On PARSNIPs…or how to offend without offending

I recently saw an article announcing the publishing of a free e-book called “PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol. 1).” This book promises to help teachers and students discuss taboo and controversial issues avoided in most classes and all coursebooks. These issues – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork – form the acronym of PARSNIPs, something I have discussed before here.

Genevieve White wrote an interesting article reviewing the “PARSNIP” book. To her, the book did not meet its claim of helping students and teachers “step out of the comfort zone.” In her view, the book falls short because it seems to be too caught up in the current trend of shocking people by not hurting their feelings, depowering controversial issues to make sure everyone everyone talks nice and no one gets offended.

After looking at the book, I have to agree with her. This book may serve as a great stepping stone or companion for those who want to dip their toes in PARSNIP-flavored water, but it really is not a book that will make students or teachers challenge anything.

My question, though, is: should a PARSNIPs book even exist? PARSNIPs lessons should deal with controversial, challenging, and complex topics. This requires several elements that coursebooks, and even resource books (such as the “Taboos and Issues” book Genevieve mentions), cannot bring to the classroom. PARSNIPS requires understanding your learners, their backgrounds, and how much you can challenge or offend them. As she writes, you don’t want to make your learners “to feel distressed or uncomfortable in what should be a pleasant environment.” There is a difference between academically challenging their opinions (aka academically offending them) and making them feel under attack.

Another important element is relevancy. I don’t think you can walk into class and say “OK, today we’re gonna learn about gay marriage.” There is nothing wrong with this topic, but unless the topic is connected to something else, such as a student experience, recent news, an interesting discuss in which is arose organically, comments students made, or even as a supplement to a coursebook unit, if it is not connected to something, then it seems like you are bringing in controversy for controversy’s sake. Controversy needs context.

One final element that I think is important is recency. As in real life, we usually discuss controversial issues when they arise, are in the media, or being talked about by everyone else. This is very much related to the context idea above. Talking about recent topics that are in the news and on everyone’s mind will make any PARSNIPs lesson more meaningful. This is also another reason why I think the idea of a PARSNIPs book is bound to fail. And one doesn’t need a book. The news media (textual and visual) is filled with relative, recent, and controversial topics. For ELLs, Newsela is a great resource for this. Newsela offers lots of news articles – from the mundane to the controversial – at a variety of different proficiency levels.

Overall, I think the attempt to bring more attention to PARSNIPs-based lessons is noble, but without recognizing these elements, a book like this is bound to fail, or at least not meet the full potential it hopes to. PARSNIPs is not a five minute lesson. It’s not a lesson in a can, a lesson for busy teachers, or a filler. PARSNIPs is responsive teaching, and responsive teaching requires no coursebooks, no resource books, and no prefabricated lessons – responsive teaching requires students, teachers, and meaningful communication.

These posts and books come at an interesting time in the world of education. Just as higher education is discussing trigger warnings, some trends in ELT seem to be pushing in the opposite direction, purposely wanting to shock students. This warrants a who different discussion which I do not feel qualified to participate in at the moment. However, it is a discussion that needs to take place because we, at least in EAP, must deal with this on a double level: How do we at the same time protect students from perceived or real traumatic issues (the trigger warning debate) while at the same time acclimating students to a society which may be radically different from their culture, religion, and traditions?


Audio Diaries for Improved Spoken Proficiency

Note: This post is a modified version of an in-house faculty presentation I gave. This post contains interactive hyperlinks and video tutorials to supplement the presentation.

Quick Links

Accuracy and Fluency

I’ve met a lot of students who are fluent. English just flows out of them. They can express their thoughts clearly and succinctly with minimal communication problems. These are the end results most of our students strive for. I’ve also met a lot of students who were fluent at English, but what they think they are expressing as clear and succinct comes out is more of a word salad or garbled mess which takes time to piece together into resembling meaning. There are still others who can speak fluently, that is with ease of flow and at a decent pace, but with such simplicity in their spoken linguistic structures that find yourself comparing them to the way Native American speech have been represented in the media.

I’ve met these kinds of students all around the world. There is nothing wrong with them. They have just achieved fluency before accuracy. Some would argue this is a good thing. However, I think other conclusions can be drawn from this phenomenon:

  • Fluency is easier to obtain than accuracy.
  • Fluency is likely learned incidentally through our classroom activities and natural communication settings.
  • We might be focusing too much on fluency at the expense of accuracy.

Oral Corrective Feedback

So, like any good teacher, about a year or two ago I did some research on the subject. My research led me to Roy Lyster and his (and his co-authors’) research on oral corrective feedback as one pathway to improving accuracy. Feedback made such logical sense to me that I consumed the research with fervor. I was intrigued by feedback because it made me realize how I not only needed but craved feedback when I studied martial arts. I needed to hear from instructors and other students what was right and what needed to be adjustment. Correct, feedback-laden practice would hopefully lead to automaticity. Oral corrective feedback contains the same ideas.

I have already written about feedback here, but to summarize:

  • There are many different types of feedback.
  • Prompt-based feedback (elicitation, clarification, explicit correction, metalinguistic cues) as well as recasts seems to have a moderate to large effect on students language.
  • Feedback is useful for grammar, lexis, and pronunciation, with the latter two possibly having the larger improvements.
  • Feedback has an important counterpart: update – what students do with feedback, such as repairing their utterances or ignoring the mistake.
  • Uptake is extremely important in the feedback cycle.
  • There are numerous ways to deliver feedback: face to face, written, computer-mediated, and delayed. There is not much research about delayed feedback, but according to Quinn (2014), it seems just as effective.

Feedback is important. There is no doubt about that. The problem is time. It is very rare to be able to deliver enough effective and principled feedback to students in a classroom, especially when class sizes dip into double digits. Feedback is great, but difficult to deliver.

Extensive Speaking

Around the same time I was reading Lyster, I attended an interesting workshop at the 2014 National KOTESOL conference. The workshop was by Sarah Gu and it was on “Extensive Speaking“. Extensive speaking is based on principles behind extensive reading. Gu did simple but rather interesting research to test her ideas on extensive speaking. Here is a simple breakdown of the study:

  • Korean university students split into two groups:
    • Extensive Speaking group
      • 1-3 minute daily recorded monologues every school day for 6 weeks
      • non-linguistic “general” feedback given
    • Control group
      • no recorded monologues
  • Initial and final monologues were recorded of all students (control and extensive speaking)
  • Recordings were analyzed for proficiency based on the OPI rubric
  • Results: Extensive speaking group’s OPI scores had significant increases compared to control

Audio Diaries

My research on corrective feedback and my attendance at this workshop occurred around the same time and coalesced into an idea that I call Audio Diaries. The concept of Audio Diaries is actually quite simple. Students record something (on or off topic, with or without using target vocabulary or language structures). Students are then given feedback on their grammatical, lexical, and phonological errors. Finally, students re-record the same exact monologue, but this time, they must address their errors. In this way, students are getting delayed corrective feedback and forced uptake of feedback, in addition to raising their noticing and metacognitive skills. They are also getting individual attention, targeted practice in their “weak” areas, and more opportunities for speaking without the pressures of speaking in class.

Aside form typical complaints about too much homework, students seem to enjoy Audio Diaries. They enjoy the feedback and being able to have another chance to express their thoughts in a clearer way. In addition, by listening more closely to individuals I am better able to pinpoint and help them with their weaknesses in and out of class. Likewise, I am better able to notice persistent and common patterns and address them in class.

Several terms ago, I did a small experiment. I transcribed all initial and final recordings of my students (about 10) and analyzed the transcripts to for errors in grammar, lexis, and pronunciation. I also measured sentence complexity. In my small pseudo-experiment, the data showed some small increases to all areas. This was only after 8 weeks of class and 5 or 6 Audio Diary cycles. While not empirical evidence, this does suggest that I am heading in the right direction.

How to Do Audio Diaries

To complete Audio Diaries, I have my students use SoundCloud (see here for a SoundCloud / Audio Diary tutorial). SoundCloud is a social music site that offers the unique feature of allowing users to leave comments on audio files. The files appear both on the track’s wave form and in the track’s comment area. It is perfect for quickly and easily accessing and giving feedback.

This term, a typical Audio Diary cycle looks like this:

  • Monday – assign topic (always related to the unit, sometimes including new vocabulary). Students must record for 2-3 minutes. The first recording of the cycle is called “Audio Diary 1.1″. This means week one, attempt one. Students usually record using their smartphones, but they can also record through the SoundCloud website.
  • Tuesday-Thursday – I access their tracks through a private playlist they have shared. Students always upload to this playlist, so I only need to be emailed once to share the initial playlist. No further emails are necessary. Somewhere between Tuesday and Thursday, I listen to their recordings and leave feedback. My feedback may be explicit corrections, metalinguistic clues, or other types of corrective feedback. My pronunciation corrections always link to Forvo.com.
  • Friday – students look at my comments, listen to their track, practice the corrections, and then re-record. This track is named “Audio Diary 1.2″ – week one, attempt 2.

Using SoundCloud is my own preference, but there is a small learning curve for students. However, after an cycle, most students have no problems using SoundCloud. Most problems occur because students forget their passwords. SoundCloud is not the only option. Classic email can be used, with the recordings being attached and the feedback being given in the body of the email. If this is done, it would be very important to include the time (in seconds or minutes) that the error occurred). This could also be done through BlackBoard, Google Classroom, Moodle, or any other LMS. The medium is not important. What is important is the record-feedback-re-record cycle.

Audio Diary Adaptation and Assessment

And Audio Diaries need not be once per week. That is just how the schedule worked out this term. They could also be done daily (which requires a bit more work on the part of the teacher) or semi-weekly. Students can record about any topic they wish (more inline with extensive speaking and reading) or the topic can be related to the unit. I also had students extend classroom discussions into Audio Diaries by summarizing and discussing the ideas they talked about in class. They can be recorded for any length of time: one minute for low-level students or five minutes for advanced students. You could also use this format to practice natural speech, reading aloud (for pronunciation, thought groups, intonation) or even presentation practice. There are many ways Audio Diaries can be changed to suit any context.

Another adaptation I have done was to have students keep an error diary of their mistakes and changes. I found this useful as it forced students to catalog their errors and not only orally produce correct utterances but do so in written form two. This could lead to increased noticing and uptake. For higher-level students, the first time I did Audio Diaries, I had students record themselves on Monday (1.1), then listen to themselves and try to find their own mistakes, re-recording on Wednesday (1.2) for me to comment on, leading to a final re-recording on Friday (1.3). Even for higher-level students, finding their own errors was difficult but the process of listening to themselves talk was very enlightening. Students became more aware of their speech, voice, fluency, and grammar.

In terms of assessment, I currently asses audio diaries on two dimensions: completion and effort. For completion, each Audio Diary is worth several points, part of a much larger point scheme. For improvement, I choose three audio diaries randomly and check both the x.1 and x.2 version to see how well they incorporated my feedback. You could also assess students on improvement by scoring each Audio Diary on a rubric, or you could do a sort of pre-test/post-test speaking assessment to measure the number of errors and look at overall improvement.


In summary, Audio Diaries is a small project that aims to give more feedback and attention to individual students in the hopes of improving their overall accuracy and proficiency. Audio Diaries consist of a simple cycle of students recording themselves speaking naturally for a short period of time, the teacher giving specific feedback on errors, and then the students re-recording themselves following the teacher’s feedback. Audio Diaries can be adapted to suit any level, goal, and almost any level of technology as well.

It is my hope that Audio Diaries gives teachers another method through which they can help their students best reach their English language goals.


Gu, S. & Reynolds, E.D. (2013). Imagining extensive speaking for Korean EFL. Modern English Education 14(4). 81-108. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/6088981/

Li, S. (2010). The Effectiveness of Corrective Feedback in SLA: A Meta‐Analysis. Language Learning60(2), 309-365.

Lyster, R. (2013). Roles for Corrective Feedback in Second Language Instruction. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics.

Lyster, R., & Ranta, L. (1997). Corrective feedback and learner uptake. Studies in second language acquisition19(01), 37-66. Retrieved from http://hyxy.nankai.edu.cn/jingpinke/

Lyster, R., & Saito, K. (2010). Oral feedback in classroom SLA. Studies in Second Language Acquisition32(02), 265-302. Retrieve from http://personnel.mcgill.ca/files/

Lyster, R., Saito, K., & Sato, M. (2013). Oral corrective feedback in second language classrooms. Language Teaching46(01), 1-40. Retrieved from http://people.mcgill.ca/files/roy.lyster/

Quinn, P. (2014). Delayed Versus Immediate Corrective Feedback on Orally Produced Passive Errors in English (Doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto). Retrieved from https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/65728/1/

Sheen, Y. (2010). Differential effects of oral and written corrective feedback in the ESL classroom. Studies in Second Language Acquisition32(02), 203-234.

Yang, Y., & Lyster, R. (2010). Effects of form-focused practice and feedback on Chinese EFL learners’acquisition of regular and irregular past tense forms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition32(02), 235-263. Retrieved from http://personnel.mcgill.ca/files/

Research Bites: WTF: What The Font? – Typography and ELT, part 3

In my last blog post, I summarized some research that showed that cognitive disfluency in terms of difficult to read fonts can enhance the learning process. This work had originally been done on native-English speaking students and I wondered if it would apply to ESL/EFL students. The original research I summarized used a really simple memory test, so I decided to replicate this and test my students.

I gave my students a list of features of three alien races. Some students read the list in Times New Roman (fluency group). Some students read it in Comic Sans at 60% black (disfluency group). This was as it had been in the original. Ninety seconds of memorization, distract them for 15 minutes with other work, three-minute test with randomized questions.

The results were surprising. In this very informal research, the students in the fluent group did slightly better. But really, there was no observable effect. I was perplexed, so I contacted the primary author of the original study, Dr. Danny Oppenheimer, and explained my experimental design (in case it was flawed) and a hypothesis as to why it may not have worked:

Perhaps the act of decoding the language (most students are from non-Latin script backgrounds; e.g. Arabic, Korean, Chinese) and comprehending the text is already enough cognitive load and typographical disfluency has little to no effect on them?

His reply: “your intuitions for the failure of the effect to generalize appear to be right on the money“. According to Dr. Oppenheimer, students are already doing enough metacognitive and cognitive work to have any effects from font type, even if these fonts were very disfluent. In fact, the original effect isn’t always observable with native English speakers. The effect seems to be most salient with advanced learners (his original study was at Princeton and a high-level high school). To quote Dr. Oppenheimer:

The fonts work best when students might otherwise be tempted to be cognitively lazy.  When students aren’t thinking hard, the disfluency engendered by the fonts makes them think that the material is tough, and they had better bring their A-game.  For students who are already bringing their A-game (or, conversely, students who don’t care enough to bring their A-game regardless of how difficult they believe the material to be) manipulating the fonts won’t make a difference.

So, to sum up my What the Font? series, it seems that, for ESL learners, it doesn’t matter what font you use: Arial, Times New Roman, Comic Sans, heck, even Impact – it has no effect. So, design away with your fancy serifs, your modern sans serifs, or poor old beaten down Comic Sans. In the truest sense of the phrase: nothing gained and nothing lost!

Listening Journals: Redux

Listening Journals are a project/concept I have been toying with for the past few years and have been putting into practice into all my listening classes. I have presented the idea to colleagues in numerous settings and the ideas have been well received.

The basic premise is that students need both extensive and intensive listening practice. Extensive listening practice involves students listening to interesting, enjoyable and meaningful listening texts at or around their level. Intensive listening practice, in terms of listening journals, is exploiting these texts to practice important bottom-up listening skills (e.g. decoding). The journals in their various permutations set students on weekly or daily listening tasks that involve both aspects of listening while giving them a space for metacognitive reflection.

I still enjoy the idea, and my students have derived great benefits from it, but in my mind, it had become stagnant and disorganized as I had applied it in my classrooms. After talking with a colleague, I decided to restructure and simplify the format of it as a way to make it easier for students to complete and easier for me to assess. In addition, I think this idea makes it easier for other teachers to adapt.

For this redux – this re-visitation to my idea – I designed an actual printed journal (you can download it below) for my students that contained the template structure of the journals, as well as the possible listening sources they could choose from (chosen to be appropriate for their level).

Here is an overview of how the journal works. Parts one and two cover the extensive listening experience. Part three represents the intensive practice while part four is for reflection.

1. For each journal entry, students need to visit one of the websites below and choose something interesting to listen to.

The following websites I found suitable for intermediate to upper-intermediate level students. My listening resources page certainly has more sites for a range of levels.

      1. www.esl-lab.com
      2. www.newsinlevels.com
      3. learningenglish.voanews.com
      4. www.spotlightenglish.com
      5. www.youtube.com/storycorps (advanced)
      6. www.ted.com (advanced)

2. Students should listen as many times as they want, focusing on understanding the main ideas and details. If students want to, they can preview the script in order to deal with any unknown or problematic vocabulary. After reading the script, students are to provide a short response. A response means a response to the context of the listening text such as a short opinion or an explanation of what they learned. A response is not a summary, though a summary is acceptable if that is one of your class goals.

3. Students now use the text to complete intensive listening activities. One of the websites listed above (www.esl-lab.com) already contains activities on most of their listenings (quizzes and gap-fills). The other websites do not, but all contain the transcript. I have demonstrated to students how to take the transcript and produce an interactive gap-fill with a simple online tool. I focus on gap-fill activities because they require students to practice their decoding skills, focusing on processing sounds to hear distinct words and therefore better training their ears for listening. Other activities such as transcription or note-taking can also be used.

Furthermore, I have students write down new vocabulary as part of their activities. Among the various difficulties with listening (decoding, accent, speed, linked words, stress, etc.), vocabulary is often considered hindrance to understanding. Building their vocabularies is an important part of the listening experience.

4. Finally, I have created a simple form for students to reflect on their listening experience and skills. I used to use a more complicated series of questions for this section, but due to the level and student feedback, I have reduced my emphasis on this area. Still, it is an important area. Students need to be able to judge their listening skills, including their strengths or weaknesses. This allows them to find tune their future listening practice. Although I provide a simple form, students still need to be instructed on how to complete it and the reasons behind it.

In implementation, I have set this to be an independent project that needs to be completed throughout the term. I have set a specific number of journals as the goal (20) and have set three collection dates to assess student’s progress. This gives the students more autonomy in terms of completing them and makes assessing this project easier.

The purpose of this post was to explain my slimmed down version of one of my favorite and (in my opinion) most effective projects. I consider this Listening Journals 2.0. Below is the example journal as I have given it to the students. Feel free to download and adapt it as you see fit.

Listening Journals (Fall, 2015)

(Please note this file uses legal sized paper. It is printed double-sided as a “booklet” through the Adobe Acrobat print options.)

Blog Challenge: What Did You Teach Today?

Have you ever wanted to observe the class of someone you follow on Twitter? Have you ever wondered what magic and wonder the most prolific ELT bloggers make in their classrooms? Are teacher’s lessons as grandiose and amazing as their blog posts make them seem? Or, do they have troughs and peaks of engagement, excitement, and learning – just like anyone else?

Blog Challenge: out of curiosity and intrigue, and as a means of reflection, write what you did in your class(es) today, from checking attendance to giving a test to blowing students minds with the most dogme-inspired, task-based, mobile-assisted, coursebook-free, PARSNIP-full lesson non-plan ever. You don’t have to explain why, unless you’d like. Just give the raw, nitty-gritty details.

I’ll start:

8:30-9:20: Grammar Class (mid to high-beginner level)

  • I greeted the class, as I usually do. This involves some chit chat, any announcements, weekend plans, etc.
  • I checked homework.
  • I explained the learning objective for the week (question formation – based on observed need from previous classes)
  • We listened to a model conversation, then discussed new vocabulary and difficult sentences from the conversation.
  • The students read the conversation to each other, then closed their books and read a gapped-conversation with each other, working to fill in the gaps orally based on memory or grammatical knowledge
    • While students worked with each other, i assisted one student who did not have a partner
  • We looked at the questions from the conversation and I showed how they could be used in conversation and changed.
  • Students asked each other the questions, substituting as they felt fit,
    • How do you like _________?
    • What do/does _________do? (asking about jobs)
    • What do you like best about _________?
  • Then, the students reported back about their partners to the class.
  • We played an X/O game to check comprehension of the conversation,
    • Students stand up.
    • I show them a statement about the conversation.
    • If it is true, they make an “O” with their arms. If it is false, they make an “X”.
    • If they are wrong, they must sit down.
    • You keep playing until you have a clear winner or winners.
  • I assigned homework: study new vocabulary on Quizlet and identify questions in a dialogue as information questions or yes/no questions
  • Tomorrow’s plan: we will look at the grammar of the questions, and then practice making, asking, and answering questions!

11:45-12:35: Listening and Speaking Class (intermediate level)

  • I greeted students.
  • I gave feedback to different groups of students on their listening journals, in particular, those who were doing them incorrectly.
  • We played a “popcorn” vocabulary game:
    • I divided the class into two groups.
    • I said the meaning of a vocabulary word.
    • The first student to “pop” up and shout the word could remain standing.
    • The first group to have all members standing was the winner.
  • I checked homework from book.
  • We looked at the homework (a vocab gap-fill for two paragraphs of text) and I assigned each student one (long) sentence. I showed an example of how to find thought groups and how to mark the intonation of a sentence based on these thought groups. Then, I had students analyze their sentences, practice their sentences, and read their sentences aloud.
  • I introduced students to a short lecture they would listen to.
  • We reviewed important signal words they should focus on while listening to the lecture and taking notes.
  • I played the listening, one “section” at a time (introduction of topic, outline of lecture, first main point, etc.)
  • Students took notes, and then we discussed what they wrote, what the main idea or point was, and what signal words were used
  • We listened to about 1:00 of the lecture, which lasted about 15 mins with these activities.
  • I assigned the homework of listening to the rest of the lecture at home and continuing note-taking.
  • Tomorrow’s plan: discuss lecture, listen again, and analyze signals and new vocabulary.

1:55-2:45: Reading (advanced level)

  • Before class, I met with one students and explained that they had missed four classes and three assignments and were very close to an “F”. They told me that they are very busy in the morning and that they wanted to repeat the level anyway. I explained that they cannot randomly come to class as it disrupts the flow of the class and that they are likely to learn very little if they don’t complete the assignments.
  • I greeted students. I made an announcement about a weekly international food event and encouraged them to join if they could.
  • I reviewed with students how to access their grades for their assignments and how to view my feedback on Google Classroom.
  • I introduced the theme of the next few readings (film) and had a class discussion about the theme as a warmer/interest builder.
  • We looked at and practiced a vocabulary strategy that could be used during reading: skipping words, or substituting placeholders for unknown words.
  • Students began reading a short text about Hollywood’s history called “The Dream Factory”.
    • Students were not allowed to use dictionaries – they had to rely on guessing, skipping, or substituting.
    • After each paragraph, students summarized the main idea. The point of this was to see how much they understand when faced with a plethora of unknown vocabulary.
  • Tomorrow’s plan: discuss reading and new vocabulary, re-read with newly defined words to compare comprehension and assess strategy success.

3:00-3:50: Writing (upper-intermediate level)

  • I greeted class. This was my last class of the day so I was particular chatty/enthusiastic.
  • I gave an inductive grammar worksheet I made that had example sentences with bolded verbs. The activity asked students to group the verbs based on the patterns seen. This was based on some common errors I observed in their writing.
  • Afterwards, we reviewed the worksheet and we verified the verb + verb rules (i.e. verb + infinitive, gerund, base form, etc.). I assigned example sentences with each verb type for homework and showed where they could find a list of verbs and their rules.
  • We read a brief article about motivation and discussed the best ways to motivate people, intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation
  • We thought about motivation in the context of problem solving.
  • We looked at an example of a problem (Students getting low grades) and then I had students brainstorm the possible causes, effects, and solutions of this problem
  • I assigned a short reading from time magazine about paying students to get good grades. This will further contextualize the discuss we had and prepare them for thinking about their own problem-solution interests
  • Tomorrow’s plan: discuss reading, vocabulary, begin brainstorming a problem-solution essay.

Research Bites: WTF: What The Font? – Typography and ELT, part 2

In my last blog post, I looked into the claim that certain fonts can hinder or heighten the impact materials have on learning. Most people see this debate an argument about which font is more effective: a serif font or a sans-serif one. It turns out neither has any significant impact on learning one way or another – people’s perceptions and preferences are often the basis for claiming the supremacy of a single font or font type.

If the debate were framed as a Georgia vs. Arial. vs Comic Sans debate, few would argue that Comic Sans could be taken seriously as a font to be used in materials design: it is informal, ugly, unprofessional, and even childish. Count me among the detractors. So, imagine my surprise when I found a research paper in the journal Cognition that show evidence that non-standard fonts such as Comic Sans (among others) may actually have a positive effect on readability, unlike the font’s counterparts. This is in part due to an effect caused by disfluency.

Before we go further, let’s understand the term disfluency. In linguistics and ELT, disfluency means ” interruptions in the regular flow of speech, such as using uh and um, pausing silently, repeating words, or interrupting oneself to correct something said previously” (Fraundorf and Arnold, 2014). In cognitive science, disfluency takes on a different meaning altogether: “the subjective, metacognitive experience of difficulty associated with cognitive tasks” (Yauman, Oppenheimer, Vaughan, 2010, p. 2). Essentially, it is an interruption to the flow at which we process cognitive tasks. A disfluent font is a font that requires more cognitive work to decipher because it is a non-standard typeface (e.g. Comic Sans), a non-standard color (e.g. grayscale), or made more difficult to read (but still legible) in some other way. Increasing the cognitive load (making things more difficult) is already an established precept in what helps us learn, so the idea that disfluency can lead to learning makes sense.

Below, I summarize Yauman, Oppenheimer, and Vaughan’s (2010) article on disfluency. Keep in mind, to my knowledge, this work has only been done on L1 English readers. Therefore, as a final section to this blog post, I present some ideas how this may be tested formally or informally for English Language Learners.


Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Vaughan, E. B. (2011). Fortune favors the bold (and Italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition118(1), 111-115. [link]


  • Ease of understanding from both the teacher and student’s perspective may not portray true learning of information.
  • In some cases, if it is harder to learn, it is likely to leader to long-term learning.
  • Disfluency has strong theoretical support:
    • fluency is related to confidence in being able to recall information later, and therefore less focus may be had;
    • disfluency shows the learner they do not yet know the material and therefore they must pay more attention to it.
  • Because disfluency requires simple changes to fonts, if it is supported by evidence, it requires no-cost and easy to implement educational changes that can benefit many students.

The Experiments

  • Experiment 1
    • 24 18-40 years olds paid $12 each (recruited via Princeton) participated.
    • Participants had 90 seconds to learn about three aliens and their 7 features each (21 features in total)
      • This was provided on a piece of paper presented in either fluent or disfluent conditions.
        • The fluent condition font was 16-point Arial in pure black.
        • The disfluent condition fonts included 12-point Comic Sans or Bodoni MT in 60% grayscale.
      • After 15 minutes of unrelated tasks, participants were asked random questions about the aliens’ features.
    • Those in the disfluent condition answered more questions correctly on average and this was statistically significant.


  • Experiment 2
    • To see if these results would generalize to an actual classroom, a second experiment was carried out.
    • 220 high schools students participated.
    • Teachers of six different classes sent all supplementary material to the researchers – mostly worksheets and PowerPoints.
    • Materials were randomly assigned to a fluent (control) group with no changes or the disfluent group where researchers changed fonts to Haettenschweiler, Monotype Corsiva, or Comic Sans Italicized, or the paper was moved up and down during photocopying to create disfluent yet legible text.
    • Teachers taught units as usual and gave exams as usual.
    • The exam results were collected by the researchers, as well as answers to a survey about the material preferences.
    • Students in the disfluent group scored higher (statistically significant) though there were no differences found between the fonts.
    • The survey did not show any statistical differences in whether students liked the fonts.
    • Overall conclusion: “This study demonstrated that student retention of material across a wide range of subjects (science and humanities classes) and difficulty levels (regular, Honors and Advanced Placement) can be significantly improved in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material in a format that is slightly harder to read.” (p. 4).


Many of us strive to be as professional as possible. If we quibble over things such as font choice, intentionally choosing a less-than-typical font, while seemingly trivial, requires us to betray our own self-perceived senses of professionalism, style, and aesthetics. Still, if it can help our students (and ourselves), it’s worth the sacrifice, isn’t it?

Keep in mind, this research was carried out on native English-speaking students in American universities and high schools. I was not able to find any research on non-Latin based alphabets, bilinguals, or second language learners. Will disfluency work for those who already have to do extra work decoding either a new alphabet or remapping phonemic and semantic associations to a familiar one? Perhaps. Perhaps not (see part 3 for an update on these questions). Research will show. Luckily, it’s simple research we could all do with our students.


Further Links of Interest


Research Bites: WTF: What The Font? – Typography and ELT

Two weeks ago, before the start of the new semester, I was at the copier running prints of some snazzy little document I made which was set in the font Georgia, an “elegant but legiblewtfMicrosoft font. Looking at my document, hot off the press, I remarked aloud: “Hmm…that doesn’t look right.” Immediately, I found myself in conversation with three nearby colleagues about favorite fonts, the fonts we like to use, and what we had knew about how students may (unconsciously?) perceive fonts. What amazed me about this conversation, besides the inherent geekery, was how the minutiae of teaching life may have some small but nevertheless real effect on our students and their learning.

Since that conversation, I have mulled the idea over in my mind, being very careful about my font choices on materials, as well as overall aesthetics. Thanks to a conversation with some students today over ice cream, I was inspired to write this post.

I set out to write a simple “serif vs sans serif” research summary, but I was actually disappointed with the results: no real difference, too many contradicting studies. However, through the rabbit hole of research, I stumbled onto a rather interesting article that proposed the benefits of disfluency (i.e. harder to read texts), at least for L1 readers. No research has been done (yet) on disfluency for L2 readers, but the idea is intriguing.

Below, I summarize research on the role of typography in L1 (actually a summary of summaries) and L2 reading. In part 2 of this post, I will discuss research on disfluency and its implications for material design.

Serif vs Sans Serif and L1 Reading

A popular study by Errol Morris of the New York Times offered a serif vs. sans serif online quiz to readers disguised as a credibility quiz based on a scientific article. Those who read the article read it in randomly assigned serif and sans serif fonts, including Comic Sans. The results showed that those who read serifed fonts, especially Baskerville and Georgia, found the article more believable, and those who read it with sans serifed fonts found it less believable, with Comic Sans readers rejecting the article the most. For this type of study, while it is interesting, the effect on the reader likely has more to do with perception of the font than any actual qualities of it.

Alex Poole (2008), a user experience consultant, summarized a plethora of research on font legibility and readability (comprehension) among native English readers and found that:

  • There is scientific evidence for and against either font type, and most of the experimental evidence is weak or based on poorly designed tests
  • Some argue that serifs guide the flow of reading, eye tracking studies reveal we don’t read linearly and smoothly but in quick jerking movements called saccadic movements
  • While readers may prefer serif fonts, this is likely due to familiarity, and “perceived legibility seems to be inconsistent with user performance” (Lund, 1999, cited in Poole, 2008).
  • Sans serif fonts may be better for the web and digital mediums, but some evidence questions this.
  • There is no difference for children’s books or children’s reading (Walker, 2001; Walker and Reynolds, 2002).
  • Poole concludes that font type may not be worth measuring but “x-height, counter size, letter spacing and stroke width” may be more important. [Note: The evidence for this is quite old (70s) so it may not be relevant to modern readers.]

So, the consensus for English L1 readers is that font type doesn’t matter, but other font elements may. What about for English L2 readers?

Serif vs Sans Serif and L2 Reading

My research in this area didn’t turn up many useful, recent article, but I did find this one by two Iranian professors that had a good literature review, theoretical base, and experimental design. Because of the overall unimpressive findings of serif vs sans serif fonts in general, I am confident this article is representative of most ELT findings (lacking as they are).

Soleimani, H. and Mohammadi, E. (2012). The effect of text typographical features on legibility, comprehension, and retrieval of EFL learners. English Language Teaching, 5(8). Retrieved from http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/elt/article/viewFile/18852/12443.

A literature review of research on L1 readers revealed that:

  • font type and font size are factors that can influence reader-text interaction
  • According to Huges & Wilkins (2000), 16-point serif fonts are preferred for legibility
  • Chandler (2001) found that font size, not the type, is important
  • Gasser, Boeke, Haffernan, and Tan (2005) found “a significant effect of serif fonts on information recalling.”
  • De Lange, Esterhuizen, and Betty (1993) found serif and sans serif fonts have equal legibility

The authors of the article then did their own experimental study.

  • Method
    • 120 intermediate learners
    • four instruments: timed speed reading test, untimed comprehension test, untimed recall test (2 weeks later)
    • conditions that were manipulated include font size (10 or 12), font type (Arial or Bookman Solid) and line spacing (set solid or double spaced
  • Results
    • The only significant difference that came up among all the various conditions was for the effect of font size and speed of reading.
    • A larger font (12 point) is more conducive to faster reading.
  • Conclusion
    • While their findings seem at first to contradict their literature review, the findings are quite in line with the general trend of inconclusiveness in terms of font type.
    • Their findings on font size are in line with most other research.

Conclusions and Implications

So, what do I make of my initial feelings at the copier, when I saw my Georgia font and was taken aback? As the research shows, it’s likely not any effect of the font choice itself but rather the overall design of the material and my own perceptions. Perhaps there was not enough white space, or the size of the font was unbalanced. In any case, based on the research, I doubt it would have had any effect on my students.

To me, though, aesthetics in material design is important. My sentiment, however, seems to reinforce the overall conclusion of this kind of research: beauty (and perceived legibility) is in the eye of the beholder.

Other Links of Interest



Chandler, S. B. (2001). Running Head: Legibility and comprehension of onscreen type (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-11172001-152449/unrestricted/chandler.pdf.

De Lange, R. W., Esterhuizen, H. L., & Beatty, d. (1993). Performance differences between Times and Helvetica in a reading task. Electronic Publishing, 6(3), 241-248. Retrieved from http://cajun.cs.nott.ac.uk/compsci/epo/papers/volume6/issue3/rudi.pdf.

Gasser, B., Boeke, J., Haffernan, M., & Tan, R. (2005). The influence of font type on information recall. North American Journal of Psychology, 7(2), 181-188.

Hughes, L. E., & Wilkins, A. J. (2000). Typography in children’s reading schemes may be suboptimal: Evidence from measures of reading rate. Journal of Research in Reading, 23(3), 314-324. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-9817.00126

Lund, O. (1999). Knowledge Construction in Typography: The case of legibility research and the legibility of sans serif typefaces. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Reading: The University of Reading, Department of Typography & Graphic Communication.

Poole, A. (2008, Feb. 17). Which are more legible: serif or sans serif typefaces? [blog post]. Retrieved from http://alexpoole.info/blog/which-are-more-legible-serif-or-sans-serif-typefaces/.

Walker, S. (2001). Typography for children: serif or sans?. Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, The University of Reading. Archived in http://www.kidstype.org/?q=node/43.

Walker, S. and Reynolds, L. (2002). Serifs, sans serifs and infant characters in children’s reading books. University of Reading Information Design Journal, 11(3): 106-122. Retrieved from http://www.researchgate.net/researcher/79987637_Sue_Walker.


Adapting “Academic Reading Circles” for the Listening and Speaking Classroom

I stumbled upon a post on Lizzie Pinard’s site about an IATEFL presentation by Tyson Seburn called “Academic Reading Circles”. As an EAP teacher, it immediately piqued my interest and I carefully read the blog post. I was excited to find that there was a small book with the same name being published by The Round. Unfortunately, I did not have time to acquire that book before my upcoming term, but I knew I wanted to implement the concepts immediately.

My class schedule for the summer term did not include any upper-level reading classes. However, it did include an upper-level listening and speaking class. Academic Reading Circles (ARC) are based on “texts” and “texts”, in ELT jargon, does not necessarily mean written texts but also spoken and visual texts as well. Therefore, I made “Academic Discussion Circles” (ADC) an integrated part of my listening and speaking class.

Now that I have had time to read Seburn’s book, I realize my adaptation varied markedly from his but was nonetheless effective at getting students to listen and academically discuss various aspects of authentic “lectures” in the form of TED Talks. TED Talks, as I have written about before, are short and highly engaging academic-ish lectures that many students enjoy. What’s more, this spoken text also includes a transcript, therefore providing more of a traditional text to exploit as well.

Seburn’s ARC framework is quite simple to understand (though not necessarily easy to implement the first time around). It is based on students utilizing a common text and “provides the opportunity for learners to co-construct their comprehension of the text by
sharing their individual discoveries and interacting with them” (p. 42).

Students’ achieve this by working in groups and having individualized roles. There are five roles, including:

  • Leader – the leader asks conceptual questions (focused on questions not related to specific details but deeper understanding), incorporates other students and their roles in the overall discussion, and finally asks inferential discussion questions to round out the discussions at the end.
  • Visualizer – the visualizer finds elements within the text that can be represented visually (as photos, charts, etc.) in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Contextualizer – the contextualizer takes not of references (direct and indirect) of people, places, events and concepts and presents them to their group in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Connector – the connector finds connections between the text and other courses, familiar events, or their own lives and then explains these connections in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Highlighter – the highlighter finds high frequency and likely unknown vocabulary, technical or topical vocabulary, and words and phrases that signal tone or emotion and presents these to the group in order to add to the understanding of the text.

The book concisely and illustratively provides more information on these roles, but as you can see, they can be easily used with non-written texts. I further adapted Seburn’s idea to place more focus on speaking and discussion strategies, as this was part of a listening and speaking class. I adapted the roles to the following, keeping in mind I wanted students to not only discuss and build their comprehension of their TED Talk, but also practice useful and valuable discussion skills (including phrases and strategies). Due to class size, I combined two roles. I also renamed them.

  • Leader – the leader asked comprehension questions, made sure every student was involved and shared their opinion (which included the use of discussion phrases), and made sure all students completed their roles.
  • Connector – the connector thought of how the lecture connected to their previous coursework and shared experiences. They were required to not only explain how the lecture connected to something outside the text but also ask “connection” questions that got students to think about and discuss their own connections as well.
  • Researcher – the researcher found more information about the people, places, events, and ideas discussed in the lecture and presented the information to the group. The researcher had to use phrases for citation and referencing other sources.
  • Linguist – the linguist highlighted interesting vocabulary, including individual words, phrases, structural vocabulary, stress and intonation, and accent, and presented them to the group. The linguist had to use phrases that asked about the meaning of words, and were used to define words and their usages.

I assigned a large set of TED Talk videos somewhat related to the week’s topic and had students choose a single video together. They then had the weekend to listen and prepare for their roles. Every Monday, we held an academic discussion. Some of the discussions were recorded and I provided individual feedback on both language (grammar, pronunciation) but also their discussions skills (role fulfillment, use of discussion phrases and strategies, etc.).

Overall, I was pleased with the Academic Discussion Circles and I know my students got a lot out of them. However, after reading Seburn’s book and having a better understanding of ARCs, I feel I could further adapt ADCs to be not only more effective but also run smoother.

Some things I have learned from reading about ARCs which I would recommend adapting to ADCs include:

  • Students should create handouts relevant to their roles in order to aid not only their discussion but the other students’ understanding.
  • All roles should be done “in order to add to the understanding of the text”. I repeated this phrase several times in describing the roles of ARC because I realized my ADCs often got off-topic or the information students brought to the table did not necessarily add, aid, help, improve, or deepen the understanding of the lecture.
  • Presenting information through “turn-taking” is not very useful for a “discussion”. My students naturally defaulted to each role having their time to present their information. This does not really provide the interaction wanted. Luckily, the ADC roles required questioning and therefore more interaction occurred, but not as much as a discussion that went through the text from beginning to end, as Seburn suggests.

From my experience using ADCs as a modified ARC, there are a few things instructors should keep in mind:

  • Modeling – I can’t stress how important modeling is. For these types of discussions, modeling not only means modeling the flow of the discussion, but the analysis of the text, the question generation, how to find visual aids, how to find and integrate relevant research, and how to notice and research interesting language features. My recommendation, similar to Seburn, is to analyze a text (spoken or read) and introduce all these elements without telling them about discussions or roles. The teacher can pre-plan and introduce all the information at once, or the class can co-construct together questions, research, and so on together. I would also recommend explicitly modeling a whole-class, teacher-led discussion where the teacher fulfills all roles (interactively) in order to show students what is expected.
  • Feedback – depending on the goals of your class and course, your feedback may vary, but feedback will be essential to help students progress in terms of understanding the text, fulfilling their roles, or being able to hold an academic discussion. In any case, teachers should provide feedback. I left feedback as comments on a recorded discussion, but live-delivered post-it notes or an after-discussion write-up by the teacher would also be fine.
  • Follow-Up – There must be some follow-up to the discussion. Seburn touches on some follow-up ideas, including writing advice for the next person who takes their role, writing a group report on the discussion, or responding to the discussion in writing. Further follow-up ideas could include skill remediation or refining based on what was observed during the discussion. For example, maybe you noticed students struggled with a particular area of the text due to some difficult structural language, or maybe you noticed students had trouble correctly using phrases for agreement or interrupting. These would be great post-tasks to complete with students, targeting a weak area that is common among them. Similarly, for a class with more grammar or language focus, highlighting some language mistakes (grammar, vocabulary, syntax, pronunciation) and working on those would also be prudent.
  • Assessment – This is one area missing from Seburn’s book. Because we are likely to have multiple discussions going on at one time, we are not capable of gauging everyone’s understanding and contributions. Therefore, some kind of assessment of the students’ understanding of the text might be important. In particular, if we are using formative assessment, these weekly discussions give us a weekly opportunity to assess students’ text comprehension and reading skills, which is, after all, one of the main goals of our efforts. I have several assessment ideas, including:
    • Quiz – provide students with a clean copy of the reading and give students a basic reading quiz that asks questions with answers that should have been discussed during the discussions.
    • Authentic Quiz – In university, our students will be expected to read and comprehend material and then take a quiz pr test that asks them not to simply regurgitate facts or details but apply what they have learned. We can simulate this experience by creating a more authentic-like content-based quiz that students could expect in undergraduate classrooms. Using an authentic assessment such as this makes the discussion experience more meaningful, as it makes the whole task cycle (independent reading, Academic Reading Circles, quiz) more authentic because it simulates what happens in the real world (independent reading, study group, assessment).
    • Pre/Post Quiz – give a short reading quiz (online?) before group discussions and after group discussions to judge their ability to understand the text on their own and after group work.
    • Student-Generated Quiz - have students generate quiz questions as a follow-up activity. Pool the questions, select the best ones, and give a reading quiz the next day. Questions can be made based on details, concepts, inferences, references, and language use.

I hope I’ve given you some ideas for using both Academic Reading and Discussion Circles, how they can be adapted, and general overall motivation to try out this wonderful idea. I highly recommend purchasing Seburn’s book and experimenting with these ideas on your own! My own teaching schedule includes an upper-level reading course, so I will definitely be using these again starting in a few weeks. Happy teaching!


Story Cubes

I have had three bags of Rory’s Story Cubes just sitting in some random drawer in a dresser in my bedroom. I bought them originally for my children, but they haven’t seen much use for one reason or another. Actually, I hadn’t thought about them for the past year until yesterday when I was searching for “ESL writing games”.

Story Cubes come in different themes and sets, but the purpose is the same. Roll the 9 cubes, look at the pictures, and connect them into an interesting and imaginative story! A simple concept, but genius…and in dice form. There are three different sets and the bags run about $8 each or $20 for all three. There is also an app available for iOS and Android.


My intermediate writing class had just finished working on an interview turned essay and I wanted to end the week with something fun. I stumbled upon the words “story cubes” and my teachy senses started tingling. I immediately designed two activities using the story cubes that I knew the students would enjoy. We used them in class today and they were a big hit. Time flew by and students were engaged 100% of the time. It seemed like, were we not constrained to a 50 minute class, we could have just kept going.

So, here are the activities we did today (1 and 2), plus several other ideas for using story cubes in the ESL/EFL classroom.

1. Perfect Sentences

I put students into groups of two or three and explained that they had 10 minutes to write 5 “perfect” sentences. I told them to choose a cube randomly from the bag, roll it, and use the image to craft their sentence. Then, choose another dice for the second sentence, and so on. Then, I set a point system. I told them that all groups start with 20 points. Grammar mistakes will cost them 1 point, spelling mistakes would be half a point. Any other mistakes would be at my discretion. Finally, I told them about bonus points. I listed some of the grammar and sentence structures we had practiced and gave a point equivalent: 1 bonus point for adjective clauses (max two sentences), 1 point for subordinating conjunctions, 2 points for a wh-clause.

The end result was cleverly crafted sentences in which students took their time and really focused on the grammar. I could tell from the numerous words and phrases scratched out that they were working hard to write perfect sentences. They were noticing errors and thinking through their writing – two skills that hopefully transfer to their normal everyday writing.

While mistakes were still made, I corrected each group’s sentences with them and it was a great overall learning experience – something I will definitely do again. Some variations would be to give points based on sentence length or complexity, set specific errors with specific penalties (such as wrong word form -0.75, wrong subject-verb agreement -2). Overall, it was a great activity just the way it was.

2. Story Cubes

The original intention of Story Cubes is to roll all 9 cubes and connect all the images into one big, cohesive, coherent story – not an easy task, even for native speakers. But, we gave it a go and students turned out to have pretty interesting stories. I gave students about 20 minutes. First, they had to think through their story, and then write it. I assisted with feedback on language use along the way. Then, at the end of class, we gathered in a small circle and I gave a dramatic reading of each story. It was quite fun!

Making stories with Story Cubes serves as both an excellent writing activity as well as an excellent speaking activity. I can easily imagine it being transformed into a listening activity, too (dictation, comprehension questions, paraphrasing practice, etc.).

3. Discrete Grammar Practice

Whether you are writing or speaking, these cubes are very easy to adapt to any type of grammar practice. Past tense? Future tense? Adjective clauses? Even article usage and noun forms! All you have to do is roll the cubes and make sentences or a story. Students can roll the cubes individually, roll one cube for one group and make one sentence together, or roll one cube for one group and make individual sentences with comparisons afterwards. Share them on the board or read aloud.

4. Cube Race

Two students stand at the board, marker in hand. The teacher rolls a cube and the students race to write the best sentence. The class votes!

5. Superheroes

This idea would be great for younger learners. Each student rolls three cubes. These cubes define their superpowers. With their superpowers in mind, they create a superhero profile. This can be a speaking activity to practice describing or “can”, or it can be a longer role play in which students write a story with their superheros as main characters.

6. Role Play

Speaking of role plays, Story Cubes can easily be used in role plays. They can be used to set up the situation of a role play, or can be used during a role play to determine what happens next or what the speaker will say. It seems like a great way to keep advanced speakers on their toes.

7. DIY Story Cubes

You can easily make your own cubes to suit whatever needs you and your students have, as long as you are willing to do some literal cutting and pasting. You can easily find paper cube templates online. Modify them with class vocabulary and grammar and have custom cubes ready to go at any time!

Have you used Story Cubes? Do you have any other ideas on how to use them to practice language? Please share in the comments below!

Research Bites: Pragmatics and Proficiency

If teaching English only required us to teach subject-verb-object, our task would be so simple. But language, be a living, breathing beast requires so much more from us and our students. Layer after layer of lexical, grammatical, and phonetic complexity is added until students begin to resemble capable language users. But, it doesn’t end here. If we are teaching language to actually be used, then we need to teach “how-to-say-what-to-whom-when” (p. 1). In other words, pragmatics.


Roever, C., & Al-Gahtani, S. (2015). The development of ESL proficiency and pragmatic performance. ELT Journal. [$link]

Twitter Summary

Proficiency is not linked to pragmatics, so we really need to teach pragmatics more. #researchbites Continue reading