Navigating Newsela: Eight Weeks of Reading Instruction with Newsela.com

I was lucky enough to get a PRO subscription to Newsela and the chance to pilot using it as a main text source in an intermediate reading course this term. This blog post will detail my (and my students) experiences using Newsela for 8 weeks, its advantages and disadvantages, and how it could be used in your own classes.

What is Newsela?

Newsela is a visually appealing, daily news website that offers readings on current events, current issues, primary sources, historical articles, and a plethora of other categories (e.g. science, art, government, etc.). You can find historical texts in the Time Machine, speeches, biographies, important historical documents (in Primary Sources), and even Greek myths. There is enough content to fit almost any course.

Each article is offered at 5 levels, from the original level (Max) to levels as low and 4th or 5th grade. Articles are adapted in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure while keeping the essential ideas from the original. Each article also has a 4-question quiz and a writing prompt. Readers can also use highlighter/annotation tools. Newsela is useful for both extensive or intensive reading.

What is Newsela PRO?

With PRO, you have the ability to make classes, assign articles, collect students’ quiz scores, grade writing prompts, and access analytics about students’ reading behaviors. While you cannot customize the quiz, you can customize the writing prompt. You can provide annotations to students (with the ability for students to reply) and see student highlights. You also have access to PRO teacher resources, which give ideas on how to use articles in class, including activities, companion texts, etc. This includes access to suggested annotations for many articles. Finally, you can also create “Text Sets” – groups of Newsela articles. You cannot assign a set, but you can use the set to organize related readings or give students independent reading choices (note: you do have access to students’ independent reading through the PRO dashboard).

Information about an assignment in Newsela PRO

How Did I Use Newsela?

Our class had a main coursebook (21st Century Reading, level 3) and Newsela was used as an equal companion (as opposed to a subordinate supplement) to this text. Based on the articles in the coursebook, I found related articles on Newsela and assigned them as required reading and typically included discussion and activities using the articles in class. I required students to complete a quiz for each article, though this was not for a course grade but rather to test the analytics ability of Newsela PRO. I sometimes added writing prompts, but more often I gave separate writing assignments via Google Classroom. These typically required more work, space, formatting or steps than the simple Newsela writing prompt box would allow students.

What Activities Did I Do?

  • Martin Luther King, jr.
    • MLK’s birthday occurred during the beginning of our term, so I used that opportunity to introduce both Newsela and MLK via his “I Have a Dream Speech”. Students read the article in class (in the lab) and then answered discussion questions. Then, we had a whole-class discussion about race and MLK’s influence. I originally planned to extend the lesson by having students read this set and come to class prepared to discuss whether MLK’s “dream” has been realized or not. Unfortunately, time constraints forced me to skip this extension.
  • Sleep
    • Sleep was the topic of the first unit of the book, so I thought I could use Newsela to build up students topical knowledge by reading a number of sleep-related articles. Some of the instruction included identifying evidence in a text, referencing evidence, and how to write a summary.
  •  Immigrants
    • Donald Trump’s travel ban made news during this term. Students had expressed interest in discussing this topic. Instead of just giving students articles on the travel ban, I first had students gather some background on the history of immigration to the United States. Students read this article to prepare them for the discussion. In addition, students practiced their ability to understand numbers by highlighting (and writing down on a worksheet) interesting statistics and the years in which they occurred. In class the next day, we discussed the numbers and the history of immigration. Students then completed a jigsaw reading activity based on an article related to the travel ban and an article related to the wall. After discussing the articles in groups, students worked together to answer one question: Do trumps activities support the value of the United States? They had to use the immigration background article to ascertain America’s values and then compare those against Trump’s actions, making a great discussion and a great comparison activity.
  • Economics
    • The second unit that we used in the book was about economics. The article in the book begun with an interesting quote by Robert Kennedy:
      • “Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
    • The focus of this unit was to understand how a nation is measured and to introduce happiness as one metric of measurement. Before reading this article, I wanted students to have a good understanding of GDP, so students read a background article, which we used to introduce the topic in class. The coursebook article was based on a TED Talk by Nic Marks and the Happiness Planet Index. Most of the week’s focus was on visual literacy and reading different charts related to this topic. However, we also worked on inferencing and applying an author’s ideas to a different text. In the coursebook article, the author identified certain things as positive or negative. So, to extend this skill, I had students read this article about global warming and then apply Marks’ perspective to it, deciding whether he would consider the article to be positive and negative, as well as offering evidence as to why. This activity was tough for students, as it required finding evidence, identifying perspective, and comparing two articles. However, it was also good practice and informed a lively discussion.
    • Continuing our work with the article in the book, we looked at how the article compared two different ideas. We then used this article to write a summary in which two ideas are compared (as opposed to a just-the-facts linear summary). To give students independent practice, we read and analyzed this PRO/CON article about meat and global warming and then students summarized it on their own following the comparison model we had done previously.
    • Finally, we extended our use of this PRO/CON article by looking at response writing as part of the summary-response genre. Typically, students take the response section to be a chance for them to give their own opinion, often disconnected from the article. So, we focused on how to choose ideas for evaluation and then how our evaluations serve as opinions. After students wrote their responses, I collected 4 exemplars and we analyzed them together in class following a rubric. Students then had a chance to rewrite their responses following this analysis.
  • Technology
    • Our next unit was about cyborgs and technology. Newsela has a great number of articles about cyborgs and people with prostheses. However, I chose to include a PRO/CON article about driverless cars because I wanted students to continue working with various perspectives and evidence and the opportunities to evaluate these against each other. We used this article to prepare for a class debate. Students read the article and then worked in groups to analyze the evidence on both sides of the debate. They then took sides and focused on developing arguments and counter-arguments. Finally, we had a tennis-style whole-class debate that was engaging for everyone.
    • We used this text and the coursebook text to learn how to correctly answer short-answer writing questions. Students had been having trouble fully answering such questions, often times providing one part or a half-answer. This was because they were not carefully reading the questions and realizing they were actually multi-part questions asking students to do several things. So, we used this article to practice that. The questions I had students answer required them to apply authors’ ideas by looking at the definition of what a cyborg is and using that to answer, in writing, whether someone using a driverless car is a cyborg. Most said yes, but some said no. They had to cite evidence from the coursebook text to support their idea.
    • As a follow-up, students read this article from 1896 about the introduction of horseless carriages (part of Newsela’s “Time Machine” series). Students worked together to compare and contrast the horseless carriage to the driverless car. Surprisingly, there were more similarities than differences.
  • Empathy
  • Assessments
    • Throughout the term, I used Newsela readings as part of formal assessments in class. I took readings and made them into quizzes to assess reading comprehension, summary writing, response, short-answer writing, etc. For the final writing assessment, I asked students to choose an article from a text set I put together that was related to cultural conflict and had students submit a summary, response, and comparison.

How Can Newsela Be Used

As my examples show, Newsela can be used in a number of ways: as a source for background reading, as a main text from which to practice various intensive reading skills, as a set of texts to build topical knowledge and expertise, as a means to integrate reading and writing at lower levels, and even as a source for articles to use with Academic Reading Circles.

Really, there are any number of ways to use Newsela. The main point being that there is always new content, and you can almost always find something interesting to read. It just takes a bit of creativity on how to best employ it in the classroom.

Newsela & Newsela PRO: Disadvantages

While I am a huge fan of Newsela and have found it to be immensely helpful in this course and others, it is not without its issues.

For Newsela PRO, I found it to be extremely convenient to be able to assign and track students’ reading assignment fromNewsela PRO’s binder feature. I liked seeing analytics such as how long they read for, their quiz scores at various levels, and their independent reading. However, I found the Write prompt to be less useful than giving assignments on Classroom – it is far too limited and suitable only for the most basic prompts, ones that require little to no feedback or revision.

In addition, while the analytics were interesting, I am not so sure about their accuracy. One of my students was ranked in the highest percentile on Newsela based on quiz scores yet he was average or below average in terms of reading quizzes and writing assessments given in class. I’m not sure how to make sense of this discrepancy. Is Newsela too easy? Am I too difficult? In addition, some of my higher level students (in class) scored lower than expected on Newsela, often times owing to understanding the quiz questions, which can sometimes be difficult for students.

Example analytics from a student’s reading profile

Is the PRO account worth it? In general, if your program is willing to pay for the PRO account, then I would definitely go for it. However, don’t let money stand in your way of using this great resource – what they offer for free is completely adequate and can be exploited to almost the same level as I have outlined above.

Are there any other issues with Newsela? Sure. Their app on iPhone and Android is terrible. Students had a lot of issues with it, including the app not refreshing to show new assignments. They often had to log out and log back in to see assignments. On both the app and the website, the Binder was not always easy for students to use. They often didn’t know they had assignments waiting for them. Newsela should definitely add some way for students to be notified of assignments, or at least make it more noticeable.

In addition, Newsela’s cookies are terrible. By this, I mean that I am constantly having to log-in to the website. It never remembers me and keeps me logged in. This is very minor, but it is quite annoying to always have to log in.

Finally, in terms of content, sometimes the adapted levels are too simple and consist only of simple sentences. While this is easy to read, the overuse of simple sentences seems limiting. Using complex sentences with adverbials or subordinating conjunctions would not necessarily increase difficulty. Doing so would allow students to see how ideas relate more clearly. Using these kinds of structures combined with simple lexis could serve as a way to introduce students more slowly to features of academic and higher level discourse.

Student Reactions

Again, issues aside, I have an overall positive assessment of Newslea, but, what about my students? I had 14 students in my class and I surveyed them on using Newsela. Here are the questions and responses.

What are some reasons you liked Newsela?

New information, new vocabulary
Fun topics
A lot of interesting tipics
I read some article to improve my reading and know news in English.
I like simple web site system
have different level
I can choose the level in each aticle.
Fresh and advanced topic.
easy to know what level you are
Because newsela has many subjects in diffrente fileds
The activities
I can search meaning easly
You can change the levels, which is very nice to those low level readers such like me. I felt Newsela is very friendly to me.

What are some reasons you disliked Newsela?

Newsela has some negative topics
Too much difficult issue
Article is long

Think about Newsela and the textbook. Which did you like more and why?

Textbook, it’s more easy to understand than Newsela
Newsela because it is more clearly than the book
Newsela more simple with the quiz
I am prefer to Newsela because it is clearly for understanding.
I like Newsela more then text book because it can be change the reading level.
textbook have video
Newsela is more interesting.
Anytime, anywhere I can read or study English, especially I can choose appropriate level for me.
Newsela APP. is the best tool I like.
Newsela. Because that makes you clearly to know which level is more suit to yourself.
I like newsela for tha same reason I wrote it in the previous question
I will choose Newsela because there are a lot of interesting articles and you can make activities
Newsela
Newsela, because I have more choices.

Conclusion

I hope I have made it clear that Newsela is a very useful tool for any reading or writing course, at almost any level. I will continue to promote Newsela as both a supplement and replacement for the coursebook. I will continue to work on different ways to use Newsela in the EAP classroom, including integrating reading and writing at lower levels.

While preparing to use Newsela PRO, I became a Newsela Certified Educator, so you may even see me presenting about some of these ideas at ELT-related conferences! It is my hope that students can engage with content that is recent, relevant, and interesting. I hope that students engage with this content through reading, informed writing, and informed discussion. I see Newsela as an important tool to help make this happen.

The Power of PechaKucha

PechaKucha has become quite a popular presentation format, perhaps coming in just under TED’s level of infamy. Like TED, there are a number of “PechaKucha Nights” popping up in cities and at universities around the world. It has enjoyed this rise in status for good reason: people like the brevity, the visual appeal, and the informality.

PechaKuchas are typically 6 minute 40 second presentations consisting of 20 slides (or images) displayed for 20 seconds each. Each slide automatically advances until the end, ensuring a presentation that is fast-paced, information dense, and has an end in sight. This model means that a number of speakers can present in a relatively short period of time.

PechaKucha makes a great presentation tool for the English language classroom. The goal of this blog post is to detail some of these reasons and show how PechaKucha can be adapted for almost any context. My own project examples will also be given at the end.

1. They Are Short

30-minute group presentations are great in theory: students can share a lot of information and display in-depth research on important topics. But, how many can you fit in one class? In one week? In one term? PechaKuchas will never be as thorough as the long-form presentation, but for typical class sizes (10 or more) they can be fit easily into 1 or 2 50-minute periods, especially if they are modified.

The short time of PechaKuchas has a number of benefits. First, it means you can fit many presentations into a single day or two, even building in a period of Q&A that still doesn’t tack on too much in terms of time. Second, because you can do so much in so little time, you can give students multiple chances over a term or semester to give presentations. That is, you can give them multiple chances to hone their presentation skills. The long-form group presentation, or even the 10-minute individual presentation, does not usually allow for this. Third, you are working to the audience’s attention span. Paying attention is hard. Paying attention in a second language is even harder. There is a place and time to have an intense focus, but perhaps presentations are not the best, especially if the presenters are struggling or they did not follow directions completely (i.e. its their first presentation ever). The PechaKucha model allows students in the audience to have sustained but relatively short focus – a kind of practiced or scaffolded exercise in paying attention. And, given that the model is visual, somewhat informal, and is more conducive to speaking rather than “reading” a presentation, the PechaKucha presentation itself is usually more enjoyable to watch.

The typical PechaKucha is a 20×20 6:40 presentation. However, as you will see below, this can easily be modified into a 10×20 3:30 presentation (for larger classes) or even a 5×30. Really, any combination of times and slides could work so long as the presentation stays true to the principle of PechaKucha.

2. They are Visual and Text-Averse

PechaKuchas appeal to audiences because they are extremely visual. A single slide usually consists of one or two images, and, not text walls – no long blocks of text that the speaker then reads to the audience. Each slide’s visual can either serve as background support for the speaker or can be directly referred to by the speaker. Plus this type of minimalist structure is often considered a good design principle for presentations, namely because it puts the focus on the speaker.

4. They Require Practice

Because students cannot rely on the text on the screen, they must put greater emphasis on practicing their presentation, memorizing their presentation, and/or preparing notes. Timing here is also important. Because the slides automatically advance, students need to make sure their information is timed correctly. Therefore, they need to practice. Increased practice means increased speaking (in private or public, to one’s self or their friends), which hopefully means increase in fluency. This format moves students away from “reading a presentation” (from a script or from slides) to speaking more naturally.

5. They Promote “Skills”

PechaKuchas do not sacrifice skills for time. Discourse markers used during formal presentations can also be used during PechaKuchas. Warming up an audience, introducing topic, background, shifting topics, exemplification, definition, explanation – all of these moves and their rhetorical phrases can still be included. While PechaKuchas cannot allow for the long-form exposition or for in-depth explanations of background, research methods, stats, or analysis, they do offer something longer presentation formats do not: conciseness. For a successful PechaKucha, students need to be able to explain complex ideas or details in a compact way. They need to get to the point, and quick. This is a skill that is useful inside and outside the classroom, for almost any context!

6. They Can be Modified

As I mentioned above, PechaKuchas can be modified. Here are a few examples of modified PechaKuchas I have recently used:

  • Course: Listening and Speaking
  • Level: upper-intermediate, pre-advanced
  • Topic: ___ & the Brain
  • Class Size: 12

10×20 PechaKucha (3:30)

After watching a model PechaKucha and explaining the traditional PechaKucha format, students were given the following instructions:

  • You must use the PPT I give you.
    • I distributed blank, pre-formatted PPTs to students. They had to simply add images, save, and upload.
    • There were 11 slides in total. The final slide was a “Thank You for Listening” slide that ended the presentation.
  • You must not write any text.
    • Actually, on the title slide, they were allowed to write their title and their name.
  • You must memorize not read your presentation.
    • Some students DID read their presentations. While this was bad for their grade, it was a great opportunity for the class to learn that spoken English is much easier to understand than English that is read aloud.
  • You must practice your presentation for Audio Diary 3. I will give feedback before your presentation.
    • Students practiced their presentation and audio recorded it. They sent it to me, along with their script or notes, and I gave feedback on grammar, structure, and pronunciation.
  • Course: Listening and Speaking
  • Level: upper-intermediate, pre-advanced
  • Topic: open
  • Class Size: 12
 10×20 PechaKucha (3:30)

Students did a final presentation based on an interesting topic and their own survey research. I gave them an example presentation outline that could help them structure their PechaKucha:

  • Slide 1: Introduction to topic
  • Slide 2-3: Background/context of topic
  • Slide 4: Your research method/questions
  • Slide 5: Your survey data/ analysis
  • Slide 7-8: Your survey discussion/ interpretation/ implications
  • Slide 9-10: Conclusion

There was a 3-minute period of question and answer afterwards. This presentation took two classes (two days)

I also took the opportunity to go over more “presentation phrases” that we had learned from listening to lectures and TED talks.

  • Course: Reading
  • Level:intermediate
  • Topic: Book report
  • Class Size: 14
 5 slide PechaKucha (2:40)

Students used this as part of the extensive reading program. They have read various books all term and ended with a presentation on their favorite book.

  • Slide 1 – 10s – Introduction/Title of book
  • Slide 2 – 60s – Plot/Summary
  • Slide 3 – 30s – Favorite scene/character/part
  • Slide 4 – 60s – Evaluation and recommendation
  • Slide 5 – 0s – Thank You

This was a highly structured and short PechaKucha due to the limited class time and the limited time during the week to do it. However, students worked hard and employed a number of skills we had worked on for reading, namely summarization and evaluation.

I’m not disparaging the long-form presentation. There is certainly a place for that, especially in EAP. I am, however, trying to stress that PechaKucha – in its original or modified forms – may be more appropriate or more effective in certain contexts.

Of course, maybe you already do something like this in your class.You don’t need to call it a PechaKucha (in fact, for the last example above, I didn’t). The basic principles of being brief and having only visuals is common sense and hopefully common place. For those looking for a new way to do presentation, or some ideas on how to adapt their current projects, its my hope that the principles of PechaKucha inspire greater presentations for the sake of the student….and for the sake of the audience who has to listen to that student (the teacher included).

Deconstructing the Duolingo English Test (DET)

Update: after writing my original review, I had a chance to talk with someone from Duolingo who could explain a few things about the test and answer some questions. Here are some notes from our conversation:

  • The test was designed to be both quick and efficient, which is why it does not seem like any other English test.
  • The DET was trained on and calibrated to the CEFR and is meant as a test of general English ability, not academic skills because some literature has shown scores on academic tests are not predictors of academic success.
  • The test items on this test are based on ones that have been published in the literature. These published test items were shown to have great predictive abilities that gave accurate information about students’ reading, writing, comprehension, etc. This is especially true of the real vs. fake English word test items, which is said to be predictive of writing.
  • There are a number of articles worth reading at https://www.duolingo.com/research.

Original Review: Duolingo is a great language learning tool. It can introduce you to the basics of a number of different languages through a fun, game-like app in which grammar and vocabulary are built up and reinforced through translation practice. I can thank Duolingo for my basic ability in Spanish and my deeper understanding of Polish grammar. The Duolingo English Test (DET), on the other hand, is absolutely terrible. Last year, it made some buzz on the internet as a kind of TOEFL/IELTS killer, a serious competitor to the big tests – one which was affordable (at $30) and accurate. I had a chance to take the test last week to see if it could serve our institute and students. I went into it very excited and came away with a very bad taste in my mouth. Continue reading

What do Martial Arts and Language Learning Have in Common?

I step out of class dripping with sweat. My body is shaking and sore. Thirst fills my mouth. Walking into the cold night air is rejuvenating compared to the hot room I was just in. No, it’s not a language class. And no, I’m not the teacher. I’m talking about an average night at my mixed martial arts (MMA) gym.

On my drive home, while I’m mentally rehearsing hard crosses and switching from kimura to guillotine, it dawns on me that the teaching style of the gym seems very familiar. On a typical night after warming up, a technique is demonstrated to us, then we practice it slowly with a partner, increasing speed and power as we go along. The coaches answer questions and offers tweaks or tips. Our partners work with us gently, allowing us to get the form down. Towards the end of the night, we add resistance and something that simulates a more realistic – yet safe and friendly – match as we try to tackle or submit each other.

Make no mistake about it, this is PPP. It is explicit instruction and presentation, practice with feedback, and the slow removal of support (and the increase of complexity) until we have a production stage. And you know what? It works – over time. The students that have been there a while, and even some who have been there for a few months, seem to move fluently from technique to technique without effort. They can instinctively react to what their partner is doing, often times predicting what is going to come from subtle cues. They have flow, and it is automatic.

It reminds me so much of language. The unconscious and conscious ability to respond to another person. The back and forth. The flow. One of the coaches constantly says that when we are “rolling” (wrestling), our partner’s movements are telling us what they are trying to do and what we can do. It’s no surprise he says that we are having “conversations”.

Now, martial arts is a skill. What about language learning? Some would argue it is definitely not a skill, or at least not one that is a physical skills like martial arts. It is a skill that has severe interference from other languages spoken and involves a deeper level of cognitive processes. But, it is a skill nonetheless.

According to skill acquisition theory, a skill is learned by engaging in the target behavior while relying on declarative knowledge (i.e. paying attention to the rule while practicing). Strengthening and fine-tuning this knowledge through practice leads to automatizing it. Practice is the key to it. This is as true for martial arts as it is for language.

Whether this practice comes from PPP, or from TBLT, or some other model, it still remains that practice is important. And there is enough evidence that indicates that both explicit instruction (see Spada & Tomita, 2010) and PPP are in effective (see Anderson, 2016) methods of instruction (this, of course, does not speak to pre-defined, grammar-based syllabus, but rather simply a mode of instruction, whether it comes pre-planned or as a way to address and emergent language).

PPP has its issues, sure, but it has evidence and logic behind it. If you want to get good at something, you need practice and refinement, support and freedom. The next time you watch a UFC fighter, a jiu-jitsu competitor, or a proficient language user, think about how they got to where they are. It is possible that they “picked up” some of their skills along the way, but more than likely, it was a combination of instruction, feedback, and tons of practice.

Spot the teacher. Where am I?

PowerPoint Hack: Use PowerPoint like a Whiteboard

Sometimes, I don’t feel like writing things on the whiteboard. Sometimes, I want to collect student ideas, but want them to be written clearly, neatly, and quickly, This blog post will demonstrate how I use PowerPoint to achieve this. The end result looks like this:

pptwhiteboard1

Recording student-elicited vocabulary into my PPT

Step 1: The Developer Tab

In order to accomplish this “hack,” you will need to have the Developer tab activated on your toolbar/ribbon. To do this, you will need to go to File -> Options -> Customize Ribbon and check the “Developer” in the right-hand column.

developeroptions

This will give you the following tab:

developertab

Step 2: Adding a Text Box

Next, you will need to add a text box to your slide. Click the [abc] icon (circled red above) and then draw your box anywhere on your slide.

Step 3: Changing the Text-Box Properties

The text box is very limited in functionality unless you make several important changes to its properties. To do so, right-click on the box and choose “Property Sheet.” There are numerous changes that you can make. The most important are

  1. EnterKeyBehavior – change to “True”. This allows you to use the “Enter” key to make new lines
  2. MultiLine – change to “True”. This allows the text box to display multiple lines
  3. Font – this sets up your font, font size, and other font properties.

propertysheet

Other properties of note include:

  • BackColor – change the background color
  • ForeColor – change the font color
  • Scrollbars – to have scrollbars in case text goes beyond the text box dimensions

Step 4: Copy, Paste, Resize

To use multiple text boxes, you do not have to complete the above steps. Just copy and paste the box throughout your PowerPoint.

Step 5: Save

Save it. Any text you type will be saved, too!

Caveats

You are limited in color and making the box transparent has never worked for me. Boxes cannot be animated. If you accidentally select “View Code” instead of “Property Sheet” when you right-click on the box, saving might become more difficult as sometimes PowerPoint thinks you have edited a macro and therefore need to save as a .pptm. If this happens, delete the code.

I hope that you found this useful. Please let me know if you have any questions or any suggestions for creative ways to use this!

Writing for the World / A World of Writing Skills: A Wikipedia Project

The following blog post is written to explore why and how I had my students writing articles for Wikipedia. It’s a somewhat long read, so I have broken it into the following sections:

RATIONALE

Writing is one of my favorite skills to teach, especially at the advanced level. However, I always feel like I am cheating the students. They spend hours planning, drafting, revising, and polishing. I read their work several times during drafting and for assessment – maybe 30 minutes total. After that, I their work never sees the light of day again. Rarely do I look at their work again unless I am building a student corpora. Rarely do students return to their own work. Their hard work, their effort, the audience (i.e. me) all of it is so disposable. Peer editing and peer review was not really an audience, and even student blogging offers an imaginary audience (no one really reads the posts except me and other students if they are required to do so). So, even these types of assignments feel disposable. This is not only something I have noticed. I first came across this concept in this article by Christina Hendricks called “Renewable assignments: Student work adding value to the world” (see also this blog post).

The idea of renewable assignments – something that was authentic, had an audience, and had a persistent quality that could be revisited time and time again – appealed to me. However, such an assignment was hard to design, hard to figure out, especially for the types of writing my students have to do: paragraphs, essays, research papers.

Earlier this year, I happened to stumble upon just the solution to my conundrum: “Writing for the World: Wikipedia as an Introduction to Academic Writing” by Christine Tardy writing in English Teaching Forum. The article argued that writing a Wikipedia article is the perfect context in which to teach and practice academic literacy and writing skills. These include the ability to find research, evaluate sources, summarize, paraphrase, and avoid plagiarism while writing from a position of “expertise”. In addition, Tardy touches on concepts of genre awareness as another skill such a writing project would require students to develop. Being able to understand and then join an academic discourse community is a vital skill. Beyond the benefits that Tardy mentions, there are several others that become clear when thinking this project through. It allows students to have a greater focus on considering audience, writing for an authentic audience who may actually read their work, and having the ability for themselves or others to return to their work to edit or improve upon it in some way, making this Wikipedia writing project a very renewable one indeed.

I recently had the chance to employ this project in my own class. This blog post will detail what I did and offer some reflections on the process, benefits, and student reactions.

PROCEDURE

Context

This project was included as part of an advanced 8-week writing course. Whereas Tardy promotes this project as one that teachers important academic skills such as the research process, I used this project as a capstone after group and individual research papers, which was where a majority of the academic skills students would need for a Wikipedia article were taught.

Genre Analysis

Before beginning any writing or even learning the details of the assignment, I followed Tardy’s advice of examining Wikipedia. We did this by first discussing what they knew about Wikipedia, what they knew about encyclopedias (very little), discussing the various meanings of free in Wikipedia’s subtitle “the free encyclopedia”, and general guidelines of what Wikipedia expects.

Next, I select a few topics that were roughly of the same genre (e.g. coffee, tea, beer) and had students analyze the article following genre analysis questions similar to what Tardy presents:

  • What kind of information is included in the article? What kind of information is excluded?
  • Using several sample articles in your category, look for any patterns in the organization of the articles.
    • How are the articles organized?
    • What information is typically included first? Next?
    • If there are sections in the articles, do you notice any that are commonly used?
    • How much background knowledge of the topic do readers need to understand the article?
    • Is any specialized language used? If so, is it defined?
    • What kind of information has citations?

This allowed for a great discussion of what Wikipedia articles contain and how different topics might suggest different information to be included. This was my students’ first attempts at analyzing genre. Incidentally, it was also my first attempt at teaching genre analysis.

Next, I told students about the assignment and gave them the task of selecting a topic for homework. We met in a lab the next day and I gave them a “Wikipedia Article Analysis” assignment for which they had to select several topics similar to theirs and answer analysis questions like they had the day before. The goal of this assignment was to allow students to examine how topics such as theirs are written and to gather ideas for their own article’s organization, including any specialized language or even formatting they would have to include.

Assignment and Topic Selection

The assignment was to write a Wikipedia article on a topic that has not been written on before. This assignment was to include at least 3 sections of text beyond the basic background information. Because so much is already included in Wikipedia, and because some students still struggled with basic English mechanics such as grammar and spelling, I gave students the option of using either regular English Wikipedia or Simple English Wikipedia. The benefit of Simple English Wikipedia is that there are far less topics written about, making topic selection much easier.

To help students choose a topic, I gave students a few tips. First, they could choose a topic they already knew well (many of my students are former professional athletes, so sports was a natural topic) and follow articles until they find red links (i.e. Wikipedia articles without content) they could write about. Another method was to choose an aspect of their own culture to write about. If it was not included on Wikipedia already, it would make for a great article. In the end, I had a combination of both types of topics.

Drafting and Publishing

Students brought their laptops to class for the drafting process. I broke the writing into several different stages of analysis followed by writing. As students worked on each stage, I visited with each student to give feedback. This lessened the amount of feedback I would need to give later. We didn’t move on to one stage until a majority of the students had finished the first.

We began the way all Wikipedia articles begin, with the topic sentence, which consists of a definition that follows a formulaic pattern: “[Topic] is a [definition].”

Examples of topic sentences from Wikipedia:

Students’ first jobs were to write a clear definition of their topic. Writing a straight-forward definition turned out to be harder than thought and some students struggled with this more than any other part of the writing process. To help students, we drafted a sentence about our institution, including definition, together. This, combined with the Wikipedia exemplars, were very important in giving students a framework for composition.

Next, we looked at several full paragraphs from Wikipedia articles in order to determine what kind of background knowledge was needed. Students made a bullet-point outline for their background, to which I gave feedback. We also planned and wrote one together, using the definition we had written earlier about our institution. And then spent the rest of the class time (~20 mins) writing that section. Like the topic sentence, writing the background information was quite challenging, as students really had to divorce themselves from their own knowledge in order to see their topic the way a reader may see it. As I was unfamiliar with many of their topics (especially cricket), my feedback was crucial here. Students were expected to finish their background paragraphs for homework.

The next day, we met again and began looking at sections from different Wikipedia articles. We also looked at the differences between section and subsection. I had students write a list of sections and subsections that could be included in their articles. I then had them choose two or three to focus on for this particular project. I gave feedback on their section selection and then gave them the rest of class to research and write their sections.

I read each of their articles and provided content and grammar feedback. We met again to work on revising their work. In the next session, I introduced them to the Wikipedia Visual Editor. I showed them how to sign-up, use the sandbox (a practice writing area), and create a page. I also showed them how to write, link, and cite. They were very impressed with what the visual editor could do, and loved the fact that Wikipedia automatically looked up internal links to other Wikipedia articles, and that citation only required inputting information and not formatting in-text citations or a reference list (these are automatic). They also liked the ease with which you could create sections, and that the Wikipedia content box was also automatically created. I demonstrated all of these features by including my own practice article based on the paragraph we had written previously. I then gave them the remained of class time to work on their own pages.

We met in the lab one final time to clean up any formatting or language issues and finish the publication process. Some students were surprised to see warning boxes (such as issues of clarity, the article being an orphan, missing links, etc.) already on their articles. I showed students how to see the history of their article, explained that the changes could be from a person or from a bot (I honestly did not know), and that once they make the edits, they can delete the boxes). We spent the rest of the class time working on their articles. Finally, when they were satisfied and felt it was finished, students shared a link to their page with the rest of class.

REFLECTION

Tardy, author of the original article that inspired this project, meant for this to be an introduction to research. However, I used it as a capstone project. After completing this project, I feel I made the right decision. The genre analysis, very technical writing, and a new publishing environment already made students apprehensive of this project. If I had to tack on teaching about how to research, evaluate, summarize, paraphrase, and do citation as well, students would have definitely been overwhelmed. Academic writing, especially of the encyclopedic nature, requires a world of writing skills. Having this project at the end of the course allowed students to apply the skills they had already learned (and in the case of citations, modify) while being able to put more focus on genre analysis and even model text analysis. By foregrounding those skills in other assignments, students were more prepared for the challenges of writing for Wikipedia and could easily assimilate new ideas into existing conceptions of composition.

A definite major benefit of this approach was the emphasis on audience. Not only did writing for a real audience of potentially millions serve as a motivational (and stress) factor, but being able to consider their audience’s ability to understand their topic forced students to rethink clarity, background information, and conciseness. Many students struggled with this at first, which shows me that notions of audience had not been dealt with much in their writing experience.

Students also struggled with the semi-technical nature of the writing, that is, the very matter-of-fact, straight forward, just the facts ma’am, encyclopedic style that  Wikipedia requires. Many students struggled with not interjecting their own opinion into their topics, while a few more had issues with the lack of prose of a Wikipedia article. They had wanted to add the little flourishes of language that make things like essays interesting to read – things they had been taught to use time and time again. I truly believe this was their first non-essay assignment in English ever. Conveying the idea that this was not an essay was difficult because that is much of what we teach in our institute. This emphasizes an important point, one that is not new to many: that the essay is but one genre of many and that a well-rounded EAP students should have experience writing in multiple genres (e.g. essay, summary, literature review, case report). For my own teaching, and perhaps my own program, this also highlights the need for moving beyond an essay focus and branching out to other genres, especially at the upper levels.

Finally, the idea of genre analysis in general was new to both my students and myself. As I stated above, my program focuses mostly on essays, as did my previous university. However, there are other genres of importance that students should learn about. Genre analysis, the reading of multiple exemplars of a text and then striving to write one’s own text that fits within the discourse community being studied, is, as Christine Tardy mentioned during a workshop of hers that I attended, “…complicated and nuanced and it takes a lot of time”. (At this point, I’d like to say that I just realized the author of the Wikipedia article and the speaker at this presentation I attended were the same person, but I had no clue. I literally had a “Holy shit” moment as I looked at the workshop flyer and saw the speaker’s name!). Both my and my students’ lack of experience with it did present a challenge, but given that the encyclopedia/Wikipedia genre isn’t such a deviation from the essay genre, we were able to understand its different features. Like the above reflection regarding the need for multiple genres, this also shows that not only do students need more exposure to multiple genres, but they to learn a framework for analysis. Likewise, instructors need to not only offer opportunities for genre analysis but to better learn how to deliver such opportunities in the classroom. In other words, they need more training in genre analysis.

Finally, my students themselves regarded this project as very interesting and worthwhile. I could tell many of them were motivated to explain the topics that interested them. In a follow-up survey, I asked students several questions about the project. Here is how they responded:

  • Do you think it [this project] was beneficial to you? All students answered “yes”.
  • Do you think a reader will find it useful? Every student but one answered “yes”. The other students answered “maybe”.
  • Are you satisfied with your article? Same results.
  • Will you tell other people about the article you wrote? All students answered “yes”.
  • Any comments about the Wikipedia project? Only three students left comments:
    • “It was very difficult to me, I don’t know how to use technologies I guess but I know I need it and it was challenging but at the end you feel ok with things you did”
    • “It was really interesting project, but I am still not sure that what I wrote is really useful ^^;;;;”
    • “It was very useful and good experience.”

The survey questions themselves show me that this was a positive and beneficial experience. The open-ended questions lead me to believe students did not really feel finished with their work. “At the end you feel OK with things you did” actually sounds quite negative, but I’m not sure if it can be interpreted like that. “I am still not sure what I wrote is really useful” shows me the student is still considering their readers, and although they may not feel it is useful, what they wrote adds to a greater body of knowledge in the world, which is something I think all students who completed this project should realize. They not only wrote something and put it online for the world to see, but they actually added knowledge to the world in some way. Perhaps this was something I should have stressed more in class.I learned a lot from the topics that they wrote about, things I would not have learned or heard about otherwise.

All in all, I feel that I have learned so much from this process and from the students. I feel it was extremely beneficial to both of us and it is a project I will definitely repeat in the future.

 

Links to Student Articles

Below are links to my students’ actual Wikipedia article. I consider many of the articles to be of very good quality, though there are several that need to be cleaned up in terms of their grammar or citations. At least one needs more clarity and clarification. The nature of Wikipedia, however, is that, because it is free and open, others can come along and add, subtract, and rework what my students have done, reaffirming that this Wikipedia project is truly renewable.

 

To be or not to be or to not be: An exploration of corpora and viscera

The sentence was “Learn personal safety techniques, but I urge you to not buy a gun.” This was on a proofreading exercise looking for errors in gerund and infinitive usage. Though I had not taught it, many students highlighted the “to not buy” part and corrected it as “not to buy”. I told one of my students that either is acceptable and he said to me, “that feels weird”. This made me think of two things. This student has internalized a grammatical structure to the point where it had a sense of visceralness on par with “native speakers”. The other thought was, am I wrong? In this blog post, I will mostly focus on the latter thought, but I will come back to the more philosophical implications of the former.

To me, the placement of “not” in regards to an infinitive is fluid. It feels right to me in either place, though coming right before the verb does also have a feeling of emphasis as opposed to coming before “to”. I have been corrected on this before by a well-respected colleague I work with (one who I really enjoy getting into playful language tiffs with), but I always feel many of their corrections come down to prescriptivism and style rather that straight up grammar (we stI’ll argue about singular “they”). So, in order to answer my question of whether “to not” or “not to” is correct, I turned to my friends Google and COCA.

A Google n-gram search for “not to, to not” returned the following:

tonotgooglengram

Hmm…maybe I am wrong. “To not” barely lifts its head in recognition. But, what’s this? “Not to” seems to be falling with a slight upward tilt at around the same time “to not” makes an appearance. Is one trying to assert its dominance? That is probably a different story. “to not” exists, but may not be as common as thought, at least in books, edited by those who follow style guides

What about COCA?

Well, before drinking a cup of COCA, I noticed that the great corpus gods at Brigham Young have transformed the Google n-gram corpus into a POS-tagged database, which could give me a better look at the above search. A search for “not to [vv0*]”, that is, “not to” + base verb form gave me the following…byugooglengramnotto

…and “to not [vv0*]” gave me…

byugooglengramtonot

While the actual tokens are still worlds less for “to not” than “not to,” the increase has been almost double from 1990 to 2000 while “not to” has clearly been on a slow decline. Interesting. Six years later, this trend is likely continuing

Time to do some lines of COCA:

“not to”

cocanotto

“to not”

cocatonot

COCA mirrors the rise of “to not” from Google, especially in spoken English, though it is not absent in academic English. In fact, here are some KWIC examples of “to not” in Academic English:

cocatonotkwicacademic

All of this data tells me several things. First, “to not” is on the rise, most likely due to the fact that the ability to separate an infinitive has become more accepted and “to not” has probably rolled in through a snowball effect. Second, the placement of “not” does not necessarily imply emphasis, as can be seen in the sentences above. Third, while my speech may make some of the older generations shake their first with anger, possibly telling me I am killing English, I can now reply confidently that my speech is the vanguard of an English where “not” is as placement-fluid as “they” is gender-fluid. My speech may be a speech that is likely to boldly go where few have gone before. Or to not boldly go, because language change is really unpredictable, and this is just a tiny thing. Of course, I wouldn’t actually say any of this. I’m neither a grammar pedant nor an in-your-face defender of anything goes linguistic descriptivism.

However, the last thing it tells me is that grammar is not correct because of writers, style guides, or lines of random sentences. No, grammar correctness, and what is “correct” to a “native speaker” is something visceral. It is what “feels” right. Language is not a set of rules but a shared set of feelings about how we communicate, passed on as naturally to us as other concepts, such as love or morality. That is, we begin learning these things at or before birth from family, friends, and our environment. Of course, as second language students, language gets internalized later and in different ways, but at some point, things do get internalized. Students begin to develop gut feelings about the language based on prior experiences, whether or not we consider them correct. Language is the internal made external, and what comes out is never based on a set of rules, but what “feels” right and has felt right since we began listening to our first sounds of the language.

So, to me, both forms feel right and I am correct. To my student, one form feels right and they are correct. To teach or prescribe otherwise would be to not follow the spirit of communication and to deny the very “feeling” of being a speaker of a language.

(Updated and edited for typos and clarity.)