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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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 !

 

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 : )

Grassroots language technology: Wiktor Jakubczyc, vocab.today

It’s been a while since the last post on teachers doing it for themselves technology wise. Do check those out if you have not or need a reminder. The teacher/developer who kindly answered questions for this post, Wiktor Jakubczyc, I stumbled across when looking for a github source on vocabulary profilers. And what a find his github pages are.

I think there are good reasons for teaching and education to have a default “inertia” regarding “innovation” (which Wiktor laments in one of his responses) but I won’t discuss this here. Maybe readers may prod me on this in the comments? 😁 I would like to refer to a (pdf) point I’ve made before – that there is a middle ground for teachers to explore regarding grassroots technology.

Anyway enough of my rambling here’s Wiktor and there is a marvelous bonus at the end for all you CALL geeks:

1. Can you explain your background a little?

I’m an English teacher with over 10 years of experience and an IT freelancer. I’ve taught English all over Europe, in London, Moscow, Warsaw, Bratislava, Sevilla and Wrocław, my home town in Poland. Since I was a kid I’ve loved computers – and that was in the ’80s when an Atari couldn’t really do very much. I passionately want teachers to make the most of digital technologies.

2. What was the first tool you designed for learning languages?

The first tool I designed to help students learn English was a dictionary lookup program for Windows, way back in 2007. Back then, there were good dictionaries you could get for your computer, but I wanted to be able to look up a word in many dictionaries at once. That option simply didn’t exist, so I created The Ultimate Dictionary (http://creative.sourceforge.net) . I got great feedback from my students, fellow teachers and friends – they still use it, and they love it! It’s a very rewarding feeling to create something of value for other people, and to be able to give it to them for free.

A few years later, I discovered that another developer, Konstantin Isakov, had the same idea and made an even better dictionary application – GoldenDict. I used his source code as the base for a redesign of my dictionary, now called Nomad Dictionary. Nomad Dictionary now has Windows, Android and MacOS editions, all available to download at http://dictionaries.sf.net.

My second project was a Half a Crossword creator. Half a crossword is a type of communicative activity for ESL classrooms which emphasizes speaking and vocabulary, two key skills in speaking a language. Students get half a crossword each, split evenly between two students, and have to ask each other for missing information and give definitions for the words they have in their crossword. It’s a fantastic way to revise and recycle vocabulary, while practicing the much-needed skills of asking for and giving information. And students love it!

Again, no such tool existed, which is why I decided to create one. I first made a version of Half a Crossword for Windows (http://creative.sourceforge.net) because at the time Delphi was the only language I could program in. I found it immensely useful in my classes – it was a perfect activity to check how many words students knew before moving on to new material. I tried to get other teachers involved, to spread the word and encourage them to use it, but I found a lot of people were resistant. They loved the idea, but few actually decided to use it in their classrooms.

A few years later, thinking that maybe the problem was accessibility – you needed to download a program, install it, write a wordlist in word and then save it… it was a bit complicated – I decided to create an online version written in JavaScript. I posted the code for Half a Crossword Online on GitHub (https://github.com/monolithpl/half-a-crossword). Despite the fact that it wasn’t advertised anywhere, quite a few people found out about it, and two people even contributed code! Teachers I talked to also found the online version easier to use, and came to use them with their classes.

3. What do you think of as a relevant tool?

That’s a very good question, which is to say a very hard question. I think a relevant tool has to be both personally important enough for the creator to design it (especially if it’s a hobby project) at the same time good enough so that other people later also find it useful to them. It’s rare for these two things to coincide.

Another difficulty lies in the fact that the world of teaching, broadly speaking, is averse to innovation. Very few teachers care to experiment with new methodologies, paradigms or teaching tools. There’s extreme inertia. So getting teachers to change their habits and try something new is very challenging, especially when it comes to technology.

Relevant tools, in my mind, would be those that embrace the DOGME/Teaching Unplugged methodology, the Lexical Approach, personalized teaching, the explosion of mobile computing, just to name a few – all the radical new ideas that have appeared in the last 10 years in language teaching. And they would have to be loved by students, teachers and administrators alike.

4. Do you create tools for languages other than English?

I would love to, someday. I simply don’t have the time to do that now. This is a hobby, after all. The language learning tools I create are useful to my students, my colleagues and myself in learning and teaching English, which is what we do everyday. So that is the priority for now.

I hope other people around the world will find the time and be inspired to create tools for their languages. Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the English-speaking world and the rest of the people out there when it comes to technology: just compare the size of the English Wikipedia versus editions in other languages. The same is true for language data: there are far fewer corpora, frequency wordlists, audiovisual materials etc for languages other than English. There’s lots of catching up to do.

I also think that the world needs a world language, so that we can all start to understand things not just around us, in our local environment, but on a more global level. For that, we need English, so I can understand why most of the interesting developments in language teaching are designed for English students. It’s simply the largest market and user base.

5. What tools are you working on at the moment? What do you have planned for future developments?

Right now I’m working on projects related to wordlists. I have a new version of a Vocabulary Profiler (https://github.com/monolithpl/range.web) almost ready. It’s an app that visualizes word frequency in a text, or in more practical terms tells a teacher how difficult a text is and which words are going to be most challenging for their students. Developing it was an incredible learning experience as I had to figure out how to compress large wordlists so that the app could work on mobile phones and discovered trie algorithms, which are a super clever concept of packing words into a small space. I’d like to mention the groundbreaking work of Paul Nation on teaching and researching vocabulary, especially his Range program (https://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/paul-nation#vocab-programs), which I tried to recreate for the modern web.

My most ambitious project to date is an extension of this work – it’s an app to highlight collocations, chunks etc. in a text called Fraze Finder (https://github.com/monolithpl/fraze-finder). It takes the concept of profiling vocabulary to the next level by analyzing multi-word elements, like phrasal verbs, which students most often struggle with. The idea is to help students and teachers notice collocations, to identify them and understand their importance in written and spoken language. The difficulty here is building a good library of these expressions and accurately finding them (with all their variations) in texts. I have lots of ideas for future projects, which I’ve tried to gather together on my personal website vocab.today (https://vocab.today/teacher). I hope one day to complete them all!

6. Are there any tools (not yours) that you yourself use for learning languages?

Over the years, I’ve tried and experimented with dozens of language learning solutions. Let me focus on three main areas:

Language Management Systems (LMSs) – these are content delivery platforms, basically, websites where teachers upload material for their classes and students do their homework, complete tests, review their progress and exchange messages with one another.

I gave Moodle a try, but it was just horrible to use for both teachers and students, and I think other people agreed with me for it seems to be fading away into a well-deserved oblivion.

Later, I tried Edmodo, which was a lot easier to use, and obviously inspired by Facebook, which was just starting to be the big thing at the time. I ran into numerous limitations using it, and finally, out of sheer frustration, just gave up. It was very pretty on the surface, but you couldn’t do much with it. And students prefered to use Facebook for their day-to-day communication, so it was difficult to make them use something else.

So today, I create Facebook groups for my students and use Google Drive, Forms and Docs to share documents and tests. It’s still not a perfect solution, but it has the advantage of being familiar to everyone and easy to use. Unlike the many solutions I’ve used before, I think these are versatile enough to do the job and are actively being developed and improved.

Flashcards – There are hundreds of apps and websites that help students learn through flashcards. I’ve tried many of them with my students, including Anki (which is a great piece of software). However, I’ve found that Quizlet is the most easy to set up and easy to use. And there’s a huge library of flashcards made by talented teachers around the world available for anyone to use. It’s quite amazing, and it’s free.

Mobile Apps – I’ve also experimented with several dozen different learning tools for mobile phones. This is a very new market, as the iPhone only came out ten years ago. There is currently much hype around apps like DuoLingo, Babbel or Memrise, but personally I found them to be quite boring. The activities are very repetitive, and apart from situations where I would be forced to use them (on a crowded train with nothing else to do), I can’t imagine myself ever using them long-term.

This is still a very experimental field, which is why I find it shocking that the three biggest apps offer just two types of activities: multiple choice or fill-in-the-gap exercises. I would love to see more variety. There’s also the fact that due to their novelty, the claims of effectiveness these apps advertise with is often greatly overstated – just see what happened to all the “brain training” apps like Lumosity which now have to pay multi-million dollar fines for lying to their customers (https://arstechnica.com/science/2016/06/billion-dollar-brain-training-industry-a-sham-nothing-but-placebo-study-suggests/). There’s definitely room for improvement.

7. Any advice for people interested in learning to design such tools?

The most important thing is to have an idea on what to create: something that would be useful for you or your students that doesn’t yet exist, a faster and better way of doing something you do every day or a radical improvement on a tool or solution you currently use.

Programming skills are secondary and you can always find people who can help you out with technical stuff on StackOverflow. I’ve met a few programmers who after completing their studies had no idea what they wanted to create. Knowing what you’d like to create is the key.

It’s much easier to get into hobby development than it was 5 or 10 years ago. GitHub makes it super easy to upload your code and create a website for your project – all for free! It’s also a great way to discover other projects, make use of ready-made components and participate in the open source community by commenting or finding bugs.

JavaScript is one of the easiest programming languages you can learn, and it’s everywhere – on PCs, Macs, iPhones and Androids. With just one language, you can design for almost any device out there – the developments on the technological front are simply amazing.

On the teaching side, I could recommend no better than Scott Thornbury’s excellent article How could SLA research inform EdTech? (https://eltjam.com/how-could-sla-research-inform-edtech) which describes the needs of language learners and offers a list of requirements that should be met in order to create a truly excellent, cutting-edge language learning tool. To my knowledge, no such tool exists. Not by a long shot. It’s a great opportunity for creative minds.

8. Anything you want to add?

Thank you for noticing my work and giving me an opportunity to speak about it. Up until now I’ve been working on my projects almost in secret. It would be amazing if this interview inspired creative young minds to design new tools for language teaching, especially in languages other than English. I hope teachers will discover new tools that will help them teach better with less effort.

Technology has so much to offer in the field of learning languages, and there’s so much innovation to come. I’m looking forward to the bold new ideas of the future. Follow my work at vocab.today or on github!

Many thanks to Wiktor for spending time answering these questions. And here is the bonus link – Wiktor is compiling classic CALL programs that you can run in your browser, how awesome is that?! I am sure Wiktor would be glad to take some suggestions of some classic gems.

Successful Spoken English – interview with authors

The following is an email interview with the authors, Christian Jones, Shelley Byrne, Nicola Halenko, of the recent Routledge publication Successful Spoken English: Findings from Learner Corpora. Note that I have not yet read this (waiting for a review copy!).

Successful Spoken English

1. Can you explain the origins of the book?

We wanted to explore what successful learners do when they speak and in particular learners from B1-C1 levels, which are, we feel, the most common and important levels. The CEFR gives “can do” statements at each level but these are often quite vague and thus open to interpretation. We wanted to discover what successful learners do in terms of their linguistic, strategic, discourse and pragmatic competence and how this differs from level to level.  

We realised it would be impossible to use data from all the interactions a successful speaker might have so we used interactive speaking tests at each level. We wanted to encourage learners and teachers to look at what successful speakers do and use that, at least in part, as a model to aim for as in many cases the native speaker model is an unrealistic target.

2. What corpora were used?

The main corpus we used was the UCLan Speaking Test Corpus (USTC). This contained data from only students  from a range of nationalities who had been successful (based on holistic test scoring) at each level, B1-C1. As points of comparison, we also recorded native speakers undertaking each test. We also made some comparisons to the LINDSEI (Louvain International Database of Spoken English Interlanguage) corpus and, to a lesser extent, the spoken section of the BYU-BNC corpus.

Test data does not really provide much evidence of pragmatic competence so we constructed a Speech Act Corpus of English (SPACE) using recordings of computer-animated production tasks by B2 level learners  for requests and apologies in a variety of contexts. These were also rated holistically and we used only those which were rated as appropriate or very appropriate in each scenario. Native speakers also recorded responses and these were used as a point of comparison. 

3. What were the most surprising findings?

In terms of the language learners used, it was a little surprising that as levels increased, learners did not always display a greater range of vocabulary. In fact, at all levels (and in the native speaker data) there was a heavy reliance on the top two thousand words. Instead, it is the flexibility with which learners can use these words which changes as the levels increase so they begin to use them in more collocations and chunks and with different functions. There was also a tendency across levels to favour use of chunks which can be used for a variety of functions. For example, although we can presume that learners may have been taught phrase such as ‘in my opinion’ this was infrequent and instead they favoured ‘I think’ which can be used to give opinons, to hedge, to buy time etc .

In terms of discourse, the data showed that we really need to pay attention to what McCarthy has called ‘turn grammar’. A big difference as the levels increased was the increasing ability of learners to co-construct  conversations, developing ideas from and contributing to the turns of others. At B1 level, understandably, the focus was much more on the development of their own turns.

4. What findings would be most useful to language teachers?

Hopefully, in the lists of frequent words, keywords and chunks they have something which can inform their teaching at each of these levels. It would seem to be reasonable to use, as an example, the language of successful B2 level speakers to inform what we teach to B1 level speakers. Also, though tutors may present a variety of less frequent or ‘more difficult’ words and chunks to learners, successful speakers will ultimately employ lexis which is more common and more natural sounding in their speech, just as the native speakers in our data also did.

We hope the book will also give clearer guidance as to what the CEFR levels mean in terms of communicative competence and what learners can actually do at different levels. Finally, and related to the last  point, we hope that teachers will see how successful speakers need to develop all aspects of communicative competence (linguistic, strategic, discourse and pragmatic competence) and that teaching should focus on each area rather than only one of two of these areas.

There has been some criticism, notably by Stefan Th. Gries and collaborators that much learner corpus research is restricting itself factorwise when explaining a linguistic phenomenon. Gries calls for a multi-factor approach whose power can be seen in a study conducted with Sandra C. Deshors, 2014, on the uses of may, can and pouvoir with native English users and French learners of English. Using nearly 4000 examples from 3 corpora, annotated with over 20 morphosyntactic and semantic features, they found for example that French learners of English see pouvoir as closer to can than may.

The analysis for Successful Spoken English was described as follows:

“We examined the data with a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data analysis, using measures such as log-likelihood to check significance of frequency counts but then manual examination of concordance line to analyse the function of language.”

Hopefully with the increasing use of multi-factor methods learner corpus analysis can yield even more interesting and useful results than current approaches allow.

Chris and his colleagues kindly answered some follow-up questions:

5. How did you measure/assign CEFR level for students?  

Students were often already in classes where they had been given a proficiency test and placed in a level . We then gave them our speaking  test and only took data from students who had been given a global pass score of 3.5 or 4 (on a scale of 0-5). The borderline pass mark was 2.5 so we only chose students who had clearly passed but were not at the very top of the level and obviously then only those who gave us permissions to do so. The speaking tests we used were based on Canale’s (1984) oral proficiency interview design and consisted of a warm up phase, a paired interactive discussion task and a topic specific conversation based on the discussion task. Each lasted between 10-15 minutes.

6. So most of the analysis was in relation to successful students who were measured holistically?  

Yes.

7. And could you explain what holistically means here?

Yes, we looked at successful learners at each CEFR level, according to the test marking criteria. They were graded for grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, discourse management and interactive ability based on criteria such as  the following (grade 3-3.5) for discourse management ‘Contributions are normally relevant, coherent and of an appropriate length’. These scores were then amalgamated into a global score. These scales are holistic in that they try to assess what learners can do in terms of these competences to gain an overall picture of their spoken English rather than ticking off a list of items they can or cannot use. 

8. Do I understand correctly that comparisons with native speaker corpora were not as much used as with successful vs unsuccessful students? 

No, we did not look at unsuccessful students at all. We were trying to compare successful students at B1-C1 levels and to draw some comparison to native speakers. We also compared our data to the LINDSEI spoken learner corpus to check the use of key words.

9. For the native speaker comparisons what kind of things were compared?

We compared each aspect of communicative competence – linguistic, strategic, discourse and pragmatic competences to some degree. The native speakers took exactly the same tests so we compared (as one example), the most frequent words they used.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

References:

Deshors, S. C., & Gries, S. T. (2014). A case for the multifactorial assessment of learner language. Human Cognitive Processing (HCP), 179. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/300655572_A_case_for_the_multifactorial_assessment_of_learner_language

 

Interview with Mike Scott, WordSmith Tools developer

WordSmith Tools, a corpus linguistics program, turned 20 this year quite a feat for software from an independent developer. I have an OSX system so I don’t use WordSmith (though it can be run using Wine and/or virtualization) and also because it is a paid program – always an issue for us poor language teachers. However with the great support and new features on offer the fee seems more and more tempting. Mike Scott kindly answered some questions.

1. Who are you?
A language teacher whose hobby turned into a new career, software development for corpus linguistics. Lucky to get into Corpus Linguistics early on (1980s) and before that lucky to get into EAP early on (in the 1970s). Basically, lucky!

2. What do you think is the most useful feature in WordSmith Tools for language teachers?
WordSmith is used by loads of different types of researchers, many of them not in language teaching: literature, politics, history, medicine, law, sociology. Not many language students use it because they can get free tools elsewhere and many just use Google however much we might wish otherwise. Language teachers probably find the Concord tool and its collocates feature the most useful. 

3. Of the new features in the latest Wordsmith Tools which are you most excited about and why?
I put in new features as I think of them or as people request them. I am usually most excited by the one I’m currently working on because then I’m in the process of struggling to get it working and get it designed elegantly if I can. One I tweeted about recently was video concordancing. I think it will be great when we can routinely concordance enhanced corpora with sound and images as well as words! 

4. How do you see the current corpus linguistic software landscape?
Very much in its infancy. Computer software is only about as old as I am (born soon after WWII). Most other fields of human interest are as old as the hills. We are still feeling our way in a dark cavern full of interesting veins to explore, with only the weakest of illumination. Fun!

Many thanks to Mike for taking the time to respond and to you for reading.

Coming up in BYU-COCA, mini-interview with Prof. Mark Davies

I had the great pleasure to be able to put 4 questions to Professor Mark Davies about the BYU corpora tools and the upcoming changes (http://corpus.byu.edu/upcoming.asp).

1. Would you share what you think are interesting site user statistics?

There’s some good data at http://corpus.byu.edu/users.asp; let me know if you have questions about any of that.

2. What is the motivation behind the upcoming user interface changes?

The main thing is to have an interface that works well on laptops/desktops, as well as tablets, as well as mobile devices (cell phones, etc). More and more people are connecting to websites that work well as they are on-the-go with mobile devices, and the current corpus interface doesn’t work well for that.

3. Any chance of screenshot previews of the upcoming user interface?

Please see attached. As you can see, each of the four main “pages” — search, results, KWIC, and help — are in their own “page”, which takes up the whole screen. Users click on the tabs at the top of the page to move between these (just as they would click on the different “frames” in the existing interface). But because each “page” takes up the entire page, it will still work fine with cell phones, for example (where frames don’t work well at all).

The other cool thing in the new interface is the ability to create and use “virtual corpora” (see http://corpus.byu.edu/wikipedia.asp#tutorials for their implementation in Wikipedia corpus, using the current interface).

newBYUinterface

4. One tweeter (@cainesap) was wondering in what register would cat pictures go in the web genre corpus?

🙂 🙂 Good question. See the core.png file attached 🙂

core

The first screenshot indicates the new interface looks much cleaner and easier to use from mobiles devices and as a bonus my ebook – Quick Cups of COCA won’t be needing too much change for the new edition : )

Thanks to Professor Davies for taking time to answer this mini-interview and to you for reading.

Bonus Questions!

5. Do the search results screens stay the same as now?

Pretty similar; yes.

6. Still a mystery where cat pics and graphical memes, animated gifs go? : )​

This and many other equally profound questions can be answered with the new corpus :-).