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).

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!

One More Thanksgiving Lesson: Four Skills and Synthesis Writing

What do you do when you have finished a project the day before and there is one more day before a 4-day holiday? Games? Party? How about some reading and writing?

I love games and fun days “off” from teaching in the classroom, but I wanted to gives students some context and substance for the day they might be celebrating – one which seems like a big deal to many Americans: Thanksgiving.

Newsela provided the source material, which I adapted into a jigsaw, similar to my previous Thanksgiving post.

I began the lesson by asking students about the food they have heard about or eaten for Thanskgiving. I showed a picture of a Thanksgiving spread and went through some of the common foods: turkey, stuffing, potatoes, salad, pumpkin pie, etc. I then asked them why we eat these foods and had them recall the story of Thanksgiving. There were vague notions of harvests and thanking the land. I gave a very brief overview of the story of Thanksgiving, including explaining who Pilgrims and Native Americans are. Then, I introduced the activity for the day. We were going to answer the question: Did the Colonists eat the same foods in 1621 that we eat today?

I explained we would read some information, share it with each other, and then write about it.

Reading

I showed the introduction to the article on the screen so that everyone had the same background. We read and discussed it together.

I then gave students each a different section of the article to read. My adapted version can be downloaded here. In my adapted version, there were four sections: What about Turkey?, Please Pass the Eels, No Pie?, and Modern Thanksgiving.

After reading it for five minutes and me helping students with unknown vocab or concepts, I put students together in groups, jigsaw-style, so that each group member had read a different article.

Speaking and Listening

Students had to share what they had learned from their article. While listening, students had to take notes. I gave about 10 minutes for this activity. Students worked to give their information, clarify (for example, the difference between clams and mussels), and finally, ask me any questions.

Writing

Finally, for the remaining 15-20 minutes, I told students they would need to describe, in writing and using both their article and their notes, the foods eaten during the first Thanksgiving and why our modern Thanksgiving menu is different. I reminded students about writing a clear topic sentence and gave a model outline, though students were free to organize their writing in any way they wanted. I gave feedback as they wrote.

Reflection

I was actually very surprised at the quality of the work. They were able to incorporate many of their partners’ details and most write in a very logical way. I felt, though I did not explain, that this was good practice for synthesizing information, and I think I could use this similar framework for teaching synthesis in the future. I wish students had more time to write, but given the brevity of the class, what they turned in (about a paragraph) seemed very good. I will give some general feedback and return their papers in December. This activity also gave me a chance for informal assessment of writing organization, grammar, mechanics, etc., which I will definitely incorporate into our final weeks together.

Like my previous Thanksgiving lesson, this one was not “fun” in the traditional sense, but was received as very interesting and, as I explained, would make a great conversation topic for anyone sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast.

Comparing Stories of the First Thanksgiving – A Lesson in Understanding Author Perspective

I’m no historian, but I am a fan of History. I have binge watched Crash Course, attended local history events, enjoy reading history books for fun, and from time to time, teach a US history-themed course. Whenever I can, I inject US history into my classes, not as a form of patriotism, but because it provides a great platform for critical thinking and contextual / cultural understanding.

Thanksgiving is in several days and I was inspired to do something related to the holiday in my reading class, where most of my critical thinking instruction happens. I found a great lesson plan from the New York Times called “What Really Happened? Comparing Stories of the First Thanksgiving“. In this lesson, students are supposed to investigate competing stories of the first Thanksgiving and by doing so consider evidence and author perspective. They link to several general articles about Thanksgiving, several articles written from a Native American perspective, and several from a more conservative or right-wing perspective.

The articles they link to are great, but are written in a way that is very inaccessible to English language learners, even at advanced level. Furthermore, the lesson plan as they described it would likely take several hours or class sessions. Given that my learners are advanced but still would struggle with the readings, and that I simply wanted to do a one-off pre-Thanksgiving lesson, I heavily adapted their suggestions and did the following in jigsaw reading lesson in class:

  1. I found three suitable articles, one from each perspective, and simplified the language so that they were short (could be read in less than 10 minutes) and relatively easy to understand. You can see the articles I used here.
  2. I divided the class into three groups and gave each group copies of their respective articles. They had 10 minutes to read the article.
  3. Students then discussed the article in their groups. They had to answer the following questions:
    1. What were the main events of the article?
    2. What was interesting or surprising about the article?
    3. Who wrote the article? Why do you think they wrote it?
  4. After about 10 minutes, I broke the students up into new groups, where 1 student from each article came together to form a group of students who read different articles. I then gave them the final discussion question:
    1. Briefly summarize your article.
    2. What differences exist between the stories?
    3. Why do you think the stories are different?
  5. I walked around, monitored and facilitated student discussions, hinting at them to check the article’s authors to help answer the last two questions.
  6. Finally, we came together as a whole class and I asked them about the last question. We talked about perspective and the need to understand who the author is and why they may be writing something.
  7. We then briefly review each article and why they were written. I frame this debriefing discussion in terms of “myths” and explain how all countries have them, and that the story of Thanksgiving is an important founding myth of out country.
    1. The First Thanksgiving” from National Geographic Kids is the typical story of Thanksgiving, but it is simplified story missing many details. This is due to the general audience, trying to take a neutral stance, and the fact that kids should probably not be exposed to violence. We talked about what a neutral stance means and the fact that this may be the only story Americans are exposed to.
    2. The Real First Thanksgiving” is told from the Native American perspective. It is described as one event in a long series of injustices against the Native people, and it is mostly historically accurate. I reviewed briefly how Squanto and the Wampanoags are treated in these first two stories. (Note: despite its unprofessional look, the website contains information that is very accurate – I checked them against several other sources).
    3. The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” is told from a conservative, right-wing political perspective. Students generally have little background on what this means in the American context, so this needs a brief explanation. I also point out that the article focuses on individualism, capitalism, and American values, but it has debatable accuracy (something that is explained more in this New York Times article).

By the end of this lesson (which, by the way, I taught for the first time), students were shocked by the details of Thanksgiving, but they also really enjoyed seeing a story from multiple perspectives and they told me they realized how important it is to not only judge an article based on where it was published, but also on who wrote it, and that this may actually have an effect on how something is interpreted.

This is a lesson I will definitely reuse again, as it was very timely and interesting for the students, and introduced a powerful lens of critical thinking. Hopefully, next time I can take more time and get students to do deeper reads on this and similar topics.

Integrating Reading and Writing At Lower Levels

In my last few posts on Research Bites, I have focused on the integration of reading and writing. Few would probably argue against this. Writing based on reading is a vital skill, especially in EAP. However, I have heard concerns that this cannot be done at lower levels because students are still working with the basic language and mechanics of writing in English, academic or otherwise.

However, unless they are writing entirely based on their personal experiences and histories, they are likely already using reading to influence their writing. In other words, they are already doing research. The problem, however, is that this research often enters their writing either as plagiarism or as ideas without veracity. Let me explain:

Even at low levels where students are just learning to write paragraphs, students turn to the internet for ideas. While they could generate their own ideas through discussion and conversation, using the internet for research is a fundamental skill and is therefore not necessarily bad. However, it’s the type of sites they use that poses the problem.

A students who is writing about the advantages or disadvantages of social media may brainstorm their own ideas, but they are also just as likely to google it, finding pages from sites like loveetoknow.com, Quora, and even Yahoo! Answers. Without a framework for both generating their own ideas and evaluating ideas they find on the internet, students are treading dangerous territory. Even if they paraphrase the material, they are reinforcing poor habits of integrating reading with writing.

The good news is that there is at least a framework to start from, even if is not one of citation and attribution as is common in Western academia. This is the place to start, even at lower levels. Because they are already in the habit of doing this, it provides us an opportunity to instill a tradition of evaluating sources, paraphrasing, and eventually acknowledgment. The key, I think, to integrating reading, at any level, is scaffolding.

I have just begun to do this in my own classes and will continue to develop a method to ease students into the habit of properly using reading for writing. Below is a rough outline of what such a method could look like.

 

1. Choosing the topic

First, students need to choose a broad topic to write about. They might be chosen by a coursebook, the teacher, students, etc. For example, the 2016 Olympics might be an interesting topic to write about.

2. Doing basic research

There are a lot of places to find research, but for lower level students, I’d start with a source such as Newsela, which offers news articles and reports at multiple different levels, including very easily levels that are accessible to beginning learners. My search for “Olympics” turned up these articles related to the 2016 games:

Before reading, students can brainstorm a list of places to find information. Here, you can help students understand what is a good source and what is a poor source and why. It is a chance to teach the basics of source evaluation, which will hopefully help them avoid using sites like netessays.net and its ilk. In fact, I’d explicitly bring such websites up and explain why and how to avoid them.

3. Reading and discussion

Students should read the articles (here’s an opportunity to teach summary writing if you’d like). and discuss their articles with a partner or group. In this way, they can talk about their topic and set their sights on something interesting within their topic.

4. Questioning

Have students write questions about their topic. The readings should have already influenced their thinking and their questions will likely reflect both the topic and the readings. Here, you can help students write questions and draw the connections between the questions and the organization of their writing (and even the language required for each question). For example, I might want to focus on the negative effects of the 2016 Olympic games. I could ask: “What are the negative effects of the 2016 Olympic games?” This type of question calls for a cause-effect focus, which will require words such as “cause,” “effect,” “As a result,” and so on – language related to that particular rhetorical function.

5. Brainstorming and outlining

Have students put their readings away. This is very important because you do not their readings to be the main influence on their writing. If they focus too much on the readings, their writing will become a summary instead of a well-thought out cause-effect argument. With their articles away, students should start brainstorming any ideas related to the topic. You should stress that they do not have to focus on the articles but instead make their own ideas. Once they have enough ideas, you can help them outline their writing. This can be done however you usually do it. You could read a model and outline that, or you could write one together as a class – however you see fit.

6. Integration

This is where scaffolding and feedback will be very important. You will have to help students determine the best places to integrate the ideas they read about. It will be important for them to understand right away that the ideas they read are not the main ideas of their writing but rather support. This will be easier if students already understand the basic organizational structure of writing (e.g. topic sentence, major support, minor support for a paragraph – evidence often appears as minor support, but works well as major support in an essay or longer writing). This is a good time to teach phrases like “for example” or “for instance”. The point here is students should see where and where not to use their readings in the outline, before writing.

7. Scaffolding citation

It should be made clear that all writing should be students’ own words. Simple paraphrasing activities could help them avoid copy and pasting phrases or sentences into the article. Quoting can also be taught. Because students are still learning basic English writing skills, the idea of citation should be scaffolded so as to not overburden students with work. The way I would start is to have students simply supply the links for any ideas used for the articles. They can do so on those parts using the comment feature in Word or Google Docs or make a simple not of it on paper. After students are used to providing links and paraphrasing, you can teach attribution phrases like “According to person” or “In ‘Article Title’, Author says…”. Phrases that help link using evidence to their sources. As students’ writing abilities progress and as their work becomes longer, more advanced citation skills can be taught.

Method to Practice

In this example, I had students in a high-beginner/lower-intermediate writing course do readings first before picking a topic. I asked students to search Newsela for an article that showed cause, effect, or both. They had to read the article, summarize it, and then discuss it with a partner in class. One student read about the causes of an epidemic of star fish deaths on the West coast. Another student read about invasive rats in Australia. I had students think about their topic in a broader way: the death of coral reefs, invasive species. Students came up with their own ideas about their topics. Others did more research on Newsela to find articles that could help them generate ideas. Students outlined their essays and wrote about their topics. When they outlined their essays, I helped them see (through whole-class modeling and one on one feedback) where and how they could use evidence. The student writing about coral reefs discussed the effects of dying coral on tourism, sea life, and the world. She was able to use the star fish article to add examples of the negative effects on sea life. The student writing about invasive species used the article on rats both in the introduction to provide an example of invasive species and in a paragraph about invasive animals, using rats as one example. These essays turned out quite well, especially being one of the first times integrating reading with their writing. In fact, it was the first time I experimented with the method above.

The method outlined above can be changed and modified in many ways. The goal of this method is simply to find an easy way to scaffold the proper use of sources and help students learn the vital skill of integrating reading with writing. It will definitely help if you model this process with them, reading, brainstorming, outlining, and writing an example together. This way, your expectations are clear. At any step along the way, there are numerous different linguistic, mechanical, and rhetorical skills that can be taught, so there are a lot of ways to expand on the basic method I have outlined.

I hope it is clear that integrating writing with reading at lower levels is not only a good idea, but is feasible. As I continue to work with my lower-level writing classes, I will apply, tweak, and refine the method. Students are already wanting to use the internet to help them write their essays. I want to make sure that they do so in a way that is conducive to good writing and helps them avoid engendering bad habits. In this way, I hope to make their through the complex world of EAP writing a little bit easier.

7 Techniques for Mining Vocabulary

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

To Pre-Teach or Not To Pre-Teach?

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

1. Starting At the Source

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

Starting at the source in Acrobat

Starting at the source in Acrobat

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

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

OCR

How to OCR in Acrobat Pro

2. Word Lists

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

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

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

AVL

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

AWL results

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

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

3. Highlighter

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

...text comes out

Text goes in…

...text comes out

…text comes out

4. Vocab Grabber

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

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

vocabgrabber1

Unorganized Text from Vocab Grabber

vocabgrabber2

Sorted by frequency, words from list 4

vocabgrabbervisualthesaurus

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

5. Word Clouds

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

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

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

6. Manual Mining

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

7. Student Mining

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

 

Six+ Ways I Use Mini Whiteboards in the Classroom

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

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

1. Grammar Review with Video

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

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

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

2. Vocabulary Practice and Review

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

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

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

3. Collaborative Writing

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

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

4. Discussion Aids

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

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

5. LyricsTraining

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

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

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

6. Quiz Games

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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