Tag Archives: emergent grammar

Some user-friendly concordance ideas

Although corpora are now widely used in putting together ELT Dictionaries, and increasingly used in writing ELT materials, it is still rare, I think, for corpora, and especially for concordances to be used much in the ELT classroom.

Firstly, I think many teachers are not quite sure what they are. To clarify, a corpus (plural corpora) is a collection of texts (for written corpora) or recordings of speech (for spoken corpora). A vast amount of language is gathered, and when sorted by a computer, this can provide a lot of data about how language is actually used, which words naturally collocate and so on.

A concordance gives you all or some of the examples of how a particular word or phrase has been used in that corpora. For example:

Top of Form

001. and win a Mediterranean holiday!”  WASTE of time!” Dad had said. “No one ever wins those things
002.  as they sit around a WASTE lot passing muscatel which warms each in his sour shea
003.  And so it was a WASTE crying over spilled milk.” “I think this is where we c
004. “Because the merchant thought it was a WASTE of light to have both eyes open; why not save the ligh
005.  is not capable of doing this, then it is a WASTE of money to install it, no matter what attractive indu
006. “As it was such a WASTE of time, you presumably won’t want to come,”
007.  because it would be a WASTE of public money to put him on probation. No wonder he
008.  misunderstood is always a WASTE of time. Until our Moscow experience, I had not consid
009.  which inevitably leads to a WASTE of nursing resources. The Auditor General’s criticism
010.  “That’s silly!” “That’s a WASTE, sure it is, dad?” “Both. But the people had done it t

[I used the concordancer at conc.lextutor.ca]

While there are lots of ways in which we can easily use corpora, mostly through webtools, you only have to look at the sample concordance above to see why concordances aren’t used much in class. They just look so dense, unattractive and overwhelming. The sample extracts are also often rather baffling, and can be very offputting.

But you should also note that even in the first 10 examples I selected (there were 72), there is a lot of useful information. We can see that we often use ‘waste’ with ‘time ‘and ‘money’; that we most often say ‘a’ waste of.., that we can use it as an adjective  in ‘a waste lot’.

Most people agree that students learn by being exposed to language, including extensive reading. Using a concordance is a way of giving that exposure in a more concentrated form, so that students can see how words are woven together.

I should say at this point that I am by no means an expert in concordancing; indeed I am probably as confused  (or more confused) as the next person by the whole techy side of it. It is also, it seems to me, disproportionately difficult to find free corpora online. But I do think it’s a shame not to try and use this undoubtedly good resource, and just wanted to share a few ideas.

The sites I have used are the Corpus of  Contemporary American English , and http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/. Both these sites can do far more things than I am able to explain, so if anyone wants to take up the baton and guide us through the complexities, we’d all, I’m sure, be grateful.

In the meantime, here are a few fairly simple ideas I have used in the classroom. They all use the basic KWIC (keyword in context) concordance, though there are lots of other ways of sorting the information.

Pre-teaching vocabulary

Before reading a text in class, you can select a small number of words to pre-teach (see here for a post on pre-teaching vocabulary) and, rather than asking students to use dictionaries, give a concordance of each word to a different group, (or ask them to feed the word into an online concordancer). They should look at the examples and try to work out a definition- which they can then check in a dictionary. If students are likely to be put off my the more obscure examples, you can just pre-select some examples that are relatively straightforward.

Groups can then feedback to each other, explaining the words.

You may ask why not simply check in a dictionary in the first place- but there is evidence to suggest that students will gain a greater understanding of how to use a word, and be more likely to remember it, if they have seen it in several contexts.

Raising awareness of collocations

A very simple activity is to produce a concordance with a word (such as waste), which has strong collocates, and then remove the keyword, asking students to guess what the missing word is.

For example, can you do this one?* (I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English):

Many of them were ______ workers, you know support staff, people who cleaned, cooked.

Employment? – All ______ jobs, answered Claire. ‘dishwasher, building janitor…’

..he does _______ tasks vaguely tied to insurance.

If they do find a job, it’s ________ labour.

Clarifying easily confused words/eliciting grammar rules.

Sometimes words have quite similar meanings, but are used slightly differently. For example, ‘say’ and ‘tell’. Looking at two concordances, one for each word, can really help to clarify how these words are used differently. You can then ask students to try to explain the differences they have noticed.

This can also work well for some grammar rules, such as the use of some and any, or too and enough.

Error correction

Once students are confident about using online concordancers, you can underline any errors in their written work; the kind where we just have to say ‘We just don’t say it like that in English.’, and ask them to look up the keyword and see how it would be phrased in English, using the examples.

Useful and/or informative sites about using corpora and concordances

http://leoxicon.blogspot.co.uk/p/essential-lexical-tools.html – a useful list of corpus based web tools (and the rest of the site is worth checking out to if you’re interested in vocabulary learning and teaching)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qf46lOnMCfs&feature=related An hour long talk by Randi Reppen on Using Corpora in the Language Classroom. I have the book (also recommended), so haven’t watched the whole thing, but I suspect it is very much worth watching.

http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/using-online-corpus-tools-to-check-intuitions/ A blog post on using online corpus tools (and again, check out the rest of the blog too)

  * menial

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Filed under Vocabulary

Developing complexity through a focus on form

In a recent IELTS exam, I had to assess someone who lived locally, with a British passport. I’m not sure if she could have been called a native speaker, but I’m pretty sure that most people meeting her would have made that assumption. She had a local accent, and her language was pretty fluent. It was also mostly accurate. However, what was missing was complexity.

There was a lot of repetition, using the same simple phrases again and again. She tended to use mostly present tenses and simple linkers, such as and, but and because. Overall there was a tendency to avoid more complex sentence structures. She produced language confidently and with ease, didn’t make many mistakes, but still couldn’t be said, I thought, to be producing a ‘full range of structures’ or to be using vocabulary ‘with full flexibility and precision ’.

If we focus solely on achieving communication, some students will stay stuck at a certain level of complexity. Therefore we also need to provide opportunities for students to focus on form.

In his article, Accuracy, fluency and complexity (2000), Scott Thornbury looks at the traditional PPP (presentation-practice-production) model and makes the point that complexity was supposed to be targeted in the first presentation stage. Students have their attention drawn to a particular language point, and then get the opportunity to use it.

Thornbury says that there is ‘a growing belief that restructuring is more likely to occur during practice activities.’ Instinctively, this feels right to me. I think those ‘aha’ moments definitely tend to occur more when students are actually doing something with the language. However, I also like the way that Jack C Richards puts it in Moving Beyond the Plateau:

‘For learners’ linguistic systems to take on new and more complex linguistic items, the restructuring, or reorganization, of mental representations is required, as well as opportunities to practice these new forms (the output hypothesis). Ways of increasing the opportunities for restructuring to take place can occur at three different stages during an activity: prior to the activity, during the activity, or after completing an activity.’

 So, what can we do at each of these stages to help learners restructure and complexify language?

 Prior to the activity

While I think that students have to be interacting with language in some way in order to restructure, I don’t think that they necessarily always have to be using it themselves. What about:

Concept checking

Sometimes seen as a weird and unnecessary hoop that trainers make you jump through on the CELTA, to be abandoned as soon as possible afterwards, concept checking can actually often be a source of those ‘aha’ moments.

A concept question tries to pin down the main concept behind a piece of language and check it. So, for example, ‘used to’. The dictionary definition (Macmillan Advanced) is ‘Used for saying what was true or what happened regularly in the past, especially when you want to emphasize that this is not true or does not happen now.’ So, the concept questions  for ‘I used to enjoy gardening’ could be..

–          Did you enjoy gardening once or regularly?- regularly

–          Do you still enjoy gardening now? – No

[Traditionally they are used in the first part of a PPP lesson, but you can, of course, use concept questions at any stage of the lesson, not just the beginning]

Giving a model

Before students carry out a speaking task, it can be helpful for them to listen to more competent speakers (whether you or a recording) carrying out the same or a similar task. You can then draw attention to some useful language they can add to their store. You could ask them to listen and pick out specific items, or they could choose for themselves. There are plenty of ways of getting students to ‘notice’ language (see this post on noticing in reading )

Planning time

Research shows that planning time will tend to increase the complexity of language used. It may give students time to dredge up language that they do know, but that isn’t yet in their easy to reach store of language. Or they may learn from each other in the planning process, or you can feed in language they could use.

During an activity

Some years ago I was teaching a class in Brazil, using Headway Upper Intermediate. There was an article about holiday disasters, which included a story about an overbooked flight. According to the story, passengers had had to run around the plane and the first ones to get round got the seats. I decided to set up a role-play around an overbooked flight. The idea was for students to come up with a good story as to why they had to get a seat, and persuade the cabin crew. Instead, the students set up a bank of chairs and started running!

The point being, if achieving the task becomes too important, language will fly out of the window (especially with teenagers).

We need to find a balance between base-line communicating (with whatever means possible) and being too focused on form, so that we are not genuinely communicating at all.

Performance

Introducing an element of performance can help with this. If students know that they will have to make a short presentation on their discussion, for example, this can help to focus them more on the actual language they are using. Similarly, recording the discussion for later review, can also help to keep some focus on form, without taking away the genuine need to communicate.

Repetition

We also know that repeating a task usually results in a higher level of complexity, as students become more confident with the material. Obviously we need to find ways of providing an opportunity to repeat the task in a way which makes some communicative sense- e.g. having a different audience the second time.

After an activity

This can be the very best time to focus on form, as it means that the task can’t have been compromised by too much emphasis on the language used.

Using a model

Instead of listening to a model before carrying out a task, students could listen to a model after they have done the task and notice any language that was similar to what they used, or that they could have used but didn’t. This can be particularly motivating as an interim stage before students are asked to repeat the task.

Self-noticing and reformulation

If the speech has been recorded, students can be asked to transcribe a short section of their speech (1-2 minutes). They can make any changes they wish before handing it in to the teacher. This in itself will be a valuable awareness-raising activity.

Step two, however, is for the teacher to then reformulate what each student has written, as appropriate. The student can then compare their version with the teachers’ version, providing another noticing opportunity.

If you have a large class, you could do this with 1 or 2 anonymous examples (different people each time), and look at them with the whole class.

Consciousness-raising tasks

If students are all tending to make the same kind of errors (such as problems with articles), you could note down a range of examples and give them to the students to both correct and agree on the rules.

Traditional practice activities

In the PPP model, these come before ‘production’, but there is no reason why these can’t come at the end of the lesson, after the speaking, as a way of helping to consolidate language which may or may not have been used during the speaking task.

Feedback

You can, of course, note down errors and examples of good language (to develop complexity, not just accuracy) while the task is taking place and carry out a feedback slot at the end of the class where you put these on the board and elicit corrections.

Alternatively, you could develop some peer feedback tools. Someone in the group can take the role of listening and making notes, or you could record the discussions (quite easy in these days of mobile phones). Students can then look for examples of particular language forms or particular speech acts (such as ways of encouraging others to continue). Because this is potentially quite exposing for group members, it is generally better to focus on finding good examples, rather than finding mistakes.

I strongly believe that if all we do is provide learners with opportunities to communicate, we are doing them a disservice. Our job has to be to help them to communicate more effectively, which, I would argue, involves a focus on form, at whatever stage(s) of the lesson that might be.


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Filed under IELTS, Speaking, Teaching methodology

Ideas for taking an ’emergent’ approach to using a coursebook

Most coursebooks have an essentially structural syllabus. Each unit has a handful of language points, what Scott Thornbury refers to as ‘Grammar McNuggets’, and the assumption is that these points will be presented, practised and learnt.

As a coursebook writer, I understand why the syllabus is presented in this way. Most teachers, institutions, parents, students like to have a sense of the way ahead as a series of steps. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this so long as:

–       We remember that what we are teaching is not necessarily what the student is learning.

–       We aim to teach the students rather than the material.

I believe that the material in a coursebook should be seen as a resource, pure and simple. It can and should be used and abused to best meet the needs of the class.

There are certain key elements we need to provide students to give them the opportunity to develop.

Input or language in context (this needs to be motivating and relevant)

Opportunity to ‘notice’ language

Clarification/consciousness raising- whether after noticing or after using (feedback)

Opportunity to use language (this also needs to be motivating and relevant and ideally personalised)

If all these elements aren’t in the coursebook (and they might be), there is no reason why we can’t adapt it to provide them.

‘Noticing’

Many coursebooks do now ask students to notice the language in a text. There are two possible problems with this. Firstly, the text may have been specially written to include these examples, and not in a very natural way. Secondly, if the text is authentic, there may only be a couple of examples.

One way of dealing with this (and it could be used for any text you want to use, not just coursebook texts) is to also use a concordance. For example, there is a text in a coursebook I’m familiar with which has some examples of the different meanings of the word ‘like’ (as a verb and as a preposition). Students are asked to find examples and decide on the meaning. This could then be extended by looking at a concordance (or a simplified version at lower levels) and deciding on the meaning of these examples before returning to the personalised practice in the coursebook. In this example, students write each other questions using both meanings and then answer each other’s questions before going on to write about a place they like and what it’s like.

‘Interlanguage’

Another example from a well known coursebook has a short text. Students are asked to underline all the examples of articles and then find examples of the rules given. An alternative might be to do the text as a dictogloss. The teacher reads the text aloud, at fairly normal speed (not slowly) and the students try to write down what they can. They then work together to recreate the text. Inevitably, if articles are a problem area, they will miss some out or use the wrong ones. They can then compare their version with the original and identify the gap in their own interlanguage.

Alternatively, or even as a follow up task, students could translate the text into their L1 and then, a few days or a week later, try to translate it back. Again, this will highlight any individual difficulties.

Task repetition

Another way to get students to ‘notice the gap’ using a coursebook activity works well with a more traditional kind of activity where students listen to a dialogue which exemplifies a particular language point.

Fans of emergent grammar might avoid these kinds of recordings like the plague, but it can work well in a kind of task based approach. This way, you begin by getting the students to improvise a similar kind of dialogue (obviously this works best if the topic is something they might actually want to talk about). You could even record these conversations if you have the technology. Then you listen to the coursebook dialogue and encourage students to notice any language in there that they could have used. Incidentally, this might not be the language the coursebook writers intended. Finally, the students carry out the dialogue again, perhaps this time with a different partner. If you have recorded the first version, you could record this too, and students could then listen to the recordings at home and note any improvements in the second version.

Task repetition has been shown to have a very positive effect on what Thornbury refers to as ‘grammaring’

I am very far from believing that everyone should be using published materials all the time. However, always starting from scratch can be very labour intensive and, I believe, requires a good deal of experience and understanding. Why not use everything that’s available, just tweaking and adapting as you go?

Incidentally, there are some fabulous ideas, perfectly applicable to published materials, in Grammar and Uncovering Grammar, both by Scott Thornbury.

Here are a few links I have found since writing the post, related to using a coursebook in a more unplugged style.

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook