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

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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.

Having Always Wondered: Practice with Reduced Adverb Clauses

Posted March 20, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

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Grammar excites me and humbles me. With each passing year I teach English, I only realize more and more how many questions remain unanswered. I think I know a topic quite well, and then  – whoah… a question from a student makes me pause. I start to answer, and at the same time I’m questioning myself. I begin a new study of the topic to confirm and deepen my understanding. Does this happen to you?

A YouTube viewer asked me about the placement of “not” in reduced adverb clauses. I’m actually covering this topic with a private student, so the structures are fresh in my mind. However, I hadn’t thought much about negative adverb phrases. I know we can place “not” in front of the verb, no matter the form:

  • Not knowing what to do, I looked to my coach for help.
  • Not seriously hurt, I stood up, took a deep breath, and continued playing.

The question, though, was about passive verbs and perfect forms in adverb phrases. True, they aren’t used as much, but inquisitive minds deserve answers. The learner wanted to know which was correct, “not having been invited” or “having not been invited.” I’m inclined to go with the first, but I’m not ready to identify the second as incorrect. Moreover, I thought about our use of “never” in reduced adverb clauses. I can say, “I invited Mary, never thinking my invitation would anger her father.” But wouldn’t the following be acceptable? “Having never met him, I did not realize how protective he was.” I feel a certain degree of variation is tolerated in negative forms. Do you agree?

I’ve put together my Having Always Wondered_handout for advanced students in need of review and expansion. As with many grammar topics, one lesson is rarely enough, so please consider the use of these additional materials. Enjoy!

A Lucky Day!

Posted March 11, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Conversation, Vocabulary

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IMG_3651St. Patrick’s Day gives us a wonderful occasion to talk about luck. You could have a lesson on vocabulary, a lesson about superstitions (great for real and unreal conditionals), or a class discussion about cultural traditions. For more ideas, see an older post published in honor this March holiday.

In an upcoming video lesson in my Language Notes series, I’ve decided to focus on luck idioms and expressions we use to talk about good and bad luck. I won’t be able to include every single one in existence, but a good many will be presented. I also created an interactive crossword for learners to check their knowledge. If you have class time to give speaking and writing practice with this language, please consider my Feeling Lucky_handout. Both the crossword and the handout could be used independent of the video.

Do you have a useful and fun holiday activity to share?

Creative Use of Word Clouds

Posted March 4, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Reading, Tech Tips, Vocabulary, Writing

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ITBE cloudOver the weekend I had the pleasure of attending the ITBE’s 41st Annual Convention. I arrived on Friday with just enough time to attend one session. I quickly browsed the offerings (which were very impressive on both days!), and chose “Summarizing and Comprehension Activities for Adult ESL Reading Classes.”

What a hot topic! Jeanette Diller of Heartland Community College had standing-room only. I took one of the last seats open.

Jeanette works in the Adult Education department and has ESL students of different levels. She has amassed many creative activities that promote text comprehension, whether it be a novel or textbook reading.  Going beyond simple Q&A, her tasks excite learners and prompt meaningful interaction with the text. One of my favorites was her “Character Clouds.” Jeanette has learners use free software on either Tagxedo or ABCya! to transform word lists into meaningful clouds.

Think about the beauty of this activity. First, students are not pressured to formulate a paragraph, or even a sentence. They brainstorm and reflect, choosing single words that describe a character. The teacher could limit the lists to adjectives or open it up to any word form. Jeanette demonstrated how Tagxedo allows users to choose the shape of the cloud, which gives extra meaning to the words. What shape is representative of the character or story? Additional reflection is necessary.

Jeanette has her adult learners practice their computer skills by saving and emailing their finished images to her. In class, they share their Character Clouds. I see some additional steps evolving, don’t you? The clouds can be shared in pairs or small groups, and students can discuss their choices. This could all be part of a pre-writing phase, with the ultimate goal of composing a one-paragraph character description.

Walter Mitty

“Walter Mitty” cloud

Here’s my character cloud for Walter Mitty, Thurber’s famous dreamer. Do you get it? How engaging it is to explain one’s word choices and preference for the shape of the cloud.


What else can you do with word clouds? Oh! This is going to be a fun resource to employ…

What about vocabulary? You can recommend that students use word clouds to help review and retain words and expressions after a lesson. In 2014, I posted a video lesson on chicken-related idioms. I could show my chicken-inspired word cloud to prompt students to recall those expressions.

Chicken idioms

Chicken-related Idioms



It would also be constructive to assign single words from a vocabulary list to different students. Each student could create a word cloud for his or her assigned word. The images could be shared online and in class for reference and study. Here’s an example for the high frequency word “precious.”

Vocabulary Word Cloud

Vocabulary Word Cloud

What ideas do you have? Have you already used these resources in your lessons? How? Please feel free to share.


Thank you again to Jeanette Diller, AELP Instructor/Reading Center Facilitator at Heartland Community College, for a very informative session at the ITBE convention. Thank you also for allowing me to share your activity here.




Heading to Chicago: ITBE’s 41st Annual Convention

Posted February 26, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Announcements

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If anyone will be in the Chicago area this weekend, I hope you’ll be attending  the ITBE Convention. I’m scheduled to present on Saturday morning. I’d love to have you join me. My session title is Innovative Learning Partnerships for Professional Growth. Look for it in the schedule. See you there!


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