Tag Archives: learner

How Do You Spell Success?

Statue of Rocky in Philadelphia, his arms raised in triumph.

To find the prescriptive answer to this question, look in a dictionary.  To find the descriptive answer to this question, look in a corpus.

In ESL Programs at Ohio State, I have been working towards building a couple of corpora of learner language not only for our own analysis, but also for researchers around the world to access.  Our plan is to include the English placement compositions that all international students’ write when the arrive on campus in the first corpus and the Intensive ESL Program (IEP) students’ placement and end-of-term compositions in the second.  Because almost all of these compositions are now written on computers instead of paper, it is relatively easy to take the next step and format them for analysis by corpus tools.

Both corpora should be interesting.  The former could grow by more than a thousand compositions per year as international students are admitted to Ohio State in ever increasing numbers.  Because these students have met the English proficiency requirements to be admitted, their level of proficiency is relatively high.  The latter will include fewer students, but will include longitudinal data because each student will write multiple compositions as they progress through the program.

As I was scoring some of the recent end-of-semester IEP compositions, and encountering the usual and frequent errors in our lowest-level students’ writing, I began thinking about how our students’ creative spelling would affect, and possibly inhibit, searches of this corpus.  For example, how can you search for past tense verbs when so many of them are misspelled?  Then it occurred to me that these misspellings could themselves be quite interesting.  So, to answer the question posed in the title of this post, here are some of the ways our students spell success (and its cognates), listed in order of frequency:

successful, success, succeed, sucessful, successfull, succesful, secessful, succes, succed, sucssed, successfully, succeful, seccsessful, suessful, suecess, suceessful, succsful, succsess, successul, successufl, successfufl, successeful, succeshul, succefull, succeess, succees, succeeded, succeccful, secuessful, secssed, seccssful, seccessful, scuccess, sccesful.

We are currently working on securing IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval for this project, after which we will be able to share the data and results more publicly.  As part of our IRB application, we are alpha testing our procedures and this question about the spelling of success became an interesting test case.  To create this list, I took a set of student compositions and fed them through AntConc, a free concordancer written by Laurence Anthony.  In addition to the frequency of words, lots of other interesting queries are possible with this application and others.

All of the compositions will be coded with the demographic information we have for each student (age, gender, country of origin, first language, major or degree program) as well as information about each composition (score, topic, date).  By sorting for whatever factor is interesting, we’ll be able to make any comparison we like.  Want to see what the compositions above and below a certain score look like?  No problem.  Want to see how Chinese speakers compare to Arabic speakers?  Male to female?  Grad to undergrad?  We will be able to do it.

We’re looking forward to bringing this Big Data approach to our programs.  Not only will this data inform our curriculum, but it will also become a useful resource for researchers across our campus and around the world.

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Processing Data Visualizations

closeup of CPU chip

I’ve seen a lot of interesting data visualizations lately but have struggled to figure out how to visualize my own data.  It seems like there is a vast chasm between creating pie charts in Excel and Hans Rosling’s TED Talks.  The I stumbled upon Processing.

Processing was used to create the genetics simulation I described in an earlier post.  After looking into it some more, I learned that Processing was developed out of a project at MIT’s Media Lab.  It is an object-oriented programming language conceived as a way to sketch out images, animations and interactions with the user.

Examples of of Processing projects include everything from a New York Times data visualization of how articles move through the internet and visually representing data in an annual report to more esoteric and artistic works.

To get started, download the application at http://processing.org and go through some of the tutorials on the site.  There are lots of examples included with the download so you can also open them up and start tweaking and hacking them, if that’s your preferred method of learning.  Once your code is complete, or after you’ve made a minor tweak, click on the play button to open a new window and see it looks.  Once you’ve completed your project, you can export it as an applet, which can be uploaded to a web server, or as an executable file for a Mac, Windows, or Linux computer.

I’ve been through the first half-dozen tutorials and am to the point of making lines and circles dance around.  I can even make the colors and sizes vary based on mouse position.  I have also opened up some of the more advanced examples and started picking away at them to see what I can understand and what I still need to learn more about.  Once I can import data from an external source, it will be really exciting to see the different ways to represent it.

I haven’t had a foreign language learning experience in a while.  I am learning (and re-learning) many valuable lessons as I try to express myself in this new language.  Not surprisingly, I’m finding that I need a balance between instruction (going through the tutorials) and practice / play (experimenting with the code I’m writing or hacking together).  I’m also a bit frustrated by my progress because I can see what can be done by fluent speakers (see examples, above) but am stuck making short, choppy utterances (see my circles and lines, which really aren’t worth sharing.)  I plan to both work my way through the basics (L+1) as well as dabble with some more advanced projects (L+10) to see if I can pull them off.  If not, I’ll know what to learn next.

Fortunately, I have one or two friends who are also learning Processing at the same time.  They are more advanced than me (in programming languages, but I hold the advantage in human languages), but it has been helpful and fun to bounce examples and ideas off of one another.  We plan to begin a wiki to document our progress and questions as they arise — a little like a students notebook where vocabulary and idioms are jotted down so they can be reviewed later.

Watch for more updates as projects get pulled together as well as notes on other ways to visualized data in the near future.

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Building Blocks 2.0

pile of cell phones

If I told you we were going to play a game by stacking a bunch of smart phones and moving them around, you might get a picture in your head like the one above.  But there is actually a simpler, more fun way to go about this.

Last weekend, I discovered Scrabble Flash in the toy aisle of my local grocery store :

Each of the five game pieces is a small, location-aware blockwith a screen that displays a letter.  By rearranging the blocks, words are formed.  The blocks are all aware of each other, so they can tell you when you have them arranged to spell a word.   Several different games can be played with this remarkable little interface.  Apparently, Scrabble Flash was released in time for Christmas last year, but I didn’t notice it until now.  For about $30, I may have to pick this up for myself.

When I first saw Scrabble Flash, I thought it might be a commercial manifestation of Siftables, a similar interface designed by an MIT student that I wrote about a couple of years ago after seeing this TED talk.  It turns out that Siftables are now Sifteo:

Both Scrabble Flash and Sifteo are block-like computers that are aware of the others in their set.  Scrabble Flash is not as robust with only three games available on the monochrome display.  But it is available now and the price is reasonable.  Sifteo blocks are full-color screens that are motion sensitive and connect to a computer wirelessly, which means more games can be downloaded as they are developed.  But they won’t be available until later this year and I suspect the price will be higher than Scrabble Flash.

Is this the future of language games?  That would be a pretty bold prediction.  But clearly as we all become more accustomed to using apps on our smartphones, these kinds of “toys” will begin to feel like a very familiar technology.  Scrabble Flash is an affordable entry point, but I’m excited that Sifteo is actively seeking developers to create more games.  They already have several learning games but there is potential for many more.

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Visual Thesaurus

visual thesaurus word cloud

As a visual language learner myself, I really like the way Visual Thesaurus.com works.  Enter a word and synonyms, antonyms, and other related words appear on spokes around a hub.  Lines show relationships between the words (red dotted lines indicate antonyms, gray dotted lines indicate when a word is an attribute of another, is similar to another, is a type of another word, etc.) and definitions, color coded according to part-of-speech, fill a column to the right.

Thesauruses are very useful tools, but displaying results visually makes it even more so.  Other online thesauruses like Thesaurus.com organize search results in a more conventional way that is reminiscent of paper-bound versions: Columns of words are grouped by part-of-speech and meaning.  Why not display these relationships in a way that makes their relationship intuitive and more immediately obvious?  Thesaurus.com is also cluttered with lots of banner advertising and, interestingly, a link to Visual Thesaurus.com at the bottom.

In fact, I had thought I had seen visual thesaurus-style search results somewhere else on Google, but all I’ve been able to find is a now-defunct Google module that seems to have been the basis for Visual Thesaurus.com.  Surely other applications could also benefit from a similarly visual approach, but I don’t know of many.

Visual Thesaurus.com is not free, but keep reading.  A subscription to the online edition is available for $2.95 per month or $19.95 per year while a desktop version is available for $39.95.  I’m not sure I use a thesaurus often enough to justify the expense, though it would be a nice resource to make available to students (group and institutional subscriptions are also available).

In my experience, after the three free searches non-subscribers are allowed, I can close the window and get three more free searches immediately.  Aren’t you glad you kept reading?  Although opening and reopening the search window is inconvenient, it seems to have slaked my appetite for synonyms so far.  You’ll have to decide whether you want to pay for greater convenience, but Visual Thesaurus.com is a useful tool either way.

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Civics Games

judge's gavel

I was tipped off to iCivics games a few days ago and have finally had a chance to check them out.  iCivics is “a web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy.”  There are several games on this site dealing with topics from Supreme Court decisions to immigration to being president for a term.

Each game has lots of information packed into it.  For example, in Argument Wars, in which famous Supreme Court decision are re-argued, players must read the case and then choose the appropriate supporting evidence for their side.  When the player chooses the evidence, the judge rules whether the argument is legally sound.  When the computer opponent submits evidence, the player can object to unsound arguments.  This requires not only more reading than your typical videogame, but a lot of critical thinking.  In fact, the level of reading required in these games would make it difficult for intermediate ESL students to play them alone.  The game does a good job of making the process a fun game by which students can learn more about the Supreme Court.

Will students put down their favorite commercial video games to pick these games up?  Probably not.  But highly motivated students (and citizens) might use them to learn more about the civics lessons they are learning (or learned long ago) in school.  Teachers could use these games with a whole class or have students use them individually or in pairs and report back in presentations, essays, or small group discussions.  More advanced students could look at these games critically and try to determine where they are accurate, where they are inaccurate, and where bias may be present.  Regardless of how they are used, these interactive texts are much richer than most civics texts and can serve as a useful supplement to them.

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Game-Based Mashups

love spelled in playing cards

I love a good boardgame and I love a good mashup.  So, when I read about the Boardgame Remix Kit on GeekDad, I had to write about it.  I don’t own the kit (which comes in ebook, book, card, and app form) yet, but I did take a check out the free Valentine’s Edition download, which looks like a lot of fun.

The first game, WLTM Humpty Dumpty is a kind of madlibs game in which players create personal adds based on Trivial Pursuit cards (WLTM = Would Like To Meet).  The second turns Monopoly into a game of Divorce! in which players use their money to pay lawyers to fight over property.  (I have to admit, my first reaction to this game was that it might be about as much fun as going through a real divorce, but after reading the rules, there is some strategy involved that could be fun to play.)  The other two games are based on Scrabble and Clue.

How can these games be used in a classroom?  Like other forms of media (books, movies, music, etc.), there are several ways in which these games can be used.  Students can play them and report back on their experience.  This could be as simple as Was it fun? and How do you play? to evaluating whether the game accurately simulated real life.  For example, was Divorce! similar to a real divorce?  Why or why not?  Students could also compare the original version of the game to the mashup version.  Finally, students could use these mashups as inspiration to seek out other versions of existing board games or even to create their own.  All of these could be fun ways to practice English on Valentine’s Day.

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