Research Bites: A Pedagogical Approach to Note-Taking Instruction

Most teachers and students would agree that note-taking is an essential skill for academic success. Note-taking is so important that there is quite a bit of research on it in both L1 and L2 domains. While note-taking is considered to be a complicated process that requires the coordination of cognitive and physical abilities, it is even more complicated for taking notes in an L2, which adds in extra layers of difficulties. A number of coursebooks and teachers have been working to address this challenge. Yet, as Siegel argues below, few offer a systematic and scaffolded approach to learning note-taking. Often, the only instruction is “take notes”. The study below, by Joseph Siegel, offers one such approach and gives us insights into its effectiveness. Continue reading

How to Use Audacity to Quickly Make Audio Clips

Audacity, a freely available audio editing program, is one of my essential, go-to teacher tools – so much so that it is pinned to my taskbar and enjoys almost daily use.


Audacity is the last icon on the right.

There are many things you can do with Audacity that is useful for teaching. For example, you can slow down audio or speed it up; you can cut, shorten, and manipulate audio (such as TED Talks!); you can record your own audio samples; you can record students; students can make their own podcasts; you can analyze waveforms and spectrograms in a pronunciation class; and you can make really cool listening quizzes (an idea for a future blogpost of mine). Really, the list is endless.

The point of this blog post is to show you how I use Audacity to quickly cut up audio for vocabulary, transcription, and paraphrasing practice. 

The first thing you need to do is download Audacity. In addition, you’ll need to download and install the LAME MP3 codec in order to save .mp3 files (Windows users click here, Mac users click here). Once installed, you’re ready to go.

The quickest way to cut up audio is the use of labels. This allows you to select a section of audio, label it with a name, and then later export all the sections as separate files with a few clicks. I’ll try to give step-by-step instructions with pictures.

  1. Open the program and load the track you want.
  2. Listen to the track until you find a clip you want. Then highlight the clip and press CTRL + B. Give the label a name. In my example, it is “v – addictive”. This means the clip contains a short phrase with the vocabulary word “addictive” in it.
    vocab label
  3. Continue labeling. If there are two sections together or nearby, you may have to zoom in to be more accurate.
  4. When you are finished, Audacity should look like this (zoomed out).
  5. Next, go to File -> Export Multiple. This will allow you to export each clip/label you made separately.
    save multiple
  6. You’ll see a dialog box. Make sure to select “MP3 Files” under format, select a location, and choose whatever other options you’d like. The setup below is what I typically use. It will produce MP3 files in the folder I specified that are named only by the label I used.
    export options
  7. Press “Export” and you will see the box below. This will appear for EVERY label you created, so all you have to do is click “OK” multiple times in succession – unless you wish to read the information for each file.
  8. When the process is finished, you’ll see a list of your files.
  9. Open the folder, and you’ll see something like this:
  10. Now, the fun part…what to do with all those files? Here is an example – a game I play called “Popcorn Vocab“. I simply drag the files I want into a PPT and then arrange them to be easy to use. In class, I’d set up the popcorn game by telling students to list for the vocab (which we have already studied) and JUMP in the air and shout the word when they hear it. The first to jump/shout gets a point. OR, if two students jump/shout at the same time, they are both out. This last change is adapted from the Korean nun-chi game. Check the blog post I linked to to get a better explanation.popcornuse

Principled Washback: Integrating Test Prep to Foster Academic Skills

(This post is a companion to the presentation I gave at the 2016 Toronto TESOL Conference. To download my presentation click here. To download my handout, click here.)


washback (n.) the impact of a test on teaching

“Washback is considered harmful…when there is a serious disjunct between a test’s construct…and the broader demands of real world or target language tasks” (Moore, Morton, & Price, p. 6)

principled (adj.) 1. based on the principles of pedagogy 2. based on research

“Principled pragmatism is based on the pragmatics of pedagogy…Principled pragmatism thus focuses on how classroom learning can be shaped and managed by teachers as a result of informed teaching and critical appraisal” (Kumaravadivelu, 1994)

principled washback (n.) focuses on how test preparation can be shaped and managed by teachers as a result of informed teaching (through research and pedagogy) and critical appraisal (of both tests and academic skills)


Many educators in EAP have the dual role of preparing students for success in the university classroom as well as preparing them for high-stakes gatekeeping tests like IELTS and TOEFL. Whether we like these tests or not, that students’ entrance into the academic world depends on these tests makes our job makes our job both more important and more difficult. If we focus too much on the test, we are sacrificing important long-term skills students will need to survive in academia. If we focus solely on academic skills, students might be OK, but they may not feel prepared for the test or satisfied with their classes, which are perceived as not meeting their (short-term) needs. Principled washback is meant to find a happy middle ground that addresses test prep skills en route to addressing academic skills.

Principled washback considers the academic demands of the classroom, the academic demands of the test, and then looks for overlaps in order to focus and frame instruction. These overlaps serve as starting points of instruction that reference test skills and perhaps emulate test questions but actually move students along to important work academic areas not addressed by these tests.

The IELTS and TOEFL are broken up into four parts: speaking, reading, listening, and writing. The IELTS treats these as separate (which speaks to its validity a bit) while the TOEFL iBT separates them AND integrates them. For my presentation and this blog post, I will separate them and then offer some ideas for integration. Continue reading

Bad Subtitles – a quick and easy microlistening task

This post is a quick reflection on a task I learned about on twitter called “Bad Subtitles“. Before describing the task and student reactions, I need to first mention how awestruck I am on the power of twitter. I saw a tweet from Matthew Noble referencing the previously linked to blog post on April 25. I liked the idea and immediately saw how to use it in the classroom, and I did…the very next day! I find it amazing how quickly one person’s idea can go from tweet to taught in so little time. OK. On with the subtitles.

Task and Procedure

The task is quite simple, though mine is much modified from the original idea. Basically, students watch a video with incorrect subtitles and must find the mistakes. Paying attention to these mistakes gets students practicing their decoding skills/bottom-up processing skills, which have been shown to be quite important for comprehension.

The original post has teachers making bad subtitles, but there is no need for that! Most YouTube videos have “Automatic Captions”, which are captions automatically generated from the audio. Naturally, these have numerous errors as they are computer-generated, not human-generated. Therefore, you can easily do this activity with minimal prep.

Here’s a simple procedure to follow

  1. Find the YouTube video you want.
  2. Under the video, you will see “… More”. Click this and click “Transcript”
  3. Make sure the transcript says “English (Automatic Captions)”.
  4. Highlight and drag until the bottom of the captions. Copy the text.
  5. Open up your word processing program and paste.
  6. Remove the times.
  7. Done! What did that take, 2 minutes?

You have just made a simple worksheet to get students listening carefully. From here, its up to you what to do next. You can add tasks and activities or just give the worksheet as is. That’s what I did. I played the video once, had students confer with each other, played it again, and they went through line by line with the students.

Student Reaction

After finishing the activity, I asked whether or not they thought this was useful. In a class of 10, about 4 or 5 found it useful, while several others preferred to do something related to the meaning of the listening, not just the words. While I agree that working on meaning is important, without good decoding skills, meaning could easily become lost. It’s important to note that doing such a lesson as a one-off task likely won’t lead to any student improvement. It must be done numerous times, combined with other bottom-up microlistening tasks, and meaning-focused tasks as well.

I also showed students how they could do this themselves, especially if they find a video with human-generated proper captions (the captions would just say English). They can still choose the auto-generated ones and then compare their changes to the proper English ones. Boom – an intensive, bottom-up listening activity students could do at home over and over again, especially with listening journals.

Thanks to Matthew Noble for the share and paulw for the original post!

Here is a link to numerous YouTube channels with subtitles. and Listening Discrimination

Ever since I had learned about the PlayPhrase website last year, I had been trying to find ways to integrate it into my teaching. PlayPhrase is a cool multi-modal corpus-like website which allows you to type in a word or phrase and find short video clips from popular TV shows and movies that use that phrase. The clips play automatically and you hear only the sentence the phrase is found in. After the clip plays, the next clip automatically plays. According to their website:

The purpose of service is to learn English using TV series. We create video sequence from scenes that contain the word you search for.

It’s a cool website and easily addicting, but I struggled to find pedagogically valid ways to use it in class. Until today.

In my advanced grammar class, we have been working on talking about past times. Our grammar points have included simple past, present perfect, past perfect, used to and would + verb for past habits (I would eat ice cream every day after school.), and would + verb for past predictions (I thought I’d be late, so I hurried.). A lot of these tenses, when spoken, have confusing counterparts due to contraction. For example, she’s can be she is or she has. They’d can be they had or they would. In order to help students discriminate between the different forms, I thought doing an activity that got them to focus not only on the contractions but also on the surrounding grammatical clues or semantic information would help them. Then, I remembered PlayPhrase.

I decided to use PlayPhrase to play clips of the grammar in context and then have them decide which tense the clip represented. In pairs, students had a simple worksheet with four squares, one for Simple Past, Present Perfect, Past Perfect, and Would. When students heard the sentence, they had to choose the correct tense by either touch or slapping the corresponding score. The student who was first and correct receives a point. (We didn’t actually keep trace of the points). It’s a simple activity to have students listen closely while paying attention to time frames and grammatical clues in a sentence.

After each clip, I would ask follow-up questions about vocabulary, the meaning (e.g. whether different time frames made any real difference) and have students practice saying the sentences themselves (they especially enjoyed trying to use British English from clips of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Dr. Who).

Preparing this activity did not take long. I searched for various instances of has, ‘s, had, d and similar words. For the clips I thought would be suitable for class, I clicked on the # symbol to go to their Phrase Page. I then downloaded the clips (if you can’t download the clips, you can simply use the Phrase Page.). I then added each clip to its own slide in PowerPoint. I set the clip to play automatically for each slide and I also included the original sentence (hidden until clicked) for follow-up listenings/discussion.

You can find my example PowerPoint here (very basic, no bells and whistles) as well as my “slap” worksheet here.

The activity was challenging to say the least. Students had to deal with not only listening for the grammar, but for the grammar spoken at native speed with contractions, elisions, linking, stress, unstress, and pitch shift thrown in the mix – authentic English. Yes, they found it difficult, but they also found it useful and fun. I gave them the exact PowerPoint above and showed them how to use the site for their own practice.

PlayPhrase can be used as a cool tool to practice listening discrimination while using authentic speech. I used it to contrast past time frames, but it could be used for all sorts of contrasts, including different phonetic sounds, conditionals, stress and unstress, confusing tenses, etc.

Have you ever used PlayPhrase? How?




Three Music Activities I Used Today

Today was the last day of classes before our institutional TOEFL and closing lunch. To keep the class light and fun, I decided to focus on music. I wanted to give students some listening practice, but mostly I wanted to have students have fun before our term ended. Many were leaving to return to their countries so I wanted to send them out with a bang.

Today, I came to class prepared with three really fun activities using Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”. All students worked as teams and had a great deal of fun. All the activities I used were very active (physically and cognitively) and involved listening, writing, and speaking skills.

Activity 1 – Last Person Standing

Choose about five or six high-frequency (or low-frequency) words from the lyrics – ones that appear often. Make a note about whether their frequency is odd or even. For “Fight Song”, I chose:

  • fight (11 times)
  • might (2 times)
  • song (12 times)
  • strong (4 times)
  • can (6 times)
  • back (3 times)


  1. Let students listen and watch the music video first in order to get a feel for the song.
  2. Next, write the words you chose on the board. Students should choose ONE word each from the list. Members of the same group must have different words.
  3. Explain that their goal is to focus only on their word. When they hear their word, they must stand up. If they hear it again, they must sit down. Stand up. Sit down. That’s it. Simple, but very fun (and tiring!).
  4. Play the song and watch as the students enjoy this game.
  5. When the song finishes, make sure students do not move.
  6. Ask students for their word to determine if they were correct or incorrect.
    • Odd words – students should be standing.
    • Even words – students should be sitting.
  7. The group with the most correct students is the winner.

Activity 2 – Running Dictation

You should have several copies of the lyrics printed, preferably with line numbers. You should post these up as far away from the students as possible in the classroom.


  1. Tell students they will be playing another game, and for this game, one student must be a writer.
  2. Wait for students to select a writer before continuing.
  3. Explain by model and gesture that one student will run to the lyrics sheet, memorize one line, come back to the group, and dictate the line to their partner while their partner writes it down.
  4. While this student is dictating, the next student should go to the lyrics.
  5. Repeat. Only one student should be at the lyrics at any given time.
    • To make the game more fun, I often direct students to the furthest lyrics sheet for their group.
  6. Explain that the song is the timer. When the song starts, they may begin. When the song ends, the game is over.
    • You will also be looking for the group with the most lines written, and the group with the most correct lines.
  7. Play the song and watch your students run around.
  8. When the song is finished, ask students to count how many lines they have. Whichever group has the most lines is a winner.
  9. Visit each group and quickly compare their lyrics to the original. Decide who had the most accurate lyrics. Declare this group the second winner.
  10. Give them the lyrics sheet and allow them to compare/correct as necessary.

Possible Extensions

  • You can have students evaluate their lyrics and decide the cause of any mistakes (e.g. listener or speaker problems).
  • You could have more focused student dictation practice by having students take turns dictating lines to each other in pairs.
  • You could have students read the lyrics and work together to try to understand the song’s meaning.
  • You could complete vocabulary and grammar work based on the lyrics.

Activity 3 –

This activity works best if you have mini-whiteboards or laminated sheets of paper with markers. Students will be writing missing words on the boards. If not, you could have students simply raise their hands, but the writing aspect makes it more fun.


  1. Access “Fight Song” on
    • If you don’t know about, it’s a wonderful and free web-based language learning game. I’ve written about it once before here.
  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.
  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 enjoyed today’s activities and everyone left with big smiles, singing or humming “Fight Song”. It was a great class and students got a lot of great listening practice (and exercise). What a wonderful way to end the term!