I enjoy listening to podcasts when I’m at the gym, on the bus, working on a home improvement project, or otherwise have my ears free. I’ve also incorporated them into ESL classes and recommended them to students for listening practice, though most of my favorites are targeted towards native speakers and so demand a high level of language proficiency on the part of the student. These three podcasts are the ones I have found that I can not do without. Find information on subscribing to them by clicking on the titles below.
This weekly, hour-long NPR show is available as a free podcast and in a streamed archive that includes almost every story broadcast over the 15+ year history of the show. I’ve mentioned this podcast previously, but it’s at the top of the list because of the consistently engaging stories that are posted (and aired — check local listings) each week. Some favorites include episode 238 Lost in Translation, which includes the story of Yao Ming‘s first American translator beginning at the 40 minute mark; episode 188 Kid Logic, which incorporates kids’ ideas on everything from the Tooth Fairy to why planes get smaller when they fly away; and episode 90 Telephone, which includes a story about how a teenager’s behavior changes when he hears himself on the phone, which begins at the seven minute mark. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve listened to well over half of the episodes available online and many of them have stuck with me for years.
Radio Lab is another NPR show that broadcasts in some markets (again, check local listings,) though less frequently than This American Life. But the focus of Radio Lab is science in the very broadest sense and the hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, do an amazing job of making some of the most profound and bleeding-edge topics understandable (and interesting!) to almost anyone. Fortunately, every episode and the interspersed shorts, all of which make up the podcast, are available online for listening or downloading at any time. Some of my favorites include the Limits episode, which details a non-stop bike race across the continent of North America including what effects riding a bicycle for a hundred hours has on the human body and mind; the Famous Tumors episode, which discusses the contagious tumors that are decimating the wild populations of Tasmanian Devils; and the New Normal? episode which reframes Evolution in a really startling way. Many of the episodes draw conclusions that rub against the grain of common sense and challenge our preconceived notions of what we think we know. Not only is the content compelling, but the audio editing is exceptional.
The Moth features real stories told live onstage without notes. There is some overlap in themes with This American Life, but these stories are not edited into a one-hour radio show. Rather each story is presented individually, regardless of its length, and with live crowd reactions. The Moth supports story telling events around the U.S. and broadcasts its best stories via the podcast. A very few stories are available online, but most are not. Stories are usually told by people you have never heard of, though there have been a few “celebrity” story tellers (Blue Clues host Steve Burns and Milli Vanilli frontman Fab Morvan are two examples.) Some episodes are marked explicit, usually for coarse language, but each story is a personal tale told by the person who lived it. I have heard stories that run the range from shipwreck survivors to Apollo Theater dancers to New York City cops to people getting out of bad relationships or reflecting on their parenting skills. Each story is unique and interesting.
Good pronunciation resources are hard to find. I’ve previously written about Rachel’s English, an excellent resource for the mechanics of pronunciation including sounds, mouth positions, and sound charts. But sometimes students just want to know how to pronounce a certain word. Enter Forvo.com.
Of course, students could reference any good dictionary (paper or online) for an explanation of how to pronounce a word, but online dictionaries often require a subscription to hear pronunciations. Forvo makes its audio available for free. Users can also create an account and upload their own pronunciations of words, which is how it has grown to almost 80,000 English pronunciations. (Many other languages are also available.)
Like many other web 2.0 websites, a community has grown around the process of expanding the website. Other examples of this phenomenon include Wikipedia, on which groups of users debate and define editorial policies and solicit help from each other; and Flickr, which allows users to tag photos so that all pictures uploaded to the site are easily searchable.
Forvo incorporates both of these features. Users can posts words they would like to hear pronounced. Pronunciations can also be voted on so that if there are multiple pronunciations available, the best pronunciation appears at the top of the list. Pronunciations can also be tagged so that users can find interesting groups of words such as nouns, past tense verbs, mathematical terms, male names, and many others.
Words have been pronounced in British, American, and other English accents. For each word, you can view the biography of the user who pronounced it to find out where they are from. If you find a user you particularly enjoy, you can follow their RSS feed to find out when they have added pronunciations.
Because of all of these features, the website can be a bit overwhelming at first. But once you get used to the layout, the site is a very useful resource. Students can use it to listen to assigned vocabulary words or to explore pronunciations of new words.
Teachers can create an account and upload their own pronunciations for students, which would make them very easy for students to find if they search for their teacher or for a tag their teachers use, such as the name of a textbook, course, or school. Once they become accustomed to the site, students might also be interested in uploading pronunciations in their native languages, thereby expanding this resource for language learners around the world.
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.
Smartphones and iPods are ubiquitous among college students, but can students use them to help practice English? In this post, I will share how I adapted an existing application (“app”) for vocabulary practice as well as other apps that students may find interesting and helpful. This post also serves as the handout for my poster session at Ohio TESOL 2010.
Music Quiz is a fee app that I’ve written about before. The app asks the user to guess a song’s title after listening to a 12-second clip of the song. By recording audio files of definitions of vocabulary items as “songs,” Music Quiz can be used as a vocabulary quiz.
How to make a vocabulary quiz using music quiz:
1. Record the definitions of the vocabulary items. Try to repeat the definition 2-3 times and keep files to 12 seconds – the limit of Music Quiz. Save each recording as an .mp3 file with the vocabulary word or term as the song title, the category (Heart Idioms, Vocabulary book chapter 3, etc.) as the album title, and yourself or your school as the artist so that the files are easy to add. A free audio recording application such as Audacity makes this easy. Feel free to take a look at and use my 20 heart idioms as examples.
2. Upload the .mp3 files to an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad with Music Quiz installed.
3. Open the Music Quiz app and use the Menu to configure the quiz with the following settings.
Choose From: Song Titles (title = vocabulary item)
Play At Beginning: ON (play from the beginning of the definition)
Custom Quiz: ON (allows user to select the “songs” to be quizzed on)
4. You can now use Music Quiz to quiz yourself on these vocabulary items.
Other Vocabulary Apps
There are many vocabulary apps available. Just do a quick search using the word vocabulary. Some are better than others, but most have a lite version that is a free demonstration with limited features or word lists. The full version, which you can usually purchase for $0.99 to $9.99, will often include thousands of words.
Web-based – The easiest way to get content on mobile devices. Post content on a website, then view it using your mobile device.
Platform Specific – Apple and Google (makers of Droid smartphones) and other companies make it easy to make your own apps. Of course, easy is a relative term.
Tool based – Platforms exist to assist with the creation of apps and games. ARIS is one platform for creating mobile games that I’ve written about before. ARIS was used to create the game Mentira, which is described below.
The Cutting Edge
Apps are being developed that require the use of a mobile device to play. Mentira is an example of a location-aware mystery that students solve on location in the target language. In this case, students in a Spanish class take on new identities and to solve a crime that occured in a New Mexico neighborhood in the 1920s. Students must move through the neighborhood to unlock clues while playing the entire game in the target language.
Okay, I didn’t create my first app (yet) but I did come up with a way to repurpose an existing app for learning, a much more edupunk approach.
I came across an app called Music Quiz, which recreates a game that came standard on older iPods. Music Quiz plays part of a randomly selected song on your iPod and then asks you to identify the song title, album title or artist. You can set the difficulty (more difficult means more possibilities to choose from) and even choose a subset of songs to form the game (just songs from one album or artist, for example). While it’s fun to sit on the bus and see if I can identify the name of every Sloan song ever released, I also started thinking if this same game could be applied to learning English.
So I recorded some idioms as mp3 files using Audacity, a free audio recorder. The actual sound file is me reading the definition twice in twelve seconds (because Music Quiz can be set to play 12 seconds of each song). Within Audacity, I saved the idiom as the song title. The files are below, if you want to try it out:
A student can add these files to an iPod or iPhone and set Music Quiz to quiz them on these audio files. (From the menu, set Custom Quiz to on to choose specific files for the quiz.) As the recording plays, the student has to choose which idiom matches the definition she hears. I’ve chosen 20 heart-themed idioms, so I’ve used heart as the album title. Three levels of metadata are available within Music Quiz (artist > album > song title) though testing students in higher order information (i.e. whether a given idiom was a heart, food, or animal idiom) may not be worthwhile.
Alternatively, album could be defined as chapters in a vocabulary textbook. I’m not sure it would be much more helpful for students to quiz themselves on which chapter a given idiom was in, but it could be a good way to organize the audio files and make it easy to choose specific chapters for a quiz. Of course, if Music Quiz were used to review other structures (verb tenses, vocabulary, etc.) there might be better ways to take advantage of other levels of metadata.
Clearly an iPod is not going to replace traditional language instruction anytime soon. But, if students are always listening to their iDevices anyway, they might as well use them to practice English. A well-designed activity could really engage them in this kind of helpful practice. If you have ideas for other ways to use Music Quiz or other apps for English practice, leave a comment.