Offline (doku) wiki writing

Here are some screenshots of my next little experiment using PirateBox:


This time with an another program (Server for PHP) that serves up a wiki (DokuWiki).

The main task has been described in a previous post.

I plan to also use the opportunity of the students getting to know the DokuWiki interface to practice some prepositions of place such as shown in the following screenshot. i.e. on the top right, next to, below:


If there is any interest in detailing how to get this set up on your android phone do leave a comment.

Thanks to Dan for helping me test the set up and thanks to you for reading.


Teaching writing with the aid of COCA – guest post by Monika Sobejko

I am very pleased that Monika Sobjeko agreed to share some of her experiences of using corpora in class. If you have used corpora in your teaching and would like to write about it get in touch or send me a link to a post you have written or will write. And don’t forget the Google+ group (link in menu above) to link up with others interested in the language teaching and learning aspects of corpora. Over to you Monika.
I wish to begin with a word of warning: COCA is a highly addictive tool. I’ve spent many happy hours, using it both in and out of the classroom. I think it’s been a good choice, though there are some limitations, of which I’ll say a few words later.  COCA is freely available and it’s got a user-friendly interface (with lots of help menus whenever and wherever you need one). It’s also linked to related corpora, including the British National Corpus (BNC), and other resources such as WordAndPhrase.

Initially, I explored it mostly for fun, but I quickly realized that it can considerably speed up the process of preparing exercises and tests for my students. It offered plenty of authentic examples of lexical items and grammatical structures – COCA is huge (currently, 450 million words). I only had to sift through concordance lines, eliminating (or slightly adapting) those that would be too difficult for a particular group of students.

Still, I was somewhat reluctant to try any ‘hands-on’ activities with my students, using COCA directly in class. Our syllabi simply do not allow us any leeway, so to speak – no fooling around and wasting our students’ time with any ‘experimental tools’. However, I was teaching an academic writing class, and I thought that it could be a valuable tool for my students – side by side with dictionaries. After all, I’d been using COCA myself to confirm my poor, non-native speaker intuitions about language… If I found it valuable, so could they.

I also did a quick literature review and found some support in Ken Hyland’s positive approach to the use of corpora in the writing classroom. He claims that “the use of corpora and concordancing offers one of the most exciting applications of new technologies to the writing classroom” (Hyland, 2010: 167), and – now, having used it myself  with an academic writing class – I couldn’t agree more.

I was going to use the corpus as “a reference tool” (Hyland, 2010: 170) and was hoping it could be more or less seamlessly integrated into what we were doing in class. Ana Frankenberg-Garcia (2012, pp.41-42) describes a similar approach – she even claims that there is no need to formally train students how to use a corpus. Speaking of integration, you can find very interesting practical ideas about integrating corpora into production activities (writing and speaking) in this post by eflnotes.

Initially, I showed students how to do basic, most useful searches. While writing collaboratively or individually, they were often hesitant about using a particular word or phrase or wanted an alternative to what they already knew. At first, I was doing most of the searches for them, but soon they started performing their own – with or without my help. All we needed was a computer with internet access. They were learning a new skill ‘on the fly’ – exactly when they needed it and as much as they needed in a particular moment.

Basically, four types of searches were most useful, or most often performed by my students: 1) frequency search across different registers; 2) collocations search; 3)synonyms search; 4) word comparison search. I will give some examples of searches 1) and 4) done  by my students.

Frequency searches

Frequency searches across different registers of COCA were particularly useful when students wanted to use a word, but were not sure whether it is ‘formal enough’ for the academic register. Here’s an example of a search for the phrasal verb “boil down”. The student who was doing the search wasn’t sure whether or not he could use the verb in question – he’d been told in the past that in a more formal style, the use of phrasal verbs should be avoided. The settings for the search looked like this:

boil down

A quick search revealed that  “boil down” does occur in the academic register, though not very frequently (138 tokens only, with the frequency of 1.52 per million words), so far less frequently than in other registers, as you can see here:


However, while interpreting this, I think we must remember that, as Hunston puts it, “a corpus will not give information about whether something is possible or not, only whether it is frequent or not” (2010: 22). Ultimately, we have to rely on native speaker intuition to decide whether something is acceptable English or not. Still, I would argue that a lot of helpful information can be collected from frequency searches to help student writers make well-informed choices.

The search for synonyms was a life-saver sometimes – but I’m really not sure whether  a thesaurus wouldn’t be enough for those particular searches. Often, however, they were then followed by other queries – when a student needed to look at more concordance lines to get a better ‘feel’ for the newly discovered synonym, or to better understand the differences between two synonyms. Do look here at eflnotes for an excellent example of such a life-saving search for a synonym.

Word comparisons

A very interesting option offered by  COCA are word comparison searches. Below are the settings for such a word  comparison search – between two noun + preposition combinations: “change of” and “change in” as well as the results of that search.




On the basis of this information, my students concluded that “change of” meant that one thing was substituted for another, and “change in” implied a difference occurring in something, and hence – it was better to write ‘a change in temperature’ rather than ‘a change of temperature’. No dictionary could help us with that problem.

Student thoughts

Finally, I’ll just give voice to my students – most of those who responded to a short survey at the end of the course found the corpus useful (9 out of 12 students), and only one – not useful. And, surprisingly, most of them (eight students) admitted to using COCA both in and out of class. Many commented on the use of COCA in a positive way. Were they just being nice to the teacher while filling in the survey? I wonder.

Here’s a sample of their comments:

(…) I suggest organizing two or even three lessons only for learning how to exactly use COCA

It seems to be a great and a very helpful tool in writing articles. I have to admit that sometimes I had  got problems with using all its applications (…)

(…) on the plus side I’d mention the methods and tools used during the course. Especially original was the usage of the Corpus of American English, a tool I have not been aware of before attending the course (…)

an interesting tool, but you need to have effective  methods of working with it, so you must have some experience. I also think that the database of discipline-specific texts (for example, physics) is not developed well enough to reliably show how some rare words are used

The last comment reflects my own experience of using COCA – namely, it is a general corpus. If your students are interested in a specific field or in writing specific types of texts (genres), building a small, specialist corpus might actually be a better option.

Thanks for reading.


Frankenberg-Garcia, A. (2012). Integrating corpora with everyday language teaching. In: Thomas, J. and Boulton, A. (Eds.) Input, Process and Product: developments in teaching and language corpora. Brno: Masaryk University Press. 33-50. Retrieved from

Hunston, S. (2010). Corpora in Applied Linguistics. (7th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hyland, K. (2010). Second Language Writing. (8th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Monika is a graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland where she teaches EFL and ESP to students of archaeology and computer science. She also teaches an academic writing course to graduate students of the university. Her main interests include exploring effective ways to teach writing in a foreign language and using language corpora in EFL. She tweets @SobejM.

No time for corpora? No worries!

For the majority of the ELT world coursebooks and syllabi dominate, consequently teachers have little time for anything unrelated to what they teach from a book and from their set syllabus. This is arguably one of the reasons for the low take up of corpus based teaching.

Frankenberg-Garcia (2012) helpfully outlines several ways teachers can easily integrate corpus information into the classroom without having to outlay much time investment (she does though assume that the teacher knows about corpora, can access them easily and knows the principles of corpus queries, Frankenberg-Garcia, 2012, p.35).

She divides approaches based on production vs reception activities and whole-class vs individual activities.

I have written about reception (e.g. Just the word and TOEIC), whole-class (e.g. general English lexis and DIY corpus) and individual activities (e.g. GloWbE and will suit you; do also see a recent post by Chia Suan Chong/@chiasuan on encouraging learner autonomy via corpora), what caught my attention was the description of the use of corpora in production activities.

Note: I was initially alerted to the Frankenberg-Garcia paper by Wilson (2013), another recommended read for corpora based teaching.

Frankenberg-Garcia gives the example of using collocations of the word beach as a warm-up to speaking or writing about beach holidays.

Looking at Unit 1 Careers in the Cambridge Target Score book (Talcott & Tullis, 2007), gives us the following for career: wordandphraseinfo-career-collocates (click on image for larger resolution)

From the collocates (circled in red above) we can compile say the following list:

  • professional career, successful career
  • career choice, career path
  • begin career, build career

and ask students to use the list to speak say about their current career path, if they know what professional career they want to follow, if so do they know how to build their career and so on. You could give fast finishers the list of synonyms:

  • business
  • profession
  • occupation
  • livelihood
  • calling
  • vocation

and ask them how they would use these when talking about careers.

More interestingly she describes using concordances for the bus that are given to students before they write about something happening on a bus. As the screenshot shows she also highlighted some potentially useful phrases with the bus: the bus concordances (Frankenberg-Garcia, 2012, p.40)

Adapting this for the TOEIC we can use the keyword contract negotiation(s) as appears in Unit 1 Exercise 1 page 9. An extension to this exercise would ask students to write a short news report of the contract negotiation using the picture from the exercise as a prompt: contract-negotiation

(Talcott & Tullis, 2007, p.9)

COCA tells us contract negotiation(s) is most frequent in the news register which can guide us in selecting what examples to use. gives concordances to use to help students before the writing task (note some sentences are adapted and not exact example given by

  1. They were participating  as  mediators  in  contract negotiations and monitoring  growers’ compliance with labor contracts.
  2. This is specifically  for  contract negotiations and  recruitment.
  3. More than  two  weeks  of  contract negotiations between Air Canada and its pilots broke off this Friday.
  4. The  contract negotiations had   been   confidential.
  5. Trouble has arisen  over  his  fierce  contract negotiations with the management.
  6. They averted a strike and completed the union’s  contract negotiations with the three major North American car makers.
  7. The strike began last October after 10  months  of  stalled  contract negotiations.
  8. During  contract negotiations a few years later, resentment ran high .
  9. Randy  Mueller  handled  contract negotiations and   made   all   personnel  decisions.
  10. They attempted to force a new round of contract negotiations.

Students can be asked to highlight words related to contract negotiations e.g. mediators in example 1 above. They can then proceed to the writing exercise.

It is worth looking up Frankenberg-Garcia in full as she makes a great case for teachers to integrate corpora into the classroom. Thanks for reading.


Frankenberg-Garcia, A. (2012). Integrating corpora with everyday language teaching. In: Thomas, J. and Boulton, A. (Eds.) Input, Process and Product: developments in teaching and language corpora. Brno: Masaryk University Press. 33-50. Retrieved from

Talcott, C. & Tullis, G. (2007). Target Score: A communicative course for TOEIC Test preparation. (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, J. (2013). Technology, pedagogy and promotion: How can we make the most of corpora and Data-Driven Learning (DDL) in language learning and teaching? Higher Education Academy research report (July 2013). Retrieved from

The thermodynamics of glittens, mini-narrow reading and collaborative writing

The ever resourceful Rachael Roberts/@teflerinha recent post on collaborative writing got me thinking about the idea generation phase of doing such writing. Storch (2005) found that most of the time was spent in this phase of the process by participants in their small study. As time is always tight, a way to short-circuit this so students can get to the actual writing is desirable. Krashen (2004) argues that using texts which are related is an efficient reading method.

So why not employ a mini-narrow reading where you have a small number of related text that students would read. Their task is to make notes on their text, exchange the info they have then write a paragraph together describing what they had read and the relationship between the texts.

This offers a way to bypass the long idea generation phase. I tried this recently using these two texts – Science proves that you should wear glittens; Branching in biology animation.

The resulting engagement does of course depend on the texts one chooses. In this case I can confidently say that the students were into the task. I would have liked more time to explore their thoughts more directly though.

You can see some of the development in the written work in the following video:

Thanks for reading and if you have any collaborative writing tips let me (or Rachael) know.


Krashen, S. (2004). The Case for Narrow Reading. Language Magazine 3(5):17-19. Retrieved from

Storch, N. (2005). Collaborative writing: Product, process, and students’ reflections. Journal of Second Language Writing, 14(3), 153-173.

Contemporary process; even French students not into wine-making

I had been struggling to find an interesting and modern example to use to demonstrate the passive voice in writing about processes. Previously I had used a ‘how to make an X-wing fighter from two Paris metro tickets’ which  turned out marginally better than using wine-making as the process!

So I was glad to see a tweet (hat tip @chadsansing) which led me to an article on a project that turned a set of library steps into a giant game. And as a bonus the text accompanying the video used the passive voice. Authentic, interesting text, not made-up, stiff, out of date prose!

Lesson idea:

There are a number of great images to lead-in at Photos by Michael Newman and Photos by Kennedy Library.

For example using this image:
Taking a turn

one could start by asking – What do you think is happening here? This would then lead onto eliciting various vocabulary needed for the writing task – stairs, tin cans, (tennis) ball, balloons, game, etc.

Before, during  and after photos could then be used to encourage thinking about the procedure which goes from an empty staircase to a game via electronics and collaborative work.

This video of the event could be shown next:

Students would be told to write up a report of the event as if they were a journalist for a newspaper.

Finally a gap fill could be given of an actual write-up:

Four flights of seventy-two stairs ____  _______ into a giant game board using 1,200 feet of wire and 48 Internet-connected tin cans _______ with green and gold helium balloons at DIY: Physical Computing at Play. These were our targets.

The customized game ____   _______ after we invited designers and web developers Michael J. Newman and Scott Hutchinson to Kennedy Library at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, to present at Science Café, an ongoing community series. They made a couple of drives up from L.A. to find inspiration and check out our Brutalist building. The two saw our dramatic stretch of concrete stairs and knew they’d found their game board.

At the event, participants built and tested simple circuits then rigged our staircase using the wire, cans and balloons. Then we aimed and threw tennis balls down the stairs, hoping to knock over the cans, which acted as live switches on foil tape.

Cans _____   _______ to a breakout box by 25’ wires, and a live site updated the score whenever a can from either the green or gold team ____  _____  ____. Working with the library’s IT group, the site ___   ______ on digital displays throughout the building as well as on participants’ mobile devices. Cal Poly linked to the scoring site from the university’s home page.

Use these words: to be (x5), transform, decorate, conceive, attach, knock over, share

As an additional activity one could use the following interview as a listening quiz: