Tag Archives: activities

Optical Illusions

optical illusion

We’ve all seen optical illusions before.  Many of them, like the Ames Room above, take advantage of the flattening effect of the still camera, which only captures images from a single perspective.  But part of the fun is moving around to a different vantage point, which reveals how the eye is tricked.

Brusspup is an artist who has a YouTube channel that reveals optical illusions that he creates.  These videos offer the best of both worlds because the viewer can see both the illusion and how the trick is achieved.  Some examples are below.

How can these be used in the classroom?  Optical illusions are almost universally engaging.  Beginning with a still image of the illusion (or by pausing the video at that point,) students could be challenged to express how the illusion is created.  The class could then watch the video to see the solution.  This could be a fun and challenging way for students to formulate hypotheses and think critically.

Alternatively, students could be directed to the YouTube channel and asked to find their favorite illusion.  They could then be assigned the task of describing the illusion (both the effect and how it was achieved) in a presentation or in writing.  Depending on the level of the students, breaking down the task into step by step pieces would also be a good test of their English.

There are lots of other ways to use these videos.  Whether they are incorporated into a classroom activity or just viewed as an informal warm-up activity, they are sure to get your students talking.

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Feeding the Extracurricular

facebook cupcakes

I’m a big proponent of extracurricular activities, particularly in an intensive ESL program.  Of course, the curriculum must be good — that’s a given — but the extra curricular activities play an extremely important role in students’ learning by immersing students in English through trips, activities, and connections to other speakers of English.

Like many intensive ESL programs, we offer a wide range of activities to students: field trips, conversation partners, movies, lectures, and more.  We have also started a Facebook page as a way to publicize our activities and to build community around these activities.  We have also embraced an online course management system (CMS) which we use to interact with and disseminate curricular information to students.  But, is there a way to integrate the two?

There is.  I have recently created a widget for our CMS that instructors can add to their course pages in order to put extracurricular info in front of students on a regular basis.  To do this, I took the feed from our Facebook page (originally I planned to use the RSS feed, but the atom feed displayed better on our pages) and fed it into feed2js.org to get javascript that I could configure to display the most recent items posted to our Facebook page.  (Feed2js also allows various combinations of colors, fonts and sizes via cascading style sheets, but unfortunately CSS are not compatible with our particular CMS.)

The result is a list of 5  extracurricular (or other) announcements and reminders that students can click on to see more information on our Facebook page.  As a bonus, the Facebook RSS feed only includes items posted by our page administrators.  So, even if students post messages on our wall, which we encourage, they will not be able to send messages out to all of our course pages.  And because our Facebook page is public, students don’t need to be logged in to Facebook to read these messages.

Does it work?  We’re still rolling it out, so it’s too early to call it a success.  But I think integrating our Facebook page into our course management system makes a lot of sense because it multiplies the usefulness and reach of our online presence.

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Intelligent ESL Materials – WERTi

The WERTi System.  Click to try it!

The WERTi System. Click to try it!

Many ESL professionals are familiar with the acronym CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning), but an interesting off-shoot is ICALL (Intelligent CALL). One of my favorite examples is the WERTi system, developed by Detmar Meurers while he was at Ohio State. (To try it, log in as “anonymous” and leave the password field blank.)

This system uses XML to create three activities based on Reuters news articles: Color, Click, and Fill-in-the-blanks. The first activity makes targeted words blue, raising the student’s awareness of the targeted structure. The second makes every word clickable. When the user clicks on a target word, it turns green; mistakes turn red. The third replaces every target word with a blank that students can complete. Correct responses are again green, errors red. If users give up and ask the computer to fill in the blank, the answer is blue. Originally based around Prepositions, I suggested to Detmar that articles might also be worth practicing, so Determiners were added (more on that in a minute).

The greatest thing about this system is that the computer is exploited to create the activities, the topics of which are selected by the student. And the number of activities is virtually unlimited.

The downside is that computers are not truly “intelligent.” Consequently, a few mistakes are made. Each page is marked up in XML using the Penn Tagset. But if a word is misidentified, this will error be reflected in the activity.

Incidentally, if you want to “hack” they system to try different grammatical features, you can add the tag from the Penn Tagset to the URL. So, to change an activity from determiners to superlative adjectives, change “pos_target=DT” to “pos_target=JJS” and voila!

Some features in the tagset are probably too uncommon to be worth including; Others may not be easy to practice using these activities. But, the idea that computers can generate activities from any page on the internet is really appealing to me.

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