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More Reaction GIFs for the ESL Classroom

tom brady no high 5

I’ve written about using reaction GIFs in the classroom before, but a few collections recently caught my eye.  A reaction GIF is a small, animated image that typically summarizes a mood or feeling more quickly or succinctly than words can.  For example, in the image above, quarterback Tom Brady unsuccessfully searches for a teammate to high five.  Many of us can probably relate to this situation; even if you’ve never been left hanging for a high five, this GIF can still be a metaphor for other times in your life in which the people surrounding you are unable or unwilling to share in your excitement.

The following links to Reddit contain a treasure trove of reaction GIFs.  Note that, like anything on the internet, some of the content may not be safe for work (NSFW).  Depending on the student population you work with, you may want to preview this material before you use any of these reaction GIFs in your classroom.  As I wrote in my previous post, these GIFs can serve as excellent starting points for student discussions, writing activities, and more.

If you could sum up your life in a GIF, what would it be? – In this Reddit forum, Redditors post their reaction GIF responses to this question.  As you click through them, you’ll notice themes of self-deprecating humor and a bit of depression becoming the common refrain.  Many of these GIFs summarize a generally frustrated attitude, which can be interesting.

GIFs as comments collection – This is a collection of comment / reaction GIFs.  Many of the posts have links to multiple GIFs.  Lots of general and generic internet forum reactions here.

Retired GIF – This is a subreddit in which Redditors post links to conversation threads in which a GIF has been posted as a response in the “most appropriate context conceivable.”  Each link will take you to the conversation including the GIF and the context in which it was used.  If you’re not familiar with how GIFs are used as part of online discussions, this will get you acquainted very quickly.

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Corpus Tools for English Teachers

typesetting letters for a printing press

I recently attended Ohio University’s annual CALL Conference where I discovered a handful of interesting corpus-based resources worth blogging about.  Most of these come from Chris DiStasio’s presentation “How Corpus-based Tools Can Benefit Your ESL Classroom” and from my subsequent exploration of them.

Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) – COCA is a huge (450 million words and counting) balanced corpus to which 20 million words have been added since 1990.  The interface takes some getting used to, but it is quite powerful.  You can search for frequency of words, frequency of collocates, structures based on part-of-speech, and much, much more.  One of the instructors in the highest level of our program asks his students to do searches based on the words in their vocabulary book.  From the collocates, they can identify the most frequent prototype strings or chunks.  These often sound far more native-like than what students (and in many cases, vocabulary textbook authors) come up with.  If you haven’t yet, take a few minutes (or hours) and explore COCA.

Word and Phrase.info – This site, which Chris shared in his presentation, at first seems to be the COCA corpus with a simplified interface.  But in addition to being a simpler way to query the COCA corpus, texts can be uploaded and analyzed based on the use of high frequency words (the 500 most frequent, the next 2500 most frequent, the least frequent, and “academic” words — a note on this last set is below) each of which is then linked to examples in the COCA corpus.  This can be a very useful tool for students who want a quick snapshot of how their writing compares to a target sample.  For example, if they aspire to be published in a given academic journal, they can upload an article (or several articles form that journal) and compare the analysis to their own writing.  As with the COCA interface, there are lots of other features that warrant further exploration.

Academic Vocabulary Lists – My curiosity about what Word and Phrase.info defined as an “academic” word led me to this site, which describes how the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) was created.  Like the Academic Word List (AWL) that April Coxhead developed in 2000, the AVL is a corpus-based list of vocabulary words that appear with higher frequency in academic texts.  In both cases, high frequency words are first omitted leaving only academic words.  But whereas Coxhead built her own 3.5 million-word academic corpus an omitted the General Service List (GSL), a list that has been around since 1953, the AVL is based entirely on the 120 million-word academic portion of the COCA corpus.  Its creators claim better coverage of the COCA academic corpus (14%) compared to the AWL (7.2%).  And although I find this logic a bit circuitous (How could a list based on a given corpus not cover that corpus better than a list that is based on a different corpus?) the development of a more recent (2013) list of academic vocabulary is intriguing.

Just The Word.com – This is another resource described by Chris in his presentation.  This website, based on the 80 million-word British National Corpus (BNC), offers an even simpler, Google-inspired interface.  The user enters a word or phrase in the search box and clicks on one of three buttons: Combinations, which provides collocates; Alternatives from Thesaurus, which links to the phrase with one or more words replaced with synonyms to show the strength of the links between words in the original phrase; and Alternatives from Learner Errors, which purports to link to actual user errors, but I wasn’t able to see much difference between this and Alternatives from Thesaurus.  Although simpler, this tool took me a few tries to get the hang of.  For example, Alternatives from Thesaurus only works with phrases, which I did not immediately realize.  But aside from this initial learning curve, this tool is a very straightforward way for students to easily search for collocates and to learn more about the nativeness of their word choices.  And, like Word and Phrase.info, search results are linked to the corpus for quick and easy access to multiple authentic examples.

If you use these tools, use them in ways other than I’ve described, or know of others, let me know in the Comments.

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Know Your Meme

Have you ever encountered an internet meme like Success Kid, above?  Memes like these are spreading across the interwebs, fueled by websites where you can make variations of them in seconds.

If you come across many variants of the same meme, you can start to tease out some of the social rules that have evolved to govern their creation.  Success Kid, for example, is usually used to celebrate the mudane successes in life.

You can view many, many more examples at quickmeme.com, memegenerator.net, any of the other ubiquitous meme generating websites, or on a Google image search.  Before you click on these links, you should know that some of the content way contain profanity or otherwise be NSFW (not safe for work.)

So, you can get a read on popular memes, and even contribute to them by creating your own.  But, do you know that Success Kid is based on a picture of a boy named Sammy that was uploaded to Flickr in 2007?  No?  Maybe you don’t really know your meme after all.  That’s where KnowYourMeme.com can help.

Taking Success Kid as an example again, Know Your Meme traces the origin of the meme through several twists and turns (as I Hate Sandcastles, for example) before arriving at what we now know as Success Kid.  This website is usually where I start when I first notice a new meme flashing across my screens.  (And, when you Google any meme, the link to KnowYourMeme is typically right near the top of the results.)

Another, more current example is the Harlem Shake, which is hard to avoid on Facebook and other social media as your alma mater, favorite sports teams, and other random groups of people each create their own version.

How can this website be useful to ESL students?  Given the pace at which these memes evolve, learning about their background and meaning could help non-native students better understand and interact with their peers who use memes and reaction GIFs as conversational shorthand in social media.

A teacher could also have her students put their anthropologist hats on and track the meaning and development of their own favorite memes.  They could then compare their conclusions to the “expert” information in KnowYourMeme to see how much they were able to deduce on their own.

Either way, this website is an excellent resource that provides students and teachers with well documented information on emerging trends in popular culture.

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Writing MOOC

Recently, the Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies program in the Department of English at Ohio State was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a “Writing II: Rhetorical Composition” MOOC.  Read more details on the OSU Department of English website.

What’s a MOOC? MOOC stands for Massively Open Online Course. So, imagine an online course that is open and (typically) free to anyone who wants to register. In essence, MOOCs bring information technology’s promise of exponential scalability to education.  And, obviously, there are some administrative challenges inherent to this kind of teaching.  The recent spectacular failure of the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” brought MOOCs attention from mainstream media, in part because the course topic made the failure irresistibly ironic.

Can anything be taught in an online classroom with tens of thousands of students?  Apparently, yes.  I have friends who have learned programming languages this way.  Of course, programming languages are much simpler and easy to test (Does your program do this?  Good!  You pass the quiz!) than most human languages and particularly the advanced rhetoric of a language.

MOOCs frequently crowdsource some of the evaluation of student assignments — think peer editing — which may work well for advanced writing.  But, students who enroll with the expectation that they will receive 1/20th of the instructors attention, which they might receive in a traditional classroom, might be surprised by some of these techniques.

This is truly the cutting edge / Wild West of online learning.  The good news is, if you’re interested in learning more, you (and all of your friends) can sign up for the course yourself via Coursera, a “social entrepreneurship company” that has partnered with OSU and many other universities to offer MOOCs.

So, maybe the question is, can everything be taught with MOOCs?  It’s too early to answer that question.  But lots of people are asking it.

Will MOOCs eventually replace traditional brick-and-mortar institutions?  New technologies rarely replace old ones completely. For example, you have a television, but you probably still listen to the radio sometimes (in your car, when your iPod battery dies, say.)  But, if even moderately successful, it will be difficult for every school to compete with a free course offered by Harvard, MIT, or Stanford.  Or Ohio State.

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Communication Goes Visual

happy guy with pug

You know that feeling that you can’t put into words?  Like when your mind reels with an overwhelming realization.  Or when you’re too tired to do anything except stare blankly.  These sentiments, and thousands of others, are being expressed across various social media a GIF.

What was once just a snappy way to let visitors know your newfangled website was still under construction, the GIF has been embraced for its ability to compress not just a single image into a manageable file size, but also several frames of animation.  Though these images are not high quality, they look fine online and load relatively quickly due to their small size.

These simple animations can be created using desktop software such as Photoshop or in any number of newer online services.  (Google it.)  So now, when you’re looking for the perfect way to express something like the feeling you get when you do something clever but no one is around to notice, you can do it with one perfectly succinct animated image.

How do these GIFs relate to ESL learners and ESL teaching?  Well, if your students are venturing out into the wilderness that is the Internet, they are likely already encountering this form of communication.  Do they understand it?  Many of these animated images express universal sentiments such as surprise / exasperation, not wanting to hear what someone has to say, or that awkward moment when no one has anything more to say.  But, as you can see from this list alone, some of the meaning is somewhat complex and layered.  Also, many of the images are taken from popular culture which some students may not be attuned to as well as a native speaker.

But, perhaps we’re not giving our ESL learners enough credit.  They could very well be communicating with GIFs regularly because they appreciate the ease with which they can communicate complex ideas which they may not have words for in English.  Ask them.  Or ask students to describe these emotions as a classroom exercise.  You might be pleasantly surprised by what they say.

For lots more animated GIFs, visit reddit.com/r/reactiongifs.

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Choose Your Own Visualization

Like many kids who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, I discovered Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books in my school library and later at my local public library.  I read and re-read many of them and eventually owned a few of them.

For those not familiar with the genre of gamebooks, the reader reads the first couple of pages at which point she is faced with a decision.  For example, after passing through an antimatter storm, do you keep your spaceship on course or do you return to your home planet?  Depending on the choice, the reader is directed to another page where that branch of the story continues.  More choices follow every page or two and the story branches off into several directions with many possible endings.

For young readers, the challenge of finding successful endings can spur multiple readings of the story.  For young authors (I wrote a CYOA story as a writing project in highschool,) the process of creating and managing multiple story lines can be an interesting challenge.  For ESL students, both reading and writing CYOA stories can be a compelling way to practice English.

The branching structure means the story can grow exponentially.  To see just how complex these stories can quickly become, take a look at some of these visualizations of CYOA stories.

The first example, pictured above, is from seanmichaelragan.com.  This graph clearly illustrates how the stories branch and, in some cases, reattach.  Each node represents the page number of each choice.

The second example orients the graph horizontally and uses color to denote critical plot points as well as happy or tragic endings.

The third example fans the story out from the center, but includes even more information.  Happy endings, cliffhanger endings, and reader death endings are noted, but additional text pops up when you mouseover each node describing each decision.

As a fan of both Choose Your Own Adventure stories and data visualizations, I’ve really enjoyed looking through these images.  If you’re not familiar with Choose Your Own Adventure stories, I recommend to try to track a couple of them down for you and for your students.  Students could enjoy reading, writing, and analyzing these stories, which are accessible to high intermediate readers.

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Games and Simulations

screenshot from McDonald's parody online game

I had an interesting conversation with a teacher about alternatives to reading textbooks.  I suggested considering using games and simulations as interactive texts, an idea I’ve blogged about before.  To give her an idea about the possibilities out there, I shared the following resources.

https://games2teach.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/where-do-i-start/ – A good introduction to using online games including some very popular examples for comparison.

http://socialstudiescentral.com/?q=content/online-interactive-simulations – Links to lots of historical simulations.

http://gamingthepast.net/ – Blog with lots of examples and other info. (Look down the right-hand menu bar for links to simulations as well as information on creating and using simulations.)

http://seriousgames.msu.edu/games.php – Games with a serious message such as the health, environment, etc.

http://www.gamesforchange.org/play/ – Games that advocate for societal change.

http://www.icivics.org/games – Civics games exploring the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court, etc.  Some are very detailed.

http://www.mcvideogame.com/ – A game parody that is critical of McDonald’s.  (See screenshot at top.)  A very nice example of social commentary through gaming.

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