Bad Subtitles – a quick and easy microlistening task

This post is a quick reflection on a task I learned about on twitter called “Bad Subtitles“. Before describing the task and student reactions, I need to first mention how awestruck I am on the power of twitter. I saw a tweet from Matthew Noble referencing the previously linked to blog post on April 25. I liked the idea and immediately saw how to use it in the classroom, and I did…the very next day! I find it amazing how quickly one person’s idea can go from tweet to taught in so little time. OK. On with the subtitles.

Task and Procedure

The task is quite simple, though mine is much modified from the original idea. Basically, students watch a video with incorrect subtitles and must find the mistakes. Paying attention to these mistakes gets students practicing their decoding skills/bottom-up processing skills, which have been shown to be quite important for comprehension.

The original post has teachers making bad subtitles, but there is no need for that! Most YouTube videos have “Automatic Captions”, which are captions automatically generated from the audio. Naturally, these have numerous errors as they are computer-generated, not human-generated. Therefore, you can easily do this activity with minimal prep.

Here’s a simple procedure to follow

  1. Find the YouTube video you want.
  2. Under the video, you will see “… More”. Click this and click “Transcript”
  3. Make sure the transcript says “English (Automatic Captions)”.
  4. Highlight and drag until the bottom of the captions. Copy the text.
  5. Open up your word processing program and paste.
  6. Remove the times.
  7. Done! What did that take, 2 minutes?

You have just made a simple worksheet to get students listening carefully. From here, its up to you what to do next. You can add tasks and activities or just give the worksheet as is. That’s what I did. I played the video once, had students confer with each other, played it again, and they went through line by line with the students.

Student Reaction

After finishing the activity, I asked whether or not they thought this was useful. In a class of 10, about 4 or 5 found it useful, while several others preferred to do something related to the meaning of the listening, not just the words. While I agree that working on meaning is important, without good decoding skills, meaning could easily become lost. It’s important to note that doing such a lesson as a one-off task likely won’t lead to any student improvement. It must be done numerous times, combined with other bottom-up microlistening tasks, and meaning-focused tasks as well.

I also showed students how they could do this themselves, especially if they find a video with human-generated proper captions (the captions would just say English). They can still choose the auto-generated ones and then compare their changes to the proper English ones. Boom – an intensive, bottom-up listening activity students could do at home over and over again, especially with listening journals.

Thanks to Matthew Noble for the share and paulw for the original post!

Here is a link to numerous YouTube channels with subtitles.


Can TESOL Save the World? (Part V)

At the recommendation of Geoff Jordan, I recently acquired a copy of “Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching” by Mike Long (2015). I have only just cracked the book, but already I’m liking what I’m reading. This is because Long from the start puts a great onus on teachers to teach in the most effective way possible as second language learning is, in a way, a life saver. He writes that language learning is a “critical factor in determining the educational and economic life chances of” both voluntary language learners (e.g. college students, workers, etc.) and even more so the large number of involuntary language learners: “those that are forced to cross linguistic borders to escape wars, despotic regimes, disease, drought, famine, religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, abject poverty, and climate change” (p. 4).

Long writes that these marginalized groups are at a disadvantage when it comes to language instruction, in particular because they do not have the money or time to afford it. He says that language teaching – through whatever means – is important for them, serving not only as a way to access better education and employment but as an act of resistance: “Know thine enemy’s language” (p. 4).

Long argues that all of these reasons are justification to make language teaching as effective and progressive as possible, allowing learners the world over to learn a language in a way that works according to the natural development of second language acquisition,  especially as evidenced by a plethora of SLA and applied linguistics research. For Long, this means following a Task-Based Language Teaching approach. I have yet to read far enough to begin discussing this approach, but his message is loud and clear: language teaching is important and, while it may not be able to solve all of the world’s problems, “it should [at least] strive not to make matters worse” (p. 4).

Whether you agree with TBLT or another methodology, Long’s is probably a sentiment we can all agree on. Language teaching is important and can not only improve lives but save them. More evidence that language teaching can help save the world.


The Shifting Contexts of Instruction

I’ve given my thoughts before on this blog about English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), mostly disparaging it as a pedagogically unclear teaching approach, one which unnecessarily simplifies English. My thoughts on this subject seem to be shifting as I read more and more about it. I am beginning to consider, more clearly and carefully, the implications ELF research has for what gets taught and assessed in the language classroom, particularly in EAP.

A shift in my own teaching contexts likely was the catalyst for this change. About two years ago, I moved from South Korea to the USA. I switched from teaching in a homogeneous teaching context where students wanted to approximate the native speaker despite few being around, and where 95% of students were also Korean (hence little exposure to ELF), to a heterogeneous environment where students come to study from around the world and I come face to face with ELF everyday.

What has propmpted this blog post and my musing on this change are two articles. One is an article by Marek Kiczkowiak about the native-speaker/non-native speaker issue that dispels many of the assumptions I had been holding, and the other is a great article on ELF in EAP by Beyza Björkman, which I summarized on Research Bites.

In Björkman’s article, she states that there are three groups of EAP learners:

  1. students who study at a university in an English-speaking country,
  2. students who study in their own countries but the language of instruction is English,
  3. international students who study at university in a non-English speaking country who must use English to communicate (this is the ELF) context.

This third type of learner has been somewhat of a recent development, arising in the last 10 or 15 years. My initial question here is if the first and third group of learners is are really so distinct? I’m wondering if a university in an English-speaking country is not an ESL environment (as it would typically be considered) but rather an ELF environment.

A look at the makeup of any modern university in a typical native-speaking country clearly shows a shifting linguistic dynamic towards what Vivian Cook (2015) calls “multicompetence,” or, the bilingual norm (as opposed to the monolingual norm to which “native speaker” is attached). In the US, a large number of faculty, grad students, scientists, and even college presidents are non-native English speakers. Wikipedia cites a slew of statistics about this. For example, among the non-native speakers working in higher education or the sciences, 45% of all physicists are non-native, 55% of PhD engineering students are non-native, and 50% of engineering faculty is non-native. Likewise, grad students, especially in STEM, account for a 50-70% of the student population. I’m sure the situation is similar in Canada, the UK, and other native English speaking countries.

International students are also entering university at the undergraduate level as well, evident from the number of IEPs (intensive English programs) attached to universities around the nation. IEPs handle all sorts of international students, many of whom are conditionally admitted undergraduates who need to improve their English before matriculating. This is the context in which I currently teach. And clearly, it is an ELF context.

But what happens when you leave the classroom? Can the context shift from ELF, interacting with faculty and classmates from around the world, to ESL, interacting with native English-speakers in the community? One the one hand, yes, it is more of an ESL environment, especially in terms of most popular media. However, English-speaking countries tend to be quite pluralistic, and depending on the region, you might be just as likely to interact with someone from another country. Even listening to NPR (National Public Radio) in the morning, its hard not to see the US as an ELF context as many interviewees are competent non-native English speakers (who are very clear in communication but often have typical ELF issues). While some people may not like it, America is a country already at or moving towards multicompetence and is to a large degree often (but not always) an ELF context.

So, the big question is, as an instructor in an IEP situated in a context that fluctuates between ELF and ESL, embedded in EAP instruction (and, apparently being attacked by acronyms), how is my teaching affected? Well, as Björkman pointed out, while accuracy (a stated goal of ESL) is important, communicative effectiveness (the stated goal of ELF) is more so. They are not mutually exclusive and both can be focused on. The difference is focusing on what is going to make my students effective communicators in any context. The answer, according to Björkman and other ELF researchers, is going to be accuracy where it counts (e.g. question word order), pragmatic strategies that help in negotiating meaning, and exposure to different accents – including various native English accents.

I think this is a great starting point for moving more towards ELF and now I have to re-read Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core!

Research Bites: ELF and EAP

Björkman, B. (2011). English as a lingua franca in higher education: Implications for EAP. Ibérica: Revista de la Asociación Europea de Lenguas para Fines Específicos (AELFE), (22), 79-100. [link]

Björkman describes three contexts for EAP and each context’s English requirements:

  1. international students studying at universities in English-speaking countries
    • requires both productive (speaking and writing) and receptive (listening and reading) skills
  2. students studying in local universities through English-mediated instruction
    • requires mostly receptive (reading and listening) skills
  3. speakers from different backgrounds using English as spoken medium
    • requires both productive and receptive skills, primarily speaking

Björkman identifies several problems in EAP and ELF (ELFA). One problem is the instructional and assessment emphasis on academic writing despite speaking ability to be in higher demand in ELF settings. Another problem is a focus on target native-speaker usage of English. ELF research has shown that native-like proficiency is not required to be communicatively competent. Except for question word order and question intonation, nonstandard uses of subject-verb agreement, third person -s, plural -s, articles, and other morphosyntactic features do not cause breakdowns in communication. Björkman importantly states that “communicative effectiveness takes precedence over accuracy, fluency and language complexity…[and] effectiveness of a speaker of English…is determined primarily by the speaker’s pragmatic ability and
less by his/her proficiency.” (p. 85). Higher linguistic accuracy does not equate to higher pragmatic competence. Therefore, to strive for native-speaker target usage does not represent the realities of ELF.

Several implications stem from the juxtaposition of ELF in EAP. First, Björkman argues that new standards for English need to be set not on written English but on spoken communication, which requires . These should be based on analyses of spoken corpora of not just native English speakers (such as the MICASE corpus) but a mix of language speakers in ELF settings. Shifting standards also implies a shift in what is considered and taught as “good English” rather than “correct English”. She cites Greenbaum (1996) who says that “Correct English is conformity to the norms of the standard language. good English is good use of the resources available in the language.” While accuracy is no doubt important, the effective use of resources to communicate effectively should be emphasized in instruction.

Besides shifting standards of English, what Björkman considers a theoretical implication, she also lists a number of important practical implications. The first practical implication is to as clearly as possible identify the needs and expectations of the learners in order to better address what type of English they will need. A second implication is that teachers should prioritize comprehensibility. This includes:

  • exposure to a range of different Englishes and English accents
  • reduction of idiom usage
  • teaching of accommodation strategies
  • teaching of pragmatic strategies
  • teaching of structures that increase explicitness of meaning
  • teaching of question word order and proper question construction

(See Ollinger (2012) for a meta-analysis of strategies with explanations and examples.)

A final implication is a shift of focus on testing spoken production. This includes focusing on effective use of the language, not only correct use of the language. This means not penalizing students for mistakes that do not hinder comprehension (such as not using -s for plural or third person) as well as not penalizing explicitness or repetition. Spoken tests should not be monologic in nature. Assessing dialogic tasks (e.g. between two students) allows assessment of more authentic production as opposed to prepared speeches or presentations which are far less common. Finally, native-like accents, while they can be a student’s personal goal, should not be a criteria for assessment.

Research Bites: Gesture and Pronunciation

Smotrova, T. (2015), Making pronunciation visible: Gesture in teaching pronunciation. TESOL Quarterly.

Research shows that body movement and speech are intimately linked, with some theorizing that they are from the same cognitive source. Whether this is true or not, what is known is that body movements and speech are unconsciously coordinated and that these gestures are not random but coordinate to meaning. What is also known is that gesture often occurs alongside not only conversation but instruction in the classroom. Smotrova first looks at how gesture has been used in pronunciation teaching, pointing out it is one of the least researched aspects of language instruction. Clapping, rubber bands, mirroring and imitation, and even some gesture-systems such as the “essential, haptic-integrated English pronunciation (EHIEP) framework“, have been employed in pronunciation teaching, many of which have been shown to be effective. However, overall there is a paucity of research in this area. In this article, Smotrova analyzed gestures as they occurred in a classroom during pronunciation instruction. Her analysis is in-depth and concludes with two important implications: 1) teachers should be made aware of the importance of gestures and utilize them, perhaps systematically, in their instruction; and 2) students should use the teacher’s gestures because they are beneficial and effective to their learning.

Related Links:

Research Bites: Rethinking Implicit-Explicit Feedback

Sarandi, H. (2016), Oral Corrective Feedback: A Question of Classification and Application. TESOL Quarterly, 50: 235–246.

Sarandhi argues that oral corrective feedback (CF) research in both classroom and laboratory settings presents CF in binary terms along an explicit-implicit (and input-output) continuum even though their classifications can actually change based on numerous factors. For example, recasts, which are typically considered implicit CF, can actually be explicit when the correction is salient to the learners. This would be in situations where the recast is short and involves a single change, where recasts use word stress to highlight the error, if learners have prior knowledge of the structure, and if they are generally capable to notice and correct the error. Sarandi’s point is that researchers need to understand that the nature of CF changes based on classroom application. Furthermore, while most CF research points to explicit CF being more effective, this does not account for implicit CF transformed into explicit CF through classroom application and the interaction of multiple variables.

Related Post: Research Bites: The Mother of All Corrective Feedback Studies

On Giving Feedback, or, You Have a Life, Too

At the end of February, I attended and presented at the 4th annual GATESOL IEP Mini-Conference in Atlanta. It was a wonderful conference and it was great to have an event so focused on a specific teaching content, and meet other people who teach in that same context!

Among the many great presentations I attended, one of the best was by Dr. Lauren Lukkarila called “Giving Writing Feedback: Freeing Yourself and Learners” (download the presentation and handout). Giving feedback on writing is hard. First, it’s pedagogically difficult. What you comment on, how you comment on it, how much you comment, and the question par excellence, whether you use a red pen – these are all difficult questions. Furthermore, we have to wonder how effective feedback is, especially when students tend to make the same exact mistake (grammar or content) the very next time. Second, it’s emotionally draining. How many times have you been frustrated because the student just did not do what was expected of them? How many times have you face-palmed while grading a paper? Finally, and perhaps worst of all, it’s time-consuming. Do you grade on the weekends? Do you mark papers late into the night? Why are there coffee stains on that essay? And, didn’t you fix that error last time? Didn’t you address this in class? Didn’t they log this in their error diaries? Why are they still making this mistake‽

This, of course, is just from the teacher’s perspective. Just as we struggle, our learners struggle too. First, they need to figure out what you actually want – which, despite our best efforts and rubrics, is not always clear. Then, they need to actually say it, which could be the hardest part. Our students (usually) would have little problem saying these things in their own language, but through the filter of an L2, their thoughts are muffled; they’ve been hobbled. It’s quite stressful and, as a student, it can be demoralizing.

Dr. Lukkarila has a plan to get us (teachers and learners) out of this funk. We are all dissatisfied with the feedback transaction and we need to change it. Lauren offers two important solutions:

  1. Manage expectations
  2. Let go

What this means is that we should require less whole products to give comments on. Instead, we should require more revisions as the writing develops. This allows us to give simple and quick feedback. It’s not time-consuming and when the entire product is done, it is made of the best revisions possible, so it requires no further feedback! Of course, another lesson is that we shouldn’t correct everything. Accept mistakes because students will make them again (and they can always go to the writing center for little things like that anyway). Just because we don’t correct certain mistakes doesn’t mean the student will become a failure at life. Accept mistakes and accept that not correcting doesn’t signal the four horsemen to come riding.

Dr. Lukkarila stresses that we should follow the 80/20 rule. That is, of the 10 most important things to look for in a text, two are more important than the others. And students are likely to only be able to handle / take-in / internalize / acquire two instances of feedback. So, for each revision or feedback round, focus on only two things. Focus on 20% and let go of the other 80%. Each revision round, you can shift your focus, but stay within the 20%.

Here is more of what Lukkarila said:

Managing Expectations

  1. Beliefs – Managing expectations means that we need to rethink our writing beliefs. Perhaps we are giving feedback too harshly because that’s how we were graded and we think it’s the norm. Perhaps we our applying our own subjective understanding of “good writing” to the writing of our students. Maybe we are focusing too much on accuracy, or maybe not enough? What’s better: quality or quantity? There are a lot of assumptions we may have to rethink in terms of what we expect our students to produce, including the assumptions our students might be making about writing.
  2. Needs – Managing expectations means being honest about our needs. How many hours can you reasonably spend giving feedback, considering the hours you spending planning, teaching, and on Twitter or Facebook? Are you going to have time to give feedback on everything you said you will? Can you, will you, or do you have to comment on everything? What kind of feedback do your students need? How fast do they need it?

Letting Go

  1. Require fewer whole products and more revisions.
  2. Break down writing into smaller parts – even smaller than the paragraph level. Think sentence-level stuff here.
  3. Follow the 80/20 rule
  4. “Releasing your own student writing experiences and replacing those expectations with  expectations that are realistic and respectful for your students and you.”
  5. Consider the most important whole products still will make and let go of the other products you wanted them to write.
  6. Less is more – students should receive feedback more often, and revise more times. This is only possible with less feedback.
  7. “Accept that learners can improve even when you don’t comment on everything– allow the natural acquisition process to work.”

I really like Lauren’s ideas. I think that they can be adapted and applied to almost any teaching situation and still be effective, as long as the basic principles are observed: manage expectations and let go. Of course, it’s harder than it sounds. For me, it would be hard to give feedback on only two items and let go of the other eight. I could focus on two of the other eight during the next feedback round, but eventually, we have to move on if the writing is ever to be finished. Knowing when to let go is hard. And here, the “less whole products more revisions” comes into play.

I think I already follow this mantra to some extent, focusing on quality instead of quantity (for quantity, I have my students blog). Some colleagues have their students complete six or seven essays during one term. My classes usually produce three. We take our time, go slow, and get lot’s of feedback. I try to give feedback in class and do as little as possible aside from grading out of class, but it doesn’t always work that way. I also try to break the writing down into paragraphs, for example looking at the thesis before writing the intro, and looking at an intro before allowing students to move to the body. This works well to some extent, but a class of more than 6 means I don’t have the time to work with everyone. So, I inevitably take work home and use up my free time.

I’ve been trying to make the feedback process more efficient and effective for both myself and my students. It’s difficult but I’m making progress. Compared to a year or two ago, when giving feedback was like being in prison, you can consider me a free man. However, there is still room to grow and I think I will take Lukkarila’s advice into deeper consideration.

I am a teacher, yes. But, I’m also a father, husband, and friend. I need to do my work in a way that respects and helps myself as much as it helps my students. There is no shame in that.

Please check out her presentation and handout for more information.

Grammar Challenges

This is a quick post to share a successful grammar activity I used in my advanced grammar class last term.

A little background: our program offers four core courses: reading, writing, listening/speaking, and grammar. That’s right: grammar is a separate, explicit course all by itself. There are up to 7 levels of grammar. This blog post is referring to what I did with my level 7 grammar class, but it could easily be used with any level.

One struggle I had when designing my grammar class was how to move the grammar from object of study to tool that could be used anywhere. All my students know that grammar is important for speaking English competently. However, I was worried that my lessons – no matter how much practice and engagement were involved – would be relegated only to grammar class, or seen only as relevant to grammar class, especially because the core courses are not integrated. In other words, I was worried about the transferability of the lessons I taught and the things my students were learning. Therefore, I made a weekly assignment called “grammar challenges“.

The assignment was quite easy and the requirements – the “challenges” – stayed consistent each week. Basically, each week, students would have to consider the grammar point we had been using (past perfect, adverb clauses, adjective clauses, mixed conditionals) and complete the following challenges:

  1. Use it in another class
  2. Use it with an international student outside of class
  3. Use it with a native speaker
  4. Use it off campus
  5. See it in another class
  6. See it on campus
  7. See it off campus
  8. Hear it in another class
  9. Hear it on campus
  10. Hear it off campus

For each challenge, students needed to add what they had said/seen/heard and an explanation about the context in which it occurred. For example, some told me about using the grammar point in an essay in their writing class. They would tell me the essay title, the class level, and the teacher too. Some told me about using it or hearing it with native-speaking friends. They explained the situation they were in, what was said, and often why or the response.

The point of these challenges is to provide students with the opportunity to use and notice (textually and aurally) the grammar, therefore gaining more exposure and practice with it, hopefully internalizing or reinforcing the practice we had already done in class.

I was worried that students did not find the challenges useful, or they found them difficult, uninteresting, or repetitive. However, the opposite was true. On my evaluations, a number of students mentioned the grammar challenges as being a useful and effective activity to help them improve their grammar.

I hope that grammar challenges are a helpful activity that you can use with your students.

A Note about Grammar Challenges

I had students complete challenges via Google Classroom. Students received a copy of the same document each week and filled in the necessary information. This could also easily be done with Google Drive and Doctopus if you do not have Classroom. It can also be done via Blackboard, email, or old-fashioned pen and paper.


On Student Blogging

I have used student blogs in my classroom, inconsistently, over the past few years. I have seen both the benefits and drawbacks of blogging with students. However, it wasn’t until last term that I became convinced blogging is something to pursue more with students. Despite the benefits of writing fluency, I have had quite a negative view of student blogs, especially since I do not feel blogs are an example of writing for an authentic audience, as many claim. However, last term, the writing my students did really shifted this perspective.

I had several requirements of my students’ blog posts, one of which I feel really impacted their writing. They had to write two posts a week and several comments to other students posts. For one of their posts, they were free to write anything. However, for the other post, they had to write based on some outside source. That is, they had to read something and then post a summary-response, an analysis, use it as a discussion piece in writing, etc.

This last requirement I think made all the difference. The posts that were written on outside sources were often more interesting, usually synthesized several sources, and always connected back to their own personal experiences, especially their student experiences. I had posts about the best ways to study, the benefits of meditation, and lots of inspirational quotes.

Their other posts, the ones in which they were free to write about anything, were also very good. One post celebrated being a woman, experiences studying with students from other countries, the university experience, vegetarianism, and the importance of criticism.

Not all posts were golden. But, for the students who took the blog more seriously (and often made the most comments) the blog was a great outlet to express their ideas, was great English practice, and was in general beneficial (according to their evaluations).

If you have not done blogging with students, I highly recommend it! It will give them an opportunity to grow as writers and you an opportunity to learn about your students from a different perspective.

Notes about Blogging

In the past, I used WordPress for blogging. I use WordPress for my own blog. But, WordPress requires more set-up, more explanation, and more practice. This time, I chose Google’s blog platform, Blogger. I couldn’t have been happier. There were no new accounts that had to be created (students either had their own Gmails or the Gmail-linked university email) and the writing platform is extremely easy to use.

Typically, when I have students blog, I have them do so for fluency, not accuracy. I typically do not comment on their grammar or language usage. Instead, I focus on their thoughts and ideas. However, this time, by student request, I did give some feedback on language usage. I used Genius, a simple web-annotation tool, to provide comments on their blog. Genius is really simple to use for both the teacher and the student. Here’s how to use it: