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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#TESOL2018, #IATEFL2018 corpus related talks and posters

Geez another year gone as measured by the fast approaching TESOL 2018 and IATEFL 2018 annual knees-up. Here’s a rundown of corpus related talks. Note for IATEFL2018 I also searched for vocabulary/lexis and included those that seemed interesting. FYI the website program for TESOL2018 is neat. You might consider when looking at respective programs to see if they reflect trends of topics in Applied Linguistics.

 

 

 

 

#TESOL2018 (click here to expand)

Wednesday 28 March

Student-Centered Corpora Activities for Improved Academic Writing
Jonah Moos (Saint Michael’s College)
The online tools for inquiry based learning of collocations and other vocabulary usage are free and readily accessible. While most educators are now familiar with these tools, learners need a few easily mastered skills to become lifelong learners. This session demonstrates activities to teach those skills.

Hands-On Corpus Searches: Helping Students Discover Authentic Pragmatic Routines
Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig (Indiana University), Sabrina Mossman (Indiana University), Yunwen Su (Indiana University)
This session shows teachers how to use a free online corpus to teach pragmatic routines. Participants learn how to (1) identify expressions, (2) create supported searches, and (3) develop noticing activities. Participants who want to do hands-on searches are invited to bring devices.

Empowering ELLs Through Assessing L2 Pragmatics
Aysenur Sagdic (Georgetown University)
Pragmatic competence is a challenging yet crucial ability to master for ELLs. This presentation demonstrates how one instructor uses three assessment tools and corpus to measure IEP learners’ receptive and productive pragmatic knowledge. Participants receive ready-to-implement materials to incorporate pragmatic assessment in their classroom setting.

Using Language Corpora for Acquisition of Grammatical Collocations
Christine Wingate (University of Iowa)
Why make your students memorize lists of grammatical collocations, when they can discover them for themselves using authentic material? This presentation will demonstrate a lesson that teaches students how to use the COCA database for learning grammatical collocations. The demonstration will focus on using a corpus for collocations involving gerunds.

WebSCoRE: Effective and Enjoyable for Beginner Level Remedial Grammar (POSTER)
Kiyomi Chujo (Nihon University)
A new, free, web/smartphone-based, bilingual WebSCoRE corpus tool was created for beginner level EFL students and evaluated for efficacy for improving specifically targeted grammar. Results suggest improvement in proficiency and student feedback was highly favorable.

Best Practices for Developing Academic Discourse Through Contrastive Corpus Analysis
Brad Evans (Valley High School)
This session merges research on sociolinguistics and contrastive corpus analysis to provide teachers with applications for improving students’ academic discourse. Brief video vignettes of students using the proposed strategies move past theory and illustrate how real-world applications from these fields can effectively develop learner autonomy and academic discourse.

The Grammar You Need for Academic Writing: Beginning through Advanced
Michael Berman, Henry Caballero, Eileen Cotter, (Montgomery College)
The authors of the new “Grammar You Need” series of fold-out cards, free workbooks, and just-released free mobile apps demonstrate methods of teaching core grammar structures at basic, intermediate and advanced levels. The approach is visual, corpus-based and flexible. Participants leave with practical techniques and useful materials.

Thursday 29 March

The Science and Math Academic Corpus for Kids (SMACK)
Eric Dwyer, S.J. Ehsanzadeh, (Florida International University)
The researchers collected a linguistic corpus – the SMACK – of over 8 million running words from over 150 K–12 science and mathematics textbooks. Findings of the STEM-based corpus, including word lists representative of academic language, are offered. Participants are invited to discuss in-class activities, proficiency determination, and materials development.

College at the Ready: A teacher’s perspective
Colin Ward (Lone Star College-North Harris)
Today there is a growing trend to fast track English language learners into college-level classes. In this session, participants will explore how the use of authentic and corpus-based materials in Q: Skills for Success and Elements of Success can help student meet this demand with relevant, motivating academic content.

Preparing L2 Writers for College/University Content Courses
Gena Bennett (Independent Scholar), Jan Frodesen, PhD (University of California, Santa Barbara), Diane Schmitt (Nottingham Trent University), Margi Wald (Univ California Berkley)
How can L2 writing teachers design curricula, courses, and assignments that best support multilingual students writing across and within the disciplines? The presenters discuss possibilities from a variety of perspectives, including interviews with students and faculty, corpus-based and genre models, and their own experience with materials and course design.

Vocabulary and Grammar Practice for Building Your Academic Voice
Jeanne Lambert (The New School), Randi Reppen (Northern Arizona University)
This workshop explores how systematic study of vocabulary and grammar develops students’ academic writing voices. Presenters discuss corpus-informed approaches to designing EAP curricula and the vocabulary and grammar needed for academic discourse. They also present grammatical structures for rhetorical modes. Participants leave with resources and activities.

Academic Rebels? Informality in L1 and L2 University Student Writing
Tetyana Bychkovska, Michelle Larue, Joseph Lee, James Maxwell, (Ohio University)
Based on a taxonomy of the most common informal features mentioned in style manuals, this presentation reports findings of a comparative corpus-based analysis of informal elements in L1 and L2 university student argumentative essays. Implications for L2 composition instruction are discussed.

Irregular Verbs: A Corpus Analysis of Lists From Grammar BooksSpeakers
Nicole Carrasquel, Alex Davies, (University of Central Florida), Ekaterina Goussakova (Seminole State College of Florida)
This presentation reports on a study in which frequencies of irregular verbs from 10 grammar book lists were extracted from the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Findings revealed a relatively arbitrary inclusion of such verbs on lists. An order of frequency list is shared with participants and practical implications discussed.

It, This, and That in ELs’ Academic Writing (POSTER)
Erik Larson (University of Minnesota)
This presentation will explore the use of the cohesive devices it, this, and that in academic writing by ELs and non-ELs from two online corpora. The presenter and participants will discuss ELs’ errors as well as the pedagogical implications for EL writing instructors.

Friday 30 March

AntConc: A Tool for Learner Corpus Analysis
Jose Franco (Universidad de Los Andes NURR), Julio Palma (Universidad del Zulia)
Writing error correction without analysis becomes inefficient for teachers to identify students’ general weaknesses and their causes. AntConc allows for corpus analysis by means of its interface features. Attendees will be provided with the tips to create and analyze learner written mini-corpora to categorize deficiencies and design effective correction strategies.

Using Lexical E-Tools to Teach Vocabulary the Lexical Way
Patricia Ribeiro, Wendy Wang, (Eastern Michigan University)
Teaching academic vocabulary is more than just teaching individual words. In this session, the presenters will demonstrate how to teach lexically using free corpus-based lexical e-tools to enhance students’ academic vocabulary development.

Let’s Chit Chat: Small Talk in Academic Communities
Sarah Warfield (U.S. Department of State)
In this interactive workshop, participants are introduced to corpus-based data reflecting the importance of small talk in academic communities. They engage in communicative tasks for teaching small talk strategies to L2 learners in academic language communities, including focusing on the lexico-grammatical features of small talk.

Teaching Formulaic Language with British and American English Corpus Software
Ildiko Porter-Szucs (Eastern Michigan University), Hoda Zaki (Camden County College)
ESL teachers are invited to learn how their students can become more fluent, accurate, and idiomatic speakers and writers using formulaic language with the help of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), the British National Corpus, and other web-based tools. Step-by-step handout.

Using the Corpus of Contemporary American English with Advanced-level Students
Rosario Giraldez (Alianza Cultural Uruguay Estados Unidos)
The Corpus of Contemporary American English provides an excellent tool to help advanced-level students enhance their language use in speaking and writing. The aim of this session is to show some uses of this corpus as well as to present a few ideas to incorporate it in the language class.

Facework and Negotiation of Meaning in Synchronous Transnational Telecollaboration
Begona Clavel-Arroitia, Barry Pennock-Speck, (Universitat de Valencia)
The presenters provide research data and results from a corpus of synchronous telecollaborative interactions in English and other languages between secondary school students from five European countries. They posit that a task-based approach provides for student-centred exchanges and show that this, in turn, leads to more autonomous and meaningful interactions.

How Useful Are Corpus Linguistic Tools for Learners’ Error Correction?
Natalia Dolgova (George Washington University)
This presentation explores feasibility and efficacy of using corpus linguistic tools for instructed L2 writing. Specifically, the study aimed to gain insight into learners’ corpus-assisted error correction in written production, and the results provide implications regarding error types that are most compatible with the use of corpus tools.

#IATEFL2018(click here to expand)

Tuesday 10 April

Just the word or word and phrase?
Sharon Hartle (Verona University, Italy)
Although many teachers have felt that using corpora requires specific skills, with recent technological developments this is no longer true. Nowadays, user-friendly interfaces are being developed with the precise aim of helping learners and teachers. This presentation looks at two such easily accessible tools: Just the Word and wordandphrase, and provides practical ideas for both learners and teachers.

Do some words matter more or the frequency fallacy?
Leo Selivan (Leoxicon / ETAI)
Much research on second language vocabulary acquisition has pointed out that high-frequency vocabulary should be given priority in the classroom. However, by their very nature, highly frequent words carry multiple meanings, some more common than others. This talk focuses on the importance of collocation when selecting vocabulary for teaching and discusses whether corpus frequency should always dictate the syllabus.

Discourse layering: practical activities to teach lexical chunks
Laura Laubacher (Embassy English London)
What classroom activities help learners use new vocabulary spontaneously in speaking? In this session, we will look at learner-centred, low-prep activities that help students use and acquire functional lexical chunks. We will examine our own beliefs about language learning and discover how a ‘discourse-layering’ framework could be applied to our own teaching and be adapted for use with coursebooks.

Vocabulary @ 500 to engage, enrich and empower tribal learners
Viswanath Kannepalli (National Institute of Technology, Rourkela, India)
Rural tribal children from deprived backgrounds, receiving English medium education under a unique a government sponsored scheme in India, have been the beneficiaries of an experiment to teach 500 English words through creative vocabulary-building activities. I’ll present on this successful experiment that has resulted in the development of relevant content.

Implementing a vocabulary-based strategy to promote parallel language use
Pete Westbrook (University of Copenhagen)
Increasing internationalisation has led the University of Copenhagen to adopt both Danish and English as parallel languages. This presentation covers a university project, run in conjunction with the course Medical applications of ionizing radiation, concerned with integrating vocabulary learning strategies and vocabulary testing to ensure that students learning content in English also know key technical radiation terms in Danish.

Wednesday 11 April

A corpus analysis of phrasals and modals in teacher talk
Eric Nicaise (Universite catholique de Louvain, Belgium)
This talk will present a corpus study which explores the differences in the use of phrasal verbs and modal auxiliaries as used by NS (native-speaker) and NNS (nonnative speaker, in particular French-speaking) teachers of English as a foreign language within the framework of their most common teaching functions. Implications for TEFL will also be considered.

Vocabulary lists: snog, marry, avoid?
Julie Moore (Freelance)
Standardized vocabulary lists are increasingly being used to help design ELT syllabuses and write teaching materials. Reducing the mass of possible vocabulary that learners might need to a simple list has an intuitive appeal, but what factors should we be wary of when using such lists? This session explores the usefulness and some of the pitfalls of wordlists in ELT.

Lexical sets are history: insights from vocabulary research
Tim Herdon & Andrew Dilger (Oxford University Press)
In this practical, hands-on workshop we explore recent, at times surprising, research on key aspects of vocabulary learning. Drawing on insights from How Vocabulary is Learned (Webb & Nation, OUP, 2017), we consider topics such as vocabulary size and autonomous learning strategies, and discuss how to analyze and adapt the vocabulary activities you use in your classrooms for best results.

Applying frequency, spacing and variability theories to oral skills instruction
Maria Parker (Duke University) & Carson Maynard & Brenda Imber (University of Michigan / English Language Institute)
This workshop focuses on applying three learning theories (frequency, spacing, variability) to oral skills instruction. Participants are introduced to the theories with sample materials that address voicing and lengthening in US English vowel sounds, vocabulary acquisition and conversational pragmatics. They then work in groups to either practise the activities or adapt the materials for their own settings.

Thursday 12 April

Using corpus to teach academic writing
Fatma Abdelati Elshafie Mohamed (Zayed University)
This presentation will report on a research study that aims to: categorise the types of collocational errors produced by EAP Emirati students in their writing; investigate the effect of corpus on learners’ academic writing performance; explore how to design classroom activities using concordance lines; and suggest a range of corpora that can be used to teach writing.

Get as an auxiliary in passives: a corpus-based study
Jennifer Jean Lowe (Lancaster University, UK)
Get-passives have always been problematic to teach and to learn because pedagogical materials do not provide clear definitions about their usage. Get-passives, however, can be explained clearly and learnt easily, using two categoriesthat encompass different shades of meaning, as has emerged from a recent corpus-based study. I will show the link between academic research and its practical applications.

EMI and facilitating vocabulary growth of proficient L2 users
Piet Murre (Driestar University, The Netherlands)
Explicit teaching of vocabulary to proficient L2 speakers can hardly be done efficiently, as it concerns infrequent words and sight vocabularies may vary widely. However, using EMI for general teacher education modules for C2 level student teachers of English in the Netherlands, this may present opportunities to efficiently teach emerging new vocabulary. I’ll discuss the exploratory study that offers some findings and ideas.

AWL: adventures in word land
Richard Hillman (Bell London, UK)
Engage your students’ interest with these ideas for developing their academic lexis. We will have fun ourselves during this practical workshop, exploring and evaluating five simple but innovative ideas for teaching the vocabulary all students need for IELTS, university and their advance towards Advanced and beyond. This is the Academic Word List as you’ve never seen it before!

Focusing on lexical chunks in business emails – a beneficial approach?
Rachel Lawson (SprogEU, Denmark)
This talk will share the results of my study for my master’s final project. It investigates using a lexical approach with specific focus on chunks to improve BE learners’ email writing skills. I examine learner and teacher attitudes pre- and postcourse. And through my action research, I hope to gain useful insight into the appropriateness and success of this approach.

Friday 13 April

Improving lexical difficulty in academic writing using Text Inspector
Alexander Lewko (The American University in Cairo)
Improving lexical skills for writing can pose a challenge for students. This presentation focuses on developing lexical difficulty suitable for academic writing using the website Text Inspector. Activities utilizing this website, that allow students to analyze their writing and that of their peers as well as use corpus-based vocabulary tools to improve their own lexical awareness and output, are described.

No word is an island: the importance of word partnerships
Alex Warren (National Geographic Learning)
No man is an island, and neither are words. Just like us, they form partnerships and relationships with other words, working together to form something all the more substantial and useful. Using examples from National Geographic Learning titles, this practical session will explore and demonstrate how focusing on wordpartnerships can help speed up vocabulary learning and develop greater language awareness.