Tag Archives: vocabulary

Teaching with Google Images

canoes on google image search

In a recent meeting with the executive council of our student association, one of our class representatives suggested organizing a canoe trip.  Judging by the puzzled looks around the boardroom table, many students did not recognize this word.  So, I pulled up Google Images and did a search for canoe.  The results were similar to what you see above.  Instantly, students could understand the word and the discussion could continue.

I really enjoy the challenge of working with a group of students with a wide range of ability.  Using Google Image search is a good way to help level the playing field so that students can communicate with each other more efficiently.  If you have a projector and internet access in your classroom, images can be pulled up very quickly as a teaching aid.

A word of caution, though.  Be sure to set the Safe Search setting to “Use strict filtering” if you are doing a search in front of a whole class in order to reduce the chance of objectionable images appearing.  And be aware that even strict filtering is not 100% perfect.  So, if you are working with a group that is young or particularly sensitive to certain images, be ready to hit the back button immediately or, better yet, mute the image on the projector until the search comes up, preview the images, and then make the projection available to the class.

Once you begin using it, Google Image search is the kind of simple tool that you will wonder how you lived without.  While there are certainly benefits to having students define unknown terminology for each other, there are also times when you just want to provide a few words to define a term and move on.  In these cases, an image search is worth a thousand words.

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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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Where it’s @

ear sculpture

The @ symbol has become so common in electronic communication that we don’t even notice it anymore.  But a few short years ago, before Twitter and before email, this was a little-used symbol stuck above the 2 on your favorite typewriter (yes, that many years ago).

Since email began spreading around the world, many countries have put their come up with many names for what is commonly called the at symbol in English.

In Bosnian, it’s the crazy a.  In Hebrew, it’s strudel (yum!).  Many people see animals, leading to names like elephant’s trunk (Danish), spider monkey (German), snail (Italian), and dog (Russian).  It is also called ear in Ukrainian.

Wikipedia has a more complete list.  This could make for an interesting icebreaker discussion in an appropriately diverse ESL class.  But be warned that more and more languages are being overtaken of the English pronunciation of at or literal translations of the word.  Pretty soon, it may just be at for all of us.

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mLearning in ESL

ipod

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

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.

Vocab Lab Lite – SAT-level flashcards and quiz

Wordlist Lite – 10 vocabulary lists with definitions; words categorizable by difficulty

My Prep Pal: SAT Reading – video lessons, flash cards and quiz

Make Your Own Apps

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.

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Virtual Lectures

lecture hall

Occasionally, students in our program ask if they can take regular university classes in addition to our full-time intensive ESL program.  In a very few cases, we have arranged informal course audits through which students may sit in on courses as a way to supplement their learning.  In addition to the language input, this arrangement can be a good way to introduce international students to American academic culture.

Recently a student approached me about his interests in sitting in on a few lectures.  His primary interest was in becoming familiar with the English vocabulary in his field of study.  He was already comfortable with the content in his own language, but was nervous about learning all new terminology in English.  In the end, actually sitting in on a class was not a good option for this particular student.  Fortunately, there are a couple of good online alternatives that I could recommend: YouTube’s EDU site and iTunesU.

YouTube.com/edu hosts thousands of lectures from institutions across the U.S.  Not all of them are lectures — and it’s easy to get sucked in to videos of marching bands and football games — but there are lots of options available.  Search for “physics lecture” and you’ll get over 4000 videos.

iTunesU.com takes a similar approach, but it is tied in to Apple’s iTunes music store.  This means it is very easy to put videos on your iDevice (iPhone, iPod, iPad, etc.) to watch on the go.  The bad news is that you need to install the iTunes application to access them.

Both locations offer hours of free content from some of the most prestigious institutions in the country.  Of course, many of the videos are just recordings of lectures, which may be somewhat dull.  And sadly, that may be very good preparation for American academic culture.  But, if high level students are looking for content rich input, these sources will provide a wealth of options.

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History of English-Language Popular Music Elective

ipod in a book

You didn't think your students were reading, did you?

As promised, the list of songs I used in my History of English Language Popular Music Elective (HELP-ME) class is below.  The class was taught over 20 days in 5 weeks with each week devoted to a different decade of popular music.  We covered one song per day usually beginning with watching a video of the song, examining the lyrics and something linguistically relevant (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.), talking about the meaning of the song, and then listening to the song again and singing along.

A much more exhaustive (and exhausting!) resource is available as a Google Docs Spreadsheet.  The spreadsheet also contains several songs I considered but didn’t use.  Each entry has the song title, the artist, the year it was released, the genre, information about it’s popularity (#1 for four weeks, for example) as well as links to the lyrics, video, and Wikipedia articles on both the song and the artist.  I also have my notes on relevant or ESL-appropriate features of each song.

I delivered all of this information to students using Moodle, an open-source online course management system.  I hoped to present as much information for students to explore as I could and several students took advantage of this opportunity by logging in and exploring many of these resources.  They were also able to listen to each of the songs via our streaming server.  (Simply giving them the .mp3 files would have created copyright issues.)

Overall, the class was very well received for it’s novel approach and interesting subject.  I included a wide variety of musical genres so that no student would have to suffer through a prolonged period of country or R&B.  Students also appreciated touching on grammar points and new vocabulary words in the more relaxed context of an elective class.  They were exposed to more English without having to worry about a final exam.

If I were to teach the class again, I would probably eliminate a couple of the longer songs, or at least find a way to devote more time to them.  The class really enjoyed Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) and Parents Just Don’t Understand, for example, but we had to rush through them a bit in order to completely cover the lyrics.  In fact, I would like to teach this class every quarter, and could by changing up the songs so that they wouldn’t be repeated if students take the class in back-to-back quarters.  The class included students from all five levels in our program and I worked hard to ensure that all students were able to gain something from the class.  According to my student evaluations, I was successful.

In the table below, the names of the songs are linked to the lyrics (on sing365.com) and the artist names are linked to their page on Wikipedia.  As I mentioned above, you can view more information at the Google Docs Spreadsheet.

1950s and 1960s

1957 All Shook Up Elvis Presley
1964 A Hard Day’s Night The Beatles
1964 Paint It Black The Rolling Stones
1968 What a Wonderful World Louis Armstrong
1967 People Are Strange The Doors

1970s

1972 You’re So Vain Carly Simon
1973 Time In A Bottle Jim Croce
1978 I Will Survive Gloria Gaynor
1978 The Gambler Kenny Rogers

1980s

1979 Video Killed The Radio Star The Buggles
1983 Billie Jean Michael Jackson
1984 Jump Van Halen
1988 Parents Just Don’t Understand DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince (Will Smith)

1990s

1991 Smells Like Teen Spirit Nirvana
1993 If I Had $1,000,000 Barenaked Ladies
1999 Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) Baz Luhrmann

2000s

2000 Say My Name Destiny’s Child
2001 Clint Eastwood* Gorillaz
2002 We Are All Made Of Stars Moby
* = this page contains explicit lyrics

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