. Belle Beth Cooper of the Huffington Post shared some interesting facts back in 2013. Check out fact number 8 in her article 10 Surprising Social Media Statistics that Might Make You Rethink Your Social Strategy. For how many minutes of the day do students keep their phones next to them? Create your own class survey and plot the results on a graph.
  • Compare life experiences. The Visual Everything has an interesting set of line graphs comparing the events that a 30-year-old and a 90-year-old have lived through. Check out Huge Timescales in Perspective. It’s limited to a U.S. perspective, so can your students create a similar line graph and identify key events that have shaped their own world view? In small groups, they can present and share their work.
  • Illustrate the qualities of patience and impatience. On GraphJam’s Memebase I found a graph representing (for one author) What I Do When a Website or Video Is Loading Slowly. Do your students wait patiently in this kind of online situation, or do they engage in some other activity, like playing Minesweeper? Students can create a personal pie chart and then in small groups try to synthesize their findings into a single graph.
  • Break Down a Process into Manageable Steps. BoredPanda presents 35 Extremely Funny Graphs and Charts. One shows a humorous break down of someone’s Use of Time before 15-page Essay due in 12 Hours. The chart can be a starting off point before students take on a short writing assignment. All humor aside, what are the steps and how long will each realistically take? Perhaps agreeing on a breakdown, expectations will be set and tasks will seem more manageable.

Spring Has Sprung: Season-related Ideas

Posted April 17, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Vocabulary

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spring word cloudWhether you are in a climate with four seasons or two, the topic of weather can always work its way into the classroom. For basic level students, an entire lesson might focus on vocabulary, from sunny to freezing. Check out my Seasons.BASIC_handout for more ideas.

For intermediate students, a group-generated word cloud, like the one  I made on the left, is a small project that elicits vocabulary and encourages peer teaching. I mentioned Tagxedo in a previous post. Using this free software, students can brainstorm words related to the current weather, explain any vocabulary that is unfamiliar to other team members, and then discuss the best way to format their image. As the teacher, you could also create your own word cloud and use it to check students’ existing knowledge before launching into a short vocabulary presentation. Which words are already familiar? What topic or theme unites all the words? Can they already use the words in sentences?

As warmer weather made its way into New England, I became inspired to put together a new lesson on expressions related to the season and word “spring.”  A quick review is possible through an interactive quiz. For upper level students, my Spring Has Sprung_handout could effectively provide additional practice. Enjoy!

TESOL 2015: Why Use a Gamification Platform?

Posted April 9, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Methodology, Tech Tips

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When it comes to education, we all know that technology shouldn’t be used without intention. Sometimes technology can have a coolness factor, but we certainly shouldn’t bring in a device or software simply to make learners say, “Wow.” The technology we choose is supposed to aid us, support our instruction, and facilitate the learning process. There are times to embrace digital tools and mobile devices if they’re accessible, but there are also times when a tech-free approach is perfectly fine and effective. At least, that’s my belief.

The questions of which technology to employ and why came to mind when I attended an Electronic Village session back in Toronto at the annual TESOL convention. I learned how some teachers were supplementing an existing curriculum. One talk really caught my interest. Lora Yasen of Tokyo International University of America (USA) was sharing her experience with 3D GameLab, a gamification platform. She’s currently using an Azar-Hagen book in one class and has turned to 3D Game Lab to create additional exercises and activities to challenge her students.

The use of a game environment appeals to Lora’s university students, all of whom are from Japan, and the platform has extended learning outside of class. Independent assignments given through 3D Game Lab engage her learners. Lora had given a short grammar assignment right before the convention, and already by Friday nearly all the students had submitted their work. Through the platform Lora is able to easily track progress and quickly provide feedback. A simple click opens up a private comment box on a student submission. Assignments can be accepted as complete or sent back for revision.

What’s making the gamification platform successful for this class? It seems a lot stems from the idea of earning something of value, something tangible when tasks are completed. Lora’s students like the idea of receiving badges and “leveling up” at the end of a quest. Also, the experience merges with everyday online activity: the platform can be accessed on computers or mobile devices, and badges can be exported to social networks.

With the concept of badges, quests, and levels, one might wonder if there can be unhealthy competition. Lora pointed out that teachers can design team activities, making the experience more collaborative. Also, quests can be optional, which removes some pressure and allows learners to tailor the experience to their needs.

I’m not recommending that all teachers jump on the gamification bandwagon, but I do think it’s an option worth considering. It’s part of our job to create the right environment and find tools that will bring out the best in our learners. For some, gamified content creation on a digital platform may be the ticket to a positive learning experience. Also, even a good resource can be made better, simply by having the teacher add something of her own — an activity to make production more personal and meaningful or a quiz targeting language that a given group of students needs to review. Lora has also used 3D GameLab quests to practice vocabulary from NorthStar.

I applaud Lora for taking the plunge and trying something new in order to reach and support her students outside of class. She did admit that learning how to create content, quests, and badges requires a serious investment. Teachers must go through Gamification Boot Camp before starting an actual class on 3D GameLab.  The six required badges take no less than ten hours to earn. There’s also a subscription fee, but Lora mentioned that there’s ongoing teacher support included in that fee. Online Teacher Camps are held every 2-3 months.

What do you think?


TESOL 2015: Achieving Balanced Listening Instruction

Posted April 3, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Listening

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Every TESOLer at the convention hopes to attend sessions with a lot of take-away. Beth Sheppard of the University of Oregon didn’t disappoint anyone. Making every minute of her 45-minute session informative, she raised our awareness of the need to provide more balanced listening instruction for our students.

Just what is balanced listening instruction? First of all, it begins with seeing listening instruction as a process rather than placing emphasis on the product: comprehension. Beth reminded us that listening is a difficult yet essential skill, and failure to comprehend increases anxiety. Competition can take place inside the learner’s mind. As Beth explains, what gets heard leads to several possible interpretations, which then compete with one another.

So how can we facilitate the listening process? Beth highlighted Vandergrift’s Process Approach, which starts with planning and predicting. Then after three stages of verification, listeners move into reflection, where strategies are discussed and goals are set. However, Beth recommends one more step in the process.  In the Appropriation Stage, as she calls it, students are given the chance to manipulate or extend language so that they can truly make the language their own.

What exactly should we aim to balance in our listening instruction? It’s more complex than just process vs. product. We balance bottom-up and top-down processes. We balance extended and focused listening. We recognize that uncertainty needs to be countered with motivation. The right degree of challenge must be balanced with opportunities for success. I especially appreciated how Beth stressed the need to balance explicit instruction and learner autonomy. Our students do need some metacognitive strategies taught directly, and to that end we might employ listening diaries for guided reflection. At the same time, our students need opportunities to struggle and work through the listening process. Do we jump in too soon with hints? The Process Approach encourages non-intervention, allowing instruction to be student-centered and student-directed.

As far as listening styles go, it’s important for students to have some extensive practice, not always listening intensively or selectively. Beth characterized extensive listening as easy and enjoyable. The language should be at or below a learner’s level to remove the pressure of comprehension. Also, we can design our lessons to incorporate interactive listening, where students listen to responses in interviews or group work.

Similarly, we need to achieve a balance among the different practice types: language-focused, meaning-focused, strategy-building, and fluency-building. Students’ needs will vary, so “balanced instruction” doesn’t mean 50/50 when considering two aspects or two formats. Our students’ needs should guide our decisions in lesson design.

One activity Beth addressed was dictation. We’ve all used this form of practice, but what would make it most beneficial for the learner? Beth explained that she dictates at a natural pace, choosing a length that’s level appropriate. She might also create a single gap, purposefully targeting an unknown word, which forces students to guess and find the missing word based on their knowledge of orthography and the context. Indeed, this very form of practice mimics the real life need to make sense of unfamiliar words.

Among the other activities shared was the use of transcripts, in which a text might intentionally include errors that need to be corrected or blanks that aren’t really needed. Those features in transcript activities can actually build confidence as students learn to trust their skills.

Many thanks to Beth for sharing her helpful insights and teaching tips! She welcomes comments and also collaboration. For private inquiries, you can write to me and I’ll put you in touch with Beth. (All comments are private until approved for public view.)

TESOL 2015: Supporting and Developing Academic Writing with Corpus Resources

Posted March 31, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Writing

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Back in Portland at TESOL 2014, I learned how a group of teachers were using online resources with students to support and develop vocabulary skills. This year in Toronto, I was fortunate to learn how two teachers from the Intensive American Language Center of Washington State University were making use of free academic writing corpora to build writing skills. In both cases, learners were not only guided to make discoveries relevant to their current studies; they were gaining familiarity with online tools that increased their autonomy — their ability to face future challenges independently.

Eman Elturki and Karen Jennings had a full room of participants eager to hear about StringNet and MICUSP. We learned that the former is a lexico-grammatical knowledgebase of about two billion multi-word patterns taken from the British National Corpus. Any easy search function lets a user find common patterns for a single word. The presenters shared an example. They might ask students to enter “author” and then identify common patterns with “author + verb.” This task would teach such chunks as author concludes that, the author suggests that, and  the author argues that. Instead of choosing “Find patterns,” the user could also select “Find similar words” and get alternatives to consider: writer, researcher, critic, etc. Multi-word queries are also possible. A feature I appreciate is being able to filter the search by part of speech. Recently, I covered “correlate” with one of my own students, and StringNet would have nicely shown how patterns with the verb form (818) are much more frequent compared to patterns with the noun form (78).

Eman and Karen demonstrated how the Michigan Corpus of Upper-Level Student Papers (MICUSP) also has a lot of potential for the advanced L2 student. On the one hand, a user could examine an entire paper, be it an argumentative essay or other type, and explore its structure, from the thesis statement to the support and counterarguments. On the other hand, a very narrow search could be done. For instance,  the presenters have asked students to investigate differences between “effect” and “affect.” The MICUSP interface allows users to determine the parts of speech based on examples, and they can also see the words used in context at the sentence, paragraph, and essay level. In addition, users can restrict their search by student level (senior undergrad up to 3rd year graduate), nativeness, paper type, and discipline. One can really appreciate tailored examples of a word or phrase. The amount of context provided goes far beyond what a dictionary search could offer an L2 writer.

My sincere thanks to Eman and Karen for sharing their ideas on how to make use of these free online resources.

TESOL 2015: Toronto here I come!

Posted March 23, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Announcements

Tags: , , , ,

I’ll be heading to the annual TESOL convention this Wednesday. If anyone else will be in Toronto for this event, please feel free to stop by and say hello. I’ll be at the Materials Writers IS booth in the Exhibit Hall on Thursday from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m.

For those who aren’t able to attend, I’ll do my best to share some insights and resources that I learn about.


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