Grassroots language technology: Adam Leskis, grammarbuffet.org

Language learning technology can be so much more than what commercial groups are offering right now. The place to look is to independent developers and teachers who are innovating in this area. Adam Leskis is one such person and here he discusses his views and projects.

1. Can you tell us a little of your background.

I started out in my first career as an English teacher, and it was clear to me that there were better ways we could both create and distribute digital materials for our students. As an example, during my last year of professional teaching (2015), the state of cutting edge tech integration was taking a powerpoint from class and uploading it to youtube.


What struck me in particular was the way in which technology was being used primarily only in a capacity to reproduce traditional classroom methods of input rather than actually taking advantage of the advanced capabilities of the digital medium. I saw paper handout being replaced by uploaded PDFs, classroom discussions replaced by online forums, and teacher-fronted lectures replaced by videos of teachers speaking.


I knew I wanted to at least try to do something about it, so I set off teaching myself how to use the tools to create things on the internet. I eventually got good enough to be hired to do web development full time, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

2. In what ways do you feel technology can help with learning languages?

Obviously, given the very social nature of education and human language use, technology could never fully replace a teacher, and so this isn’t really what I’m setting out to do. Where I see technology being able to make an enormous impact, though, is in its ability to automate and scale a lot of the things on the periphery that language learning involves.


As an example, vocabulary is a very important component to being able to use and understand language. Thankfully, we now have the insights from corpus-based methods to help us identify which vocabulary items deserve primary focus, and it’s a fairly straightforward task to create materials including these.


However, what this means in practice is either students need to pay for expensive course books containing materials created with a corpus-informed approach to vocabulary, or the teachers and students themselves need to spend time creating these materials. Course books tend to be very expensive, and even those which come with online materials aren’t updated very frequently. Teachers and students creating their own materials are left to scour the internet for items to then analyze and filter for appropriate vocabulary inclusion, and then beyond that they need to construct materials to target the particular skill areas they would like to use the vocabulary for (eg, writing, listening), and which target the authentic contexts they are interested in, which is a very time-consuming manual process.


Technology has the ability to address both of these concerns (lack of updates and requirements of time). As one example, I created a very simple web app that pulls in content from the writing prompts sub-reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/) and uses it to help students work on identifying appropriate articles (a/an/the) to accompany nouns and noun phrases. The content is accessed in real time when the student is using the application, and given the fast turnover in this particular sub-reddit, this means that using it once a day would incorporate completely different content, essentially forming a completely new set of activities.
One of the other advantages to this approach is the automated feedback available to the user. So in essence, it’s a completely automated system to that uses authentic materials (created largely by native speakers for native speaker consumption) to instantly generate and assess activities focused on one specific learning objective.


The approach does still have its shortcomings, in that this particular system is just finding all the articles and replacing them with a selection drop-down, so it’s only able to give feedback on whether the user’s selection is the same as the original article. Also, since this is a very informal genre, the language used might not be suitable for all ages of users.


3. What are your current projects?


I wish I had more time do work on these, since I currently only have early mornings and commuting time on the train to use for side projects, but there are a few things I’m working on that I’m really excited about.


Now that I have one simple grid-based game up and running (https://www.grammarbuffet.org/rhyme-game/), I’m thinking about how I can re-use that same user interface to target other skills. If, instead of needing to tap on the words that rhyme, we could just have the users say them, that would be a much more authentic way to assess whether the user is able to “do something” with their knowledge of rhymes. There is an HTML5 Speech API that I’ve been meaning to play around with, so that could be a potential way to create an alternate version based on actual speaking skills rather than just reading skills.


Another permutation of the grid-based game template would be integrating word stress instead of rhymes. I’m currently trying to get a good dataset containing word stress information for all the words in the Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000), which I suppose is a bit dated now as a corpus-based vocabulary list, but it was my first introduction to the power of a corpus approach, and so I’ve always wanted to use it to generate materials on the web. The first version of this will probably also just involve seeing the word and using stress knowledge to tap it, rather than speaking, but I’m also imagining how we could use the capabilities of mobile devices to allow the user to shake or just move their phone up and down to give their answers on word stress. Once that’s up and running it’s  very simple to incorporate more modern corpus-based vocabulary lists (eg, the Academic Spoken Words List, 2017). Moreover, since this is all open source, anyone could adapt it for their particular vocabulary needs and deploy a custom web app via tech like Netlify.


Beyond these simple games, I’m also starting to work on a way to take authentic texts (possibly from a more academic genre on reddit like /r/science or text of articles on arXiv) to create cloze test types of materials using the AWL. The user would need to supply the words instead of select, which is a much more authentic assessment of their ability to understand and actually use these words in written English.


4. I really like the idea of offline access, how can people interested in this learn more?


The technology that enables this is currently referred to as Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), and relies on the technology of Web Workers. Essentially, because website development relies on javascript, we’re able to put javascript processes between the user’s browser and the network to intercept network requests and just return things that have already been downloaded. So for applications where all the data is included in the initial page load, this means that the entire website will work offline.


It’s a very relevant concept for our users who either have very unreliable network access, or even relatively expensive network costs. If we’re discussing applications that users engage in every single day, the network access becomes non-trivial, especially if it’s using the old website model of full page reload on every change in the view, rather than a modern single page app, written in either Angular or React. So absolutely, I would say it matters whether modern learning materials are using the latest technology to enable all of these enhancements to traditional webpages.

Much of this movement towards “offline-first” is informed by the JAMstack, which itself is a movement towards static sites that are deployable without any significant backend resources. This speaks to one of the goals of the micromaterials movement, which is the separation of getting that data from actually doing something with it in the web application. One early attempt in terms of setting up a backend API to be consumed is https://micromaterials.org, which just returns sentences from the WritingPrompts subreddit. It’s admittedly very crude (and even written in python 2, yuck!), but shows what could eventually be a model for data services that could feed into front-end micromaterials apps.


 5. Ideas/Plans for the future?


These disadvantages are a lot more obvious if this remains one of only a few such applications, but imagine if there were hundreds or even thousands of these forming something much more like an ecosystem. And then extrapolate that further to imagine thousands of backend server-side APIs for each conceivable genre of English enabling a multitiude of frontend applications to consume the data and create materials for different learners. As soon as you have one server-side service providing data on AWL words, that allows any number of web applications to consume and transform that data into activities.


The plan all along was not for me to create all of these applications, but to inspire others to begin creating similar type of micromaterials. It hasn’t yet caught on, and clearly, expecting teachers to take up this kind of development is not sustainable. I’m hoping that other developers see the value in these and join the movement.


In a sense, the sever-side API’s are a bigger prerequisite to getting this whole thing off the ground, so I’m very happy to work with any backend developers on what we need going forward, but I’m also going to continue developing things myself until we have a big enough community to take over.


I think whether all of these micromaterials exist under the umbrella of one single sign-on with tracking and auditing is beyond the scope of where we’re currently at, though I’m imagining a world where users could initiate their journey into the service, take a simple test involving all four of the main skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), and then be recommended a slew of micromaterials to help them out. 


For some users that might focus more on the reading and writing components, whereas for others that might focus more on the speaking and listening ones. The barrier to this currently being available is not at all significant and just involves getting development time invested in crating the materials. If I had them all created right now, I would be able to deploy them today with modern tooling like Netlify.


The problem is more one of availability and time, and I’m more than happy to work with other developers and teachers to bring this closer to a reality for our students.

Thanks for reading and many thanks to Adam for sharing his time on this blog; you can follow Adam on his blog [https://micromaterialsblog.wordpress.com/] and on twitter @BaronVonLeskis.

Please do read the other posts in the Grassroots language technology series if you have not done so already.

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Traditional linguistics say ‘subject-verb agreement’ Columbia School linguistics say ‘verb number noun number pairs’.

Consider the following from some student writing on cyber warfare:
By the way, conventional warfare appear more dangerous because the cyber warfare is young, not yet fully exploited and easily hidden from the public.

By conventional thinking we may point out the “subject-verb agreement” error in “conventional warfare appear more dangerous”.

However Columbia School linguistics not only considers the number on the noun but also the number on the verb. Say what? The following borrows heavily from a part of a 2011 paper titled The communicative function of English verb number by Wallis Reid.

Noun number is widely known e.g. take the noun ‘CatØ’ here there is ONE entity in focus (indicated by the zero signal Ø) add a suffix -S and there is MORE THAN ONE entity in focus – ‘CatS’. Now take the verb ‘iS’ – the suffix -S indicates ONE entity in focus and no signal on the verb such as ‘areØ’ indicates MORE THAN ONE entity in focus.

The reason why the noun number usually matches the verb number is that it creates a local redundancy that helps parse the items which crossed pairing (mismatches of noun number and verb number) do not create.

That is the matched pairings apply to the same aspect of the message – the hearer is getting multiple semantic clues to approximately the same thing. Consider ‘the girls play‘ – this can be parsed and understood in isolation because the MORE THAN ONE of ‘girls‘ and the MORE THAN ONE of ‘playØ’ both indicate the number of ‘players’ and hence mutually support the parsing of girls as “subject noun” and play as “verb” (I am putting subject noun and verb in quotations to use familiar terms so as to avoid going into the terminology that Columbia Linguistics uses, see paper for more on this).

Now consider that in crossed pairings each meaning applies to a different aspect of the message and so cannot help in identifying the other. So ‘the girls plays‘ is un-interpretable in isolation because there is no contextual support to help a hearer construct a message that would justify the ONE (entity in focus) of ‘plays‘ in light of the MORE THAN ONE (entity) of ‘girls‘. Thus, all things equal, more contextual support from elsewhere is needed to identify crossed number pairings than matched pairings.

So taking into account the independent effects of noun number and verb number we can reconsider our student sentence:
By the way, conventional warfare appear more dangerous because the cyber warfare is young, not yet fully exploited and easily hidden from the public.

In “conventional warfare appear more dangerous” we can say the entity in focus with respect to appearing dangerous is a plurality which contrasts with the singular entity in focus with respect to being young (and not fully exploited and easily hidden from the public) in “the cyber warfare is young”. Now considered in this light perhaps the student’s use of such a contrast is worth praising rather than admonishing?

Some food for thought next time an ‘agreement’ issue pops up in your student writing ; )

References:

Reid, W. (2011). The communicative function of English verb number. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 29(4), 1087-1146.

Grassroots language technology: Fred Lieutaud, FLGames, Planet Alert

I recently used the soccer game from this open source set of language games designed by Fred Lieutand – FLGames. Worked really well in a revision class, I often forget how competitive my first year engineering students are.

With no further ado here is Fred talking about technology and language learning. Many thanks to Fred and if you are interested in talking about this area do get in touch.

1. Can you share some of your background?
I’m a French teacher of English working in a middle-school in the North East of France. I’ve been teaching in the same school for 18 years now. I am interested in computers, but mostly in knowledge sharing through open-source licenses and I like creating things, so I started developing my own tools to teach.

2. You mentioned your current project, Planet Alert, can you explain
that a little?

Planet Alert is the answer I’ve found so far to the problem of student’s motivation. One of my goals is to have the kids take pleasure in coming to class and learning English. I have a feeling that this is possible through the use of ‘games’ (hence my FLGames – sources on GitHub).

Planet Alert is then a sort of ‘game’ providing class managing tools and trying to keep in mind as much as possible that technology should serve the classroom and help students improving their skills. If it doesn’t fulfill these goals, it shouldn’t be used in class.

In Planet Alert, students have their own avatar, and they need to take care of it to help the team (i.e. the class) succeed in the ‘game’. The scenario is not that interesting in itself : Humans wanted to conquer Mars, but Martians were first: they have invaded the Earth, and they have emptied human brains. To resist and free the planet, humans have to re-learn a language (English !).

The game is strongly connected to the classroom in many ways. Lots of ‘real’ actions have an effect on the avatars. Participation, group work, individual exercises, helping other kids. Each positive action increases player’s experience (XP), but also increases his or her gold coins (GC). Each negative action causes health points loss and might also cause GC loss. Thanks to the GC, a player can free places throughout the world (famous monuments – the goal is to have them developing geographical skills), free people, buy equipment (to earn even more), buy protections (to lose less than normal), buy potions (no homework for 1 lesson, changing seat in class for 1 lesson, assisting the teacher), donate to another player (to help him buy a health potion, for example). Once bought, players get the element to stick in their copybook and scores are updated for real in the classroom and on the website.

I try to encourage team work with special elements (group items) such as the Memory helmet or the Book of Knowledge : the first is a helmet giving access to online exercises (created inside Planet Alert), the second gives access to lessons that can be copied in the copybook (to validate an extra-homework, which gets credited with extra XP and extra GC). This gives also the kids a possibility to work outside of the classroom and revise vocabulary or go a little further than what has been done in class. For students not having an easy internet access, they can also do extra-work in their copybook. When shown in class, they get credited of a positive action.

At the beginning of the lesson, I often check the ‘Main Office’ page so we have the recent news and discuss things (someone needs help, monuments). An exercise in class becomes a ‘Group mission’, a test is a ‘Monster Attack’ and so on. Most things are related to the ‘game’.

Some roles exist : ‘Ambassadors’ for players having 10 positive actions in a row, ‘Captains’ for players having the best karma in each group. This is useful in class, for example to start an activity : Captains first !

Anyway, I guess you get the picture. It’s hard to be concise since Planet Alert offers many possibilities. It is really a way to manage class differently. Teachers can also generate reports over selected periods and see who has done extra-work, who has forgotten their material, who has participated. This is a great help for parents’ meetings.

Well, I could go on for hours about everything that is behind this website. But from my own (much biased !) point of view, the results are encouraging. If you want to have a look, the official website is https://planetalert.tuxfamily.org.

3. How do you decide on whether to use technology or not in class?
From what I’ve answered from the preceding question, you can imagine that using computers in the classroom is often a necessity for me. Although my focus is not to use the tool in itself for the sake of using it. I want to use it to share with the class. It has to prove its added value: either in helping communication, or in helping students learn. Planet Alert is an example of a common sharing, but the FLGames are another example for helping memorizing (Soccer for increasing speed, Grammar Gamble to improve the written skills, Car Race to encourage group work and cooperation). I believe technology in class should always be a means to promote real interaction. It should trigger some sort of desire to work, to speak, to get involved.

4. What kinds of tools (apart from your own) have you found most useful?
As you can see, I mostly use my own tools. But I also use OpenBoard to manage all my documents on my interactive whiteboard. I exclusively use open-source things for many years now and that is  something very important for me. With Planet Alert, I try to initiate students to open-source licenses : they have already drawn some of the monsters used in the game and accepted to share them on Open Clipart Library :). Other important aspects are the possibility to customize the tools and the ability to do so quickly (I like working with simple .txt files as data source).

5. Anything else you would like to comment on about technology in language learning?
I have a feeling it would be hard to do without technology when teaching, but this is a personal opinion. It is fundamental to understand that teaching relies much more on the teacher than on technology ! Some teachers are not ‘techies’ but they still do extraordinary work. I think a teacher has to find his or her way of teaching. And all sorts of teaching may work !

 

Awareage Languness

This is a post to recount my recent attempts or (more pretentiously) my ongoing journey to understand how linguistics can help language teaching. The post was initiated by a video teaser (on linguistics and teacher education) to a talk by Bridget R. Schvarcz in the upcoming TESOL France 2018 colloquium.

I will include various prompts which led me to my current language (or communicative) awareness location as a way to illustrate my route.

My first prompt would have to be my CELTA training of 4 weeks of which a few days I vaguely remember being devoted to orthodox segregational linguistics that language can be compartmentalised into things such as parts of speech, subject verb object sentences and various other related grammar. I did not re-evaluate this basis for some time after my initial TEFL training.

Fast forward a few years to a point after many classroom incidents that kept showing me the inadequacies of my knowledge about the English language and its usefulness in helping my students. I had a vague idea of communicative language teaching or CLT (ignoring for now its basis in the segregational linguistics of speech act theory) – but marrying CLT up with my grammar knowledge was tortuous to say the least (hands up who has not tried to and/or is mandated to shoehorn grammar points into a lesson?!).

Integrational linguistics can be summed in three words – language presupposes communication.  My route to it was from the notion of meaning invariance. As teachers of language one form one meaning is obviously appealing – e.g. adding an -s to cat means there is more than one cat.

My next prompt was being aware of Columbia School Linguistics and its focus on analysing invariant meanings. For example some/any. One of the scholars associated with Columbia School Linguistics is Ricardo Otheguy whose talk here led me to discover that there exists another line of thought (held by people such as Roy Harris, Sinfree Makoni, Alastair Pennycook) which questions the validity of invariance in language.

Integrational linguistics holds signs (meaning makers) are radically indeterminate – that is both form and meaning are not fixed codes which can be plucked and used – signs do not pre-exist acts of communication but are made in the act of communication. Hence they are not determined before the act of communication itself.

Now to a language teacher this seems most unhelpful. If form-meaning pairs do not pre-exist acts of communication then how do we teach them?

Fear not, we don’t need such codes to start thinking about planning lessons. We can focus on the acts of communication themselves. Here we see echoes of approaches such as task based language teaching, comprehensible input and total physical response.

This whiggish history of my language awareness, my awareage linguness, if you will, pardon my poor joke, hopes to have piqued you into maybe asking yourself some questions posed by Bridget R. Schvarcz in her teaser video:

What influenced who you are as a teacher today?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word linguistics?

Have you ever used any of the theoretical knowledge about language structure in your teaching?

Do you think you are a better teacher because you have studied linguistics?

If you are headed to TESOL France 2018 hope to bump into you, thanks for reading.

Signs o’ the times – some/any invariant meanings and COCA

I am glad to be writing this particular (rushed, see end) post as it involves corpus linguistics and I have not done such a post for a while. It is also about my current interest – Columbia School linguistics.

I have been over the years less enamored of the power of corpus linguistics for language teaching. It is certainly very useful to access descriptions of language but that is not enough. Explanations are also needed. Columbia School (CS) linguistics is about analyzing invariant meanings that motivate choices in both grammar and lexis. It is about one form to one meaning mappings – an ideal aim when looking to help students.

Nadav Sabar in 2016 analyses the use of some and any. The following borrows heavily from this paper.

Most pedagogical grammars state (formal) rules such as “any is used in negative sentences and not in affirmative statements”. Yet such rules cannot account for why some is used in contexts that are said to be used for any. Sabar gives the following attested example:

1) When Yvonne lived in Italy, where it seems like the whole country is married, people always wanted to know about her personal life. I remember her telling me that every time she’d come back from a great vacation, the first question from married friends was, “Did you meet anybody?” It was as if the whole point of going on vacation was to meet someone. That she had a great time and saw something new and interesting didn’t matter. The entire vacation was cancelled or a flop because she didn’t meet someone. (http://www.yvonneandyvettetiquette.com/2008_09_01_archive.html)

Formal accounts could only say that any is also acceptable as in she didn’t meet anyone and is unconcerned with why the writer chose some in this case.

Formal accounts use the sentence as unit of analysis and see meaning as compositional – i.e. the meanings of individual words in a sentence add to the whole. CS uses signs (pairing of symbol to meaning) as the unit of analysis and sees meaning as instrumental rather than compositional. That is the individual meanings of signals need not add up to sentence meaning. There is a distinction between linguistic code that has an invariant meaning (that always corresponds to a linguistic signal) and interpretation of the code which is the subjective outcome of messages. Meanings are very sparse in that they do not encode messages but only offer prompts that may only suggest message elements.

The meaning hypotheses of some and any are shown below:

I.e. some as RESTRICTED suggests limits, internal divisions, boundaries while any as UNRESTRICTED suggests no boundaries, limits or divisions. Note that this does not mean that the domain in question in reality has no divisions or boundaries. Just that the reality is irrelevant to the message. Also note that in a pedagogical grammar such as Martin Parrott’s this meaning division between restricted and unrestricted is only described for stressed SOME and ANY.

Sabar uses the following as examples:

2) If you see something, say something. (New York City public safety slogan)
3) No parking any time (street sign)

In 2) some is used because the message suggested is a restriction on the set of things people see and say. The context drives the inference as to the nature of the restriction – suspicious looking things. Any could also have been used but that would not have been as effective a message – any would have suggested no restriction i.e. people should call no matter what they see.

Similarly in 3) any is used because there is no restriction on the domain of times of the day.

So now for 1) we can see some is used because the message suggests a restriction of the set of people Yvonne did not meet, and the context shows that this restriction as people who may qualify as marriage potential.

Now the interesting corpus linguistics part.

The methodology of CS first involves a qualitative step where some aspect of the sign in question is looked at. So for some which suggests restriction another element which suggests the same is looked for:

4) Some Feds [Federal workers] are held up as national heroes while others are considered a national joke. (ABC Nightline: Income Tax)

Here others is used to refer to a different subset of people within the domain of Federal workers. This message element is also suggested by some – RESTRICTED. This does not mean there is only one reason for the choice of these forms rather that this message feature of internal division is one reason out of many possible reasons that has motivated the choice of these two forms.

To test this claim generally we can look at a corpus to see if there is a higher than probable chance that others occurs with some more than others occurs with any.

We can do this in COCA by using these search terms:

COCA searches for others:

Favoured Disfavoured
some [up to 9 slots] others any [up to 9 slots] others

The following screenshot shows how to find some [up to 9 slots] others (do similar for any):

To find some with not others see the next screenshot (i.e. use the minus sign -):

And tabulating the data in a contingency table:

others present others absent
N % N %
some 19078 90 8946046 65
any 2022 10 4841946 35
Total 21100 100 13787992 100

p < .0001

The table percentages and significance test supports the claim that there is one message feature that motivates use of both some and others. Note that the meaning hypothesis itself is not directly tested; it is only indirectly tested via the counts in COCA. Sabar goes onto to test both qualitatively and quantitatively other signals that contribute to the meaning hypothesis of some – RESTRICTED and any – UNRESTRICTED.

I wondered how the singular other would distribute with any and some:

other present other absent
N % N %
any 39244 52 4811937 35
some 35175 48 8930621 65
Total 74419 100 13742558 100

p < .0001

Here can we say that singular other contributes to a message meaning of unrestricted? I have no idea as I have not had time to explore this further!

I hope dear reader you forgive the rushed nature of this post but I wanted to get something up before the risk of forgetting this due to holiday haze!

Thanks for indulging.

Update 1:

Thanks to heads up from some tweeters Michael Lewis in his book The English Verb in 1986 was also pointing to the primacy of meaning:

Update 2:

Nadav Sabar has pointed out that he looked for others in one direction i.e. following some/any whereas I looked at occurrence of others both following and before some/any.
Plus in a new version of his paper a window size of 2 is used instead of 9.

References:

Parrott, M. (2000). Grammar for English language teachers: with exercises and a key. Cambridge University Press.

Sabar, N. (2016). Using big data to test meaning hypotheses for any and some. In Otheguy, R., Stern, N., Reid, W. and Ruggles, J. (Eds.) Columbia School linguistics in the 21st century: advances in sign-based linguistics. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. Retrieved from [https://www.academia.edu/33968803/Using_big_data_to_test_meaning_hypotheses_of_some_and_any]

Article use: from cognitive salience to discourse differentiation

The following borrows heavily from the original paper.

Elena Gorokhova in 1995 reports on a developmental stage description of article use by Spanish L1 learners of English. She follows a description of final state article use that was formulated by William Diver – the founder of Columbia School linguistics which is a sign-based functional linguistics account. A sign is a pairing of a signal with its meaning.

In Diver’s account the/a signals a need to differentiate referents in a piece of discourse while the Ø zero article signals no such need. The signal is used when there is enough information available to differentiate referents and a/an signal is used when there is insufficient information available to differentiate referents. For the Ø zero article four communicative reasons are given:

a) referent is unimportant to message as message is about an associated activity.
He went to Ø bed early (went to sleep on whatever bed)

b) referent important but no chance of confusion
He went Ø home (his home)
He went to Ø school (his school)

c) only one possible referent
Ø Einstein died in Ø Princeton

d) no differentiation among instances needed
Ø Water boils at 100C (any and all water)

The above is represented in the figure below:

Gorokhova then postulates  4 stages based on her longitudinal data which culminate in the Standard English state shown above.

In the first stage learners only have the which is used with cognitively more salient referents. Hence important and visible referents are signaled by the:

In stage II the signal a is acquired. The now in addition to signaling importance is used to mark large size of a visible referent. A signals visible referents smaller in size and which are less important. Note that in stages I and II the and a are used very differently to the end state standard English. In stages I and II they are used to show degrees of attention whilst in the end state standard English they are used to show degrees of differentiation of referents in discourse:

Stage III learners begin to pay attention to the larger discourse although their linguistic value is still based on cognitive salience. Stage III is a transitional stage:

In stage IV discourse plays a significant role in the use of articles. Learners choose the and a on differentiation of referents. Context is used from restrictive clause or noun phrases or successive mention of the same referent. The is also used with familiar referents such as bank, school etc:

In stage V students acquire use of the Ø zero article. Here also “frame anaphora” is evoked by the use of the e.g. Someone is driving and there are people in the back seat. The speaker relies on shared non-linguistic knowledge (driving is usually done in a car which usually has seats) with the hearer. This stage is hard to acquire – of the seventy learners in Gorokhova’s study only two showed Stage V article usage.

Although this study suggests a particular order of acquisition – The > A > Ø Zero article, there is no consensus in the literature. Some studies support this order, others show A > The > Ø Zero article, others show Ø Zero article > The > A.

What is heavily implied though is that due to the discourse effects on article use, articles should not be taught in isolated sentences but with a piece of discourse in addition to background information about the speaker and hearer.

I recently drew Figure 1 and Master’s figure of Classification vs Identification with a student. She preferred Master’s figure as she had trouble understanding the word differentiation. It should be noted in this case of focus on form and meaning there was only a cursory look in response to her question about using articles.

Thanks for reading and do check the Columbia School of linguistics as I believe this approach has a lot of potential for use in class. And do also check some other thoughts on article use here:

  1. Articles and collocational effects
  2. Classified and Identified – A pedagogical grammar for article use
  3. A, an, the, definiteness and specificity

References:

Gorokhova, E. (1995). Acquisition of English articles by native speakers of Spanish. In Contini-Morava, E. & Goldberg, B. S. (Eds.) Meaning as explanation: Advances in linguistic sign theory,  441-452. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Practice in second language learning – interview with the editor

I was working with an individual student at about A2 level a few weeks back. Her speaking skills are relatively weak compared to her listening skills. I decided some job related drilling would be appropriate. As she was going through the drill I was hesitating about how much would be of use. Before the advent of the modern communicative approach, practice in language teaching was often associated with such mechanical type activities. And such exercises have been criticized as using decontextualized and inauthentic language. So on this point (decontextualised/inauthentic language) I was more confident (as the student was using example language related to her work) than on the value of the drilling i.e. repetitive production of language.

In a new book edited by Christian Jones – Practice in second language learning, practice is defined broadly as “specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language”. Although there is no explicit discussion on drilling the chapters within do cover many interesting issues related to practice.

Christian Jones kindly answered some questions about the book:

1. What made you decide there was a need for this book at this time?
Practice is a central part of second language teaching and learning in many contexts and yet remains somewhat under-researched. This seems something of a gap in the literature. Teachers and researchers need evidence about what seems to work and what doesn’t in various contexts and with different language areas/skills. There has not been a volume focused on this area since Robert DeKeyser’s book in 2007 and we wanted to add research to the field.

2. What would readers get from this book that they wouldn’t from DeKeyser 2007?
The DeKeyser book is, in my view, a very important contribution to our field. Robert DeKeyser was kind enough to add a foreword to this volume as we wanted to acknowledge his important work in this area. In our book, we have tried to explore practice as we might find it in classrooms, online and in periods of study abroad. We wanted to research practice in different second languages, contexts and using different reseach designs and we hope this will be of interest to a variety of teachers and researchers.

3. The definition given in the book for practice is described as “broadly defined”. What would a more narrowly defined version say?
A narrowly defined version of practice might view it something tied to a particular framework such as PPP. In fact, practice forms a part of many types of methodology. For example, in the TBLT literature, task repetition is undoubtedly a form of practice. A narrowly defined version might view it as something connected to learner output. In fact, we can and do talk of receptive and productive practice. A narrow version of practice might view it as connected only to skill building theories of second language acquisition but we can link it to several others, including the noticing hypothesis and input processing.

4. What in your view is the most outstanding question on the topic of practice (both for teaching and research)?
There are several! But here is one. Chapter one by Mike McCarthy and Jeanne McCarten makes the point that practising conversation and speaking practice are not the same. CLT often features activities we can term ‘speaking practice’ but it is something of a stretch to think that typical activities such as information gaps etc (as helpful as they are in some ways) allow learners to practise conversations. In order to develop conversational skills, learners will need to practise aspects of conversation such as good listenership and linking their turn to another speaker. We need to investigate ways to practise these things. One way is to research the effectiveness of an Illustration-Interaction-Induction (III) framework which McCarthy and McCarten suggest can be useful for practising aspects of conversation. Such research might be undertaken by comparing III to other methodologies.

I have yet to form a definite opinion on drilling but having read only the first two chapters of the book I hope any future opinion on drills and practice in general to be better informed.

Thanks for reading and do note I was kindly sent a review copy of the book. But don’t hold your breath for a proper review : )