Skylight interview with Gill Francis & Andy Dickinson

Skylight is a relatively new corpus interface designed with teachers and students in mind. Gill Francis one of the developers kindly answered some questions. The news about forthcoming suggestions for classroom activities is something to look forward to as well as the collocation feature. It is interesting to note that Gill is very much in favour of the use of keyword in context (KWIC) concordance lines. Others such as the FLAX language learning team see KWICs as more of an hinderance and propose their own novel interfaces.

Can you share a little of your background?

Andrew Dickinson is a software writer who is interested in the use of corpora in the classroom and Gill Francis (that’s me) is a corpus linguist. In 1991 I joined the pioneering Cobuild project as Senior Grammarian. Cobuild was founded in 1980 by Professor John Sinclair (University of Birmingham). Its aim was to compile and investigate huge collections of written and spoken language in order to produce a range of dictionaries and grammars for learners that reflect how English is actually spoken and written today. My interest and direction in corpus linguistics owes everything to John Sinclair and our colleagues at Cobuild.

The Bank of English corpora grew to about 450 million words by the late 1990s. We used a fast, versatile, and powerful corpus analysis tool called ‘lookup’. As a grammarian, I was responsible for the grammatical information in the second edition of the Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1995), along with Susan Hunston and Elizabeth Manning. The three of us also wrote the Cobuild Grammar Patterns series (1996, 97, and 98). All these publications reflected a detailed study of corpus evidence.

I’ve continued to work and publish in corpus linguistics since leaving Cobuild. (A list of publications is available.) Then a few years ago I got together with Andy to design Skylight, a program with a clear, easy interface for use by teachers and learners. Since then we have presented Skylight at various corpus linguistics conferences and seminars, and are currently developing it for more general release.

You are targeting classroom use by teachers with Skylight so what do you hope to bring that other corpus tools don’t?

1 – A clear, simple interface

Skylight has a clear, visually attractive interface. The query language is simple and intuitive, and can be learned in a couple of minutes. You can make a query by simply typing in a word or phrase without any special spacing or punctuation, for example “in my opinion” or “in the middle of” or “it’s a case of”.

To vary any word in the query, you use a pipe: “in my|his|her opinion”, or “in the middle|midst of”.

If you want to vary the query and see the range of words in a particular phrase or frame, you use one or more asterisks, for example “in my * opinion” will return “in my humble opinion”, “in my honest opinion”, “in my personal opinion” and so on.

This is about as complex as the query language gets – click on the User Manual from any page of Skylight to see examples of each kind of query. The rules are few and easily mastered by teachers and learners.

2 – Fast, easy alphabetical sorting

If you want to sort concordance lines to the right, or the left, you just click on a button above the lines. This helps you to see at a glance what the right-hand or left-hand collocates of a word or phrase are.

3 – Worksheets and classroom activities

If you are a teacher, you can use Skylight to prepare your own worksheets for corpus-based language activities. When you receive the results of a query, you can tailor the lines to fit your teaching point. This means that you can show only the lines you want, or hide those that you don’t, by clicking or entering text. You can copy the result into Word or another application using the Copy to Clipboard button. The results appear as a neat table, properly displayed and ready for your use. See the User Manual for further details and lots of examples.

Ideally, too, teachers and learners would be able to access a corpus at any point during a class, whenever they want to investigate how a word or phrase is used in a range of real language texts and situations.

For initial guidance and ideas, we are also preparing a large number of suggestions for stand-alone classroom activities practising points of grammar, lexis, and phraseology. Some of these activities address language change and the tension between prescription and description in language teaching. We’ll let you know when we release the first batch of these.

4 – A range of corpora

There are several corpora already available on Skylight – choose any one from the drop-down menu. For example, there is a very large general corpus, ukWaC, which contains 1.4 billion words, as well as smaller corpora like the BNC, BASE, and VOICE. Then there are even smaller corpora – for example a corpus of all Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets that is particularly useful for school children studying English literature.

In addition, any corpus can be compiled in response to the needs of groups of users, such as English school children or intermediate level EFL students. This depends, of course, on copyright restrictions. For more information, see the final sections of the User Manual.

Which other corpus tools would you recommend for teachers either in the classroom or outside?

We don’t feel particularly qualified to answer this question. There a lot of tools that access huge corpora and are extremely useful to linguists and lexicographers, such as Sketch Engine; the COCA (a large corpus of American English) concordancer, and Lancaster’s Corpus Query Processor. If you look up ‘corpus’ and ‘classroom’ together in any search engine, there will be several hits, but we don’t know of anything that combines an easy-to-use interface with really good classroom applications. This doesn’t mean there isn’t anything of course!

What present and/or future do you see for Google as a corpus in language learning?

One of the drawbacks of compiled corpora, such as UkWaC and the BNC, is that they are a snapshot of how language is used at a particular time (or at successive times, if a corpus is updated on a regular basis). The gathering and cleaning-up of text can take many months, so all corpora – even the most recent – are necessarily out-of-date by the time they appear.

The only way to get today’s language today is to use the web as a corpus (see for example Birmingham City University’s WebCorp). This gives results in the KWIC (Key Word in Context) format, with the word or phrase in the centre. The results are not cleaned up or processed, however, which limits their usefulness in the classroom.

But Google itself won’t give you the output you need for focusing on a word or phrase, sorting it, or looking at collocations. You’ll get plenty of examples, of course, but they won’t be shown in the KWIC format. The KWIC display is probably the most important and exciting development in modern corpus linguistics, and you need it if you are to do real corpus-based language work in the classroom or anywhere else.

Anything else you would like to add?

You asked whether we intend to add information about collocation. We are experimenting with a display modelled on the ‘Picture’ technique used in the lookup software used for the Bank Of English, which shows where collocates appear in relation to the node (the central word or phrase) – whether they tend to occur before or after it, for example.

We call the collocation display ‘Searchlight’. The Searchlight display below shows that the most frequent words immediately after obvious are that, then reasons (plural), then choice, then reason (singular). The most frequent words two to the right are of, for, and is. And so on – the columns are not connected, of course; they simply give positional collocations.

The brilliant thing about ‘picture’ that we want to replicate is that you simply click on any word to go to the relevant concordance lines. So if you click on reasons, you’d get all the lines with the combination obvious reasons. So it gives you a subset of the lines, which can then be sorted and tailored in any way you like.

skylight-searchlight

We will add Searchlight to the Skylight website as soon as possible, though we have not yet decided whether to add statistical information – probably not. In the meantime, I’d just like to say that in my many years of scrolling down concordance lines, I find that alphabetical sorting is a very good guide to the collocations of a word. I happened to search for the word intuitively recently, and returned 500 lines. If I sort them one to the right and scroll rapidly down, it’s clear that among the most frequent adjectives that follow it are appealing, correct, and obvious, while the verbs are know and understand. If I sort them one to the left, it is clear that one of the most frequent collocates is the verb be in various forms: ‘it is intuitively obvious’ and so on. Sorting one way and the other gives you a quick thumbnail sketch of a word, and is extremely useful.

So go ahead and try Skylight. And above all, click onto the User Manual, which tells you all you need to know and provides lots of examples of searches using different features.

A huge thanks to the Skylight team and do comment here about your opinions of the interface.

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Skylight interview with Gill Francis & Andy Dickinson

  1. Thanks for the overview of the Skylight interface and I’ll certainly be signing up to take a good look at it. I’m particularly interested in how this could relate to the field of Augmentative and Alternative Communication, which deals with helping non-speaking individuals communicate using no-tech, low-tech, and hi-tech solutions (think Stephen Hawking as a hi-tech user of an AAC system). I’ve been working on applying corpus linguistics to AAC for the past few years – I’ll be presenting a paper on one such application at the Corpus Linguistics conference in Lancaster, UK in July – and many of the concepts and strategies used in ESL, ELL, EFL etc. can be applied in the education of people using a variety of AAC systems. Skylight sounds as if it might be a valuable resource for Speech Pathologist and Assistive Technology professionals who are working hands-on with a range of clients.

    1. hi Russell, very happy to hear u may find Skylight useful in your work, am sure Gill and Andy would be interested in any requests you may have

      good luck with your presentation, any chance you will record it?

      ta
      mura

Penny for your thoughts

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