7 Techniques for Mining Vocabulary

Selecting vocabulary to focus on from a text is not always as simple as reading the text and picking out words. It’s hard to determine the frequencies and relevance of words just from reading. So, I’d like to share several methods I use – often in conjunction – to decide what vocabulary I want my students to focus on.

To Pre-Teach or Not To Pre-Teach?

Whether or not to pre-teach vocabulary is a somewhat contentious issue. I leave it up to the teacher and their context to decide what is right. In my own context, and in my own view, I mostly pre-teach, or pre-expose students to vocabulary. This is because I deal with intensive reading which involves challenging texts that include difficult vocabulary. I want my students to go into their readings armed with enough vocabulary so that they do not feel completely overwhelmed. In addition, since these are challenging texts, and being able to guess words from their context requires knowing 95% of the surrounding words, relying solely on context is not a sound strategy. In addition, vocabulary is learned through multiple exposures. I believe that pre-teaching counts as an exposure. Working with the vocabulary first is likely to lead to greater recognition and internalization than other techniques. Finally, I do not rely on pre-teaching all the time, especially if it is a word that I know they can get from context, inference, or because they know related words. However, pre-teaching works for us most of the time.

1. Starting At the Source

This may seem obvious, but the best thing to do when choosing vocabulary is have a manipulable text. If your text is digital, you are already ahead of the game. All you have to do now is copy and paste. But if you are working with textbooks (readings or transcripts of lectures or conversations), a clean scan is required, followed by an OCR rendering. OCR makes the scanned “picture” readable by making the text recognizable by computers. If you have Adobe Acrobat, there is a built-in function for this. If not, you can use a free online service such as Free Online OCR. With OCR, it is not always 100% accurate. It depends on the scan quality, really. I still get things such as “are” rendered as “arc” or “history” as “h!story” but for the most part this is not a problem, and it is easily fixed in Word.

Starting at the source in Acrobat

Starting at the source in Acrobat

Copying to a text file is essential for some of the tools below.

Copying to a text file is essential for some of the tools below.


How to OCR in Acrobat Pro

2. Word Lists

Because I deal with academic texts, I use the Academic Word List (AWL) and the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) to find words in the text that are important for academia. I have just started using Lauren Anthony’s free AntWordProfiler to compare target texts against lists. It’s quite simple to use and already comes preloaded with the AWL.

Download and run it (no installation necessary). There are three panes. The top pane is your target text(s). The bottom pane are your word lists. The right pane is the output, which includes the words in the text that are found on the word list, their frequencies in the text, and other pertinent information.

It’s quite simple to use. First, clear out the GSL lists in the bottom pane. That will leave you with only the AWL. You can add the AVL by first downloading it my very simple version of it here, then clicking “Choose” to add it. Click “Choose” in the top pane and select your text (which should be in a .txt file). Click “Start” at the bottom and the results will be printed on the right. Here are two examples:


My text compared against the Academic Vocabulary List. Words such as research, change, following, increase, system, and term have a frequency greater than 1 and appear on the Academic Vocabulary List.

AWL results

My text compared against the Academic Word List. Words such as research, consist, psychology, aware, estimate, function, benefit, etc. have a frequency greater than 1 and appear on the Academic Word List.

Having this information helps me quickly sort through what students likely need to know, what they can figure out, and what they already know.

3. Highlighter

An online tool that is related to the above word lists is the AWL Highlighter. Input text (up to 2400 characters) and select what level of sublist you’d like to search (there are 10, with the first having the most common words) and then hit submit. The website will bold the academic vocabulary. You can also select the gap-fill option to make the academic vocabulary disappear! The AWL Highlighter is a pretty good tool for quickly noticing academic vocabulary in context.

...text comes out

Text goes in…

...text comes out

…text comes out

4. Vocab Grabber

Another one of my favorite vocabulary mining tools is Visual Thesaurus’ Vocab Grabber. Paste in your text and click “Grab!”. It compares the text against its own word lists and then presents the text to you either as a cloud or a sorted list, which can then be filtered by subject and by list level. I typically arrange it as a list by frequency, and then look at each level individually. Levels 1 and 2 are the most common words. Relevant vocabulary typically appears in lists 3, 4, and 5.

What’s more, Vocab Grabber allows you to quickly get the definition of the word, see the word in its contexts in the text, and, being visual thesaurus, get a visual word association map of the text.


Unorganized Text from Vocab Grabber


Sorted by frequency, words from list 4


How words can be viewed: mind map, definition, examples from text

5. Word Clouds

I use word clouds more as an embellishment on my PPT slides, or as a warmer activity, than for actually mining vocabulary. However, visually displaying a text as a word cloud sometimes reveals vocabulary you may have otherwise missed. Tagxedo is the best world cloud generator I have found, especially as it allows you to organize your clouds into different shapes, and it has loads of customization features. Unfortunately, it doesn’t run on Chrome, but Firefox and IE work well.

The article's theme was about sleep, so I made the word cloiud into a "dream cloud".

The article’s theme was about sleep, so I made the word cloud into a “dream cloud”.

6. Manual Mining

Using the above resources is great. However, most of the time, manual mining of a text through skimming, scanning, or reading, is useful. This is especially true for various multi-word phrases that the automatic mining tools may miss. For example, the phrase “sleep debt” appears several times in the article but never appeared in any of the lists as a chunk. I wouldn’t actually define this phrase, as it deciding on the meaning of the phrase would be done via discussion. However, other phrases like sleep deprivation, fight off, cut short, wreak havoc, long haul, etc.

7. Student Mining

Getting the students themselves to do the mining is always a great way to work with the vocabulary they want, as well as giving them valuable pre-exposure too. You can have students scan for new or unfamiliar words (and phrases) and build a list. Then, they can work with another student to discuss unfamiliar words and come up with a list of words neither can define. I also get students to add words to a Google Form (a simple paragraph text input box) so that I can see the most common unknown words and work from there.



How to Use Audacity to Quickly Make Audio Clips

Audacity, a freely available audio editing program, is one of my essential, go-to teacher tools – so much so that it is pinned to my taskbar and enjoys almost daily use.


Audacity is the last icon on the right.

There are many things you can do with Audacity that is useful for teaching. For example, you can slow down audio or speed it up; you can cut, shorten, and manipulate audio (such as TED Talks!); you can record your own audio samples; you can record students; students can make their own podcasts; you can analyze waveforms and spectrograms in a pronunciation class; and you can make really cool listening quizzes (an idea for a future blogpost of mine). Really, the list is endless.

The point of this blog post is to show you how I use Audacity to quickly cut up audio for vocabulary, transcription, and paraphrasing practice. 

The first thing you need to do is download Audacity. In addition, you’ll need to download and install the LAME MP3 codec in order to save .mp3 files (Windows users click here, Mac users click here). Once installed, you’re ready to go.

The quickest way to cut up audio is the use of labels. This allows you to select a section of audio, label it with a name, and then later export all the sections as separate files with a few clicks. I’ll try to give step-by-step instructions with pictures.

  1. Open the program and load the track you want.
  2. Listen to the track until you find a clip you want. Then highlight the clip and press CTRL + B. Give the label a name. In my example, it is “v – addictive”. This means the clip contains a short phrase with the vocabulary word “addictive” in it.
    vocab label
  3. Continue labeling. If there are two sections together or nearby, you may have to zoom in to be more accurate.
  4. When you are finished, Audacity should look like this (zoomed out).
  5. Next, go to File -> Export Multiple. This will allow you to export each clip/label you made separately.
    save multiple
  6. You’ll see a dialog box. Make sure to select “MP3 Files” under format, select a location, and choose whatever other options you’d like. The setup below is what I typically use. It will produce MP3 files in the folder I specified that are named only by the label I used.
    export options
  7. Press “Export” and you will see the box below. This will appear for EVERY label you created, so all you have to do is click “OK” multiple times in succession – unless you wish to read the information for each file.
  8. When the process is finished, you’ll see a list of your files.
  9. Open the folder, and you’ll see something like this:
  10. Now, the fun part…what to do with all those files? Here is an example – a game I play called “Popcorn Vocab“. I simply drag the files I want into a PPT and then arrange them to be easy to use. In class, I’d set up the popcorn game by telling students to list for the vocab (which we have already studied) and JUMP in the air and shout the word when they hear it. The first to jump/shout gets a point. OR, if two students jump/shout at the same time, they are both out. This last change is adapted from the Korean nun-chi game. Check the blog post I linked to to get a better explanation.popcornuse

Research Bites: Rethinking Reading Instruction

Leki, I. (1993). Reciprocal themes in ESL reading and writing. In J. G. Carson & I. Leki (Eds.) Reading in the composition classroom: Second language perspectives (9-32). Boston, MA: Heinle.

In this chapter, Leki argues against the separation of reading and writing instruction (something that happens in many institutes today, as it did in 1993 when Leki wrote this). She argues that this separation makes reading purposeless, and, therefore, reading instruction becomes a focus on skills, strategies, and errors rather than an active meaning-based activity in which texts are read to be used for something more.

Furthermore, the selection of a hodgepodge of text topics from numerous different domains leads not to highly interesting topics but a lack of knowledge buildup that can be used to intellectually engage with related texts. In a sense, reading becomes harder because students are not building and reconciling schema.

Reading instruction also puts a great focus on “errors” – comprehension check questions that emphasizes what students get wrong about a text, and then hopes to correct these errors through strategy instruction. This is despite the fact that research shows the meaning of a text is not formed through a single strategy or set of strategies that can be uniformly applied to all texts. Instead, meaning is based on interaction with the text, negotiation of meaning, and often, being situated within the writer’s discourse community. How a text is read – in other words, what strategies get applied, is determined by the purpose for reading, which many readings in reading courses lack. Furthermore, this focus on strategies is coupled with a laser focus on main ideas (Leki compares this to writing’s focus on topic sentences). Leki points to research that shows finding main ideas is not always as straightforward as it seems. Nor is it the most important part of reading. Checking comprehension (via post-reading questions) and teaching strategies does very little to teach students how to actually read, comprehend, or interpret. In fact, Leki argues this approach may actually engender poor reading skills by making students see texts as a puzzle that just needs to be deciphered rather than something that can be negotiated. It also equates reading comprehension to finding the elusive main idea.

In this light, reading becomes a solitary act and a solitary struggle where “It is only when they return to class that they learn, from the teacher, how well their personal struggle with the text went” (p. 29). Purposeless and mechanical, reading courses become a place for “rehearsing but never performing” (p. 19) and the social aspects of reading – students working together to co-construct the meaning through their varied interpretations and attempts to make sense of a text – are ignored.

Leki states that the separation of reading and writing has “impoverished instruction in both domains” (p. 12). However, the benefits of the integration are undeniable. Writing enhances reading because it gives students a purpose. It allows them to focus less on the words and sentences and more on constructing the meaning and intellectually engaging with the text. It promotes real reading (i.e. reading with a purpose) in the present, rather than something that is saved for the future (i.e. when the students take their “real” courses).

There are some glimpses of how such an integration can be realized.

First, reading in the composition classroom can attend to the social aspect of reading, Students can read published texts together in groups and “witness competing meanings and clarify their own misunderstandings through discussion, debate, and the need to translate their understandings into their own words” (p. 23).

Reading should become an active process where students are directed by what is salient and relevant for them, rather than using comprehension questions as a guide.

Students (and instructors) can realize that reading and writing are reciprocal: “the reader can interact more actively with the text by viewing reading as dialogic, and by writing to the text (responding to it, for example, with notes in the margins or in a reading journal)…” (p. 23)

Leki also promotes peer-review of writing. She argues that reading each other’s writing helps students focus more on making sense of what a real person is trying to communicate.

A focus on interactive, meaning-based, and purposeful reading shifts the focus from error correction and treating a text as a puzzle to something that is more social and negotiable. Errors will happen, as will misinterpretations, yet being able to tackle these issues together gives students the ability to “engage in constructing meaning with power and confidence” (p. 24).




Research Bites: Integrating Reading and Writing

Kroll, B. (1993). Teaching writing IS teaching reading: Training the new teacher of ESL composition. In J.G Carson & I. Leki, Reading in the composition classroom: Second language perspectives, 61-81. Heinle: MA.

Kroll’s article discusses a number of important issues, including the problems with a skill separation model in which reading, writing, speaking, and listening are taught as separate skills – a common approach at many language institutions. She also writes about the professional backgrounds writing teachers come from (TESL, composition, or remedial writing) and how most teachers are underprepared to teach either writing or reading. While these are interesting and worthy of focus, the crux of her article is in reaction to the read-discuss-write sequence that was common in ESL composition classrooms in 1993 (and is still common today in 2016).

First, she describes a hypothetical teacher who selects an interesting reading; gives it to students for homework; asks comprehension questions on the following day; focuses on vocabulary, transition phrases, topic sentences, citations, and similar devices; and then asks students to write based on this reading. This process continues with the reading being mostly forgotten during writing, and the writing being forgotten during the next reading, which likely bears no relation to the first reading.

Kroll points out that such a common sequence does not represent a good integration of reading and writing, nor good reading or writing instruction in general. What is wrong with this sequence, according to Kroll?

  • There was no introduction to the reading. Focus should be placed on previewing its content, style, potential for writing, etc., which Kroll considers critical. This also includes schema building.
  • Most importantly, there was no purpose for the reading other than writing a paper to get a grade. Purpose shapes how a reader interacts with a text. Kroll argues that teachers must convince students that reading and writing serve a greater, real-world purpose whether that is writing for an audience or writing to learn.
  • The focus on comprehension questions makes reading an exercise in translation and decoding, which is rather limiting.
  • The reading was selected for its perceived ability to interest the learners. This has the danger of turning a writing course into a low-level content course in which writing skills get lost.

Kroll does not think the read-discuss-write sequence is itself impoverished, but argues that a “purposeful context” needs to be provided for it (p. 71). What she recommends is, rather than picking articles through happenstance, teachers work backwards from what they want to final product to be. By starting with the goal, teachers can then articulate a clear purpose and gather materials that fit the goal. Kroll states that framing reading with a clear purpose or goal can prevent turning reading into translation. She then says that the readings can be focused on from a writers point of view, looking at the structure and the ways the writer accomplished their goals.

Thus, Kroll sets up some important guidelines for reading like a writer. Reading like a writer promotes reading not only to learn content but to learn what choices a writer makes when constructing their text. This is often learned incidentally by L1 writers, but clearly needs to be made salient for second language writers. One activity can be to ask students to stop reading after a certain point and get them to predict what will come next, not as a reading strategy in predicting content but as a way to see how the writer sets up (or fails to set up) where they are going. This can then transfer to the students’ own writing (probably through explicit instruction) and how they think about the structure of their own text. Looking at things such as authority and audience are also aspects of learning to read as a writer. Likewise, Kroll suggests learning to write as a reader. This includes the ability to revise one’s writing based on an understanding of a reader’s (real or imagined) needs. This also includes avoiding the problem of writer-based prose, which is writing that only the writer can understand. (She cites the article “The Writing-Reading Connection: Taking off the Handcuffs” for example lessons.)

I enjoyed Kroll’s article because it reminded me that integrating reading and writing does not solely mean writing based on reading but that reading should be undertaken as an activity that facilitates not just writing (as in the act of putting words on the page) but composition (i.e. the thoughtful arrangement of ideas to meet a goal).

Kroll also alluded to a need for consistency between readings and writings; that is, a possible thematic focus for the course. She cites Shuster (1991)as saying these types of classes create a “pinball style classroom that careens madly from one clanging thematic focus to another so that no sustained intellectual engagement is possible” (p. 62). The typical EAP coursebook includes articles from numerous disciplines in hopes to engage various types of students. However, perhaps a more focused theme would be better. After all, focused intellectual engagement is another skill that needs to be practiced.


Research Bites: A Socioliterate Approach (SA) to Writing

Johns, A. M. (1999). Opening our doors: Applying socioliterate approaches (SA) to language minority classrooms. In P. K. Matsuda, M. Cox, J. Jordan, & C. Ortmeier-Hooper (Eds.), Second-language writing in the composition classroom (pp. 290-302). Beford/St. Martin’s: MA. [link]

In “Opening Our Doors,” Ann Johns describes her socioliterate approach (SA) to college-level writing. It is a kind of reaction against humanistic, “personal identity,” and “inward-looking” approaches that seem prevalent in many composition and writing courses (p. 290-291). She sees more value in approaching multiple genres and working with genres that exist in the world around them, not just the world within them. She writes that focusing on personal identity comes as the expense of “other goals much more important to their future lives” (p. 300). Situated within an EAP context, this notion makes a great deal more sense, as writing here is mostly outward-looking.

What she calls a socioliterate approach is based on the understanding that texts are socially constructed and that they are “produced and read by individuals whose values reflect the communities in which they belong” (p. 291). In other words, SA looks at the social function of texts – including the audience, purpose, genre, and language.

Johns makes the bold but apt claim that if students can seek help on grammar elsewhere (e.g. writing centers which are dedicated to proofreading), teachers can focus on more important issues in regards to audience, purpose, genre, etc. Understanding the context of a text and its social construction through analysis is a major principle of the SA approach. This is achieved through analyzing multiple texts within a genre and trying to understand “text-external and text-internal features” (p. 292).

Johns outlines five goals of SA:

  1. Use student background knowledge of genres as a starting point for analysis
  2. Analyze texts in order to develop or revise the mental template for a genre
    1. Johns points out that even within a genre (e.g. summary), the text itself differs depending on discipline (i.e. social purpose)
  3. Work with strategies students use to approach a “task” so that both the teacher and students can understand how they approach different assignments, what works, and what doesn’t
  4. Develop different research skills that focus on texts, tasks, roles, and context. This can include asking and working with their teachers or professors in order to better understand the assignment or their own writing
  5. Developing the ability to talk about texts, i.e. metalanguage

The goals and ideas of SA are a bit abstract. Thankfully, Johns paints a picture of what an SA classroom might include, and then gives some examples from her own teaching. In general, an SA classroom might have the following features:

  • working with multiple genres, familiar and unfamiliar
  • analyze a number of texts from a genre before beginning writing
  • analyze the purpose of texts
  • writing various texts that simulate what is required in university classes (e.g. summaries, abstracts, timed writings)
  • reflection and examining strategies for approaching particular genres

From her own classroom, John provides two major examples of SA:

  1. She had her students work with Newsweek articles. Some of the tasks students did were:
    1. Students used the articles to write texts for different audiences.
    2. Students used Newsweek to practice argumentation and writing from sources.
    3. Students worked together to write a letter to the editor after they read an article they felt misrepresented Asian culture.
      1. The students looked at the construction of other letters to the editor to determine their structure and language usage.
      2. They discussed audience and the factors that go into publishing a letter.
  2. She had her students draft a letter to the university’s president because he was visiting their department.
    1. Students researched his speeches and comments to understand his values (know your audience).
    2. Students discussed their role as the writer writing to the president and the need to be clearly understood. This caused the final assignment to be better written than others.
    3. Students determined the structure and topic of the letter, including introducing themselves, their goals, and their suggestions for improving the university.
    4. The results of this letter was the president asking the department to look into the testing requirements (a common suggestion from the students)

I think that, while Johns’ description of SA seems to be a bit abstract or impractical at times, the principles of it are noteworthy. An approach to writing that focus on the social context of a text, written or read, is important because it leads to a better understanding of the structure and language that can be used while writing, the development of strategies to analyze texts, and – because of its social nature – a more informed understanding of audience. The understanding of audience, in particular, is important. Many have argued that an authentic audience creates a more motivating and meaningful writing experience for students. If an analysis of audience is involved, it may be likely that writing tasks could be crafted for more authentic or realistic audiences, which is a direction I think many writing courses need to go.


Research Bites: The Relevance of the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL)

Durrant, P. (2016). To what extent is the Academic Vocabulary List relevant to university student writing?. English for Specific Purposes, 43, 49–61.

Durrant compares the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL, Gardner and Davies, 2014) to university writing in order to understand how academic vocabulary is actually represented in undergraduate and graduate writing.

The Wordlists

The AVL is a more updated version of the popular Academic Word List. There are some important differences between the two:

Academic Word List (Coxhead) Academic Vocabulary List (Gardner and Davies)
based on a 3.5-million word academic corpus based on 120-million word Corpus of Contemporary American
based on headwords without regard to different meanings caused by changes to word families based on lemmas (“headwords plus inflectionally-related forms”) to take into account the various meanings of world forms
based on General Service List of high frequency general English words which may contain words that also have academic uses (e.g. address) but are not included in the AWL not based on any pre-existing list

The Problem

Durrant’s research is to provide insight into just how relevant the AVL is. Some of the problems highlighted about wordlists are that vocabulary varies too much by discipline to have any list be of value. Another argument is that wordlists are more useful (insofar as they are actually useful) for reading texts, not producing them. In other words, their productive value is questionable.

The Research

The research compared the AVL word list to the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus. Durrant looked at overall use of the AVL, as well as variation by student level, discipline, and genre.

The Findings and Conclusion

  • The AVL accounts for about 34% of the lexical words in the BAWE
    • 20% of this is covered by only 313 words
    • The most frequent 32 AVL items account for 5% of the BAWE lexical items
  • The AVL accounts for slightly more usage as their academic levels rise
  • There is wide variation between disciplines
    • While the average for the entire AVL to account for 20% of the BAWE is 313 words, there is great variation by discipline
      • 106 words in architecture account for 20%
      • 1,312 words in classics account for 20%
      • The median is 194
    • There is some overlap between certain disciplines
      • For example, 40 words from the AVL account for 10% of words in linguistics and physics (17% of items are shared)
        • The three words that cover 5% of the BAWE in these disciplines are however, therefore, and theory
      • About 30% of AVL represents shared words which account for 20% of the BAWE
  • There is signficant but small variation between text genres

The Implications

A relatively small amount of AVL words represent a great deal of academic writing while about half have very little contribution in terms of coverage. However, the words that do contribute to a great deal of coverage vary by discipline. Durrant argues that these results may seem to imply discipline-specific vocabulary teaching is a warranted approach. Nevertheless, he argues that is usually not practical nor desirable “given the cross-disciplinary nature” of academia. Durrant recommends focusing on the most frequently overlapping words (427 lemmas) and then moving on to either more discipline-specific lists or, vocabulary strategies such as inferring meaning or skipping unknown words (here, he refers to Nation’s [2011] “Learning vocabulary in another language“).

I have adapted the word list from Durrant’s work into an Excel file. The file contains the most common academic words that are shared among 30 disciplines, sorted by part of speech and frequency. Please click here to download it.

Six+ Ways I Use Mini Whiteboards in the Classroom

20160602_102608Under my desk in my office, I keep a bag of five or six mini whiteboards. When I tote this bag to class, my students perk up. When I break out the boards, they get really excited. Now, I’d like to think that my class is engaging and exciting without these boards, but these boards signal that class time will be spent a bit differently than usual. I use mini whiteboards to do a lot of reviews and games, and it’s clear from my students’ reactions that they love these sorts of activities. Because mini whiteboards are now a dedicated part of my teacher toolkit, I’d like to share some of the activities I do with them.

(Note: if you don’t have access to mini whiteboards, laminated white paper and board markers work just as well!)

1. Grammar Review with Video

This is probably my favorite mini whiteboard activity. It’s really quite simple and can be done with almost any video. I have used trailers (check out Subtitled Trailers on YouTube) and often the interactive zombie video Deliver Me to Hell. This is a review activity and works best with grammar, though vocabulary and other structures would work too.

I typically introduce the video and give a brief explanation of what students are expected to do with their partner (groups of 3 or 4 would be OK too). I write a checklist of structures on the board (e.g. adjective clause, adverb clause – concession, adverb clause – unreal past, etc.) sometimes with point values, sometimes without. Then, I play the video and pause it at either a random or action-packed moment. Students then must choose one of the structures on the board and make a sentence about the action surrounding the paused moment. I walk around and give feedback until students have a correct sentence. Students can then check off that structure. (Alternatively, you can award points to the first group with the correct sentence or only allow the first two groups to finish to check off that structure – it’s a game, so play it how you’d like). I ask students not to erase their boards so that they can share their sentences with other groups. If it is a particularly good sentence, I write it on the board and we discuss the structure together. If I see a group is struggling, I’ll write their sentence on the board and we will work on it together.

I repeat this game until all structures have been completed. If I am using trailers, I typically have several ready to go, and I do use the subtitles, but they are not necessary. During this activity, my students are fully engaged and are really applying their skills. The pair/group work allows students to help each other and allows me to offer targeted feedback and identify group- or class-wide areas that need help. It’s a great activity and something I try to do several times per term.

2. Vocabulary Practice and Review

There are a number of ways you can practice and review vocabulary with mini whiteboards. The following activities can be completed in pairs and groups. They require students to have already studied the vocabulary and be somewhat familiar with it. Each one of these activities is simple and can be played as a game (e.g. giving points to the first group finished). The activities are:

  • Say or show the meaning, students must write the vocabulary word
  • Say or show the word, students must write the meaning
  • Show a sentence with one word missing, students write the vocabulary word
  • Show a vocabulary word and students write a sentence with that word
  • Show a vocabulary word and the word “Noun,” “Verb,” Past Tense” and students must change the part of speech or write the past tense form of the word
  • Show a synonym/antonym, students write the corresponding vocabulary word
  • Show a list of words and get students to group them and then explain their groupings

The goal of these activities is to get students to collaborate in order to recall and apply vocabulary. They are a quick and fun way to get essential practice and easily allow immediate feedback. Students find these activities very enjoyable.

3. Collaborative Writing

I have used mini whiteboards to introduce students to collaborative writing, to assess different writing skills, and to provide immediate feedback. For example, given some topic we have been discussing, I get students to work together to draft a hook or thesis statement. I can then give each group feedback as well as show student exemplars to the rest of the class. I can ask students to look at an essay and work together to write a transition between paragraphs, to strengthen a claim with support, or to make a conclusion sentence more general.

I find that having students work together often produces better results than getting students to write independently. They have the ability to share different ideas, peer edit, and confirm their sentences that they otherwise would not have. These sentences then serve as models for their own independent writing.

4. Discussion Aids

This is an activity I have only done recently when my students were practicing for debates. While students were in their groups having mini debates, I would listen to them carefully. Whenever they missed an opportunity to add support or evidence, or missed an opportunity to apply a good argument, I would write a keyword on the board and show it to them. This prompted them – without interruption – to include the ideas during their debate/discussion.

I think that this type of whiteboard-based remind can be used to aid in many different discussion activities. Another way that it can be used is with target vocabulary or pragmatic structures. As students are having discussions, write a key vocabulary word or phrase on the board. Show it to students to remind them to use that word or phrase during their discussion. The whiteboard serves as a gentle reminder to include that language, giving students extra opportunities to practice and include language in a contextualized way.

5. LyricsTraining

I have already written about how I use LyricsTraining in the classroom (here and here). With mini whiteboards, students write missing song words on the boards. Here is an example activity using the song “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten:

  1. Access “Fight Song” on LyricsTraining.com.
  2. Explain that students will need to look for the missing word during the game as the lyrics scroll. If they think they know the word, they should write it on their board and then show the teacher the word. The first group to show the correct word gets a point. Students should keep track of their points on their boards. After they write a word, they should pass the board the next member of their group.
  3. Choose “Beginner” mode and begin the game.
  4. As students give correct answers, type them in to keep the game going.
    • Pay attention to the words and know them before the song gets to the blank. This way, you can focus on watching students rather than watching the game, making choosing the fastest group more easier and fairer.
  5. You should complete any really difficult words, especially those obscured by the music. However, for words that you think your students can get, use the replay button.
  6. At the end of the game, tally students’ points to determine the winner.

Students really enjoy this activity. It gets them practicing writing (mostly spelling), listening (to the song or other students), and speaking (giving directions and telling students the missing words). Quite simple but all my students enjoy it and it makes for a memorable experience.

6. Quiz Games

Finally, quiz games. I have made numerous quiz games to review vocabulary, grammar, and so on. I typically use a TOEFL review game at the end of each term to give students some TOEFL test practice before they take it. This would also work with Jeopardy or pretty much any other PowerPoint quiz game you can think of. Students work together to decide the answer and write it on their board within the allotted time. The review games are usually fill-in-the-blank, short answer, or multiple choice but students can practice sentence and even short paragraph writing as well. The TOEFL review game link above has an example reading/grammar game and an example listening game. The template can be modified to suit any question or goal.

[update: added #7 – 7/22]
7. Peer Dictation

I used this activity recently to work with vocabulary, listening, and pronunciation and it was quite a success. I think it could work in any classroom, but it was particularly fun and useful in a multilingual classroom with a variety of accents and abilities. I used our vocabulary to craft 10 simple sentences. I printed out the sentences on a sheet of paper and gave each group of 2-4 students one list and a mini whiteboard. One student was to have the list and the others were to listen carefully as the student read a sentence of their choice at a natural speed. Then, the other students had to work together to write their sentence on the whiteboard, asking for repetition, clarification, and spelling if needed. I found that all students were engaged in this and it was much more difficult than I had originally anticipated. It was also sometimes hilarious with students pronouncing over and over again certain words until they finally got their meaning across. I could see this as a good opportunity for practicing clarification, repetition, and even circumlocution strategies.


If you noticed, I claimed that each of these activities was fun and that students had a great experience. By simply bringing mini whiteboards – or any unusual object – to class, students expectations and interests grow. Mini whiteboards can be used for serious tasks and study, but my point was to show how they can be used for easy and fun practice and review.

Have you used mini whiteboards? What activities do you like to do with them?

Two Compelling Reasons Domestic University Students Should Learn to Speak English Internationally

Chia Suan Chong, in her article “5 reasons why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally,” outlined five very valid reasons that should make many native speakers rethink how they speak with non-native speakers. The advice was generally applicable but still seemed to focus on those who do business internationally, travel abroad, or encounter tourists.

However, there two perhaps more compelling reasons that I believe this article (and her subsequent related ones, all worth a read) missed. It is my belief that not only should native speakers become more aware of their speaking style and adjust as necessary but that universities should offer courses that include international communication strategies to help domestic students with today’s increasingly multilingual landscape.

Here are the two reasons why:

1. International students are increasing on campuses throughout the United States

In 2014/2015, undergraduate international student enrollment increased by about 10%. Campus populations vary around the country, but the international student population can make up anywhere from 4% to 20% or higher. For example, My own university has an undergraduate international population of 4% and a graduate international population of 13%. MIT‘s undergraduate international population is almost 10%, while their graduate international population is 41%. Indeed, a great majority of international students are graduate students and account for about 50% of the graduate population in certain fields (i.e. STEM). These numbers are likely similar in Canada, the UK, and other traditional native-speaking countries.

All of this means that it is becoming increasingly common for native speaking university students to interact with international students on an almost daily basis. As classmates, members of student organizations, or just hanging out around campus – communicating with non-native speakers is or will soon be an everyday fact of life. Being able to effectively communicate with them is going to be very important for social and academic success.

While some may argue that international students should “learn to speak American” the reality is that international students face numerous obstacles. The fact that they have been admitted to university (typically) means that they are already able to communicate on everyday topics and academic content. They shouldn’t really be expected to master regional and local vernacular; stay up to date with the latest idioms, sayings, and phrases; or have any clue to nuanced pop cultural references. Perhaps this will come with time, if it is seen as necessary. However, in the meantime, domestic students who are adept at speaking English as an international language will have all the advantages international communication bring while at the same time helping international students transition to college life in the US. Furthermore, they will better be able to work with and communicate with their international classmates, enriching the university experience for all involved.

2. International faculty are increasing on campuses throughout the United States

Not only is the student population increasingly multicultural but so are faculty at universities around the US (and, again, likely in other English-speaking countries). In 2008, the percentage of foreign-born faculty was well above 15 percent. In certain fields such as STEM, that percentage could be double. The fact that they have PhDs and perhaps decades of experience does not mean the basic tenets of international communication should be ignored. Clear and effective communication will be of benefit to all who are involved.

What’s more, the very fact that foreign-born faculty have an accent may cause problems in the classroom. A study that looked at comments made about accents on “Rate My Professors” found that faculty with non-native accents, especially Asian accents, were often rated very poorly on “clarity” and “helpfulness” or sometimes received comments about their accent despite it being considered clear. While some of this could be attributed to xenophobia or cultural biases, unconscious cognitive biases may also play a role. Psychologists from the University of Chicago found that the increased difficulty in processing foreign accents leads listeners to doubt the speakers credibility. In other words, foreign accents unconsciously cause us to have negative feelings (e.g. distrust) towards non-native speakers.

Having biases – conscious or otherwise – and distrusting professors does not bode well for a successful university experience. This is more evidence that domestic students should not only learn to speak international English but also have as much experience with international students as possible. The social and cultural benefits are numerous, but there is a cognitive benefit as well. Exposure to accents over time decreases the difficulty of understanding them (ask any ESL teacher this), which may translate to better experiences in the classroom.

A Possible Solution

Nicholas Subtirelu, the author of the “Rate My Professor study, says that his research points to “a need to address linguistic diversity at universities — to find ways to help people accept and work across their differences.” The trend on many campuses nationwide is to foster an environment that respects diversity. This is often framed as racial, gender, or sexual orientation diversity, but it must include linguistic diversity as well.

I think a first great place to start is what many universities term First Year Studies programs. These are typically extended orientation-type programs that include topics of time management, study skills, health care, etc. These are voluntary courses but well-enrolled at most universities. For that reason, these types of courses  should teach international communication strategies or mix domestic and international students to foster the type of encounters and understanding necessary to help both groups have mutually successful university experiences.

(Please check out Chia’s article “How to prepare students for international communication“.)

Principled Washback: Integrating Test Prep to Foster Academic Skills

(This post is a companion to the presentation I gave at the 2016 Toronto TESOL Conference. To download my presentation click here. To download my handout, click here.)


washback (n.) the impact of a test on teaching

“Washback is considered harmful…when there is a serious disjunct between a test’s construct…and the broader demands of real world or target language tasks” (Moore, Morton, & Price, p. 6)

principled (adj.) 1. based on the principles of pedagogy 2. based on research

“Principled pragmatism is based on the pragmatics of pedagogy…Principled pragmatism thus focuses on how classroom learning can be shaped and managed by teachers as a result of informed teaching and critical appraisal” (Kumaravadivelu, 1994)

principled washback (n.) focuses on how test preparation can be shaped and managed by teachers as a result of informed teaching (through research and pedagogy) and critical appraisal (of both tests and academic skills)


Many educators in EAP have the dual role of preparing students for success in the university classroom as well as preparing them for high-stakes gatekeeping tests like IELTS and TOEFL. Whether we like these tests or not, that students’ entrance into the academic world depends on these tests makes our job makes our job both more important and more difficult. If we focus too much on the test, we are sacrificing important long-term skills students will need to survive in academia. If we focus solely on academic skills, students might be OK, but they may not feel prepared for the test or satisfied with their classes, which are perceived as not meeting their (short-term) needs. Principled washback is meant to find a happy middle ground that addresses test prep skills en route to addressing academic skills.

Principled washback considers the academic demands of the classroom, the academic demands of the test, and then looks for overlaps in order to focus and frame instruction. These overlaps serve as starting points of instruction that reference test skills and perhaps emulate test questions but actually move students along to important work academic areas not addressed by these tests.

The IELTS and TOEFL are broken up into four parts: speaking, reading, listening, and writing. The IELTS treats these as separate (which speaks to its validity a bit) while the TOEFL iBT separates them AND integrates them. For my presentation and this blog post, I will separate them and then offer some ideas for integration. Continue reading

On “The Life of the Mind” and Its Critics

Across the country this summer, first year college students all across America will be participating in the “Life of the Mind,” an annual event in which a university selects a book and asks students to read it before classes begin. The idea is that the hundreds or thousands of incoming students will have some shared reading experience in common that pertains to “the life of the mind” – the academic and scholarly world that they are about the enter into. While the books are different for each university, most will integrate the books in a similar manner: workshops, seminars, and discussions that focus around the selected books.

Universities typically select recent, relevant, and engaging books that are meant to draw in today’s reluctant reader – those who would rather read their Facebook feeds for hours on end than crack open a printed book.

The authors of the NAS report

The National Association of Scholars think this is terrible – not so much the program but the books they are choosing. They level 14 charges against the “Life of the Mind” series based on what amounts to traditionalist opinion rather than actual scholarship. They looked at a number of universities’ book choices during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years and compared them to their own assumptions of what should be taught. To me, most of these charges are unfair and extremely subjective, not to mention that their findings seem to be too harshly applied to a single book choice which, for some reason, the authors feel will affect students’ entire academic lives. My post is meant to point out these flaws, with my main argument against many of them being, “So, what?” as well as, “Yeah, so?”.

You can read the original report here and here, entitled “BEACH BOOKS: 2014-2016 What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?”.

Below is an overview of their arguments, with my comments in blue.

The Findings

College common reading programs are:

  1. Dominated by Mediocre, New Books. Most common readings are recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books. Who decides what mediocre means in books? Why is “I am Malala” mediocre and “Garbology” unchallenging? To the last point, incoming first year students are about to be challenged in every class where a professor can help them make sense of dense material. Does reading meant to energize and engage them for the first time in academic life have to be so challenging? And how is challenging defined? Shakespeare is challenging because it is written in an archaic style of English. Plato is challenging because it is written in a more difficult register of English and it deals with philosophical elements. Isn’t “Becoming Nicole” challenging because it confronts our preconceived notions of gender?
  2. Predominantly Progressive. The assigned books frequently emphasize progressive political themes—illegal immigrants contribute positively to America, the natural environment must be saved immediately—and almost never possess subject matter disfavored by progressives. Yeah, so? Illegal immigrants. The environment. Racism and civil rights (the most common subjects – what they seriously call “timely propaganda”). These are things we have to confront every day. We all have different feelings and opinions about them. What is wrong with reading about modern realities? The classics (what the authors are mostly arguing for being read) are important but only insofar as they can be help us understand and analyze modern life. That means we must also read about modern life. In addition, many first year students are also first generation college students who come from the very backgrounds that these topics touch on. Validating these students’ experiences by sharing stories like theirs can only help these students succeed whereas immediately confronting them with what many perceive as “dead white men” readings could serve more to alienate them. Again, the classics are important, but they need to be read voluntarily, not forced.
  3. Meant to Build Community. Colleges see their common readings more as exercises in community-building than as means to prepare students for academic life. Oh no! Not community. Students were supposed to be prepared for academic life in high school. That probably didn’t happen though. One book is not going to fix this.
  4. A Homogeneous Market. A profitable common reading genre has emerged, in which publishers and authors market a homogenized product to a highly predictable market of college selection committees. Students are the captive readership of this market. I’ll give you this one. When market forces drive pedagogical decisions, you are right to be suspect. However, these books were not written to satisfy this market, so you can’t blame the books or the content – only the publishing companies and university decision makers. This argument is sorely misplaced.
  5. Enduringly Popular. A significant minority of colleges abandon their common reading programs each year, but so far they have been replaced by other colleges starting new common reading programs. So, what? How is this a bad thing that these books are popular? And how is it bad that these reading programs continue, likely due to the fact that students are actually enjoying these books. Students. Enjoying books. Isn’t that one of the major problems of modern life – people now hate to read. Why stop something that seems to actually hook students into reading just because they are not reading what you think they should: books that remain enduringly popular for you.

The Facts

  1. Recent: More than half of common reading assignments (58% in 2014, 60% in 2015) were published between 2010 and the present. Only 12 assignments out of 738 (1.6%) were published before 1900, and another 5 (0.7%) between 1900 and 1945. So?
  2. Nonfiction: 71% of assignments in 2014 and 75% of assignments in 2015 were memoirs, biographies, essays, and other non-fiction. Again, so?
  3. Author Speaking: In 2014, 53% of colleges with common reading programs hosted personal appearances by the authors, and in 2015, 54% of colleges with common reading programs had author appearances. This sounds amazing! What better thing to do than read a good book and then hear the author speak?! Would you be railing against this if they reanimated Shakespeare and got him to speak? Or if your living favorites came? Just because you don’t like these authors and their books doesn’t mean their coming is a negative. Plus, this could get students in the habit of attending other speakers’ lectures. I fail to see the problem here.
  4. Not Mandatory: In 2014, 29% of colleges required students to read their common reading. In 2015 the figure was 28% of colleges. It’s not mandatory likely because they don’t want to force students to do reading when they know students have four years of hard mandatory labor reading in front of them. I’m guessing – I have not found the data – that these programs continue to exist despite being voluntary because the books are engaging. I’d venture to say that if you switch to mandatory classics for pre-college reading, these programs will swiftly disappear. Save that for the English lit classes. Students will take them. Students will love them. But, not now. Not here.

The Characteristics

  1. Almost No Classics: Only a scattering of colleges assigned works that could be considered classics. With few exceptions, the hundreds of common reading programs across the country ignored books of lasting merit. I’ve already stated that I think classics are important, but they are better served in English lit classes where students can have a better, more intensive focus with feedback from an expert rather than contend with the books on their own before they have even started college. That’s not the point of “Life of the Mind”. It’s supposed to engage them and make them more active readers. As we say in ELT, reading is caught, not taught. And you can catch more fish with live bait than dead bait. One final thought: who is to say the books chosen for the “Life of the Mind” have no lasting merit? Can you predict the future?
  2. Civically Engaged: Common readings are overwhelmingly chosen to foster civic engagement; they scarcely mention the complementary and equally valuable virtues of the disengaged life of the mind. They give no sense of why or how college differs from the world outside, and why those differences are valuable. How could civic engagement be a bad thing? And why is reading about the outside world – the real world that college is supposed to be preparing students for – why is this not valuable?
  3. Nothing Foreign: Classics in translation were nearly absent—and so was anything modern in translation. Even common readings about foreigners generally were written in English, not translated from a foreign language. This is perhaps the only point you make that I fully agree with.
  4. No Modern Classics: Even in confining themselves to living authors, common reading programs neglect some of the best ones, such as Martin Amis, Wendell Berry, J. M. Coetzee, Annie Dillard, Alice Munro, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Wole Soyinka, and Tom Wolfe. We’ve discussed this already. The modern books these students are reading are perhaps classics in the making. Wait. Modern classics? Please define this oxymoron and how you can become part of this genre. Why isn’t Chuck Palahniuk or Tom Robbins on this list? These are my modern classics.

I could go on and give my comments on their suggests – all as equally subjective and ridiculous as the “findings” above, but you can see where all of this will go. These authors – scholars and experts in their field no doubt and with way more experience and accomplishments than myself – still have no right to criticize book choices with such narrow-minded claims. Show me the data that says these books drop students’ GPA. Show me the data that these have negative effects on reading comprehension or first-year success. Show me the data that says that not reading classics makes someone an inhuman monster. Then, maybe, I can get behind your conclusions.

The authors seem like the ilk that would correct your grammar in public and have mini-strokes if you used singular “they”. Their subjective and non-scholarly drivel should not be a report by the National Association of Scholars who “upholds the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship“. Much of this report reads as the antithesis of their mission statement.

This report could have been written by Statler and Waldorf, perched high above in the balcony chastising the masses below, heckling those who are at least trying (to engage less than avid readers with something interesting) while pining for the good old days (where students were seen, not heard, and “Understanding Poetry” [by J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.] is the unspoken gospel). I don’t usually write outside my own field (English language teaching). But, to quote a classic, “I felt destroying something beautiful”. And I felt like going on a rant.