Research Bites: Take Care of Your Concordancing – Using Corpora for Self-Correction

I have written about corpora, concordancing, and DDL on this site before. Last year, my colleague and I completed a semester-long quantitative research project and co-wrote a paper on using DDL in the classroom (which has now been rejected three times!). I used to be a big fan of teaching students how to use these tools as an alternative reference and learning resource. However, due to lack of patience with computer illiterate “digital natives“, heaps of incomprehensible input that is difficult for learners to parse, and the paucity of the linguistic sixth sense among students, this kind of practice fell out of favor with me. Then, I stumbled upon Cynthia Quinn’s (2014) article in ELT Journal, and now the interest has been slightly rekindled. A snowball effect took place after reading this article, and I was happy to find a number of new corpus tools and active corpus linguistics websites. I’m not sure what effect this will have on my teaching, but I do present to you the latest Research Bites.


Quinn, C. (2014). Training L2 writers to reference corpora as a self-correction tool. ELT Journal. [$link]

Twitter Summary

New on #researchbites: Quinn shows how to scaffold #corpus use to teach error correction #ddl #corpuslinguistics
Continue reading


Eating My PARSNIPs…and Loving It, Too!

Lately, I’ve really embraced the idea of teaching with PARSNIPs. For those who don’t know, PARSNIP is the odd acronym that represents the whitewashing and dullification of ELT materials so as to not overexcite offend any particular group of students. PARSNIP stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork. It is the unspoken principle material developers and publishers live by, which explains why every textbook presents mostly the same uninteresting contexts, situations, and topics: making friends, shopping, the airport, saving the environment, development of cities, cooking, aliens, jobs, etc. Interesting? Mildly.

Have you ever had students look through a textbook and select the units they are interested in? Yes, they’ll pick some, but it is never with desk-banging enthusiasm. Now, imagine the first day of class and your students open their books and are met with units on creationism vs evolution, the prevalence of rape on college campuses, ordering drinks at a bar, the pitfalls of capitalism, how to cook bacon, and the joys of sex. As Tom Smith put it, “ Now the class will really be buzzing.” Does this kind of book exist? Not yet. And a PARSNIPs textbook doesn’t really need to be created (especially if you are against textbooks; incidentally, my colleague [author of “Spelling and Sound” and “How We Really Talk“] have talked about doing a PARSNIPs book together). Life is PARSNIPS. Language is life. The classroom is the place for both. Clearly, PARSNIPs has a place in the classroom.

I’m interested in PARSNIPs because, if we argue that we should teach/learn a language not for language’s sake but for real communication, we have to move beyond the safe but dull topics and move to where language comes alive – where students have an opinion they care about and will struggle to express what they want until they can say it. Life, like language, is messy. Life, like language, is both fucking horrible and fucking amazing. To treat life and language in any other way is to do them, our students, and ourselves a grave disservice.

Now, this doesn’t mean every class has to talk about bestiality or intravenous drug use. What it does means is that teachers shouldn’t shy away from potentially controversial or provocative topics, especially at the higher levels. As long as the students are mature enough to handle it, proficient enough to understand it, and you will not get fired, you should have no problems explaining the sexual innuendo in a music video or talking about terrorism and foreign policy.

To be honest, I’ve only recently adopted this attitude. Last term, as a kind of end of the term treat, I told students we would have a slang day. We watched “Mean Tweets” (if you don’t know what this is, get ready for some binge watching) and I had them write down interesting words or phrases they had never heard. There were a lot of things I had to explain – things I would never even say in front of my mother – but I explained it with a straight face, the same way I would explain any other vocabulary. It was mildly uncomfortable but what made it better was the fact that every student was engaged at a level I hadn’t really seen before. They were excited to learn the real English they had been deaf to before. As international students living in America on a college campus, they had probably heard these kinds of words hundreds of times, but these were added to the background noise of English, without any significant meaning to take note of. Needless to say, they came hungry and left stuffed. This showed me the initial power of teaching the down and dirty English we all live with.

A few weeks ago, we talked about Charlie Hebdo and questioned free speech. With a large population of Saudi Arabian students in my classes, talking about terrorism and the middle east always feels a bit awkward, as is showing the very same photos of Mohammed that cost those cartoonists their lives (I had told the Saudi students they could turn away if they wanted to). But, really, this is the best opportunity any of my non-Muslim students will get to shatter stereotypes that all Muslims are freedom-hating terrorists who will defend Islam at all costs.

Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, for speaking against Islamic rule of his country. This is Politics and Religion rolled into one, with touches of freedom and cultural relativity added in for good measure. With students from multiple backgrounds, a discussion about this is bound to create differing opinions – which is great, because who wants to agree all the time? And it will generate real conversation about real topics that are really happening. It doesn’t get more communicative than that.


A Little Bit of Serious Fun

Sometimes, when I’m not teaching, reading, writing, or parenting, I like to have some fun. I watch TV and movies, and play board games. And then sometimes, I like to have some serious fun. One of my favorite websites to visit is the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad website. That sounds REALLY fun, right? But, in fact, it is!

NACLO Language Puzzles

A sample puzzle on Inuit writing.

A sample puzzle on Inuit writing.

The NACLO is an organization that offers a language puzzle competition to high school students throughout North America, and these puzzles are highly addicting. They require no knowledge of other languages. Instead, they require logical and analytical skills. With just these skills, and a bit of patience, you can decipher Inuktitut orthography, Pali grammar, or nonsense English. They recently started making some of their puzzles web-based, which makes them all the more fun. Give one a try and I guarantee you’ll be addicted. I liked them so much, I even made my own, based on Game of Throne’s High Valyrian:

Can you solve this simple High Valyrian puzzle?

Can you solve this simple High Valyrian puzzle?


Linguists Against Humanity

Have you discovered the insane fun that is Cards Against Humanity? There are numerous derivations of this game, including one for our type of people: Linguists Against Humanity. I have yet to play this game, but it seems like some pretty cool, serious fun.

A linguistics take on Cards Against Humanity.

A linguistics take on Cards Against Humanity.


Other Linguistics Games

Check out All Things Linguistics page for any posts tagged “games”. They have tons of fun stuff listed.


Conference Bingo

Mixosaurus has a conference bingo card generator. Next time you go to a conference, bring one of these to mark whenever someone says “I’ll try to be brief,” a teaching panel doesn’t offer practical ideas, or a presenter shows up visually hungover. You can also find an ELT specific one here (thanks Mura Nava). I originally heard of this idea through PhD Comics:


Jargon Generator

Finally, to spruce up some of your next tweets, check out the education jargon generator.

Can’t Practice What I Preach

I tried, but I couldn’t do it. I dedicated the first part of my advanced listening and speaking class to discussing Charlie Hebdo and free speech. I thought this would be a great opportunity to discuss something that is actually unfolding. I thought it would be especially great because there were several Muslims in the class. And I was right. However, I also thought I would use this time to focus on one or two groups of students and provide much needed corrective feedback. This, it turned out, was a bad idea.

The students were so engaged in their discussion that there was no way I could ever fathom interrupting unless it was to add my opinion as a person, not a teacher. No recasts, no metalinguistic feedback, nothing. I was just as drawn in as they were.

I understand that corrective feedback has a moderate to strong positive effect on students’ oral grammatical accuracy. In fact, I just blogged about it!. Yet, I couldn’t do it. Now, most people think of corrective feedback in the context of controlled practice. Yes, I would agree that it is far easier to offer feedback in controlled situations. However, corrective feedback is not necessarily the sole domain of controlled practice, and controlled practice would not really suit this group of students unless it were pronunciation practice. I haven’t used controlled practice since I started teaching these high level groups. It just doesn’t seem that useful. I’ve definitely used freer practice – practice in which students have a specific situation or conversation which should draw out whatever language structure I had just taught about. Perhaps here is where I should focus my corrective feedback?

Some might say to take notes and discuss it after the conversation. Yes, I’ve done and I often do this. But, after such a serious topic in which students were concerned solely about meaning and opinion, including mine, it would feel like a slap in the face to turn it into a language lesson.

If I do want to practice what I preach, it seems that I need to create more opportunities that facilitate interruption, and I feel like I should warn students that I will be doing it. I know they want correction. The hard part is figuring out just have to give it to them without stymieing the classroom experience.

growth mindset

Research Bites: Mind over Language

[Unlike most of the Research Bites articles, this one is not so short. It's more of a research meal than a research bite. But, the research it contains, and its applications, are interesting so bear with me.]

Twitter Summary
Growth mind-set (beliefs about ability) and how we respond to errors is very important for learning success #researchbites

When I was little, everyone thought I was super smart. I always had my face buried in a book, usually the dictionary or encyclopedia. I spoke about things most children didn’t speak about. I also was very shy, quiet, and wore coke-bottle glasses. Sure signs of a genius. In fact, they constantly called me a genius. What an ego boost! So, when I struggled with math, I was shocked. If I were so smart, why couldn’t I solve an equation or understand the most basic geometry. Because I was not good at it right away, I assumed that, while I am still a genius, I am just not good at math. This happened to me consistently with other subjects. If I failed to get something right away (math, computer programming, languages), I assumed it was because I did not have the innate ability to do so. I eventually concluded I wasn’t smart after all. Everyone had been wrong.

And then I read “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids” in Scientific American (paywall, PDF here) by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. This article caught my attention because I have kids, and I wouldn’t mind if they were smart. However, I did not think it would hold within it such a salient perspective as to reveal a deep seated problem I have had since childhood: a fixed mind-set of intelligence. Continue reading

2014: A Checklist

Tomorrow is back to school for me. The Spring I term begins. Classes almost begin (they start on Wednesday, but tomorrow is orientation for new students). This marks my third term at the University of Tennessee’s English Language Institute. This also marks the end of my free time. After procrastinating to the last minute, I offer this detailed reflection on 2014.

To put it simply, it was a life-changing year for me. After seven years in Asia, I landed a job and moved my family back to the United States. We went from the modern metropolis of Busan to mid-sized city Knoxville. Korean food, Korean language, Korea culture, expat life to returning to life as a civilian. It was like going from smartphone to feature phone; Windows 7 to Windows 95, Concord to Ford Model T. It was not bad, but rather such a major change to the world I had matured in, and, needless to say, there was a lot of reverse culture shock to go through.

Besides this major change, what else happened for me in 2014? Well, in February of last year, I wrote a list of things I wanted to accomplish for the year. I think this is a great place to start reflecting on my past year. If this list were a checklist, it would look like this:

Teaching Goals

  • Focus on listening and pronunciation more in my conversation classes. 
    I spent a lot of energy on listening in 2014. I read heaps of research and feel that, at upper-intermediate and advanced levels, I know how teach listening (i.e. how to listen) very effectively. I continued to develop and work on listening journals, which my students have truly enjoyed and found useful.
  • Focus more on emergent language. 
    I am always cognizant of emergent language in my classroom, although, honestly, I don’t always focus on this as much as a I really want to. But, I do do it more.
  • Find ways to give more individualized feedback, even in larger classes. half✔
    I try to give as much feedback as possible in all my classes. In my listening and speaking classes, I often had students record their group conversations and I would send them a document with comments. This term, I plan on doing the same using Soundcloud, so that my comments are time-synced with their audio. I gave this a halfbecause I was not able to give feedback as often as I’d like.
  • Integrate music more into my teaching.
    Besides a few songs here and there, and introducing LyricsTraining, I did not achieve this goal.
  • Find a way to use Game of Thrones as a teaching activity (usually, I use zombies).
  • Use less paper, or use it more strategically.
    Nope. Even though I do so much stuff digitally, I still find myself making paper materials. Teachers use paper. I’ve accepted this.
  • Have students keep lexical journals. 
    Yes, and probably will not do it again.

Professional Goals

  • Write up and publish my research into a journal article. half
    A paper on DDL is under review. Feels like forever.
  • Find a new research project. 
    Yes. At the end of the year, my focus on listening shifted to corrective feedback. After reading research and reflecting on my own teaching, I decided to focus my research energy on this area. 2015 will be my year to focus on corrective feedback and improving spoken grammatical accuracy. I am planning on transforming this into a research project for the end of Spring.
  • Speak at a conference.
    Submitted a proposal for GATESOL. We’ll see.
  • Blog more about the activities I do in class.
  • Blog more in general.
    I’ve done more Research Bites blogging, but my blogging has slowed significantly since I moved back to the States. In Korea, I worked three days a week. The two days free meant more time to think, plan, and write. Here, I work five days a week and my mind seems more exhausted, though I have found some unexpected benefits to teaching more. Anyway, blogging more will always be a goal of mine.
  • Study for the GRE every week.
  • Take and ace the GRE this summer.
    I’ve put the GRE on hold for a year or so because grad school is on hold for a year or so.
  • Decide on a PhD program. 
    Indiana University or University of Florida. Focus on (applied) cognitive linguistics.
  • Join the Peace Boat.
    Can’t do it. Volunteer teachers travel for free, but their kids don’t. Damn kids.
  • Read one or two books on linguistics, applied or traditional.
    Applying Cognitive Linguistics to Second Language Teaching and Learning, Vocabulary Myths, Second Language Acquisition Myths, Listening Myths, The Language Hoax.

Personal Goals

  • Continue with Python and Android coding.
    No time.
  • Try to start again at the MMA gym.
    No money.
  • Relax more.
    I actually do relax more!
  • Publish my children’s book. half
    Minus a few tweaks, it’s ready for a Kickstarter campaign next summer.
  • Finish the Clan of the Cave Bear book series.
    I’m two books in.
  • Start the Game of Thrones book series.
    I don’t even own them yet.
  • Travel to Okinawa and/or Bali. 
    I traveled to Okinawa. One of the best trips I ever took.
  • Get off my phone.
  • Build more with legos.
    First, I need to buy more legos.

Five Times a Week

In some way or another, all teachers, instructors, and professors care about their students. We care about their progress in our class, in other classes, their goals, their futures, their lives (but not their excuses!). We establish rapport, classroom communities, safe spaces. We are more than just knowledge distributors – we are advisers, counselors, and friends – even if we don’t want to be.

Teacher-student rapport is one thing I thought I had nailed – checked off my list, so to speak. Something I was good at and knew about. However, recently I realized that the rapport I thought I had in the past is nothing compared to the interrelationships I have built up over the last semester.

When I was a middle school teacher in Korea, I saw my students once a week. Let me clarify this. I saw 500 students in 20 different classes once a week. If I/they were lucky, I saw them in the halls, so maybe twice a week. I had a special afterschool class and saw those students one more time. When I was in Japan, it was the same situation, except that I worked with a small group of students everyday after school on a drama competition.

When I taught undergraduate classes in Korea, I saw my students twice a week. Sometimes three times if they were brave enough to come into my office to ask for help. Some students took several of my courses and I saw them four times a week. My graduate students I only saw once a week.

Coming to a university intensive English program in the States, I see my students five times a week. Sometimes I see them around campus or at events – six times a week, maybe.

Once a week. Twice a week. Five times a week. These small numbers represent some pretty drastic differences. I didn’t realize the power of these differences until last Friday when a group of Japanese students returned home to Japan and a group of Brazilian students matriculated into the general university student population. It was sad. Very sad. And I wondered why. I had left students before, and it was always sad, but this was different. And then I realized it was because I had seen these students almost more than my own friends and family. I had learned their likes and dislikes, their stories, their jokes. I had seen them progress and change more clearly than any of my other students in the past.

This realization was profound for me because I never knew that one could connect with their students on this kind of level. My past experiences of rapport, affinity, comradery – whatever you want to call it – while, authentic and sincere, was nonetheless a watered down version of what I experience in only a single semester (in fact, two different terms of classes).

What’s the point of this? You can’t change how often you see your students. Truth be told, there are probably some students you don’t want to see five times a week. However, for the majority, the longer you spend with your students, the stronger the rapport, the stronger the connections, the stronger the classroom, and, I think, the stronger the learning.



Research Bites: The Mother of all Corrective Feedback Studies


Li, S. (2010). The effectiveness of corrective feedback in SLA: A meta-analysis. Language Learning (60)2, 309-365. [$link]

Twitter Summary

Study of corrective feedback: effective for SLA; explicit for short term; implicit (recasts) for long  


As a former grammar Nazi language prescriptivist, I have become a bit leery about correcting people, especially students. For the general public, my mother excluded, I tend to ignore errors in speech or otherwise embrace them as a linguistic peek inside the backgrounds, experiences, and heads of my interlocutors. For non-native speakers, I have always been careful about when and where to correct. The classic accuracy/fluency dichotomy in which one corrects during accuracy-based activities only and lets anything flow during fluency-based activities has been about the only training and advice I received on giving oral corrective feedback (written feedback is a whole separate thing). Like most dichotomies, things are not always black and white: students not only need correction at many points other than focus-on-form(s) activities, but they also want it. Continue reading

Student Podcasts (Fall II, 2014)

For my advanced listening class this term, we used the Q: Skills for Success series of books. The level 5 listening book contained a number of radio interviews and podcast-like audio texts. I decided to use this format (which the students were familiar listening to) to structure their final project.

Students worked in groups, chose a topic they were interested in, and followed a lose format that included an introduction (discussing related news), a central discussion focused around an authentic media clip, discussion of interviews conducted with non-ELL students on campus, and a closing.

Some of the requirements include using only notes (and therefore not reading but actually having a discussion), using certain phrases and vocabulary, and holding discussions at an academic level (i.e. beyond personal experience).

This is the first time I had done podcasts, and while I liked it, I think it was too much work for the students in terms of editing and finding times to meet. That being said, having a recorded natural discussion allows for a great level of feedback on grammar, speaking skills, and pronunciation.

Please enjoy my students’ podcasts!

Error Diaries: Correct Me or Correct Me Not?

A few months ago, Kate Makaryeva described the rationale and implementation of using error diaries with her learners. I read her post with great interest, knowing that error correction is extremely important yet something I don’t do nearly as much as I want to. Her idea stuck around in my head, and I was thrilled that she wrote some follow-up Q&A posts (1, 2) about error diaries. I learned a lot from her posts and decided to find a way to try them myself. Continue reading