TESOL 2015: Supporting and Developing Academic Writing with Corpus Resources

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.

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