I’ve been tinkering with AntConc, Laurence Anthony’s free concordancer, which has led me down a bit of a rabbit hole of lists generated by corpus linguists over the past 60 years. I’ve listed a few that I’ve used, sometimes within AntConc, to analyze students’ writing. If you’ve taught students to investigate their linguistic hunches via the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), you might also consider teaching them to put their own writing into a tool like AntConc to analyze their own writing as well. By including the lists below a blacklist (do not show) or a whitelist (show only these), students can hone in on a more specific part of their vocabulary. Most of these lists are available for download, which means you can be up and running with your own analysis very quickly.
The lists (in chronological order):
General Service List (GSL) – developed by Michael West in 1953; based on a 2.5 million word corpus. (Can you imagine doing corpus linguistics in 1953? Much of it must have been by hand, which is mind boggling.) Despite criticism that it is out of date (words such as plastic and television are not included, for example), this pioneering list still provides about 80% coverage of English.
Academic Word List (AWL) – developed by Averil Coxhead in 2000; 570 words (word families) selected from a purpose-built academic corpus with the 2000 most frequent GSL words removed; organized into 9 lists of 60 and one of 30, sorted by frequency. Scores of textbooks have been written based on these lists, and for good reason. In fact, we have found that students are so familiar with these materials, they test disproportionately highly on these words versus other advanced vocabulary.
Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) – the 3000 most frequent words in the 120 million words in the academic portion of the 440 million word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). This word list includes groupings by word families, definitions, and an online interface for browsing or uploading texts to be analyzed according to the list.
New General Service List (NGSL) – developed by Charles Browne, Brent Culligan, and Joseph Phillips in 2013; based on the two-billion-word Cambridge English Corpus (CEC); 2368 words that cover 90.34% of the CEC.
New Academic Word List (NAWL) – based on three components: the CEC Academic Corpus; two oral corpora, the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE) and the British Academic Spoken English (BASE) corpus; and on a corpus of published textbooks for a total of 288 million words. The NAWL is to the NGSL what the AWL is to the GSL in that it contains the 964 most frequent words in the academic corpus after the NGSL words have been removed.
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.
If you’re not familiar with the work of contemporary Canadian artist Alex Colville, take a minute to search for his work on Google’s image search. Colville died on July 16 but his 70-year career leaves us with lots to look at.
For more on his life and art, I’d recommend this article from the Toronto Star, but searching Wikipedia and other sources will provide more background if you’d like it. The focus of this post will be on how Colville’s work can be incorporated into the ESL classroom.
Paintings by Alex Colville, like Truck Stop above, are typically spare in both the painting style and the story being told. There is usually a bit of mystery — Why does the man have a cast on his arm? Whose dog is that? — that remains unresolved, which is why so many of his paintings are so compelling.
These paintings make excellent jumping off points for storytelling. Students can search for Alex Colville to see a number of his paintings (be warned that there is occasional nudity, but nothing too graphic) or provide access to an online gallery of images of his work to students. From there, students can write or tell stories that answer some of the paintings’ inherent questions. As a creative exercise, Alex Colville’s paintings provide plenty of inspiration.
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.
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.
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.
If you’re like me, one of your first computer game experiences was with an interactive fiction text-based game. Zork was probably the most popular, but I discovered the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game first (before I knew it was a book.) In fact, I had never played Zork until quite recently when I encountered a version of it on Frotz, which I discovered as an iPhone application. Within Frotz, one can play a wide variety of text-based adventure games.
If you’ve never played one of these games, there really isn’t much to learn. Players are typically presented with a description of their character’s surroundings followed by a prompt. Players can type simple directions at the prompt, such as “go north” or “pickup phone.” This process repeats with the game presenting the results of the previous command or a description of the new scene if the player has moved. From there, the player enters further directions, and the game continues.
Obviously, the focus of the game is the writing as there are typically no graphics involved. These games also have a rich tradition of Easter Eggs and snarky responses, particularly when commands are malformed or not recognized. As the player proceeds through the game, objects can be collected (such as a key) that can later be used to solve a problem or make progress through the game (such as unlocking a door.)
These games are now rediscoverable thanks to new technologies. Not only that, but it has also become very easy to create a game with virtually zero programming involved. Two examples of tools that can be used to create interactive fiction are Twine and Inform7.
Twine is the simpler of the two. Resulting stories are interactive in the way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are interactive, but they use linked texts to allow the reader to progress in a non-linear way. Examples of stories written using Twine can be played on gimcrackd.com.
Inform7 is much more complex, but the results are actual interactive text-based adventure games. Elements can be dragged and dropped to create the relationships that form the basis of the story. Examples of some of the best interactive text adventures can be found in this article on makeuseof.com.
I haven’t used either of these tools yet, but I’m curious about what ESL students might make of them (and make with them). The process of writing can be a challenge in itself and, if they are not familiar with interactive fiction, explaining it would be an additional difficulty. But by collaborating in small groups, there might be some interesting possibilities for collaborating and giving peer feedback. At the very least, interactive text adventure games can provide ESL students with a rich source of input. And because the syntax for interacting with the game is so simplified, even intermediate level learners can play them.
I plan to give Inform7 a try to see how easy it is to use. If you’ve used it, or know of other similar tools, leave a comment.
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.
We had an interesting case of plagiarism come up recently. A teacher gave students a writing assignment based on what they had learned from a movie they had watched in class. After collecting the papers, the teacher noticed that one of them had some interesting phrases that did not sound like they would naturally come from the student who turned in the paper. So, like many of us do, the teacher typed a couple of sentences into Google and found the web page that contained much of the writing assignment that the student had turned in. She then followed up with the usual information about “you need to cite sources” and “this is plagiarism”.
What’s so strange about this particular case? All of this occurred in the classroom during the twenty minutes that the students were given to write. Clearly, the student must have accessed the internet via a cell phone, searched for some keywords, and written down parts of a passage from a website.
Cheating via text is so 2008.
I was a bit stunned that this could happen, but in retrospect I shouldn’t be. Smart phones are literally putting the Internet into our pockets, so why should students’ habits online be any different whether they are at home or on the go?
All of this technology can obviously be a very good thing when used appropriately. For example, many students have dictionary apps on their phones which makes a useful resource very accessible. But occasionally “checking the dictionary” is not just checking the dictionary and it is becoming easier and easier to confuse the two. This experience served as a good reality check for us. We are now more keenly aware of how easily students can access these resources and how important it is to teach them how to use them appropriately.
An article in the December 26, 2009 Toldeo Blade profiled a student in Toledo who self-published a book. At 14 years old. In English, his second language. Although internet technology has made publishing your own book relatively easy, this is still a remarkable accomplishment.
To me, this student sounds like many I have worked with: He started to withdraw because he was frustrated by the difficulties he had communicating in his second language. The remarkable part is that his solution was to take on a project, writing a book, as a reason to learn the language. And, by this account, he was pretty successful.
As a teacher, his project leaves me with a number of questions: Could this process be reproduced in a classroom, or does the fact that he came up with the idea himself make this inherently different from any teacher-directed project? How guided should writing projects be? How long or short? What other considerations are there in an ESL writing class that has “publish a book” as the final (or only) project?
Clearly, this may not be an appropriate project for every student, but it is inspiring. If you want to buy his book, you can do so through Amazon.com.
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.