Tag Archives: reading

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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Edupunk Eye-Tracking = DIY Research

One of my favorite presentations at the 2011 Ohio University CALL Conference was made by Jeff Kuhn who presented a small research study he’d done using the above eye-tracking device that he put together himself.

If you’re not familiar with eye-tracking, it’s a technology that records what an person is looking at and for how long.  In the example video below, which uses the technology to examine the use of a website, the path that the eyes take is represented by a line.  A circle represents each time the eye pauses, with larger circles indicating longer pauses.  This information can be viewed as a session map of all of the circles (0:45) and as a heat map of the areas of concentration (1:15).

This second video shows how this technology can be used in an academic context to study reading.  Notice how the reader’s eyes do not move smoothly and that the pauses occur for different lengths of time.

Jeff’s study examined the noticing of errors.  He tracked the eyes of four ESL students as they read passages with errors and found that they spent an extra 500 milliseconds on errors that they noticed.  (Some learners are not ready to notice some errors.  The participants in the study did not pause on those errors.)

The study was interesting, but the hardware Jeff built to do the study was completely captivating to me.  He started by removing the infrared filter from a web cam and mounting it to a bike helmet using a piece of scrap metal, some rubber bands and zip ties.  Then he made a couple of infrared LED arrays to shine infrared light towards the eyes being tracked.  As that light is reflected by the eyes, it is picked up by the webcam, and translated into data by the free, open-source Ogama Gaze Tracker.

So, instead of acquiring access to a specialized eye-tracking station costing thousands of dollars, Jeff has built a similar device for a little over a hundred bucks, most of which went to the infrared LED arrays.  With a handful of these devices deployed, almost anyone could gather a large volume of eye-tracking data quickly and cheaply.

Incidentally, if you are thinking that there are a few similarities between this project and the wii-based interactive whiteboard, a personal favorite, there are several: Both cut the price of hardware by a factor of at least ten and probably closer to one hundred, both use free open-source software, both use infrared LEDs (though this point is mostly a coincidence), both have ties to gaming (the interactive whiteboard is based on a Nintendo controller; eye-tracking software is being used and refined by gamers to select targets in first-person shooters), and both are excellent examples of the ethos of edupunk, which embraces a DIY approach to education.

Do you know of other interesting edupunk projects?  Leave a comment.

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Google Labs

beaker

If you haven’t visited Google Labs, you should check it out.  This is the experimental, work-in-progress part of Google where users can see what’s next, or at least what the engineers at Google are tinkering with

Some projects that started in Google Labs have graduated to become fully-fledged parts of the Google experience.  These include Google Scholar, Google Docs, Google Maps, and many others.

Other projects have stayed in the Lab, sometimes continuing to develop, other times seeming to arrive at a conclusion that may or may not be further integrated Google-wide.  Some of these are may be interesting for language learners and teachers, though how to use them is not always immediately obvious.  A few of my favorites are below.

set of fruit imagesGoogle Sets

This was the first experiment I ever encountered in Google Labs and I always come back to it.  Enter a list of items in a set, and Google with guess other items in the set.

It’s easy to imagine how this was envisioned as a way to improve the search experience — sometimes searching for synonyms can be more productive than the original search terms — but it almost has the feel of a Scattergories-like party game.  (Can you find a set that Google can’t guess?)

In a way, Google Sets is kind of like thesaurus, but its kind of not.  At the same time, if students can get hooked by it’s game-like nature, it could be a good way to discover new vocabulary.

books arranged by color on shelvesGoogle Ngrams

In its endless pursuit to make it possible to search everything, everywhere, across all time, Google has scanned millions of books and made them searchable.  This is not without some controversy as authors and publishers are concerned that their books are being given away for free online.  Currently, Google only makes passages of copyrighted books available in its search, as opposed to the entire work.

In the meantime, Google has made the entire corpus available and easy to search.  Though not as robust as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), Google’s simpler interface may be easier for non-linguists to use and understand.

Students of English can not only compare the frequency of several words and / or phrases, but can also see how the relationships between the search terms have changed over time.  For example, see how ain’t has precipitously fallen out of favor since peaking in the 1940s.  Or, see the how the use of subject pronouns has changed, in part as a result of he no longer being considered the generic.

motorcycle gogglesGoogle Goggles

This one isn’t as language-oriented as the previous two examples, but it is a remarkable glimpse into the future.  Google Goggles are a way of performing a Google search, but instead of typing in search terms, upload a picture from your smartphone.  This can include anything from a book cover to a landmark.

Given the rise in popularity of smartphones, just think of how much language is available to ESL students through these devices.  Walking down the street, a student can snap a picture of something unfamiliar and find links to all kinds of related information.

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Hey, You Guys!

light bulb

In the 1970s, The Electric Company was a kids television show made by the Children’s Television Workshop, the same folks that made Sesame Street,  but designed for a slightly older, getting-ready-to-read audience.  Fast-forward to 2009.  The Electric Company is being made again by what is now called Sesame Workshop.

Each half-hour show contains a main story featuring The Electric Company kids and their antagonist Prankster peers.  Vignettes interspersed between parts of the story focus on letters and sounds that relate to the vocabulary highlighted in each episode.  Most are catchy songs or games and contests played between the characters.  I’ve embedded several videos featuring silent e in this blog post.

The best thing about this show is that it does not baby it’s audience.  Scott Cameron, the Director of Education and Research for Sesame Workshop, has experience teaching ESL with music and games.  The focus of The Electric Company is on motivating children to read and this really can’t be done by talking down to an increasingly media-savvy audience.

In our house, Silent E is a Ninja (below) is a favorite that has achieved earworm status.  Try to watch it once or twice and tell me it’s not stuck in your head the rest of the day.  You’ve been warned.

The Electric Company has even brought back its classic silhouetted heads reading words together.  These are really effective demonstrations of learning to read by sounding out words.

Videos are available on the Electric Company YouTube Channel and on the Electric Company website (which includes a section for parents and educators).

Will these videos work with adult students?  It depends on the student.  These videos are fun and poppy and targeted to a younger audience.  But as a way to expose language learners to lots of fun, catchy, repeatable reinforcement, these really can’t be beat.  Do you know of other good videos?  Post a link in the Comments section.

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Children’s Literature for ESL

children's books

I was talking to one of the teachers in our program recently about her use of children’s literature in her classroom.  Every time I read Dr. Suess to my kids, I can’t help thinking how much fun these books are to read and how much ESL students could benefit from them.  But, many of our students are adults who would understandably feel demeaned by being asked to read kids’ books.

The solution?  Literary analysis.  Get students to analyze children’s books as a genre of literature.  In this way, students are exposed to texts that are simple and fun but are also required to do some higher order thinking.  Not only does this save face (“I’m not reading kids books, I’m analyzing children’s literature!”), but it also requires a deeper level of thinking and encourages more complex language use.

Unfortunately, the technological supplements to these books are usually lame flash games with very little learning value, particularly for adult learners.  However, the rare exceptions (useful online grammar and vocabulary games, for example) could be beneficial supplements.

Is this a gimmick to get adults to read kids books?  Perhaps.  But without a little encouragement, adult students might never be exposed to some very good (and very accessible) writing.  To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, if they’ve never read them, they should.  These books are fun and fun is good.

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Twurdy: Readability-Based Search

Twurdy = Too wordy?

Twurdy = Too wordy?

I came across Twurdy the other day and thought it was interesting enough to share.  In fact, I came across it on a blog post by someone that was recommend via Follow Friday on Twitter.  If I still had that electron trail, it would make an interesting story, but I don’t.

So, back to Twurdy.  This search enging is Google-based, but it also analyzes search results for readability using a proprietary algorithm.  The results are color-coded into the list of results.  If an item is determined to be easy-to-read, it is light in color.  Harder-to-read items are progressively darker in color.

Does it work?  I haven’t used it enough to be sure yet.  It’s certainly an intriguing idea, but the results will only be as good as the algorithm, the details of which are not shared on the Twurdy website.  But it may be a useful for learners with limited ability to start with the easiest-to-read pages or, conversely, for students to analyze the differences between easy- and hard-to-read texts.  I’m not suggesting students reverse-engineer the algorithm, but finding the features that make a page “hard-to-read” could start an interesting process that could aid students in their writing.

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Highlight the Web

Dont use these on your screen.

Don't use these on the internet.

I’ve recently started using Diigo to manage my bookmarks online.  It’s a lot like Delicious, which I’ve blogged about before, but has more features.  Both sites are cloud-based applications that allow you to manage your bookmarks online instead of in the browser of one computer.  So, instead of bookmarking something at the office and then not having it at home, or vice versa, bookmarks are saved to one central location.  And when I add bookmarks to Diigo, they are automatically added to Delicious, which means neither list becomes out of date.

The way I discovered Diigo was because of one of the features I like: highlighting.  Using Diigo, you can highlight sections of a web document and then forward a link to that page with the highlights (and even comments!) included.  For example, I could share this blog post.  This can be particularly useful with ESL students.  A long article may be intimidating, but a couple of paragraphs might be more manageable.

A simpler approach is a site called citebite.com.  You don’t sign up for an account, but instead copy and paste a URL and the section of text you want highlighted.  The site then gives you a URL for the result.  I could highlight this paragraph in this blog post, for example.  Comments are not available, and only one passage can be highlighted, but Citebite is a good, simple solution.

Awesomehighlighter.com falls somewhere in the middle of the other two applications.  When you enter a URL, you see the page and can then click on text you want highlighted.  Comments, in the form of sticky notes are also available.  Awesome Highlighter then provides a URL to your result page.  So, for example, I could add notes and highlighted passages to this blog post.  Unfortunately, Awurl.com, which Awesome Highlighter uses to provide URLs to the results pages, is blocked on the Ohio State network because it is a proxy / anonymizer.  Even though this is a localized problem, you might want to check that it won’t be blocked where you are before using this tool extensively.

The comment feature in applications like Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Word, or other document editors has been used to facilitate collaboration between multiple authors and editors for a while now.  As we move closer and closer to the promises made by cloud computing, more and more of these tools are migrating to web-based applications that are becoming easier and easier to use.

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