Is CLT the Right Approach for Japanese High Schools?

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In 2013, I observed a sample lesson at a middle-level high school in Japan. The purpose was to demonstrate a style of lesson and convince the attending English teachers to emulate it. One of the targets of emulation was teaching English in English, and the other was teaching English communicatively. Dozens of English teachers from across the prefecture were there, dutifully and cautiously observing the sample lesson, in which a teacher managed to conduct a textbook unit explanation and lead a productive task almost entirely in English.

Few doubts or complaints were aired by the observing teachers. They know which way the wind is blowing. They know that the education board staff running the lesson observation/training have an agenda, and that agenda comes down from the Ministry: teach English in English; do productive tasks; teach communicatively. They understand that  it is something that they should probably be doing, even though they did not experience this type of lesson themselves as students, even though they were never really trained to teach this way in college teacher training courses or on the job, even though they have doubts about their own English competence and are reluctant to put their shortcomings on display too much. So, they nodded politely, and promised to take the ideas back to their schools for further consideration.

Where, of course, it would be back to business as usual.

Nishino (2009) produced a paper that I still have trouble comprehending, but which I believe continues to sum up attitudes to teaching English communicatively in high schools in Japan. She found that Japanese teachers have pretty positive attitudes toward communicative language teaching (CLT), but mostly choose not to engage in it themselves. The reason, I guess, comes back to the lack of experience, training, and language proficiency on the part of teachers. But in my present position, it is my job to promote a greater use of English in the classroom by teachers and students, and that naturally involves more communicative activities.

For most Japanese teachers of English, however, this goes against their strengths, which often include techniques for grammar and vocab explanation, classroom management skills, and a proficiency with tasks that raise awareness of language features and encourage memorization. The CLT techniques my group (and the Ministry, and the BOE) are recommending often seem less than exemplary when observed in real classrooms, despite the authority of SLA research that stands behind the approach. This becomes painfully obvious when it is put on display, as in the class mentioned above, where the teacher had students write a short opinion about the topic and then share it with a partner and then the whole class. Even I couldn’t help thinking that the intellectual level was pretty low, and the pace was very slow. I’m sure many of the teachers observing with me had the following thoughts going through their heads: this is dumb and really inefficient.

And this brings me to the main point of this post. The dabbling with CLT that I have seen in classrooms here makes me wonder if it is worth the effort of teacher awareness raising, of teacher skill training, particularly if we see it as a goal unto itself. It seems that a little more CLT in classrooms is unlikely to make much of a positive difference in language classrooms. Students don’t seem especially more engaged, and the trite bits of incorrect language that often get produced are depressing–and are often incomprehensible to other students without a quick translation from the teacher. I know that  the system is failing pretty much at producing kids who can use the language right now. But I don’t think the fix will come with a few more CLT activities and a strict English-only policy on the part of teachers.

Of course, the answer cannot be business as usual either. Teachers have been yakking at students for years, explaining and translating, and that hasn’t worked out well at all. Van Patten (2014) in Interlanguage Forty Years Later, is particularly blunt in his assessment of the teaching of language by the teaching of rules, the kind most common still in Japan: “competence is not derived from explicit instruction/learning…[and that] holds true for all learners and all stages of development…” (pg. 123). Yes, instruction gets you something, but it is not competence. Form-focused instruction is very limited in what it can do for language learners, that much seems obvious to everyone–well, almost everyone….

So what it is the answer? I’m not sure, but more language, more language use, and more focused teaching seem to be the only way forward. Standing in the way, though, are the lack of proficiency of teachers (along with their lack of training/familiarity with alternative approaches), the culture of expectations that makes change difficult (the parents, the cram schools, the perceptions of entrance exams, the publishers, etc.), the passivity of students and their unfamiliarity with the kind of active use of the language needed to leverage learning, and the well-meaning souls whose hearts warm satisfactorily when students produce any kind of utterance (even when it is intellectually low, and mostly incomprehensible). Framed another way, what we need is more language processing and more responsibility for doing so in a comprehensible and academically appropriate manner.

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The image above (from a presentation on vocabulary by Rob Waring) shows a bookshelf with Korean English textbooks on the left and Japanese ones on the right. Notice the size difference? That translates to Korean students being exposed to thousands of words more during their years in mandatory education. The poverty of input argument for Japan is pretty easy to make if we look at just the amount of language students are exposed to, compared to Korea or Mexico (as Mr. Waring did), both of whom now handily beat Japanese scores on high stakes tests (TOEFL iBT, 2013: Japan 70, Korea 85).

There may be other reasons why Korean TOEFL test scores are higher. But certainly language exposure is one of them. Perhaps it is time to admit that in Japan, teachers explain too much in Japanese about too little target language. Adding a little “communicative” jibberish to that is unlikely to make a big difference, and may actually be detrimental in the long run if it lowers expectations further. In my opinion, more language immersion in the form of CLIL-type lessons at the high school level might be an interesting option to explore , since it provides CLT with sufficient input, thinking rigor, and responsibility.

 

 

 

Does this Shirt Make me Look Fat? Motivation and Vocabulary

I love the topic of motivation in language learning (past posts here, here, and here, for example). In the world of TESOL, however, it’s a little  like that old joke about the weather–everyone seems to talk about it but nobody does anything about it. In Japan, I often hear students voicing out loud how they wish they could speak English (even though they are students and even though they are enrolled in an English course at the present). They  sound a lot like the people I know who talk about losing weight or exercising more: vague, dreamy, and not usually likely to succeed. TESOL research and literature talks a lot about integrative and instrumental motivation, ideal selves, and willingness to talk, etc., concepts that just seem so far from the practical reality teachers and those dreamy-eyed students really need.  So  in this post I would like to focus on the positive and practical and provide a list of things to do that improve the chances of success, drawing on formative assessment ideas and general psychological ideas for motivation.The idea is to approach motivating learners the same way one would go about motivating oneself to lose weight or start and stick to an exercise program. Instead of talking about fuzzy motivations, let’s focus on just doing it. The enemy in my sights is much the same enemy that faces the would-be dieter or exerciser,  procrastination, a powerful slayer of great intentions.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: you can’t do much about the motivation kids bring with them to your class on Day 1, but after that, you certainly can. What you and your students do together affects how they think and feel about language learning and themselves. That is, teachers can change attitudes by changing behaviors. And as a teacher, you have a lot of power to change behaviors. As BJ Fogg says, you shouldn’t be trying to motivate behavior change, you should be trying to facilitate behavior change.

Vocabulary learning is the perfect place to try out techniques for motivation success and overcoming procrastination because it is in many ways the most autonomous-friendly part of language learning. It can easily be divided into manageable lists, and success/failure/progress can be fairly easy to observe by everyone. It is also a topic I have to run a training session on this summer and I need some practical ideas for teachers to try out with their students.

OK, here we go. In addition to using teaching techniques that make the vocabulary as easy to understand and remember as possible, try the following:

  1. Make a detailed plan with clear sub-goals that are measurable and time-based. Break the vocabulary list into specific groups and set a specific schedule for learning them. This provides a clear final target and clear actionable and incremental steps, important tenets of formative assessment. Create a complete list and  unit-by-unit or week-by-week lists. Be very clear on performance criteria for success (spelling, pronunciation, collocations, translation, etc.). Make the plans as explicit as possible, and put as much in writing as possible.
  2. Provide lots of opportunities for learners to meet and interact with the vocabulary. Learners need to actively meet target items more than 10 times each (and more than 20 times in passive meetings) if they are expected to learn them. Recycle vocabulary as much as possible.
  3. Create a system that requires regular  out-of-class study (preview/review). Out-of-class HW assignments should start by being ridiculously small at first (tiny habits–see below), such as write out two sentences one time each. Grow and share and celebrate from there.
  4. Ensure success experiences. Success is empowering. The teacher’s job is to ensure that learners can learn and can see the results of their learning. Do practice tests before the “real” test, and generally provide sufficient learning opportunities to ensure success (“over-teach” at first if you need to). Lots of practice testing is a proven technique to drive learning, and students need to do it in class and in groups, and learn how to do it on their own.
  5. Leverage social learning and pressure. Have learners learn vocabulary together, teach and help each other sometimes, encourage each other, and just generally be aware of how everyone else is succeeding. Real magic can happen if a learning community puts its mind to something.
  6. Have learners share their goals and progress, publicly in class  and with friends, family and significant others. Post results on progress boards, challenge and results charts, etc. At a very minimum, the teacher and the student herself should always know where they are and what they need to do to improve.
  7. Remind learners of the benefits of success. Provide encouragement, especially, supportive, oral positive feedback at times when it is not necessarily expected.
  8. Make sure that sub-goal success is properly recognized and rewarded. This provides a stronger sense of achievement.
  9. Make 1-8 as pleasant (fun, energetic, meaningful) as possible.

You may already be doing these things and still not getting the progress you hope for because the students just aren’t studying enough outside of class. Products of their age, they are driven by distractions–the need to check their Twitter feeds, for example, and the pressing issue of  incoming LINE comments, or whatever. But they also suffer from the oppression of the same procrastination monster that we all suffer from. Oliver Emberton has a nice post on dealing with procrastination. For teachers, I would like to call attention to the last two items on his list of recommendations: Force a start, and Bias your environment. “The most important thing you can do is start,” Mr. Emberton writes. This is certainly true.

yellowBrickRoadStart

You can counsel them on the need to turn off their devices and “study more.” But unless you give them clear, doable, and manageable tasks and start them in class, and require and celebrate their use, it is unlikely they will get done. BJ Fogg recommends that you facilitate behavioral change by promoting tiny habits. His work makes the establishment of positive habits seem so much easier. You can watch an earlier overview of his method here, or a fun TED talk here. Much of what he describes can only be done by the individual learner, but as a teacher you can set the target habit behavior and you can help learners see the fruits of their newly established habits. Just choose a vocabulary learning strategy, reduce it to it’s simplest form, and provide a place to celebrate success. Then try to grow and celebrate the continued use of these positive habits. This modern world is a hard one to study in. There are really too many distractions too close at hand. It takes real strength, real grit, to resist them and start or keep at something new. Helping students to develop this strength and grit is now part of any teacher’s job description, I think.

If you are looking for more on how to teach vocabulary, including a nice section on web and mobile app tools that can help, Adam Simpson’s blog has a nice post on vocabulary. If you are looking for something that combines the latest in TESOL theory on motivation with practical techniques for the items I listed above, Motivating Learning by Hadfield and Dornyei is the best thing I’ve seen. It has 99 activities to choose from.

Brain-friendly Teaching in Practice: Nick Bilbrough Introduces Memory Activities for Language Learning

Memory, or rather its quirks and limitations, in language education is sometimes like the weather in that old joke: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it. Yet memory limitations affect every aspect of what we as teachers and programs are trying to do. In the last few years, “brain-friendly” teaching, “brain-targeted” teaching and “neuroscience-informed” teaching have all been tossed around. In this blog, I’ve covered several books that deal with this (here, here, and here, for example). There are programs and resource sites like the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University, The NeuroLeadership Institute (associated with author  David Rock), USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute,  Harvard’s Mind / Brain / Behavior initiative, and an Annenberg Learner Resource called Neuroscience and the Classroom.  But none of these are by or for language teachers specifically. I’m sure there are  teachers who putting all this new knowledge to good practical use in the classroom, and I’m equally sure that much of what is being sold as “brain friendly” is what has always been done by good teachers anyway. But if you visit a lot of language classrooms, you might be amazed at how brain unfriendly some are.

In my job as a teacher trainer, I just don’t see all that many approaches and activities that show an appreciation for the finickiness of human memory. There are, as I see it, two possible reasons for this. One–a failure to take note of the mountain of research and how it sometimes screams out the need for pedagogical change–I would like to lay squarely at the feet of language teachers and language teaching programs. The other–a general lack of published materials and accepted classroom techniques–has and continues to be a problem; but Nick Bilbrough’s 2011 book Memory Activities for Classroom Learning begins to correct this problem. Much of what has worked in language classrooms over the years has done so because it has been sensitive to the cognitive limitations of learners and has leveraged the affective and social elements of content and classrooms. What is needed is a new lens, a new way of interpreting  successful activities that will inform the selection of activities in a task sequence or syllabus. That’s what this book does.

 

Memory research has advanced greatly in the past few years and Mr. Bilbrough does a good job of summing up and presenting what you need to know in short executive summaries at the beginning of each unit. If you don’t know why Ebbinghaus, or Craik & Lockhart, or Sweller are important for  your job, or  if the terms phonological loop, visio-spatial sketchpad, and episodic buffer don’t mean much to you, this book will provide a good introduction. And if you are familiar with all these, you’ll find the way Mr. Bilbrough turns this theory into actual classroom activities very interesting. It is my belief that even if you don’t use any of the ready-made activities directly from the book (most of which are very well-chosen by the way), your perspective on your own approach in your classes will change. Because once we start to think of why some things are better held in working memory or why some things are more likely to be stored in long-term memory, we’ll naturally feel the need to adjust our explanations, our pace and timing and selection of activities. Learners and teachers both want variety in lessons; but they both also want to see learning happening. This book will help you understand and apply some ideas for making things easier for learners to remember, which means easier to learn.

I think Mr. Bilbrough has done a very nice job identifying the key points connected to memory and how it affects the learner and the classroom. If you look at his unit headings, I think you will agree. There is enough flexibility here in the topics covered to meet the needs of teachers who are wedded to textbooks and those who use a more Dogme-ish approach.

  1. Mental Stretching
  2. Making Language Memorable
  3. Retrieving
  4. Repeating and Reactivating
  5. Memory Techniques and Mnemonics
  6. Learning By Heart
  7. Memory Games

This book is a nice start. I think that Cambridge may want to revisit many of the wonderful old books in the Handbooks for Language Teachers series and reorganize some of the content in line with more recent research and pedagogy. Books on affect , arts integration, skill mastery and transfer,  learning environments, challenge, fun, formative assessment, etc. are all needed. But for the time being, Memory Activities for Language Learning is a step in the right direction. And if I may be permitted to expand on my suggestion a little, a little more attention to relevant research would be a good idea, I think. One problem with this book is its sporadic use of citations. Some areas provide good references, others are devoid of references, and at least one reference is kind of puzzling. I love Chip and Dan Heath’s books, but calling them “educational psychologists” gives them more academic gravitas than they warrant. Teachers who are interested in finding out more about research and findings in memory will get precious little help from this volume beyond those good unit introductions to the basics, I’m afraid. The choice of online resources is also disappointingly limited.

But these criticisms are very minor. I highly recommend this book. Every language teacher should read the chapter intros and browse through the extensive list of suggested activities.

A year ago I wrote this post on working memory that you may find interesting if you are looking to further explore the topic of memory and learning.

 

EFL Gamification 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Not everyone is enamoured with gamification. Jane McGonigal wrote an entire book about using games as a force for good and avoided the term completely. And if you google “problems with gamification”  you’ll come across many pages encouraging caution or vitriol against gamification. And a lot of that is from some very smart people. Stephanie Morgan, a game designer like Ms McGonigal, actually called her Nov. 2012 presentation Gamification Sucks. She says what  a lot of critics say: most commercial application of gamification is based on a “shallow and cursory” understanding of the concept. Her talk covers scores and points, achievements such as badges, and avatars, and if you have 30 minutes, it is both entertaining and enlightening. Points (and other components) have to mean something, she says. That’s the whole point. That’s the whole reason we might want to use gamification in the first place.

A very nice example of this can be found at the website Progress Wars. Please go there now and click until you get it. You’ll see. Go on then. This website makes very effective use of gamification techniques to make the effective point that it can be pointedly pointless (in a bad way).

Sebastian Deterding is one of the smart people I mentioned in the first paragraph. He has a couple of presentations online that address this issue. I’ll embed them below. The first one explains the problem with most gamification really well–how it is often misunderstood and how it can often have negative side-effects. The second one looks at the same problem from a user experience design perspective and gives some suggestions for avoiding pitfalls and making experiences more playful or gameful.

For teachers, the essential problem comes down to two things, I believe. The first is that there exists already a system in place at schools for delivering content and assessing mastery. If you try to add gamification to this system, there is a strong possibility that you will be seen as just sugarcoating, in which case you can cheapen your curriculum or quickly bore your learners. The second problem is that games by definition require voluntary participation. I touched on this in the last post, but this is really the big challenge for the teacher-designer. This needs to be addressed in several ways.

One is to understand the power of the feeling of self-efficacy. Learning and progress are fun. Put another way, “kicking ass is more fun.” But there must be real achievement.

“The more we analyze and reverse-engineer passion, the more we see learning and growth as a key component. No, not a key–the key. The more knowledge and skill someone has, the more passionate they become, and the more passionate they become, the more they try to improve their knowledge and skills” (Kathy Sierra).

No teacher would disagree with this. And yet many teachers fail to help learners see evidence of achievement. Without clear goals and generous feedback–from peers, from the teacher, from the learning system–learners cannot see  improvement. And if they can’t see improvement then they can’t feel improvement, and  motivation will not be sustained. It’s as simple as that.  Games provide fantastic feedback and teachers must get used to making something like that part of the experience in the classroom. That means clear goals and regular formative feedback and meaningful markers of progress. Yet at the same time, there must be ample opportunities to try out new skills and knowledge in low-pressure (i.e., not tested) situations. A culture of trial and error until we see progress should be cultivated. Learners will put up with a certain amount of skill-building or knowledge collection if they see how it will help get them to their goals.

But while the key component is perceived growth, something has to happen to make growth happen. Revolutions don’t start when discontents reach thresholds of self-efficacy. Revolutions use the power and passion of ideas to bring people to the barricades, people who then build the skills they need. And that takes emotion. There needs to be more emotion, more delight, more meaning involved with moving through the material. My biggest shock from observing dozens of EFL classes in Japan was the total disregard for the emotional content of the textbooks. The teachers might as well have been teaching with phone books. Now, I have many problems with the EFL textbooks in use here, but the quality of the stories used is not one of them. These stories and the characters in them can be mined for empathetic meaning. But that is not all. The course itself becomes a narrative (as I covered in the Part 3). The learners are the heroes. The design of the syllabus,  the importance of the goal,  the journey, and the group–all of these can contribute to the emotional content of a learning experience.  Emotional engagement must be there. So the key to teaching is to take  neutral learners and make them care and work enough to see themselves grow in power. And then keep this going  as long as possible with further challenges, further success, and further social support. But if that were easy, it would certainly be more common than it is now. The problem is the boring bits. And maybe games can give us some ides for how to do this better.

Games are not always non-stop action. Resource farming is a common feature of games. You undertake some sort of mostly mindless repetitive activity with the knowledge that you are growing or acquiring resources/skills/information that will help you ramp up, level up, or otherwise become more powerful in the future. Take a look at Plants vs. Zombie’s zen garden.

You just collect plants, starting with only one or two, very slowly adding more.  And then you water, fertilize, and provide other care for them. You water one and the others want water. You have to repeat the process. Then you have to fertilize some. Then more. Then you have to go and buy more fertilizer and do it again. The plants generate money, but your first few little plants bring in so little that you wonder whether it is worth the effort. It’s very, very close to a production line job or one of those busywork assignments some teachers are so fond of. It’s boring but the plants are cute, and in the beginning you go along with it as you try to suss out the purpose.  The plants generate money, you learn, but you have to collect it, which also takes up some of your time. Eventually, however, they start generating real money and you learn that you can use that money to buy cool new super plants or unlock certain special games. So eventually you learn that this busywork contributes to a better game experience–better performance at higher levels. But there is a hump that needs to be overcome. The same is true of a lot of EFL content, particularly vocabulary. To kick ass you need to know a lot of it. But it takes time to explore the elaboration of word information, and it takes time to perform the frequent rehearsals that acquisition requires (Laufer, 2009).. And I think students will come over that hump with you if they can see the purpose in it, if they can see how their power increases.

At first glance, it seems strange that the game contains anything as slow as the zen garden. Think about it: the game shamelessly includes a an activity that at first disengages you from the main play and then forces you to complete a series of tasks that are about as fun as washing windows, despite the humorous narrator and cute little plants. And it does this on purpose! I think it’s because the designers know that players won’t respect leveling up unless it comes with some skill improvement or some work. And the same is true of learners. They’ll accept the boring bits if they promise of rewards is real. But they’ll need some help–a clear goal, very, very  clear feedback, a dash of emotion, and splash of fun.

Laufer, B. (2009). Second language vocabulary acquisition from language input and from form-focused activities. Language Teaching, Vol. 42, Issue 03, July, pg. 341-254.

 

Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs

 

Make Yourself Smarter?

An article in the New York Times on the weekend called Can You Make Yourself Smarter?, mentioned the double n-back training that is being done to increase working memory (formerly known as short-term memory–Susan Gathercole can fill you in if you need an update on working memory). It’s a little long, but quite interesting, and a little controversial, too, it seems, as I found when I visited Larry Ferlazzo’s ESL/EFL Website of the Day blog, where he had posted his comments on this article (which he didn’t like) and another on exercise and the brain (which he did like–link below). I had stumbled across the double n-back a few months ago when I was doing a little research into working memory and the phonological loop, even trying the online version, which I recommend before you read the Times article or Larry Ferlazzo’s critique of it, or even before you read any further into this post.

Here it is, at a site somewhat appropriately labelled Soak Your Head. Go ahead, give it a try. I’ll wait……….

The Times article is more balanced than Mr Ferlazzo’s comments lead you to believe. The author, Dan Hurley (currently writing a book on intelligence, BTW), reports mostly on the finding of Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, now at the University of Maryland, in a paper from 2008. They used the double n-back system to train people to improve their working memory and found improvements in their fluid intelligence as well. The claim that you can improve performance on a specific memory task doing it 25 minutes a day for between 12 to 17 weeks is not controversial. The claim that you can improve general working memory across the board is somewhat controversial. The claim that you can improve intelligence–reasoning, abstract thought, problem-solving intelligence–well, that causes a lot of controversy (see Randall Engle’s Attention and Working Memory Lab site for a truckload of blowback).

Many people agree that working memory capacity, especially phonological loop capacity, is critical to good performance at school, particularly for foreign language learning (see some of the many articles by Gathercole). But whether sitting at a computer screen for 25 minutes a day for what amounts to a semester of colored square and audio letter memory practice in increasing levels of difficulty (remember the last one; remember the one before the last one; remember the one 3 stimuli back) can help you, is questionable. It might help your working memory, but it is without doubt the closest thing to torture that I have ever seen in education. A person might elect to do it themselves, but I would not want to be responsible for imposing it on people, particularly at this time when researchers are finding different things.

But in Chicago they are doing it in a school system. And Torkel Klingberg, who invented the technique that  later modified and did their experiments with, well, he formed a learning company and later sold it to Pearson Education. And all sorts of other researchers are moving ahead with similar projects to stretch working memory and improve intelligence. A lot of people apparently see something there… A lot of people also like the work done by Jaeggi and Buschkuehl, according to the article. They just seem to want to move in a slower and less grandiose way forward I guess.

One researcher mentioned in the article, Adrian Owen, is quoted as saying the following after his attempts to replicate J and B’s study:

No evidence was found for transfer to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related”

Yup, it’s the transfer problem again. You learn what you do in the way that you do it. I can think of a lot of other things I would rather my students be doing for 25 intensely focused minutes per day for 17 weeks. But I have to admit, I really wouldn’t mind if they went home and instead of playing Temple Run for two hours, they played for one and a half hours after they spent half and hour “exercising” their working memories. Or better yet, do aerobics for half and hour, stretch working memory with the double n-back for half an hour, and then run in the game like a madman for the last hour, with malignant demonic monkeys forever hot on your heels.

Jan. 2014 Update: Here is a Guardian article on the same topic. It covers some of the same ground (gaming, computer-based brain training), but also electrical stimulation of the brain, specifically the Fo.us headset. The article ends with advice to take Andrea Kuszewski’s advice and just try to challenge yourself more.

 

 

October Treasure Hunt: Learning with Images

This month the topic is learning with pictures and I’d like to introduce some sites that help students to learn vocabulary by making use of the power of images. The first two sites chosen for this column are most appropriate for younger learners or learners of lower proficiency while the last two could be used effectively with any learners.

First up is Learning Chocolate. This site features more than 65 topics, and each topic introduces about 10 vocabulary items. Nice use is made of images and sound and learners are asked to complete several steps, each with a slightly different focus: a very nice visual learning tool.

The Online Picture Dictionary. Here you can make your own flashcard collections or spelling or word quizzes. The vocabulary is limited but teachers of younger learners might find this a nice source of images and simple activities.

Merriam-Webster’s Visual Dictionary Online is a great visual dictionary. It’s very comprehensive and you can use it with learners of all ages. There are options for each topic so you can get more specific if you want to, and audio pronunciations are also available. You can even use the graphics you find here for your blog if you cite the source.

And lastly, I have introduced Quizlet in this column before a few times, but many quizzes are now available on Quizlet with pictures. Here’s an example.

Personality Assessment

Every textbook series seems to have a unit on personality. It’s one of those “high interest” topics that textbooks often manage to turn into a slog. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The web is full of sites that playfully help users think about their own personalities and compare them to people, things, or characters. On Facebook, you can take tests that ask what type of beer you are, what decade best fits your personality, etc., etc., etc. But you don’t have to get onto Facebook. Recently there are many sites on the web that analyze your personality and compare you to something or someone. They can be a lot of fun and a nice introduction to some of the ways people talk about personality or their characters, and like and dislikes. They work on the assumption that everyone is familiar with what they are being compared with. Below is a list of different sites that you may want to use with your learners, organized by what your personality is compared with. They are taken from Kyle Mawer and Graham Stanley’s Digital Play blog, a blog that focuses on using web games and game-like sites for language learning .

Which Star Wars character are you like?

Which High School Musical character are you like?

Which Twilight character are you like?

Which superhero are you like?

Which Harry Potter character are you like?

November Treasure Hunt Column: Vocabulary Search Tools

This month I’d like to focus on some search tools that mostly specialize in vocabulary. I don’t feel really comfortable using the term “search engine” since most people associate that with the Google-powered tool that sits prominently somewhere on the page that opens when you launch your browser. But most people are now making use of multiple search tools—Google books, image or video search tools, etc.—on a daily basis and just as you would use certain search tools to search for images, the tools here can be used to help you investigate and better understand lexical items (words, phrases, or longer fixed expressions).

First and most impressive this month is Visuwords. Type in a word or phrase and get a visual “map” of the word’s meanings and associations. Hover your cursor over any term to get more explanation or definitions. This must be seen to be believed. You will be impressed: I promise.

Next is ERek, a search tool that brings up instances or examples from either the whole web or only .edu (academic) sites or only news sites. This can be very helpful in identifying collocations or just seeing how the lexical item is used. A great tool.

Amazon.com allows you to search inside many books. If you would like some good examples of a lexical item in use in a certain area (economics, TESOL, etc.) you just choose a book in that area and search in the book for your item. For example, I just chose the book Understanding Motivation and Emotion by Johnmarshall Reeve (Wiley) and did a search for the word “identity.” My search produced 30 examples from the book.

If you would like to know how two similar terms (start vs. begin, for example) compare  in usage volume (frequency) on the web, Googlefight can help you. Just input the two terms and the system returns the number of times they can be found on the web. This can also be used to check out cultural items (hambuger vs. hot dog, or Pokemon vs. Dragonball, for example).

And finally, there is a new search engine in development that may just be the way all search engines work in the future. It is called Wolfram Alpha. It tries to understand your questions and return data in a way that matches your needs. It is still in development, but vocabulary searches seem to work well. If you search for a term, you get definitions, origins, frequency information (written and spoken), pronunciation, and much more. Give it a try and taste the future.

QR Codes

qrcode

The thing above is a QR (Quick Response) code. QR codes can contain various information including text, links, phone numbers, and even some images. They are primarily aimed at cell phone users recently and are becoming increasingly common in advertising. At the recent Wireless Ready conference, one presentation discussed the way in which QR codes can be used in classes. You see, these codes are easily generated with one of the many online generating services (just google QR cod generator). And once you have the code squares, you can print them out or paste them into a blog or website. You can use the codes to have learners put short texts (up to about 140 characters) into their cell phones. These messages can be saved and learners can take them with them. The presenter at Wireless Ready was doing interactive treasure hunts with groups of his learners. Of course, you could also give some important vocabulary or usage information. The best part is it involves no downloading for either the creator or the user, and no internet access fees.