Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Vocabulix, a Language-Learning Flashcard Program

There are a number of flashcard websites such as Flashcard Machine that quiz students and more frequently show the questions that were most frequently answered incorrectly until all the flashcards are known, but I recently found one that is specifically intended for language, with flashcards already made to eliminate the tedium of making long vocabulary lists: Vocabulix. I used the German learning option to check it out.

Vocabulix has three sections: Vocabulary builder, Verb conjugations and Verb drills.  It uses a point system to  keep track of your average score on quizzes, and shows on your user profile what percent of the Vocabulix course you have completed.  Verb conjugations is just a set of verb paradigms to study from, but vocabulary builder and verb drills both work by showing a picture or a sentence and asking at first for a choice in a multiple choice question, then for a typed translation.

Good things:

1.       Pictures are used in the vocabulary section, so that students can visually associate the object with the meaning.

2.       It’s “smart”: throughout the study session, it will make note of which words you get wrong and show them to you more often.

3.       It’s personalized.  You make an account, and then it can track what words you frequently get wrong over time and chart your progress.

4.       At the end of every “lesson” (going through the flashcards until you get them all right once), it shows you a summary of what you got right and what you got wrong, so you can look over all the answers at once.  The ones you got wrong are highlighted in read to be found easily, and it shows you the number of mistakes you made for each question.

5.       It has paradigms for all of the verbs it quizzes on, so that you can go to that page and memorize the verb forms before quizzing yourself.

           The flashcard idea is great, and works well, but I do have one problem with the website: it calls itself a way to learn a language for free online.  This is a problem because while the study sessions will teach you new words and irregular verbs, remind you of the verbs tenses you already know, and maybe teach you new verb forms if you’re good enough at figuring out the rules, it does not include any help with general rules when you get a verb question wrong.  It tells you that sometimes you’re wrong when you use haben for the present perfect, and sometimes that you’re wrong when you use sein.  My guess is that most people would not figure out that all transitive verbs use haben, or that sein is used more often with verbs describing a change of state.  It teaches how to form the present perfect and simple past, but does not mention that the present perfect is used almost exclusively in speech, and the simple past is used almost exclusively in writing. 

        Still, that is a relatively small point.  My question was whether Vocabulix would be useful in an ESL classroom, and I think the answer is a resounding yes.  The repetition of flashcards is spaced so that it is not frustrating to memorize them while quizzing yourself, and the acquiring of points and use of pictures gives it a game-like quality that would likely keep students interested.

       It’s easy to tell students to study, but less easy to make them do it- studying is tedious and difficult.  Vocabulix, on the other hand, is relatively low-effort, and, if one hour of practice with it was assigned per night, it lets students work at their own pace rather than being intimidated by a word list.  I think that if used along with traditional instruction, Vocabulix could be a very valuable tool for reinforcement of what is learned inside of the classroom.

Image by Flickr user Konrad Lawson.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Tips for Using Twitter in an ESL Classroom

Twitter is widely used as a tool for educators to share sources of information and tips with one another, but how can it also be productively used by students? 
 One excellent use for twitter, which applies equally well to other subjects as to ESL, is communication with students and their parents.  Whereas students can easily misplace hard copies of assignments (or conceal them from their parents), twitter offers an easy way to check in on that day’s assignments for both the student and his or her parents.  With many students having smart phones on which a twitter app could be installed, cell phone twitter notifications could serve both as reference, and reminders of assignments.  It also serves as a good method of communication between teachers, parents and students; a teacher could reply quickly and succinctly to questions about assignments in such a way that all students in the class could read the answer.  For these uses, it is possible to set up a private twitter group, so that there is no danger of anyone outside the class reading communication between members of the class and the teacher (instructions for setting up a private twitter group here).
 Another great feature of twitter is that it offers an easy way to link to internet resources for homework assignments.  News in Levels is a fantastic website, offering current news articles simplified so that beginners in English can read them.  In my experience, internet assignments without links are often fraught with disaster, with students misunderstanding instructions and completing the wrong assignment.  Twitter could, for instance, allow a teacher to link to the level 2 version of the April 21 article “Six-year-old girl is saved” with no room for error. 
                David Read, on his blog Mobile ESL gives a third use for twitter.  He encourages discussion between his students after class by asking grammar or vocabulary questions and having students tweet the answers (and shows screenshots of the result in his blog post).  An element of competition could even be added, giving students points for each correct answer and announcing a winner every week.     
                Finally, twitter itself can be used as a means of learning English for students old enough that access to millions of unmoderated tweets is not a concern.  Twitter is used very similarly to blogs by students, but the time put into each contribution is smaller, since twitter limits messages to 140 characters or less.  Teachers assign students to follow a certain number of people on twitter, and to submit a certain number of tweets, in the hopes that this will encourage students to form connections on twitter that allow them to enjoy practicing English outside of class.
As I see it, Twitter does have several advantages over blogs, however:

1.       Twitter’s small character limit provides more opportunities for conversation than blogs.  The limit on message size means that there is no opportunity for anyone to monopolize a conversation with long expressions of opinion.  The limited information included in a tweet encourages people to be brief, and to interact with one another.

2.       Twitter breaks reading and writing assignments into bite-size chunks.  Shorter messages are less intimidating to read and write.  A student might balk at an assignment to write a 1000 word blog post, but a 140 character tweet on a topic of their choice is much less daunting, even if the assignment involves many tweets over a course of time.  Likewise, a student might be willing to spend a few minutes puzzling out a tweet addressed to them, even if they would feel overwhelmed trying to read an entire blog post. 

3.       Twitter allows students to learn the English they are interested in from authentic English writing.  Students can follow their friends, celebrities, experts in the careers they hope to work in themselves, accounts that give news updates, and any other type of account they like.  This allows them to learn the English that they want to use and understand from real English speakers, and to get feedback on the correctness of their own tweets on the same topics.

4.       Twitter exposes students to English idioms, irregularities and rare constructions they may not see in class.

5.       Twitter might encourage students to speak English outside of class. 

Twitter is useful in any classroom for its ability to help organize internet resources, but in ESL classrooms it also helps to fill a major gap in learning: students need real, social, and frequent opportunities to practice English, which they do not get in the classroom.  Although suddenly being exposed to all of twitter is certainly daunting, if a teacher helps students ease into it by limiting the students’ initial exposure to more comprehensible content, English could become a part of students’ lives outside of school and in their free time.

Image by Flickr user brunsell.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Video Chatting in ELL Classrooms

One of the most incredible and, in my opinion, underused recent technologies is video chatting.  It gives you the ability to speak with anyone with the service, anywhere in the world.  This is obviously valuable for teachers of foreign languages, who struggle to give students sufficient opportunity to practice with native speakers- and that can sometimes include teachers of English in English speaking countries.  In my home town of Marshalltown, Iowa, 19.1% of the population speaks Spanish at home.  With 1/5th of the town speaking Spanish, many speaking it better than they speak English, as well as several Mexican grocery stores, it is often unnecessary for children and adults who are not comfortable with English to venture outside their comfort zones, and people can be impatient and rude when they make an effort to speak English. 
Regular Skype partners, face to face, could help solve this problem.  They would give students a chance to speak English in real contexts with people who are tolerant of their errors because, after all, both people are there to learn.  It could even be a boost for students’ confidence and encourage them to keep developing their first language to be the expert on a language another student is learning.
                But how can you use Skype to give students English practice?  There are hundreds of Skype tutors advertising online, but what if you just want some free practice and a way to make connections with other students of the same age? 

 1.       One good site for this is Skype In the Classroom.   There are still a lot of teachers seeking employment as one on one tutors on this site to sort through before you find a classroom of students who might want to connect with your students. Nonetheless, these classes do exist, and you can also make a profile and advertise for the exact sort of language exchange you’re looking for. I think a situation where each student can speak to their own "Skype pal" would be more valuable, but as this video shows, even group Skype chats are an exciting learning experience for students, at least as a reminder that the language they are learning can be used with students their age.

  2.      To find more one-on-one partnerships, and to allow students to have more choice in their conversation partners The Mixxer might be a better website.  I made an account a week ago, and so far, I have not found any teachers advertising for business.  Within the first two days, I made contact with a speaker of a language I want to improve in, German, and we already have a Skype date.  The drawback to this website is that, since it is not classroom to classroom, but rather student to student, nobody is monitoring what your students’ conversation partners type or say to them.  There is a process for banning members, but that is no guarantee of good behavior.  A second issue with this site is that, since it is a site members sign up to individually, it is dominated by adults and older teenagers.  For that reason, it should probably only be used for adults and older high school students.  There is also no way to sort conversation partners by age, so you will have to take some time clicking through to find viable conversation partners for your students         

    3.     A very similar site to The Mixxer is Conversation Exchange.  It gives you the option of communicating face to face, only in typed message, or in video chats.  It has the same problem as The Mixxer, though: most users are adults, and there is no way to sort by age, but at least it provides an extra batch of potential conversation partners. 

Unfortunately, if you want to use Skype in your classroom, it may take a lot of extra work, and if you have students younger than about 16, may be your only viable option.  But the  potential benefits makes it worth making an effort to find a connection.

Image by Flickr user Heather Durnin.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

ESL Student Blogs and Speaking Anxiety

In my experience tutoring English language learners, the hardest part of teaching is getting the students to speak in the first place.  Often my students know the answer, but they are afraid that it is not exactly right, so they say they do not know.  Since they are too self-conscious about their English to speak when they are not certain of their correctness, they miss valuable opportunities to acquire English by practicing it in casual, real contexts.

Blogs written by the students of ESL classrooms might provide a solution.  With learner blogs, such as Rosa Ochoa's students' blogs, students could be given the assignment to just write, producing a blog on a particular topic or just a journal of their lives.  The blogs could be graded on the basis of wordcount, on a curve, so that the students who produced the most total words, both in their own blogs and in comments on other students' blogs, received the highest grades, regardless of the correctness of their English.

In a compilation of many other articles on the issue of helping English learners feel comfortable producing English, Nguyen Minh Hue mentions several means of encouraging students to speak and write, many of which this sort of assignment would involve.  

1. Give Students Extra Time to Complete Tasks: Since the assignment is over a semester and at home, students have as much time to complete the task as they are willing to dedicate.  There is no time pressure.

2.  Bring Tasks Within Students' Experience: Students can make use of the background knowledge they have, allowing the students to choose topics for which they have the necessary grammar and vocabulary and also to increase their confidence by writing about things about which they are knowledgeable.  Especially for adults, this could help with the embarrassment caused by not being competent in English.  

3.Attend to Students' Individual Needs and Ability:  With this project, students can work at their own pace and at their own level.  They can choose which grammar and words to use or not use.

4. Change Students' Negative Attitudes Towards Mistakes: A free writing blog would help promote an environment where mistakes are accepted as a part of learning, because the focus is on amount of language, not number of mistakes.

5. Introduce Opportunities for Students to Speak English Outside of Class: A blogging project like this would make English use into a social activity.  Students could share pictures and stories about their lives, as Rosa Ochoa's student Ivy does on her blog.  Grading by word count encourages students to use their blogs as much as possible, and if comments on other students' blogs were counted in the grade, it would create a fun, social, environment for English practice that might even persist past the time the students left the classroom.  

Reading through these students' blogs, it is clear to see that they are engaged in sharing their lives, expressing themselves, and experimenting with language.  In one of her posts, Ivy becomes poetic speaking about how wintertime reminds her of when she and her husband first met.  The English isn't perfect, but the students are practicing and most importantly of all, enthusiastic about using English authentically, despite the mistakes they may make.  

Image by Flickr user Freddie Peña.