Ants on a Blog – Specialist Corpora and ESP

A quick post today on how I used some specialist corpora during a workshop with visiting Chinese professors. This post is entitled “Ants on a Blog,” a pun that combines the American snack food (ants on a log) with the fact that I utilized two wonderful tools from Laurence Anthony: AntCorGen and AntConc.

The visiting professors come from different fields and I thought this would be a great opportunity during their orientation week to help them explore research trends in their field, common language used in their field, and pronunciation of discipline-specific vocabulary.

Building the Corpora

Building four different corpora? Yes! It only took about five minutes using AntCorGen. In AntCorGen, you simply select the field or subfield you wish to explore, select the type of information you want (e.g. abstract, methods, full-text), how many texts you want, and press “Create Corpus”. In my case, I created four corpora that consisted of 300 abstracts each. Here is an example:

Easy peasy.

Explaining the Purpose

My next step was to demonstrate AntConc and how a corpus is both used and useful. I showed them how to open the corpus, and basic searches using only the “Clusters/N-Gram” tab. I focused on this tab because you can sort single words by range whereas in the “Wordlist” tab, you can only sort them by frequency. For our purposes, range was more important because it showed how words were distributed across texts. Basically, this will show you what words many different people are using while a very frequent words

Typically, the usefulness of corpora is not always easy to grasp. Any English language corpora will tell you the most frequent words are of, the, in, at. This is not useful stuff. By focusing on range, I explained that they could make guesstimates about trending concepts or research areas. Apart from that, I also explained that a corpus is not necessarily useful for answering specific questions as it is for simply exploring how language is used. I told them we would be going on language adventures, and none of us could be sure what we would find. I also asked them to give me ideas on how it could be useful, and this immediately elicited responses about writing, especially using correct and common phrases.

Exploring the Corpora

I placed each corpus and a copy of AntConc on separate USBs and headed to the lab with the professors. We used AntConc with the purpose of finding research trends, frequently used words, hard to pronounce words (e.g. utilitarianism, pharmozoocognosy), and “interesting” combinations of two, three, or four words.

I gave them a short worksheet I made for them to complete independently and offered feedback individually for searching. One of the activities was about finding hard to pronounce words, and when I saw that they had listed about 8-10, I offered one-on-one pronunciation instruction and feedback. What was great about this is not so much the one-off pronunciation practice of infrequent words but the rules these words embodied regarding stress placement, unstressed vowel placement, phonics and word origin (i.e. “ch” in most academic or scientific words is likely to have a /k/ sound due to their Greek origin), and chunking multisyllable words. Some wrote down acronyms or website names thinking these were words (they lose their capitalizations in “Clusters” tab, so I showed them how to examine the concordances for meaning, and how to look at the word in its entire context, too.

The worksheet I used is here. It contains the activities as well as instructions for the different types of analyses.


I think the professors enjoyed exploring their field’s language usage. They found the pronunciation activities very fun and were surprised at some of the words and those words’ variations they found. For example, using the “Regex” option, one professor and I found many different words using “phono” and explored those meanings. We also enjoyed reviewing the Greek mathematical letters that appeared, too.

These professors are experts in their fields, and while they do often communicate with each other and other international colleagues in English using discipline-specific language, any common ELF communication patterns could cause minor (probably not major) issues on an American campus. I thought that such independent explorations and feedback could only benefit them and give them the tools to do further exploration on their own, thus allowing them to be in even more control of their expertise. And many of them said they would in fact download and use these tools again to help with their writing.

I was happy to see that I was able to spark genuine interest in not only the corpus tools but how language is being used in their field. I hope to get more opportunities like these in the future.

Playing with PlayPhrase

When I first learned of PlayPhrase several years ago, I was quite excited about its pedagogic potential, even though I didn’t know exactly what that potential was. I just knew that the site must be useful. PlayPhrase is a kind of pseudo-corpus that allows one to search for words or phrases and then hear/read/see those phrases in short sentences taken from movies and TV shows. It allows you to hear how these words and phrases sound in all their screamed or whispered, connected, unstressed, authentic glory. It makes for great listening practice, especially for bottom-up skills and short sentence parsing. It also makes for good pronunciation practice through mimicry and hearing multiple examples in context.

I would often share it with students as a pronunciation tool, or I would use it in class if we needed to hear how a phrase (e.g. kind of) usually sounds in America. I have used it in the past for listening practice, too. However, this term I have used it more strategically, planning several activities within a lesson around it. I used it in both an intermediate-level grammar class and an advanced listening and speaking class. This post outlines some of the ways I have used it, along with the PPTs I made for my classes (with the videos embedded in them).

1. Listening for Meaning

We had been working on modals in the context of how to order food at a restaurant (would, could, can, will for requests and may, can, could for permission, might for possibility, should for suggestions). As a review of all these modals and their various meanings, I found several good clips that used the modals and an activity that focused on listening for 1) which modal was used and 2) the function of that modal (permission, request, etc.). This required them to not only listen for a modal, but also listen to the modal spoken in a possibly unstressed or elided manner in context at a normal speed, and then make a judgement based on that context. It was challenging but fun work for them.

2. Listening and Sequencing

In the same class, we worked on the language useful for making plans. We learned about the phrases one could use and the grammar of those phrases. These included “let’s”, “why don’t we”, and “how/what about”. We also looked at appropriate responses, including the use of “rather” (I would rather/would you rather). The activity I created required students to listen to clips containing the phrases, and then organize the clips into a coherent conversation. This got them to practice not only their listening skills, but also got them focusing on the meaning of the phrases and the order of discourse.

3. Introducing and Comparing Grammar

I used a similar activity to introduce subject questions (who went with you, what happened). This one was more challenging because it was harder for me to piece together a coherent conversation from random clips on PlayPhrase. The activity worked the same way and was a fun way to introduce the language before focusing on how these questions differ from object questions.

4. Listening Journey

In the same lesson topic (questions), the difference between who’s and whose came up. After understanding the distinction and making meaningful questions using whose, I created the following listening journey, based on popular pronunciation journey activity from the book Pronunciation Games.

5. Meaning Distinction

In my advanced listening and speaking course, we used the Hunger Games book and movies as the theme and main material. During the first week, we examined the popular line “May the odds be ever in your favor” very closely. First, we looked at may and its different meanings and usages. The activity we did is similar to first activity above: listen for the function.

6. Paraphrase

We looked at the meaning of odds and then listened to phrases that used it. I had students paraphrase what the meaning was.

7. Noticing

Instead of using clips for listening, I used PlayPhrase in a more DDL-like sense. We looked at the words ever and favor and how they were typically used in the examples. We learned that “Have you ever…” questions can often start with just the word ever (“Ever been to China”). They also learned that favor collocates with do (“do me a favor). We then wrote some sentences related to the Hunger Games to practice using these phrases:


I am sure there are more and better ways to use PlayPhrase. These are the ways I used it just in the last few weeks. I plan on incorporating into my teaching more next term. I only hope it doesn’t disappear, like many other great online tools.

I’d love to hear your ideas for using PlayPhrase in the comments!


Flipped Off About Flipped Learning

This term, I decided to experiment with flipped learning by flipping my grammar class. Grammar is discrete skills course offered at my institute. I typically teach it every term, at all different levels. Each term, I wrestle with different ways to make the grammar class more meaningful while incorporating the mandated textbook (usually Azar). I have been experimenting more and more with making the class task-based or task-supported by eliciting academic and social tasks from students and then finding ways to fit the grammar to the task.

This term, I wanted to try something a little different – flipping the class. I thought that if I could frontload the explicit grammar and have students study it on their own, we can focus on meaningful communicative tasks in the classroom, and I could provide the corrective feedback necessary to help move students from practice to internalizationContinue reading

“Inclusive” Means International, Too

Kevin Gannon has a great article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “The Case for Inclusive Teaching“. Gannon argues that there is a clear racial disparity in terms of enrollment, persistence, and graduation in higher education, with African-American and Hispanic students lagging far behind other racial groups. He argues that a more inclusive pedagogy is as a way to retain students and close the gap between racial groups. Although there are efforts to provide more inclusive student services and a welcoming atmosphere, what happens in the classroom is really at the heart of education, he argues, and therefore deserves to be considered in any efforts to address these problems. He argues that inclusive education is “a realization that traditional pedagogical methods — traditionally applied — have not served all of our students well. It’s a commitment to put actual substance behind our cheerful declarations that all students deserve access to higher education.” Continue reading

Reverse Reading 2.0

A while ago, a Nicola Prentis wrote about an interesting conversation activity called Reverse Reading. It enjoyed some popularity and even prompted her to write a short book of lesson-plans based on Reverse Reading. The idea is quite simple: turn a reading lesson into a conversation lesson by writing questions that use target vocabulary in the reading as well as asking questions about the concepts in the reading. This has a few benefits, first, according to Nicola, it avoids situations in which a text is used as a prompt for discussion but the class becomes more of a reading lesson than a conversation one. Instead of “tacking” on conversation questions, foreground them and then work backwards to language analysis and reading. Other benefits include exposure to new vocabulary, phrases, and grammatical forms. You could either pre-teach the vocabulary, making the Reverse Reading the second exposure (and the actually reading, if done, the third) or students could discuss vocabulary while discussing the questions. One other benefit is that these questions force students to consider their background knowledge (or lack thereof), a very important step in the learning process.

I really liked this idea and used it on several occasions with success. It is easy to design and serves as a great way to preview language and ideas. Recently, however, I have been using it a bit differently. For certain texts, I start with the Reverse Reading. I draft questions using target vocabulary, with all questions pertaining to ideas in the text. Students either preview the vocab before the conversation or while discussing the questions. They discuss the questions with the emphasis on their own ideas and opinions. They jot down brief answers as they discuss the questions. Then, students read the text and complete any other comprehension activities I may create. Finally, students use the Reverse Reading questions again, but this time, they must answer from the perspective of the text, referring to specific paragraphs or lines to support their answer.

I added this last step as I wanted students to pay more attention to details while also accepting, rejecting, or revising their previous ideas based on the information on the text. This second round of questions also requires them to use textual evidence, using phrases like “According to” or “___ states”, giving them practice in oral referencing, a very useful academic skill.

Here is an example based on the reading “The Workforce of the Twenty-First Century” from Making Connections 2. This was for a B1~2 reading course:

Reverse Reading Questions (target vocabulary in bold)

  1. What is the difference between a developed and a developing country?
  2. How is today’s workforce different from the workforce of the past?
  3. Do you think there is a greater demand for skilled or low-skilled workers? Why?
  4. What are some advantages of outsourcing?
  5. Why do some people criticize outsourcing?
  6. When manufacturing jobs disappear, who should be blamed?
  7. What is commonly manufactured by skilled workers?
  8. What do you think prevents people from working in another country?
  9. What attracts people to work in another country?
  10. Do you think foreign workers keep their salaries or send it back to their home country? Why?

For this particular example, the questions require a lot of information finding as opposed to critical thinking. However, you can certainly build that into the questions you make.

I have also used this idea in conjunction with jigsaw reading. First, students answer the questions together. Then, they read their respective articles. Then, they come back together and answer the questions based on the articles, teaching the main concepts of their article to their partner(s).

Here is an example based on readings of Jefferson’s Notes on Slavery from Newsela and Frederick Douglass’ speech “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery”, also on Newsela. This was for a pre-university listening and speaking class that focuses on US History.

Reading Questions (Question 1-4 refer to reading 1; 5-9 are for reading 2)

  1. Why do you think many whites had objections to including blacks in America after the slaves were free?
  2. Do you think the differences between races are due to differences of nature, differences of education, or something else?
  3. Do you think children learn through imitation (copying their parents and friends)? If so, what do you think slave-owners’ children learned from their parents?
  4. Do you think that sadness and suffering inspire poetry and songs? If so, what effect do you think this had on slave and African-American music?
  5. Why would an ex-slave find hypocrisy in being asked to celebrate the Fourth of July?
  6. What do you think is a better method to persuade someone: discussion or criticism? Why?
  7. Do you think slave-holders thought slavery was wrong? Why or why not?
  8. Do you think the laws recognized slaves as people, property, or animals?
  9. What different justifications do you think upheld slavery?

Students had already learned about slavery from other readings and lectures, so they had to draw on their new background knowledge to answer these questions for the first round of reverse reading, and that knowledge was reinforced while reading and especially during the second round.

I have not done this yet, but a third idea for reverse reading would be to use it with listening texts, with students referring to notes during the second round of questions.

In summary, drafting questions using target vocabulary, grammar, and ideas, and then using these questions before AND after a text helps build exposure to vocabulary, activates background knowledge, helps to assimilate new information with old information, requires close reading, referencing, and critical thinking. That seems like quite a powerful reading activity!

Adventures in Close Reading

I have written several times about close reading, and I have played with it in class here and there, but it hasn’t been until this most recent term that I have used it consistently and as a central part of a course. I am teaching reading to a small, low-level group of students and close reading was employed as a solution to some of their reading problems. Continue reading

Using Videos for Formative Assessment

Videos have a range of uses in language learning. They are great teaching and learning tools, and how they are used is shaped by who is in control of them. Teachers can find many ways to use videos in the classroom (see my post about using long videos), and learners can also find unique ways of working with videos (from music with LyricsTraining, to gap-fills with Tube Quizard, to comprehension-focused videos with TedEd). Jeremy Slagoski, in a post on using online videos, argues that learner control of a video – the pausing, repeating, using subtitles, etc. – helps to build metacognitive strategies (e.g. monitoring and self-evaluation) vital to listening skill development. On the other hand, he argues that a teacher in control of the video makes the listening experience “less authentic” because they direct what happens, when, and even why. Continue reading