MOOCing and Learning: Corpora, Concordancing and Conversations

Corpus MOOCThis is another quick post with my impressions of the first few weeks of the Corpus Linguistics MOOC in response to Vedrana’s earlier comment

I had high expectations of this course and I think it’s fair to say that, so far, those expectations have easily been met and surpassed! I wrote in my last post that this was a great opportunity. I hadn’t realised just how good of an opportunity it was and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

We are getting to hear from a wide range of people who are developing and using corpus linguistics to research a wide range of questions. They are using corpora to confirm or challenge intuition and to gain insights about language use in ways that would not be possible without large quantities of data. Each week there are “In Conversation” pieces where Tony McEnery chats to someone about their work or involvement with corpus linguistics. These, I think, are my favourite part of the course and Tony has expressed how much he has enjoyed doing them. There has been a lot of good feeback about them in the comments and I have a sense that they are a good way to learn – even though we are not directly involved in the chat. They are particularly enjoyable to watch and the information they contain feels more memorable.  This could be a personal reaction but, as I like to use conversation in a language learning situation, I’d like to look into it a bit more. Although these sections are in the supplementary part of the course, I’d really recommend watching them.

As well as finding out about the range of applications of corpus linguistics, we are also learning how to use the tools and techniques. This is what I felt I most needed to learn before starting the course. Corpus Linguistics allows people to access large quantities of language and this can only be done with a computer, specially designed software and the ability to use them! In the first few weeks, we have been introduced to AntConc, freely available software developed by Laurence Anthony. The video tutorials are also available on a YouTube playlist. As I said in my last post, I never knew what I could do with corpora or how to do it. I now know how to find collocations and frequency data, investigate concordances and sort them to the left or the right of a search term. I can discover which words are unusually frequent in one corpus when compared to another one – keywords! I can clone results in order to compare and, this week, I’ve found out what n-grams are. It’s very exciting!

I’m enjoying the flexibility and the variety of the course. As well as the conversations and the video tutorials, there are introductory lectures, readings, practical activities and discussions that are well attended by mentors. These are organised in a ‘to-do’ list that you can mark as completed as you progress through the course each week. You can do the bits that are most useful or interesting for you. For the first few weeks, I’ve been lucky to have a lot more time to be able to spend on it and I can choose what I do depending on the mood I’m in, where I am, what time I’ve got or who’s with me. I’m dipping into the advanced lectures where they interest me. I’m not very interested in its application to translation studies at the moment but I really enjoyed finding out about its combination with discourse analysis. I would love to understand more about the statistical side of things but I got to a point in the first lecture on the subject where it no longer made any sense, so I’ll need to come back to that. (If anyone can point me towards any very simple explanations of how things like statistical significance are calculated, I’d be grateful.)

Next week, we’ll learn how to build our own corpora. The week after, we’ll find out about social issues and corpora as well as something called CQPweb, before we look at textbook and dictionary construction in week 6, language learning in week 7 and swearing in the final week.

I’m finding the course very useful and interesting. First impressions are that it is well prepared, well structured and well supported. It is probably frustrating not to have enough time or energy to do it justice or to feel that you are falling behind, but people are going through it at very different speeds. Some have just started in the last few days, while others can only spend a short time on it each week. We’ve just found out that the course will now be supported by the mentors for two weeks after the end of the course to add even more flexibility. And, there do seem to be plans to run it again in the future – another of Vedrana’s questions 🙂

This is not just any MOOC…

… this is a Corpus Linguistics MOOC run by… Lancaster University! It’s led by Tony McEnery with contributions from and facilitation by an impressive bunch of people. It’s a great opportunity. I’ve been really looking forward to it and, after starting it, I’m even more enthusiastic about it. This short post is to encourage any of you interested in language or involved in language teaching and not already signed up for it to think about giving it a go. It has just started. You’ll catch up quickly!

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As language teachers, I’m hoping it’ll expand our ability and confidence to find out more about how language is used, to make discoveries, to test hypotheses, and to verify our intuition about how the language works. Out of context, our intuition about what we would actually say in a particular situation is not always accurate whether we’re so-called native or non-native speakers of a language. We can’t always bring to mind the relevant uses or collocations of particular words. We can be unclear about the difference between near synonyms.

There are those who suggest that, because of this, we should depend on ELT course books. But even when we can be sure the language information is accurate, it is necessarily limited to what the course book writers have chosen and not targeted towards our particular learners. Also, the more aware we are about how language works, the more able we’ll be able to draw attention to features that may not be easily packaged into course book activities. (I’m not saying that course books aren’t useful, just that, ideally, we need to know more about language than what is in course books!)

I’ve always enjoyed finding out about language and it was this interest that led me towards working in ELT but I know very little about corpus linguistics. For a while, I’ve felt that I should find out more about how I can better use corpora in my work. I’ve read posts about it. I’ve watched webinars. While I’ve been impressed at how people like Mura Nava, Leo Selivan or Scott Thornbury write about their use or refer to findings, I’ve only ever dabbled ineffectively, not sure about what I can do and/or how to do it. After starting this course – yesterday – the fog is already starting to clear. I’m excited by my growing confidence and the potential of a corpus linguistics approach!

Find out more about the course:

It’s designed in such a way as to be useful and interesting for a wide range of people, from those with very little prior knowledge or limited time, to those who want to expand or deepen their knowledge or who can spend more time on it.

Have a look!

Tagged: in response to Rachael Roberts, Ljiljana Havran and Geoff Jordan

I find myself in a very rare situation of having too much time on my hands… way too much time! So, it was a very nice surprise and an honour to be tagged by Rachael Roberts in a lighthearted new challenge that’s doing the rounds. Read Rachael’s post (and follow the links back) to find out more. Essentially, what she was asked to do, and what she’s asked her nominees to do, is:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

I HAD been browsing through my favourite posts of the year, using my twitter stream to find them (remember, I have too much time on my hands!) so that has been temporarily abandoned as I set about my new task.

Update: After publishing this post in response to Rachael, I was very pleased to also be nominated by Ljiljana Havran and Geoff Jordan (you can find out more about them and read their contribution to this challenge by clicking on their names) so I’ve added answers to their questions to this post rather than start another post about me – one’s more than enough!

11 random facts about myself

  1. I was born in Scotland and I live in Scotland but I have an Irish accent having grown up in Ireland.
  2. I used to work for Interpol – a little known fact that I frequently use in truths and lies icebreaker activities.
  3. My very first tweet up was with Jeremy Harmer and Tony Watt at a Pearson event in Edinburgh.
  4. I love dancing. Not clever dancing where there are particular steps or moves but the type where you just move about vigorously preferably to live music but cheesy disco tunes are good too!
  5. I also love a good argument. I prefer those that I win. Otherwise, as long as I can say what I think, challenge or be challenged, and feel like I’m making some sense, I’m happy.
  6. I can’t sing – a fact my mother regularly reminds me of at family birthday celebrations. To corroborate this, I have also been asked to leave a school choir, and asked if I could sing more quietly!!
  7. I don’t know why there’s 11 of everything in this challenge.
  8. I would like to knit. It sounds like a very relaxing thing to do while watching rubbish on the TV. I got knitting needles and some wool last Christmas. This year I’ve asked for knitting patterns – easy ones!
  9. I love Christmas 🙂
  10. I get the giggles. And there are certain people who just set me off – in particular, a friend at work, my son, a friend I met on my MSc course and my mother.
  11. One of my favourite TV programmes at the moment is Gogglebox where you watch people watching TV. It’s a lot better than it sounds!

Answers to Rachael’s 11 questions

1 Why did you start blogging and how has differed from your expectations?

I started blogging so that I would have a place to say things I wanted to say which didn’t fit into a tweet or a forum. I also had the feeling that because I was reading and enjoying other people’s blogs, I should make my own contribution. I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, or for people to read and interact with it.

2 What’s your earliest childhood memory?

Getting a new doll when my brother was born. Once I had my baby, I went to see my mum’s new baby. At least, I think I remember that. Perhaps, I just remember being told about it.

3 Tell us about someone you admire, and say why.

I really admire Shelly Terrell. Do I really need to say why? I first met Shelly on twitter a few years ago when, as far as I was aware, she was relatively unknown in the online world of education. Her curiosity, enthusiasm and passion for all things education have been inspiring and her professional development has been very impressive.

4 What was the last book you read and what did you think of it?

Complicity by Ian Banks for our book club. I enjoyed most of it.

5 Do you prefer walking or running? Why?

Walking. It’s easier!

6 What was your first paid job?

As a young person, I delivered leaflets with one of my friend’s mothers. She’d collect us all from school and spread us around local housing estates. It wasn’t a bad first job – fresh air, exercise, comraderie, and not getting bitten by the dogs that roamed free. As an adult, my first real job was as a component programming clerk with Aer Lingus where marks I made on a sheet of paper had implications for whether plane parts where maintained or overhauled.

7 What five famous people would you invite to a dinner party, and why?

Oh dear, famous people? I’m not very good on famous people – I can never remember their names. Let’s see…

… no, I’ll need to come back to this one!

8 What’s the first website you check/go on each day? Why?

Facebook. To see what’s been happening or what’s going to happen.

9 What can you remember about the first class you ever taught?

It was a small group of Polish forestry workers. I can’t remember what I did with them, I just remember being relieved that I got away with whatever it was.

10 Flowers or chocolates?

I have to choose?!?


11 How do you feel about reality TV shows?

I do like the UK Big Brother. It’s another one of my favourite programmes. [Update: I’ve gone off Big Brother!] I really enjoy watching people, seeing how they react, interact and communicate. I find it relaxing. I’m not so keen on talent shows like the X-Factor.

Answers to Ljiljana’s 11 questions

1 What foreign languages do you speak?

I speak (or at least used to speak) French and Dutch. It’s been a while since I’ve used either to any extent but did enjoy being at the first BELTA day in Brussels where I got to dabble in both. I keep meaning to brush up on them.

2 What is the most exciting thing about teaching?

What I find most exciting one day will be different the next. However, I do get a thrill when learners realise and/or show that they can do more than they could, or than they thought they could!

3 What is your favourite piece of art? and 4 What was your first favourite book when you were a child?

I really don’t have favourites. I enjoyed books as a child. I was always going to the library and always had a book on the go, but there is none that stood out or that I went back to – that I remember. It’s similar with art. I enjoy art but I like to see new things. I particularly enjoy public art pieces – things that can surprise and add pleasure as you go about your day or night.

5 Which quality would you like to change in yourself?

I’m too easily moved to tears. At times, this gets in the way and I’d like to be able to have more control over it.

6 What invention do you think has had the greatest impact on society? 

The internet!

7 If there were a time machine which period of history would you pick first and why?

Hmm. I’m not sure I’d want to go back.

8 How much is life an adventure?

Life’s an adventure in as much as you are open to and seek out new things and new experiences.

9 What is your idea of an ideal holiday?

On the west coast of Scotland (or Ireland) with lots of family exploring empty beaches and hills, visiting new towns and villages, eating, drinking and laughing.

10 What foods do you think are most romantic?

I’ve no idea!

11 What activity/hobby would you like to take up in 2014?

I’d like to swim more (and get better at it) and spend more time with French and Dutch.

Answers to Geoff’s 11 questions

1 What’s the best book you’ve ever read in the field of ELT?

This is a difficult one to answer. I don’t think of any book as being the best I’ve ever read… well not yet anyway. There are some that I’ve really enjoyed reading – the first part of Teaching Unplugged springs to mind. I also like Teaching Adult ESOL for its relevance to the context I work in, as well as recognising and dealing with the realities of ESOL work.

2 How do you see SLA research progessing?

I don’t know how SLA research will progress but I’m most interested in individuals’ actual experiences of acquiring a second language – what works and doesn’t work for a range of learners – rather than trying to discover the ‘best’ way to teach or learn vocabulary or what teachers or learners should or shouldn’t be doing.

3 Who has influenced you most in your career?

I have to say Scott Thornbury, through his books, webinars, video presentations and interviews (I’ve yet to see him present live!) but most of all his blog posts which have helped me to grow in confidence in my practice, to see things in a new light and to stay interested in what I do.

4 Best course/class you ever did.

A post-graduate module in discourse analysis with the Open University 😉

5 What’s going to happen next in ELT?

This one is very difficult to answer. ELT is too broad and the contexts and situations are too varied. It’s good to have progress and new ways of doing things. Some ways will be better for our learners (or us); others won’t work. What’s most important is that we try out, assess and adapt whatever happens next according to what we’re trying to achieve rather than adopt an approach, technique or activity because of who has proposed it. But, in answer to your question – I don’t know!

6 One piece of advice to a new ELT teacher.

Pay attention to your learners.

7 Favorite bit of music; author; plastic artist.

I don’t have a favorite (see answer to Ljiljana’s questions 3 & 4 above).

8 Favorite place in the world to visit.

New York, or Leuven, or Paris, or Dublin…. (I’m not good at choosing favorites!)

9 Favorite place to live.

I like living in Scotland but would perhaps prefer to be closer to the coast. I loved living in Leuven in Belgium and would happily return there. And, if I had enough money for a nice place in New York, I’d go there.

10 I like blogging because…

… I enjoy writing, I get a buzz when someone from my small but valued readership likes or comments on a post, and blogging helps me to capture and focus on aspects of my work.

11 Bloggers should…

… please themselves, find their own voice, and be aware of and respond to their readers and fellow bloggers.

11 bloggers tagged in this post

I’ve tagged bloggers who I like, respect and who I’ve interacted with in some form fairly recently (and also who I hope won’t mind being tagged!) If they’ve the time and inclination, it would be lovely to hear from then. If they don’t have one or the other, then that’s alright too! In any case, clicking on their names links to their blogs – all worth visiting and browsing through.

  1. Tyson Seburn – @seburnt
  2. Cecilia Lemos – @CeciELT
  3. Eva Buyuksimkesyan – @evab2001
  4. Naomi Epstein – @naomishema
  5. Kathy Fagan – @eslkathy
  6. Vicky Loras – @vickyloras
  7. Steve Brown – @stevebrowntweets
  8. Nathan Hall – @nathanghall
  9. Sirja Bessero – @swisssirja
  10. Rose Bard – @rosemerebard
  11. Roseli Serra – @SerraRoseli

My 11 questions for them (and anyone else who fancies answering)

  1. What do you most enjoy about blogging?
  2. Do you play a musical instrument? If not, would you like to? Which one?
  3. How far do you travel to work? How do you travel?
  4. What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?
  5. What was the first thing you ate today?
  6. If you could travel anywhere, where would you go? Why?
  7. What month next year are you most looking forward to? Why?
  8. What meal do you prepare most often for friends?
  9. What was the last movie you saw? What did you think?
  10. What three things do you like to have with you when working?
  11. What do YOU think about reality TV shows?

Update: So, I enjoyed this challenge and I have already got to read some really interesting and enlightening responses – both to this post and others. It’s fun! But, it was difficult to limit my tagging to just 11 people and since posting I keep thinking of others I would also like to have tagged. Without breaking the ‘rules’, I’d love to hear from anyone reading this who might be inclined to respond to this post on their blog or in the comments, whether they’ve been tagged here or not. While I may not have had the capacity to ‘tag’ you, consider yourself ‘invited’ to complete steps 1-5 above!


Kathy Fagan Responding to Carol Goodey’s Tag

Tyson Seburn Quick facts about me (response to @cgoodey) and Responses & tags (part 2 of @cgoodey’s post)

Shelly Sanchez Terrell 11 Random Facts

Vicky Loras Eleven! Tagged by @dougpete, @cgoodey and @yearinthelifeof

Naomi Epstein “Seven on Eleven” – A Blog Game

Cecilia Lemos The 11 Challenge – The person behind the blog

Eva Buyuksimkesyan 11 Random Facts, Questions, Answers and ELT Bloggers

Rose Bard Just the facts and Tagged by Carol Goodey: A nice surprise

Steve Brown Tagged Twice

Roseli Serra 11 random facts at Christmas time

Sirja Bessero confessions from a tagged blogger

Graded readers in ELT: the benefits and ways of using them – an ELTchat summary

booksHaving not taken part in an ELTchat for a while, nor even having been very active on Twitter recently, I was glad that one of James Taylor’s tweets on book clubs caught my eye and drew me in to the discussion on the benefits and use of graded readers. This post is a summary of the chat.

I’ve long been a fan of extensive reading for language development. Research, personal experience and feedback from learners continue to convince me that it’s a good thing to do. Graded readers make extensive reading accessible to more learners and the benefits of using them seemed clear to those taking part in the chat. Marisa has noticed great improvement overall when she has used a class reader over a number of lessons. Hana felt that reading helped to extend vocabulary in “the most natural way.” Other participants have found that students starting at a low level of reader can progress up through the levels to ungraded texts.

Getting everyone to read, however, is not easy and some people expressed reservations about ‘forcing’ reluctant learners to read. Rather than forcing people to read though, it was suggested that teachers work to encourage and motivate people by providing choice, support and enjoyable and useful classroom activities around reading and graded readers.

Many chat participants were enthusiastic about extensive reading and using graded readers and were keen to pass this on to learners. James tweeted, “ask my students if I think that reading is important… #neverstopsmentioningit”. There’s probably a fine line between encouraging and nagging (and it’s one I often cross… apparently!) but reluctant readers can come to find reading graded readers useful and enjoyable. People who may not have read much in their first language, find that the first book they finish is a graded reader. Vedrana told us how students tell her that “they haven’t read a book since university” but that those “who get into borrowing readers regularly are often thrilled to be reading again!”

The range of abilities and interests of our students means that it’s difficult to find a book that all students find interesting. Similarly, we may often only have one copy of each book. The more choice that we can offer, the more chance there will be something that students enjoy reading and as Marisa pointed out, reading for pleasure is a great habit to encourage, referring us to Stephen Krashen’s talk on language acquisition through compelling readings. Hana’s students were enjoying a new graded reader of ghost stories, while detective stories were popular with Vedrana’s. LeedsAcademy had found interactive fiction where you choose your own ending to be very popular with students. Learners can also be directed towards short stories, articles and as well as non-graded books and texts eventually.

Many chat participants had a selection of readers – a book box or a library shelf or two. Building a collection of books was discussed. Where funding is available, students can be involved in choosing which books to buy from a brochure or online publisher catalogue. An initial personal investment in a few books, and using them for good project work, helped to persuade LeedsAcademy’s DOS in Thailand to buy 40 titles! If there is no funding available, students could agree to buy one or two books each and swap them or students could pay a small fee each time to replenish stocks. Books are increasingly available free online, including graded readers, on library sites and sites such as Project Guttenberg. Some graded readers are more interesting than others and ones written for the language learner, rather than those which are simplified and abridged versions of existing books, are perhaps more engaging. Another option mentioned was to make your own graded reader by simplifying – both challenging and time consuming.

So we can encourage and provide choice, but not all students will be motivated to read on their own and, as a couple of ELT chatters agreed, if they “leave it up to students, they won’t get much out of them”. Time in class can usefully be spent using graded readers to encourage extensive reading for pleasure and for language development. Many activities were suggested.

  • One student at the board writing new vocabulary. Other students listen and follow if there are enough copies.
  • Students can make a personal list of vocabulary and then share with a partner, each explaining items that weren’t problems for them. Then change partners a few times, ending up with a common list of new vocabulary.
  • An information gap activity: each student reads one chapter and then tells others about it.
  • Ask all students to choose a book, read chapter one in class and then tell each other whether it’s good or not.
  • Use short texts for pre-reading activities for the longer text students read at home.
  • Students read at home and come back to class with 3-4 new words to share and recycle as a class.
  • Read a chapter and predict what will happen. Invent the story as a class.
  • Read to learners, particularly young learners, as an introduction to literacy.
  • Use class readers as a springboard for discussion and writing.
  • Students write letters to or from characters, characters’ journals etc.
  • Students write a profile of their favourite character and why they like them.
  • Role play scenes from books and add missing dialogue.
  • Students write a review of a book.
  • Students make a front page of the local newspaper.
  • Students draw a character from a book before watching the film version.
  • Students compare the book and the film.
  • More advanced students compare the simplified version of a book to the original.
  • Guessing activities. Who’s the author? Male or female? Chapter titles? Ending?
  • Students suggest a continuation or a sequel to a story.
  • Stop reading at a crucial point and offer a character advice, “If I were him, I’d… “
  • Students each write a question about the book and then have a class quiz using all of their questions.
  • Graded readers can be given to learners who have finished an activity before others.

Marisa suggested starting a reading circle. Once a fortnight, learners can talk about and review what they’ve read. LeedsAcademy has found the resources available on the OUP site useful for this. These resources help to structure the reading circle. We can also, as James suggested, simply hold more relaxed informal book club sessions. This is something I’ve enjoyed doing with learners and wrote about it in an earlier post and Mike reminded us of Jez Uden’s work with EFL Reading in Cafes.

Other links that were posted during the chat:

I enjoyed my first ELTchat in a long time and will try to make them more often. Thanks to everyone who took part and shared so many ideas and resources. The transcript of the chat can be found here.

Listening for learning

Photo taken from by @mrsdkrebs, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,

Photo taken from by @mrsdkrebs, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,

This post is in response to Nathan Hall’s invitation to take part in an ELT Research Blog Carnival. The first topic is ‘listening’.

In a recent post, the Secret DOS asks, along with many other questions, if there is any more to language learning than memorisation, regurgitation and evaluation. I’d say there is. What that more is, though, may depend on who’s doing the learning and on what and why they want to learn. An essential element, however, must be that learners develop an understanding of how the language is used in different contexts and for different purposes by reading and listening to what and how things are written or said in that language.

But how do we cover all the many possible contexts learners will want to participate in? There isn’t enough time. There are too many learners. Their motivations, interests and goals are too diverse. Well, we don’t. Realistically, we can’t.

We can, however, help learners to apply what they do with us to what they want or need to be able to do in other areas of their lives. Some learners will do this naturally. Others will need support, guidance and encouragement.

With the limited time available to meet face-to-face in many contexts, we can try to expand the learning time by encouraging and guiding learners to take advantage of the language around them to get a feel for how language is used in a variety of contexts, to develop language skills and also to become more aware of their learning. (Even when time isn’t limited, this seems like a good thing to do!)

Jenny Kemp (2010) reports on a study of listening logs kept by students as part of a listening skills module. Essentially listening-focused learning diaries, the listening logs were used by students to record at least five listening experiences per week over the course of eight weeks. Information recorded in the logs included details of the activity – date, source and what happened – and a reflection on the experience. Learners could choose what kinds of listening they included according to their own interests, goals and lives. Any listening activity could be included – listening to songs, topping up mobile phones, a listening task found online, etc. Learners were asked to think about the types and variety of listening they do and how easy or difficult each experience was. They considered how factors such as accent, speed, background noise, interest or tiredness affected their ability to participate in the listening event. They reflected on how they responded, if they enjoyed it, if it was useful and what they would do differently when next in a similar situation.

The accounts in the listening logs showed that learners were aware of their language abilities and learning processes. Whether this awareness was developed through the listening and recording activities or whether learners already had a good understanding of this is not clear. However, having a record did seem to make it easier for them to recognise progress between instances of similar activities.

“This time it was better because I already knew what the machine was going to ask me, although I think that I can understand it much better than before.” (Learner 2)

They showed an understanding of what makes an experience more difficult and of the strategies they could employ to make it easier.  Instances where learners simply recorded their problems were opportunities for the teacher to offer feedback and advice.

One of the aims of the listening logs was that, as learners developed metacognitive awareness, they would be more able to take control, make decisions and direct their own learning and development. The entries provided evidence that learners anticipated difficulties in particular situations and took action to minimise these or that they set themselves learning challenges to move towards their goals. “Next time I’ll make my mind work harder, no subtitles” (Learner 9). Learners also recorded an awareness of the new language that they were learning from their listening activities.

Kemp found that the listening logs provide insights into students’ motivation for learning English through the situations they choose to participate in and their reflections on the experiences. The logs can also, she argues, “be instrumental in [motivation’s] generation”.

Keeping the logs seems to increase learners’ awareness of their language ability and learning processes and strategies, allowing them to use those insights to make decisions about future learning and language use.  It encourages learners to take control over their own learning and to recognise progress in areas that are relevant and important to them.

As Kemp writes in the introduction to the article:

“As language teachers, our goal should be to provide these learners not only with transferable skills but also with guidance, to raise their awareness and enable them to become independent learners who are able to exploit the potential learning situations in which they find themselves.”

Jenny Kemp’s consideration of the entries in her students’ listening logs provides us with insights into the thinking and learning processes of her learners. It contributes to our understanding of the diversity of learner motivations, preferences and experiences and were we to read similar accounts from our own learners, we would be in a better position to advise, guide and provide input related to their own particular contexts and goals.


Kemp, J. (2010). The Listening Log: motivating autonomous learning. ELT Journal, 64(4), 385-95.

Language, personality and choice

Over the last few weeks, at the British Council ELTons awards and at the BELTA Day, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people I had got to know through their written contributions and posts to online spaces – blogs, Twitter, forums, Facebook. Many of them I hadn’t seen – other than in photos – or heard, but I had an idea of what they’d be like and whether I’d enjoy spending time with them. When I finally met them face-to-face, I was struck by how accurate that idea seemed to be.

From people’s online writing and written interactions, it would seem that we are able to read and find out about not only ideas, opinions and experiences, but also their personalities.  Recent studies have also found that personality can be perceived through writing as Lin Qui et al write:

“Previous research has documented accurate zero-acquaintance personality judgments made on the basis of writing samples, and identified the relationships between personality and language use in various contexts. The current study extends the existing findings by examining associations between microblogs and personality traits. We demonstrated that personality traits are associated with linguistic cues in microblogs and can be accurately judged by unknown others.”(Qui et al, 2012: 716)

Much of the research seems to have looked only at word choice. For example, Yarkoni (2010) in an analysis of 100,000 words from almost 700 different blogs showed that word choice and personality were related. It is likely that other aspects of the language will contribute to the representation of who we are, but it is probably easier to focus on words through text analysis software such as the Language Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) and studies such as these do support the impression that our personality comes across in our writing through the linguistic choices we make.

Roz Ivanič, introducing her book Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing, suggests that “readers try to figure out who is speaking to them, even though they often have to do this by detective work: reading the texts around the text, and, less consciously, searching for the writer’s identity in the writing itself” (Ivanič, 1998: 2).  We will have all done this. We will have formed impressions of those we read online, making judgements about their expertise and understanding, their motivation, their personality. We can, I think, pick up on the small clues that indicate that someone might not be as friendly, helpful and open as they’d like us to think they are. Similarly, we can detect that someone is not as anti-social as they’d like to let on! We may think of a person as being fun, earnest, moody, intelligent, defensive, enthusiastic, dedicated, delusional, vulnerable or confident. We will decide if we like the person, if we are on the same wavelength, and if we’d enjoy spending time with them face-to-face – and all this from what they have written.

As we know, there is usually not just one way to communicate something. When we use language, in either its written or spoken form, we make choices. Those choices are significant in determining what is conveyed – about the topic, about our take on it, about our understanding of the world, about us. Michael Halliday’s work sees language as consisting of “a set of systems, each of which offers the speaker (or writer) a choice of ways of expressing meanings” (Bloor & Bloor, 1995: 2). We select – consciously or unconsciously – the word or phrase, the grammatical structure, the tone of voice, etc. best suited to our purposes in any situation. The more we understand the choices, the better we’ll be able to come across as we’d like and the better able we’ll be to help language learners find a voice – their voice – online in a second language.

Language learners and/or new writers can be very aware of not being able to express who they are accurately. Some of them aim for ‘perfection’, believing there to be one correct way to say something and that other options are sub-standard and to be avoided by proficient users of the language. Others may not know enough about the options available to them – grammatically or lexically. They might not yet be able to pick up on the implications of the choices they make or know how to create the nuances of meaning that they can in their existing languages. This awareness of the gap between who they are and what they can express can make them reticent to write (blog, tweet, or post) publicly if what they are currently able to produce does not allow them to present a version of themselves that they are happy with.

But everyone has something to say and share. We all have opinions, experiences, ideas and knowledge. All expression of meaning is an opportunity to move knowledge of a language forward, to show other ways of saying or writing something, to give choices. And, whether we are speakers of English as a first or a second language, we are always adding to the choices available to us. The more choices we have and the more we know and understand those choices, the more able we are to connect with and to influence those who read or listen to us, and the more power we have.


Bloor, T and Bloor, M. (1995). The Functional Analysis of English: A Hallidayan Approach. London: Arnold.

Ivanič, R. (1998). Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Qui, L., Lin H. Ramsay, J., and Yang, F. (2012). You are what you tweet: Personality expression and perception on Twitter, Journal of Research in Personality, 46(6), 710-18.

Yarkoni, T. (2010). Personality in 100,000 Words: A large-scale analysis of personality and word use among bloggers, Journal of Research in Personality, 44(3), 363-73.

Two websites. One easy way to review language.

Criss cross puzzleAs I wrote a little while ago, I like to use little pieces of paper to focus on and record the relevant language in ESOL sessions. Once focused on and recorded, that language needs to be reviewed – in class, but also, ideally, by learners between sessions.

I can do things in class at the end of a session and in future ones and language often gets recycled quite naturally too. Getting the learners to review, notice and use the language between sessions is more of a challenge and I’m currently thinking about new ways to encourage learners with busy and tiring lives to do this. The reading group has been useful but I’d like to add aspects to focus more on language they read and hear in their own time. One of the first things I’ll try is asking them to find a word, a phrase and a sentence as Anna Pires suggests in a recent post.

But more about that another time. This post is really just to share something I’ve found to be a very simple, quick and quite effective way to produce material to highlight, review and push learners to recall new lexical items as well as to add a bit of variety, with the help of two very useful websites:

Discovery Education Puzzlemaker

Macmillan Dictionary

From the Discover Education Puzzlemaker page, choose to make a Criss-cross puzzle. Then with a selection of the most useful words from previous sessions, and the clear definitions from the Macmillan Dictionary, make your puzzle and print it out.

It takes minutes to prepare but the learners usually really enjoy the challenge and the fact that it is based around words from their stories and experiences. I did it most recently with a group where I want to encourage better recording and reviewing of language. This is a first step. I also made sure that learners all had a vocabulary notebook and next week, I’ll start to discuss how learners use these and will be referring to Kathy Fagan’s recent post on vocabulary notebooks and the book she’s just finished reading.

As well as learners completing the puzzle, checking answers also provides opportunities to recall the context in which it was originally used to ensure the meaning is clear and to consider other contexts of use and other words they can be used with. (See Leo Selivan’s post on In context or with co-text?)

When published materials, as good as many of them are, just don’t quite fit the learners and language we’re working with, it’s useful to know of easy and quick ways to add variety and to review and extend language knowledge. This, I think, is one of them.

Using yes-no questions to get people talking

A quick internet search of open and closed questions suggests that open questions are considered the better option to get a fuller response from people and to keep the conversation going. That makes sense. Closed questions can be answered in a word or phrase, while open questions require people to provide a bit more detail, describe experiences, give reasons, and opinions. So, when trying to encourage more speaking in order to maximise learning opportunities, we should be asking more open questions and fewer closed questions, shouldn’t we?

Language in the inner cityBut, it may not be that straightforward. Asking yes-no questions in particular could well be a very useful way to get longer stretches of talk from our learners.

William Labov, in his study of language in the inner city in America, described some of the devices the researchers used in eliciting significant amounts of casual speech from the participants.

He writes:

In the section of our interview schedule that deals with fights, we ask “Were you ever in a fight with a guy bigger than you?” When the subject says “Yes” we pause and then ask simply, “What happened?” (Labov, 1972: 354)

In the footnotes, he elaborates:

Note that the original question calls for only one or two words; this is a “Yes-No” question. The subject first becomes committed to a narrative by a simple ‘yes’. He then becomes involved in the more detailed account of what happened as a necessary justification of  the claim made by the first response. The initial impetus provided by the Yes-No question is an important element in this procedure. Many formal interviews use questions of the form “Can you tell me something amusing (dangerous, exciting, important) that has happened to you?” Though such questions will produce some response in some listeners, they are quite unsatisfactory as a rule to both speaker and interviewer; the reasons for their inadequacy make a nice topic for discourse analysis. (Labov, 1972: 354)

Labov wrote this over 40 years ago and there will have been much discourse analysis conducted on this since then. If anyone would like to highlight any in particular, that would be very interesting. It would also be interesting to play around with this and pay attention to the difference using a yes-no question before open questions makes to the responses from learners, particularly from those learners who might be a bit more reluctant to talk.


Labov, W (1972). Language in the inner city: studies in the Black English Vernacular. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Little pieces of paper

Pieces of paperOne of my favourite ways of capturing and recording language while working with small groups of up to about six language learners is on little pieces of paper. When these pieces of paper have featured in some of my posts, people have remarked on their use and, consequently, I’ve become more aware of how I use them and thought I’d try to write about them in a bit more detail. While possibly too simple a thing to write about, I’ve found them to be a very efficient, flexible and satisfying way to work with learners and their language. So, this is a this-works-well-for-me-it-might-for-you kind of post.

A few years ago, I was meeting with a group of learners in a room without a white board. A brand new building, great facilities, but I got the room without a white board! I brought a portable flipchart with me. I used it much as I would a white board and it was fine. It wasn’t ideal, though. The pages quickly filled up. I couldn’t erase parts of phrases to replace them with alternatives. I couldn’t quickly get rid of evidence that I had made a mistake! And, recovering and reviewing earlier language meant flipping frantically back through the previous sheets. So, not very efficient and not at all flexible.

While working with the learners, we all sat around the same table – much as a group sitting down to dinner would – and when a learner asked about something, or needed a word or phrase, I jumped up to write it on the flip chart. I didn’t mind doing this, but some learners seemed to feel they were putting me out by asking a question, some saying “no, no, it’s ok, you don’t need to write”. So, not very satisfying either.

During one session, I stayed at the table more and wrote the language on paper and put it in the middle of the table so that everyone could see. This had the advantage that I wasn’t using as much paper. To add flexibility, I tore the paper into smaller pieces. I realised that this meant that I could quickly retrieve language used earlier in the session and use it in new contexts. I could also bring similar language together to allow patterns to be noticed. The flexibility meant that learning opportunities were more accessible and exploitable. What might have remained a chaotic list of words and phrases on sheets of A1 paper, became language we could move around, discard, and add to easily.

I started to bring pre-cut paper into sessions with me but when I got the chance to use a room with a white board, I took it, relieved, and started once again to use the board. My board work, however, has always tended towards the chaotic. I start with good intentions, with images of colleagues’ well-organised boards in my head, but it quickly gets out of hand. The board needs to be cleared regularly – after having taken a photo of it, if I remember – and the language at the beginning of the session exists only in memory or on my phone (and, possibly, in the notebooks of learners!)

With small groups, though, I now hardly ever use the board any more. I have my pieces of paper in every session and I use them according to what’s needed with any particular group. I first mentioned them in my first ever post writing about my Tuesday evening ESOL group. They also featured when I wrote about what I had planned, but not how I planned it.

Most recently, I used them with a beginners group of Polish learners when the topic of what they do at Easter came up. Using a version of the language experience approach – putting the learners’ ideas into English – and with the ideas on using translation from George Woolard’s recent publication in mind, we gradually built up and captured their story on the bits of paper, breaking the sentences up into phrases. We read it through and focused on pronunciation. One person was there for the first time and didn’t want to speak in English but had helped to build up the story using L1. Then, I kept the beginning of each sentence where it was and we mixed up the rest of the pieces of paper. Using Google Translate (carefully), I played a translation of a sentence (and variations) in their language for the learners to reconstruct in English using the pieces of paper. We checked the result by playing the sentence in English on Google Translate. (I could have said it myself, but it seemed to give the learners a bit of a boost to hear their sentence said by another voice.)  The new learner participated in reconstructing the sentences by helping to select and arrange the language needed, seeming more confident as the session progressed.

Having the pieces of paper in the middle of the table meant that this was a very collaborative activity, with learners having to work together or at least monitor what others were doing or saying. We were able to start with what the learners wanted to talk about and work with that and, by doing so, the meaning was clear to them from the beginning. I just needed to check that I understood properly before providing an English version for it. And, I now have the set of pieces of paper that I can bring in next week to review and expand the language we encountered.

Following this, a learner wanted to know the word for ‘daffodils’ in English. We found it and I said that this was my favourite flower. For the last 15 minutes we asked and answered questions about our favourite flower, sport, colour, etc, all with the support of a substitution table made of little pieces of paper!

So, this is what I do. I often think that what we choose to do in class is guided by our personalities and how our mind works (or doesn’t). I need to keep things simple! I’d be very interested to hear what you do – either using pieces of paper – or in dealing with chaotic white boards!

Cool things that happened today (and yesterday)

All within the last 6 hours… (x2)

  • I accepted the challenge from Mike Griffin to follow his lead and post about cool things that happened today. As is my wont, I’m bending the rules. So this post covers yesterday as well.
  • Paying attention to small, positive things got off to a good start as I spotted two magpies as I drove to work which, as the rhyme tells us, signifies joy! (I’m not really superstitious but they always take me back to sitting on the bus on the way to school in Ireland, counting and assigning meaning to the magpies in the fields as we passed.)
  • Sample copies of the course books, Life, arrived. I’ve had a quick glance and these look like they might be enjoyable to dip into – particularly for using the National Geographic video with lower levels. I’m looking forward to exploring them more.
  • Looking up the word ‘bark’, ESOL learners found two meanings – the part of a tree and the noise a dog makes – a noise that some of them helpfully produced. It seemed important at that stage to point out that dogs say “woof, woof!” in English. A very informative comparison of animal noises ensued. (We were, however, initially looking for the other meaning of ‘bark’!)
  • A learner’s iPad came to the rescue when learners started looking for technical words related to trains!!
  • A learner agreed to teach a wee bit of Polish to community members at our Cultural Connections beetle drive next week.
  • After working hard clarifying and discussing Mike’s (slightly adapted) Cool Things, ESOL learners loved the idea of writing their own lists. I’m looking forward to reading them.
  • After exclaiming loudly to the whole office that our new, fancy, multi-function device printer was already out of toner, I realised that I had, in fact, sent my document to the wrong printer!
  • Two of the learners in the literacies group for people with learning disabilities showed us how they dance along to Olly Murs singing Dance With Me Tonight. It was such a pleasure to watch and they obviously really enjoy doing it. We’ll need to work out a way for them to share their skills and enthusiasm with others.
  • With some of the money left in our resources budget, I’ve ordered mini white boards. Finally!
  • Noticing the positive, small things that have happened – in among the frustrations and the not so good things – has been a good exercise, something I’ll try to do more often, and a fun challenge. (Thanks Mike! 🙂 )
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