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Phonetizer

I have been away from this blog for a little while now while I get to grips with the additional workload of a Masters degree on top of 25 hours of teaching a week.  Still haven’t come up with a new name for the blog yet but hope that will get rolled out in the coming week as well… not that much of this is concern to any of you fine people reading this.  Just thought I’d get my ‘housekeeping’ out of the way first. 🙂

I’ll be publishing a more substantial post soon on a short exam preparation exercise but in the meantime I just wanted to draw people’s attention to this website.

Phonetizer

Quite simply this is Google Translate for phonetics.  Just type (or copy and paste) text into the left box, click transcribe at the top and the English IPA translation will appear on the right-hand side.  Without a doubt, a very useful tool!

If you are following Nik Peachey (and you really should be) then you have probably already seen this website recommended on his blog, Nik’s Quickshout.  I just thought that I would pass along the knowledge to a few more people who might not yet be following him.

P.S.  I was at the English UK conference a couple of weekends ago, in which Nik, Luke Meddings, Sam McCarter and many others were presenting.  The closing plenary was by Professor Mike McCarthy and focused on building on corpus linguistic data to help teachers and assessors understand more about what various English levels actually mean.  His talk was insightful and thought-provoking as he started to map the findings onto the CEFR.  It motivated me to write up this small question to learners on my learners’ blog, “Are you ready for intermediate level English?”  Follow the link and have a read through.  There might be a few useful questions to pose to your own students this week.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2011 in Conferences, Recommendations

 

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How do my learning experiences colour my teaching?

I’ve just started an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL.  I’m doing it part-time and I’ve got to say my decision to get on this course (late) was a rather hasty one but nevertheless one that feels right.  I had my first lecture on Friday (a bit weird being on the student side of the classroom again) and the following questions were asked,

1.  How were you taught?

2.  How has this affected your own teaching?

3.  Is there anything you do that you feel you ought not?  Basically, do you have any guilty secrets?

What astounded me was how difficult I found it to answer the first question and, by extension, the second.

I suppose I had probably repressed it in some cases and had been oblivious in others.  I had to turn to my partner and say, “I have no idea how I was taught at secondary school.”  This is not due to it being so very long ago – 12 years in all honesty – but I guess it comes from distinctly negative experiences.  I took French and German at school and continued them up to Standard Grade (the Scottish equivalent of GCSEs).  I passed relatively well but I couldn’t put a sentence of French or German together now if my life depended on it.*  I do remember one thing though – I remember not liking my classes one little bit.

What was also fascinating during these groups discussion on Friday was the shared experience that many of us on the course had of absolutely dreadful French classes in Britain growing up.

It was only after talking with my classmates for a little while that I started to remember a little more about classes.  I came to a few conclusions.

Image from comedy_nose on Flickr

Audio Resources

I don’t use tapes/CDs/mp3s of conversations that much.  This is due to all those awful tapes of poor quality that I had to listen to in French and German classes.  I think it demotivated me more than anything else, listening and listening and listening and not having a clue what was being said, not really even getting the gist and just generally feeling hopeless about the whole thing.   Even on my worst days, I don’t really want to inflict that on my students so I tend to shy away from using audio resources in the class.  I do recognize their usefulness and I am making myself use them more but I’m still not hugely comfortable with CDs or mp3s and I know that I’m not using them particularly effectively yet.

Photo from florriebassingbourn on Flickr

Dictionaries

I don’t do a lot of dictionary work in class.  Another memory that resurfaced was the supremely boring task of translating a text word by word using a dictionary.  I never asked for help because I always felt that my need to use the dictionary all the time was based on that fact that I was a lazy student and that, had I gone home and properly learned my vocabulary, I wouldn’t have needed the dictionary even half as much.  Of course, my completed translation usually ended up making absolutely NO sense whatsoever and this was for a couple of reasons.

  1. Nobody ever really made it known to me that language doesn’t work in words, it works in chunks.  In trying to translate word by word, I completely missed the important chunks of language which, had I been more aware of them, I wouldn’t have completely obliterated them by dissecting and translating them word by word.  This lack of understanding made my dictionary work slow, inefficient and most of all, absolutely fruitless.
  2. I don’t think enough work was done to show us how a dictionary should be used, how the phrases or phrasal verbs might be listed and where to find what you really wanted.  This basically connects with my lack of awareness with regard to set phrases and expressions (or what Michael Lewis would call polywords) – I didn’t know where the phrases began and ended therefore I didn’t know what to look up.

So at this point I feel the need to admit a guilty pleasure of mine, or not so guilty if you’ve read some of my previous posts.  As a teacher, I like translation (yes, the teacher and student inside of me are in a little bit of conflict here).  I think shying away from translation or saying that we should be trying to get students to think in L2 is just a bit ridiculous.  We all use our L1 to give us hooks to hang our L2 knowledge on.  I tend to feel there is a certain conceptual framework established when we learn our first language that, for most of our L2 learning, we are far better using and adapting that framework instead of throwing it away and starting again.  Apart from this, I think trying to get learners not to translate is an impossible task anyway.

Therefore, I think there is a lot of benefit for learners to translate in both directions.  L1 to L2 is much easier to manage when you are working in a TEFL environment, abroad and with monolingual classes; bringing a local newspaper into your classroom in Spain, for example.  However, L2 to L1, if you have a multi-lingual class is quite possible as well.  If you have a few different language groups; some Arabic speakers, Mandarin, Portuguese, etc, then this is the opportunity to band them together and get some meaningful analytical discussion (in both L1 and L2) that might just enhance some learners’ understanding of a few grammar points.

Well, now that I’m starting a Masters I’m wondering if I should change the name of my blog.  I mean “So Where Did It Go Wrong?” seems a bit defeatist now, almost pessimistic in the face of all this research and assessed essays.  Need to give that some thought.  Wish me luck!

* Actually, I do have one sentence in French which I still remember – a testament to the drilling method I suppose – “J’habite a Dumbarton en Ecosse.

 

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Collaborative writing with Google Docs… AKA, Students producing something worthwhile with their English

Google DocsI feel quite proud that I’ve cracked this one.  For a while I’ve been trying to figure out how to use the fact that my students, all teenagers, seem to spend most of their free time on the computer.  I’m not putting them down for it, I’m the same way (though I can’t wait for an iPhone that will allow to get out of the house with the Internet – is that a sign of addiction?)

Google Docs has provided a fantastic resource that some of my students have embraced with gusto and the best thing about it is that it is getting them reading, thinking, writing and reflecting in English – a bunch of things that teenagers are not known for liking.

So what did I do?

As with all projects, we need a deadline to work to.

First of all, I made all this work voluntary.  I told the students that if they wanted to work on this that was their choice but that it wasn’t compulsory.

Basically I identified a couple of big translation challenges that the students could get their teeth sunk into.  This included a Wikipedia page as well as a tourism brochure for the local cathedral.  In the first case, the Spanish Wikipedia article (I’m down in Argentina) was 10 times the size of the English one.  As for the brochure, there was no English translation for non-Spanish speaking tourists.

The “carrot” in both cases is certificates that will be signed by me, the director of my school and a 3rd person, likely a local official, acknowledging this work as helping to improve the town’s international profile for tourism (an industry they are trying to build here).

I took the files, the text from Wikipedia (both Spanish and English) and the brochure and uploaded them to Google Docs (two separate files for two separate projects).  Then I shared the file with all of my students and let them get on with it.  I set rules for them and a deadline – in this case they have until the end of August to work on this.

If the students don’t have a Google account, that’s not a problem…

So what problems/challenges have I encountered?

Hotmail.  Nearly none of the 60 or so students I’ve invited to work on these

projects have Google accounts; they all have Hotmail account and the reason for that is that they don’t even use email, it is all for MSN Instant Messenger and that’s it.  I suppose that email is irrelevant to them at this stage in their lives.  Either that or I am, in my late 20s, already a relic of a generation that still holds on to email as something useful (but that’s another thought for another post for another blog).

The students can use their existing email accounts to get a free Google account.

I had to spend time with each class going through how they could set up a Google account with their Hotmail accounts.  Not a difficult process but we did hit some bumps on the way – all part of the learning process.

So how has it gone so far?

Strangely enough, and I think there is a lot to be learned from this, the first group that I tried Google Docs with has been, without a doubt, the most enthusiastic.  I think the reason for this is that I took things slowly with them as I was unsure of what I was doing and was learning with them.  With subsequent classes I obviously skipped over steps that I, as a learner, no longer needed but they obviously did – bad Gordon, bad!  I’m not talking about a lack of technical understanding but more a lack of handholding at the beginning and baby steps towards familiarity and confidence in the process.

Bearing in mind that this project was given a week before winter vacations and classes don’t start back until next week I’m quite pleased with the results so far.  Both projects have about 60-70 students invited to work on it; one project has at least 6 contributors at the moment, the other has 16.  For teenagers on vacation doing a voluntary translation project, I count that as a win!

So why is Google Docs so brilliant?

I’m going to just list this part.  For more information, check out the video below from Commoncraft.

  1. It gets rid of multiple copies of the same document.  The document exists online and everyone edits the same document online.
  2. It auto-saves every 20 seconds.
  3. It saves every iteration of the document so if someone deletes the whole thing by mistake (or intentionally) then nothing is lost.
  4. It shows who has edited what.

So why is Google Docs so brilliant pedagogically?

I’m going to list this part as well as give you a small look at one of the examples that my students worked on last month.

  1. It encourages peer-assessment.  The students have to read through what their classmates have written and consider whether it is good, needs to be corrected or can be improved.
  2. It encourages peer-reading and peer-correction.  It is the students’ job to not only contribute their own material but fix or improve their peers’ contributions.  This has the added benefit of improving confidence among the students who might not feel comfortable physically crossing out peers’ work.
  3. It encourages reflection.  If a student sees their work has been changed by another student, then it provokes the first student to ask themselves, “Is that a valid correction?  Should I change it back?  Is there an even better way I can write it?”
  4. It encourages learner autonomy and ownership.  While a collaborative effort, this method can produce pages and pages of learner-generated content.  It blows me away, it really does.
  5. It encourages repetition.  Since students should be adding and correcting a document throughout the whole week, other students must keep going back to check on their own work and to see where they can improve other peers’ work.
  6. It allows the teacher to be less intrusive in observing the collaborative writing and re-drafting process, while at the same time being able to clearly see who is working in what area and what problems they might be having.
  7. If a mistake is missed by a whole class after they’ve had a week to review it, it becomes glaringly obvious to the teacher that there is a combined gap in the group knowledge that should be worked on in class.

Here’s a screencap video using Jing which I hope will demonstrate a lot of what I’m talking about.  Many apologies about the feedback with the audio – hope it doesn’t put you off!

Setting up and sharing a Google Doc

So how will I improve this exercise in the future?

I’ll let you know once these projects are finished. 😉

 
 

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Translation in Class, part 2… AKA, Translation v2.0

In my previous post, I explained the almost unmitigated disaster that was my first attempt to do a translation exercise with a monolingual teenage group of around B2/C1 ability (according to the CEFR).  This was my 2nd attempt at the activity.

So what did I change?

Well a lot actually.  First of all, and this might be cheating, I changed the class.  I tried this with a younger group of B1 students.  I also started off by explaining all the steps of what we were going to do so that the learners would not be left bored wondering “Why am I doing this?

We started with a free-writing exercise with a bit of variation.  I suggested the topic of ‘English’ (whether it was English-speaking music, movies, classes, teachers, etc. was up to the students) but I made it clear that if they wanted to write about a different topic they were welcome to.  The main variation of this writing was that it had to be in L1, in this case Spanish.  I put two provisos; all writing for this class should be double-spaced and it was very important that handwriting was as legible as possible.

After this I had something like 12 pieces of writing in L1.  I then put the students into groups of 2 or 3 and gave them one piece of writing – not their own – to translate into English.

While I did have an L1/L2 dictionary ready what I set up was much better – the help board!  On the whiteboard I had two columns, ‘Spanish’ and ‘English’.  If a word or phrase came up that the learners couldn’t translate, they had to put it up on the board, leave a space in their translation and wait for other members of the class to write up the translation if they could.  I would use the dictionary to check these translations if necessary or if the whole class was drawing a blank.

Why did I take this approach?

Well, after my first attempt I felt that I needed a more forgiving crowd than the apathetic, older teenage crowd that v1.0 had failed with.

The free-writing was a way of easing the students into an exercise that they might otherwise have been resistant to.  Trying to get teenagers to do writing at all is a challenge but doing writing in a foreign language is usually seen as too much like hard work (“es un viaje” as my Argentinian students are wont to say).  The L1 writing also produced texts to work on that were at least moderately interesting for the learners.

Group work for 'dry' exercises like translation is probably a must.

By putting the students into groups I made this a group learning exercise.  On this point I would like to draw your attention to a talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave about changing educational paradigms (See the whole seminar at the bottom of this post, here’s the link for the specific section of the seminar relevant to what I’m talking about).  We learn and work together in the real world so why is it so important that we work separately in the classroom or even in the tests?

The teacher-centred benefit for the students working in groups is that once a group had finished one translation I could give them another one and it would give me time during the lesson to review and correct their collaborative translation effort.  This was also aided by the ‘help board’, which meant that I was not the first person to go to as soon as the learners hit a barrier.  This wasn’t immediately successful as a lot of the students aren’t entirely sure what to do when they are given autonomy but at least by the end of the class they had thankfully stopped asking permission to get up and write something on the board.  Baby steps. 🙂

By holding back the dictionaries this also forced collaboration and got the students to recognize each other as fountains of information.  This is a bigger problem I’m trying to overcome… how many times have you been asked the same question two, three even four times because the students aren’t listening to each other, don’t listen to the question and therefore don’t register that they are listening (or not) to an answer they themselves are about to ask for.

So where will this not work?

Well obviously this approach depends on a common L1 among the learners so those of you with multi-lingual L1 classes will have to come up with something different.  For some ideas you should look at Ceri Jones’s article, a second look at translation, which focuses translation exercises in multi-lingual groups.

So what went wrong?

Very little really.  Due to the fact that this was the first time I was doing this, I made myself a little more available to the students than I would have liked but everyone needs training wheels when they start something new.  Having more free time would have allowed me to look at what they are producing in more detail but once we’ve done this a few more times we should get a little faster at it and that might allow time at the end to review various phrases, grammar, etc.

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Activities, Reflections

 

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Translation in Class, part 1

Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding.  Without that, even the best ideas can fall short of their potential or even worse fall flat on their face!

This is what I can see went wrong when I tried to introduce a translation exercise into my advanced class a few weeks ago.  You might remember I mentioned them in another post about storybuilding.

So what did I try to do and why?

Guy Cook, in his thought-provoking lecture ‘Translation in Language’, explained that the goal of most learners of English is to be an effective conduit of information between their native language and English.  My skills as a native English speaker are not what my students want or need, it is the ability to switch between their L1 and English that makes learning English worthwhile and will help them to get a good job, at least statistically.

So my idea was to have an exercise that put translation front and centre, an exercise that asked learners to take issues from a newspaper that they might be familiar with and try to re-write them in English.  My hope was that this might really help to improve this very important skill in foreign language learning.  On top of this, it would also hopefully serve to highlight a few phrases and words that might be missing in their vocabulary as well as challenging them to make their passive reading knowledge more active through translation and writing.

So how did I do this?

I took a pile of recent local newspapers and L1/L2 dictionaries into the classroom and explained what I wanted to do.  The students were given a couple of minutes to choose the article they wanted to translate and then work through it asking for the teacher’s help as and when necessary.

So where did it go wrong?

I’ve got to say this ended up being almost a complete disaster and to cut a long story short I’ll just list the errors I made:

  • Motivation/Personalisation – This was an almost by-the-book translation exercise with the learners having nothing personally invested in the work.
  • Groupings – For some reason I still can’t figure out, I had everyone working individually.  This turned an already difficult activity to ‘sell’ the students on into a deadly boring and uncommunicative exercise.  Bad teacher, bad!
  • Level of Difficulty – I had assumed (always the first mistake) that a local paper wouldn’t present too many difficulties in its level of Spanish and would therefore be of an acceptably challenging level for a B2/C1 class to translate.  As it turns out, I had overestimated some of my learners’ L1 vocabulary.  Added to this, I had unknowingly chosen newspapers known for not using the best grammar and syntax.  Garbage in, garbage out!
  • Lack of Scaffolding – Quite simply, this was a new activity for the learners and regardless of whether they are A1 or C1 on the CEFR scale, they needed to be guided and the activity needed to be built from sentences upward.  Throwing them in at the deep end of “translate a whole article” was never going to work except with the most autonomous and gung-ho of learners.

So would I try a translation exercise again?

Yes.  I still firmly believe that we have to acknowledge the important role that L1 plays in shaping our learners when they are learning English.  Just about all of an L2 is learned by making mental connections with L1 and if a teacher ignores this, they are simply not on the same page as their learners.

What would I do differently to improve this exercise?

Stay tuned for part 2. 🙂

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Activities, Reflections

 

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