On PARSNIPs…or how to offend without offending

I recently saw an article announcing the publishing of a free e-book called “PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol. 1).” This book promises to help teachers and students discuss taboo and controversial issues avoided in most classes and all coursebooks. These issues – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork – form the acronym of PARSNIPs, something I have discussed before here.

Genevieve White wrote an interesting article reviewing the “PARSNIP” book. To her, the book did not meet its claim of helping students and teachers “step out of the comfort zone.” In her view, the book falls short because it seems to be too caught up in the current trend of shocking people by not hurting their feelings, depowering controversial issues to make sure everyone everyone talks nice and no one gets offended.

After looking at the book, I have to agree with her. This book may serve as a great stepping stone or companion for those who want to dip their toes in PARSNIP-flavored water, but it really is not a book that will make students or teachers challenge anything.

My question, though, is: should a PARSNIPs book even exist? PARSNIPs lessons should deal with controversial, challenging, and complex topics. This requires several elements that coursebooks, and even resource books (such as the “Taboos and Issues” book Genevieve mentions), cannot bring to the classroom. PARSNIPS requires understanding your learners, their backgrounds, and how much you can challenge or offend them. As she writes, you don’t want to make your learners “to feel distressed or uncomfortable in what should be a pleasant environment.” There is a difference between academically challenging their opinions (aka academically offending them) and making them feel under attack.

Another important element is relevancy. I don’t think you can walk into class and say “OK, today we’re gonna learn about gay marriage.” There is nothing wrong with this topic, but unless the topic is connected to something else, such as a student experience, recent news, an interesting discuss in which is arose organically, comments students made, or even as a supplement to a coursebook unit, if it is not connected to something, then it seems like you are bringing in controversy for controversy’s sake. Controversy needs context.

One final element that I think is important is recency. As in real life, we usually discuss controversial issues when they arise, are in the media, or being talked about by everyone else. This is very much related to the context idea above. Talking about recent topics that are in the news and on everyone’s mind will make any PARSNIPs lesson more meaningful. This is also another reason why I think the idea of a PARSNIPs book is bound to fail. And one doesn’t need a book. The news media (textual and visual) is filled with relative, recent, and controversial topics. For ELLs, Newsela is a great resource for this. Newsela offers lots of news articles – from the mundane to the controversial – at a variety of different proficiency levels.

Overall, I think the attempt to bring more attention to PARSNIPs-based lessons is noble, but without recognizing these elements, a book like this is bound to fail, or at least not meet the full potential it hopes to. PARSNIPs is not a five minute lesson. It’s not a lesson in a can, a lesson for busy teachers, or a filler. PARSNIPs is responsive teaching, and responsive teaching requires no coursebooks, no resource books, and no prefabricated lessons – responsive teaching requires students, teachers, and meaningful communication.

These posts and books come at an interesting time in the world of education. Just as higher education is discussing trigger warnings, some trends in ELT seem to be pushing in the opposite direction, purposely wanting to shock students. This warrants a who different discussion which I do not feel qualified to participate in at the moment. However, it is a discussion that needs to take place because we, at least in EAP, must deal with this on a double level: How do we at the same time protect students from perceived or real traumatic issues (the trigger warning debate) while at the same time acclimating students to a society which may be radically different from their culture, religion, and traditions?

Adapting “Academic Reading Circles” for the Listening and Speaking Classroom

I stumbled upon a post on Lizzie Pinard’s site about an IATEFL presentation by Tyson Seburn called “Academic Reading Circles”. As an EAP teacher, it immediately piqued my interest and I carefully read the blog post. I was excited to find that there was a small book with the same name being published by The Round. Unfortunately, I did not have time to acquire that book before my upcoming term, but I knew I wanted to implement the concepts immediately.

My class schedule for the summer term did not include any upper-level reading classes. However, it did include an upper-level listening and speaking class. Academic Reading Circles (ARC) are based on “texts” and “texts”, in ELT jargon, does not necessarily mean written texts but also spoken and visual texts as well. Therefore, I made “Academic Discussion Circles” (ADC) an integrated part of my listening and speaking class.

Now that I have had time to read Seburn’s book, I realize my adaptation varied markedly from his but was nonetheless effective at getting students to listen and academically discuss various aspects of authentic “lectures” in the form of TED Talks. TED Talks, as I have written about before, are short and highly engaging academic-ish lectures that many students enjoy. What’s more, this spoken text also includes a transcript, therefore providing more of a traditional text to exploit as well.

Seburn’s ARC framework is quite simple to understand (though not necessarily easy to implement the first time around). It is based on students utilizing a common text and “provides the opportunity for learners to co-construct their comprehension of the text by
sharing their individual discoveries and interacting with them” (p. 42).

Students’ achieve this by working in groups and having individualized roles. There are five roles, including:

  • Leader – the leader asks conceptual questions (focused on questions not related to specific details but deeper understanding), incorporates other students and their roles in the overall discussion, and finally asks inferential discussion questions to round out the discussions at the end.
  • Visualizer – the visualizer finds elements within the text that can be represented visually (as photos, charts, etc.) in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Contextualizer – the contextualizer takes not of references (direct and indirect) of people, places, events and concepts and presents them to their group in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Connector – the connector finds connections between the text and other courses, familiar events, or their own lives and then explains these connections in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Highlighter – the highlighter finds high frequency and likely unknown vocabulary, technical or topical vocabulary, and words and phrases that signal tone or emotion and presents these to the group in order to add to the understanding of the text.

The book concisely and illustratively provides more information on these roles, but as you can see, they can be easily used with non-written texts. I further adapted Seburn’s idea to place more focus on speaking and discussion strategies, as this was part of a listening and speaking class. I adapted the roles to the following, keeping in mind I wanted students to not only discuss and build their comprehension of their TED Talk, but also practice useful and valuable discussion skills (including phrases and strategies). Due to class size, I combined two roles. I also renamed them.

  • Leader – the leader asked comprehension questions, made sure every student was involved and shared their opinion (which included the use of discussion phrases), and made sure all students completed their roles.
  • Connector – the connector thought of how the lecture connected to their previous coursework and shared experiences. They were required to not only explain how the lecture connected to something outside the text but also ask “connection” questions that got students to think about and discuss their own connections as well.
  • Researcher – the researcher found more information about the people, places, events, and ideas discussed in the lecture and presented the information to the group. The researcher had to use phrases for citation and referencing other sources.
  • Linguist – the linguist highlighted interesting vocabulary, including individual words, phrases, structural vocabulary, stress and intonation, and accent, and presented them to the group. The linguist had to use phrases that asked about the meaning of words, and were used to define words and their usages.

I assigned a large set of TED Talk videos somewhat related to the week’s topic and had students choose a single video together. They then had the weekend to listen and prepare for their roles. Every Monday, we held an academic discussion. Some of the discussions were recorded and I provided individual feedback on both language (grammar, pronunciation) but also their discussions skills (role fulfillment, use of discussion phrases and strategies, etc.).

Overall, I was pleased with the Academic Discussion Circles and I know my students got a lot out of them. However, after reading Seburn’s book and having a better understanding of ARCs, I feel I could further adapt ADCs to be not only more effective but also run smoother.

Some things I have learned from reading about ARCs which I would recommend adapting to ADCs include:

  • Students should create handouts relevant to their roles in order to aid not only their discussion but the other students’ understanding.
  • All roles should be done “in order to add to the understanding of the text”. I repeated this phrase several times in describing the roles of ARC because I realized my ADCs often got off-topic or the information students brought to the table did not necessarily add, aid, help, improve, or deepen the understanding of the lecture.
  • Presenting information through “turn-taking” is not very useful for a “discussion”. My students naturally defaulted to each role having their time to present their information. This does not really provide the interaction wanted. Luckily, the ADC roles required questioning and therefore more interaction occurred, but not as much as a discussion that went through the text from beginning to end, as Seburn suggests.

From my experience using ADCs as a modified ARC, there are a few things instructors should keep in mind:

  • Modeling – I can’t stress how important modeling is. For these types of discussions, modeling not only means modeling the flow of the discussion, but the analysis of the text, the question generation, how to find visual aids, how to find and integrate relevant research, and how to notice and research interesting language features. My recommendation, similar to Seburn, is to analyze a text (spoken or read) and introduce all these elements without telling them about discussions or roles. The teacher can pre-plan and introduce all the information at once, or the class can co-construct together questions, research, and so on together. I would also recommend explicitly modeling a whole-class, teacher-led discussion where the teacher fulfills all roles (interactively) in order to show students what is expected.
  • Feedback – depending on the goals of your class and course, your feedback may vary, but feedback will be essential to help students progress in terms of understanding the text, fulfilling their roles, or being able to hold an academic discussion. In any case, teachers should provide feedback. I left feedback as comments on a recorded discussion, but live-delivered post-it notes or an after-discussion write-up by the teacher would also be fine.
  • Follow-Up – There must be some follow-up to the discussion. Seburn touches on some follow-up ideas, including writing advice for the next person who takes their role, writing a group report on the discussion, or responding to the discussion in writing. Further follow-up ideas could include skill remediation or refining based on what was observed during the discussion. For example, maybe you noticed students struggled with a particular area of the text due to some difficult structural language, or maybe you noticed students had trouble correctly using phrases for agreement or interrupting. These would be great post-tasks to complete with students, targeting a weak area that is common among them. Similarly, for a class with more grammar or language focus, highlighting some language mistakes (grammar, vocabulary, syntax, pronunciation) and working on those would also be prudent.
  • Assessment – This is one area missing from Seburn’s book. Because we are likely to have multiple discussions going on at one time, we are not capable of gauging everyone’s understanding and contributions. Therefore, some kind of assessment of the students’ understanding of the text might be important. In particular, if we are using formative assessment, these weekly discussions give us a weekly opportunity to assess students’ text comprehension and reading skills, which is, after all, one of the main goals of our efforts. I have several assessment ideas, including:
    • Quiz – provide students with a clean copy of the reading and give students a basic reading quiz that asks questions with answers that should have been discussed during the discussions.
    • Authentic Quiz – In university, our students will be expected to read and comprehend material and then take a quiz pr test that asks them not to simply regurgitate facts or details but apply what they have learned. We can simulate this experience by creating a more authentic-like content-based quiz that students could expect in undergraduate classrooms. Using an authentic assessment such as this makes the discussion experience more meaningful, as it makes the whole task cycle (independent reading, Academic Reading Circles, quiz) more authentic because it simulates what happens in the real world (independent reading, study group, assessment).
    • Pre/Post Quiz – give a short reading quiz (online?) before group discussions and after group discussions to judge their ability to understand the text on their own and after group work.
    • Student-Generated Quiz – have students generate quiz questions as a follow-up activity. Pool the questions, select the best ones, and give a reading quiz the next day. Questions can be made based on details, concepts, inferences, references, and language use.

I hope I’ve given you some ideas for using both Academic Reading and Discussion Circles, how they can be adapted, and general overall motivation to try out this wonderful idea. I highly recommend purchasing Seburn’s book and experimenting with these ideas on your own! My own teaching schedule includes an upper-level reading course, so I will definitely be using these again starting in a few weeks. Happy teaching!

My Favorite Coursebooks (or: Not All Coursebooks Are the Same)

There is a very lively discussion right now on Twitter and in some blogs (ex: here and here) about the value of coursebooks. What is being presented seems to come down to an either/or fallacy in which coursebooks are taken to be something monolithic that you either support or your don’t – that are either good or bad. These arguments also assume that every coursebook is the same, and all teachers utilize them the same way. All of this is, of course, nonsense, as the value of coursebooks and how they are utilized is not an easy thing to decide and is not uniform. The whole coursebook debate is something very complex that is being too simplistically argued. Furthermore, in my view, you cannot simply categorically reject all coursebooks, as coursebooks don’t all fit in the same category! That is precisely the point of my post today.

This debate has occurred many times, but Geoff Jordan’s excellent presentation at InnovateELT seems to be the catalyst of the most recent online debate. To summarize his main points, he argues that coursebooks have no value because they make these three assumptions:

  • that the declarative knowledge taught in these coursebooks, especially in terms of grammar, will lead to procedural knowledge;
  • that languages are learned by accumulating rules;
  • that learners learn what they are taught when they are taught it.

What Geoff Jordan is making here are valid arguments, with evidence to support them. The problem is, however, they cannot be levied against every coursebook. Take, for example, my two favorite coursebooks: Sourcework and Contemporary Topics.


 

Sourcework is a coursebook dedicated to helping students learn how to write research papers. It provides practice in research, summarizing, paraphrasing, making citations, organizing research papers, using evidence to make strong arguments, etc. It provides numerous research articles to help guide students in building their first research paper. I have used it numerous times on its own and to supplement other texts. It remains my favorite advanced writing text. How does it hold up to Geoff’s argument?

1. Assumption: declarative knowledge leads to procedural knowledge

You will not find grammar or vocabulary in this book. Yet, you will find declarative knowledge. Model sentences (e.g. paraphrased sentences), model paragraphs (e.g. introductions or body paragraphs with evidence) and model research papers fill the book, along with explanations of the why and how of writing techniques, style choices, APA citation formulae, etc. Will this translate into procedural knowledge? Possibly, but the book does not make the assumption that a little practice will lead students there. In fact, the book makes no assumption at all – it’s a book. Only the teacher can make such an assumption, and if they do, clearly they are wrong. The book is a guide, as is the teacher.

The point of the book is to give students a lot of writing practice (structured and free, with tons of teacher feedback) and a source of models and support for writing their own research papers. There is no guarantee that students will be able to complete this course and coursebook, toss it in the fire, and write beautiful research papers with nary a peek at some book or website to assist them. Then again, no course, coursebook, or teacher can promise that. (And even native speakers need help in writing these kinds of papers!) As Geoff has said, the link between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge is not clearly established, nor are the means to move between the two. So, there are few instances where we can guarantee that students internalize and automatize everything that is taught, whether they are in a grammar translation or dogme classroom. All we can do is provide meaningful practice, feedback, and revision – and pray that it works (spoiler: it often does).

2. Assumption: languages are learned by accumulating rules

There are no rules taught in this book, but there are skills, so this assumption could still apply to them. It begins with summarizing and paraphrasing, moving to researching, outlining, planning, writing, editing, etc. – what’s known as the writing process. Do these skills have to be learned in order to be a good writer? No. But, the skills do represent the usual order people take when they begin to write a research paper – perfect scaffolding for a fledgling university student. They read research, summarize and paraphrase it to better understand it, generate arguments, plan and draft, and finally revise their papers. If anything, the structure of this coursebook is simply following the natural writing process that most people – students and professors alike – go through. Nevertheless, the skills do kind of accumulate and culminate in some end product. Therefore, the assumption above is somewhat met. Here, writing skills accumulate in order to produce an end product. Does it devalue the book itself, the course, the teacher, or the skills learned? I highly doubt it.

3. Assumption: learners learn what they are taught when they are taught it

This book recycles over and over again the skills of the previous chapters. It is working on the assumption that you must constantly use all skills to write a research paper effectively. For example, in looking at body paragraphs and integrating evidence, one needs to not only find evidence to use, but decide whether to summarize or paraphrase it, and then figure out how to go about it. Clearly this is asking students to recall, re-apply, and recycle a fundamental writing skill (which may be why summarizing and paraphrasing were selected as one of the first chapters).

Beyond the coursebook, what will the students be writing in class? Will they write a single research paper and that’s it? Probably not. A good teacher would make sure students write multiple research papers, recalling, re-applying, and recycling all the writing skills they have learned while receiving support and feedback all the way. Unless students are truly only given the chance to practice these skills in a singular one-off fashion, this coursebook clearly does not meet the above assumption.


 

Contemporary Topics is a multi-level academic listening and speaking course (I believe they have 3 levels of books) that offers short 5-10 minute academic lectures (audio and video) as well as model study group student discussions (audio and video) to accompany vocabulary and listening skill building exercises, as well as group discussion techniques and presentation ideas. Each unit represents common academic courses that students will likely encounter (e.g. science, psychology, linguistics, anthropology). Each unit also follows the same structure, which, in truth can be a bit dull. However, the best thing about this book is that its sparseness and brevity of activities, which leaves it wide open for deeper exploration, adaptation, and supplementation. I believe this book was left intentionally sparse, knowing that the teacher will teach what students need to know in terms of grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary etc. It is up to the students and the teacher to explore the language – the book just gives a source for academic listening. However, it is still a coursebook, so how does it fare under the assumptions?

1. Assumption: declarative knowledge leads to procedural knowledge

There is no declarative knowledge being taught in this book. There are no grammar rules or pronunciation points. No why or hows here. Just some vocab exposure and listening practice – lots of it. Maybe one can argue that this book makes the assumption that hearing vocabulary will lead to true mastery of that vocabulary? If it does, that assumption, of course, is incorrect. However, I believe it is working on the assumption that multiple exposures to vocabulary through reading, writing, listening and speaking help cement vocabulary. I believe this because the vocabulary is presented in these different modes, and it is recycled throughout the book.

2. Assumption: languages are learned by accumulating rules

There are no rules in this book. Nothing gets accumulated. I’m not even sure that the lectures get lexically or structurally more complex – they all seem to be at the same level of difficulty. This book is operating under the assumption that listening needs to be at an appropriate level and improving listening requires motivating listening texts and repeated exposures.

3. Assumption: learners learn what they are taught when they are taught it

This book explicitly teaches one listening strategy and one speaking strategy for each unit. For example, it may teach that keywords that speakers use for defining words or concepts (“that is,” “or,” “in other words”), and it may teach phrases for disagreeing. These are discrete skills in an otherwise holistic coursebook. However, these are secondary to the listening practice. And the listening practice affords multiple chances to recycle this knowledge. Does this book fall victim to this assumption? I’m not sure. However, I know that when I use this book, I never assume students have learned the discrete skills, so we are constantly reviewing and recycling. I also never assume the two suggested listenings are enough for the students. I get students to listen many times, to the whole lecture, to parts of the lecture, with subtitles, without subtitltes, in-class with discussions or at home for homework – we do lots of different activities that go beyond the textbook.


 

I’ve presented my two favorite coursebooks to show that Geoff’s arguments, while valid, do not apply to all textbooks. The textbooks listed above are far from perfect. No textbook is, just as no teacher, class, or student is perfect. One could argue that the textbooks I presented here are not the type of coursebooks we often refer to when making these argument. But, then, what kinds of coursebooks are we referring to? You’ll find that there is no categorical coursebook that can be argued against, and by constantly changing the parameters of what a coursebook is or isn’t, we may have slipped into a No True Scotsman fallacy.

As you read in my examples above, I never divorced the textbook from the teacher. This is because there is more to what goes on in a language class than the textbook. Teacher agency in terms of following, not-following, utilizing, supplementing and/or adapting a textbook is very important. Student agency is of equal importance. Geoff’s arguments hold up much better if they are applied to teaching in general and not to the specific tools that the teacher uses.

And, it should be obvious to all by now that there is no one correct way to teach a language. Textbook, no textbook, CLT, TBL, dogme, learning styles, data-driven learning, explicit, implicit, grammar, communication – all these are minor variables in a very complex process that we can only seem to make educated guesses at. Out of all the factors that affect teaching the most, time and time again teacher plausability seems to have one of the greatest effects. I highly recommend reading this article by NS Prabhu to learn more about teacher plausability and why there is no best teaching method.

Five Cool Online Reading Tools

UPDATE: After writing this, my suspicions that readability tests were flawed have been confirmed. Take the data I present regarding reading levels with a tiny grain of salt!

Reading instruction has been a slowly blossoming interest for me. In particular, reading news and current events, as these articles seem to be more pertinent, interesting and up-to-date than what is usually found in most coursebooks. I teach a reading course once per term and am always trying some new ideas, source, technique or website. I have also written about reading online before (using Flipboard – something I still haven’t tried) and throughout the terms I have been collecting useful websites and tools that I have used or played with to varying degrees. Below, I detail five interesting and useful websites that I think all teachers should know about: Breaking News English, News in Levels, Newsela, Actively Learn, and Social Book.

The first three websites in this list feature graded articles – articles written at varying levels of difficulty but still on the same core story (typically, current events). For each website, I have provided some example readability scores of their articles. Readability scores are based on a formula which analyzes the number of sentences, words, and syllables in a text to determine how difficult it is to read. Of course, these scores don’t look at lexical complexity per se, but multisyllabic words tend to be more lexically complex than monosyllabic words. In addition, these tests seem to have stood the test of time, so I’ll use them as a general guide for judging what texts might be appropriate for your students.

Below, I use three different scores. First, I use the McAlpine EFLAW score, which is meant to judge readability on a scale from “very easy” to “very confusing” (note: I used this VBS script to analyze the texts for this score). Then, I used the wonderfully simple Readability Score website to determine the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score (the lower the score, the easier it is out of 100) and the average grade level this text would be suitable for (for native speakers of English; this is an average of several different readability tests).

The scores I report below are a simple web analysis of single texts, but I think they do give you some good insight into what may be suitable for your students. However, be careful. Some scores came back as “very easy” while my pre-university students (intermediate and above) would have struggled with them.

Happy reading!


 

1. Breaking News English

breakingnewsstories

Summary: Breaking News English is an excellent source for graded current events. It is updated several times per week and offers a range of reading and listening input and activities. News from popular sites such as CNN, BBC, etc are aggregated and rewritten into two paragraphs at differing levels of difficulty, from Level 0 (roughly beginner) to Level 6 (roughly upper intermediate). Most news stories offer levels 1-3 or 4-6 while some offer all the levels. Each news article often comes with an audio version of the story which can be listened to at varying speeds (slow, fast, fastest) and accents (RP, GA).

In addition to the news stories themselves, there are a range of activities that are produced to coincide with the story. These include gap-fills, fill in the blanks, comprehension questions, etc. What’s amazing about this site is the sheer number of activities, which, unless the creator of BreakingNewsEnglish never sleeps, must be computer generated; yet, they look like they were actually made by humans, including the audio!

breakingnewsstories-activities

Readability

Article Level EFLAW Readability Score Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Average Grade Level
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 0 16 (very easy) 76.6 6.0
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 1 20.1 (very easy) 73.8 7.1
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 2 21.1 (quite easy) 75.3 7.4
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 3 26.3 (a little difficult) 69.1 8.8
“Aid Struggling to Reach Needy in Nepal” 4 12.0 (very easy) 69.8 7.1
“Aid Struggling to Reach Needy in Nepal” 5  15.3 (very easy) 64.6 8.5
“Aid Struggling to Reach Needy in Nepal” 6 22.9 (quite easy) 56.7 10.5

Practicality: The stories are always current and always interesting, but they may pose a challenge for beginners and may not pose a challenge for upper level students. Thankfully, sources of the stories are always given, so you can easily find the original articles and adapt them to your needs. The activities that come along with these stories seem to be computer generated and are almost the same for each story. Each story starts with the same type of “walk around and talk” warm-up and follows through with a similar format. Online activities include filling in missing letters, and reading the news as it scrolls at a set speed. Lots of activities are offered, but don’t seem to be that meaningful, bordering on useless. Any teacher who follows these activities to the T risks boring their students to death.

breakingnewsstories-activities-warmup

Bottom Line: This site is very useful for finding graded content about current events, but it will probably serve the teacher well to make their own activities.


2. News in Levels

newsinlevels

Summary: News in Levels is similar to Breaking News English in that it offers the same news story in several different levels, here ranging from 1 (high beginner) to 3 (intermediate). Each text is quite short – no more than a few paragraphs. The site also offers audio for each news article, with Level 3 audio/video being taken mostly from On Demand News, formerly ITN News. The sources for the texts also come from here, with Level 3 being the original text. News in Levels includes an extra paragraph at the end of each story to define difficult vocabulary. Some articles offer comprehension questions or further activities, though not all of them do so.

newsinlevels-diffwords

Readability

Article Level EFLAW Readability Score Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Average Grade Level
“Old Bombs in Germany” 1 7.4 (very easy) 86.7 3.8
“Old Bombs in Germany” 2 19.4 (very easy) 83.4 5.7
“Old Bombs in Germany” 3 26.5 (a little difficult) 65.7 9.3

 

Practicality: While News in Levels offers a range newsinlevels-vidof news articles, the range of difficulty is quite limited. In addition, while Level 3 is authentic in that it is the original article, it is quite short. Likewise, while Level 3 audio is authentic, Level 1 and 2 are spoken at such a slow speed that it is only useful for beginners and lower proficiency students.

Bottom Line: News in Levels is useful at the lower-levels of reading and listening, but does not pose a challenge for higher levels, and it may not be suited for those wishing to have a more academic focus.


3. Newsela

Newsela

Newsela-levels-activitiesSummary: Newsela offers graded news events at more advanced levels. Unlike Breaking News English and News in Levels, this website was not designed for English language learners; rather, it was designed for native English speaking students. Articles are considerably longer, each being broken into five levels, from 6th to 12th grade (US). Many of the articles often come with quiz questions and writing prompts, both of which are supposed to be Common Core alligned . Newsela requires users to sign-up (free) and log-in to access its articles and services. Teachers can assign and mark these with a Newsela PRO account (not free). Newsela PRO users have a range of tools to manage classes, give assignments, highlight and leave notes on articles, and so on.

Readability

Article Level EFLAW Readability Score Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Average Grade Level
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 650L 12.8 (very easy) 77.6 6.2
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 930L 17.6 (very easy) 69.4 8.1
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 1040L  10.4 (very easy)  61.1  9.5
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 1220L  25.3 (quite easy)  54.9  10.9
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” MAX  29.5 (very confusing)  51.3  12.3

Practicality: Newsela’s articles seem suitable for intermediate upper-level students or students with a more academic focus. They seem to work great as a graded source of materials that still pose a challenge. However, the great power of Newsela is in its teacher’s tools, which are, unfortunately, quite expensive.

newsela-offers

Bottom Line: Unless you work in a school that can afford the price and will heavily utilize Newsela for all students, this website is only useful as a source of graded current events for which the teacher can adapt offline.


4. Actively Learn

active  

active-teacher menuSummary: Actively Learn offers a different experience when compared to the other websites. One function of Actively Learn is content curation: you can select text from their catalog or upload any text (e.g. an article from CNN, Newsela, Breaking News, or the Journal of Hyperbolic Topography – or even books) and then distribute this article to a class (or individual students) along with directions, teacher notes, and quiz questions (multiple choice and short answer). In addition, from the student’s point of view, double clicking on any word will bring up a definition or highlighting text will allow them to write notes which can be shared with the class. They can also highlight a sentence and choose “I don’t understand it”, which notifies the teacher that a student needs help. Any quiz questions students answer can be seen, graded and commented on by the teacher. Students and teachers have the ability to track progress as well. All of this is with the free account. The paid account offers more collaboration and the ability to use Google Docs. This is now free, too!

active-teacher-tool active-ss-tool
Teacher View Student View

Practicality: Because you can choose any content (graded or not), annotate the text for students, and then draft comprehension questions, this seems like an excellent site for students who will be reading longer, more advanced texts. The free version should suffice for most teacher’s needs.

Bottom Line: I admittedly have limited experience with Actively Learn, but so far it seems to be an excellent website for getting students to work with longer texts outside of class.


5. Socialbook

sb

Summary: And now time for something different: Live Margin’s Socialbook. The first time I heard about Socialbook was from the Professor Hacker blog detailing using this website for film analysis with its video annotation tool. Radically different from the websites listed above, Socialbook allows you to upload a locally saved text (or video) which can then be distributed to classes in the form of Groups. Inside these groups, all have access to the text and may underline and add notes as they wish. The social aspect comes when you start replying to the notes, having active conversations in the margins and hence the name “Live Margin” and “Social Book”. If one wishes, notes can also be kept private.

sb-intext

Practicality: This website seems useful if you are doing a lot of reading outside of class (perhaps a book or a long article) and want to get students to discuss the reading before class (maybe you only meet two or three times a week). Any article or video would suffice, though it may be suitable for longer texts.

sb-book

Bottom Line: Probably not very useful for your average ELT class, keep this website in mind for larger projects in the future.

Learn Anything in 20 Hours

I have always had an interest in computers and design. AnthonyTeacher.com is essentially my programming playground. I have learned a lot of PHP, CSS, and more while building it. However, my knowledge of programming is neither deep nor diverse. I only know how to work with client-side languages. However, I want (and need) to learn more. I have been thinking about pursuing a post-bacc or master’s in computer science, or at the very least taking some of the wonderful open courses offered through MIT, UC Berkeley, and more (see bottom of post). Then, I read “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast” by Josh Kaufman. Despite its name, “The First 20 Hours” is not a scam or a fad learning program. It is based on science, including much of the science I have learned about while studying second language acquisition. He even cites linguist Stephen Krashen several times when discussing the difference between learning and acquisition. Learning is the explicit understanding of a skill through dedicated study. Acquisition is implicit internalization of a skill in context, through practice. For example, you can learn English grammar rules by studying conjugation charts, but knowing these rules won’t become automatic unless you practice them in context. It is in this contextualized practice that you begin to acquire (i.e. innately or implicitly learn) a skill. Discussing Krashen (and his monitor hypothesis) further, Kaufman states:

Learning helps you plan, edit, and correct yourself as you practice. That’s why learning is valuable. The trouble comes when we confuse learning with skill acquisition. If you want to acquire a new skill, you must practice it in context. Learning enhances practice, but it doesn’t replace it. If performance matters, learning alone is never enough.

“The First 20 Hours” offers practical advice on not mastering but becoming adequately good at a skill. It takes 10,000 hours to master a skill (or become fluent in a language). But it only takes around 20 hours to have a good grasp. What this requires is intelligent and dedicated practice. Through his research, he outlines 10 principles of skill acquisition:

  1. Choose a lovable project. – Do something you really want to learn.
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time. – Intense focus on one project or skill is important.
  3. Define your target performance level. – Create a realistic goal, which does not include the words “expert” or “master”.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills. – Learn the skills needed to complete your project.
  5. Obtain critical tools. – Get the tools before you start.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice. – Get rid of distractions, including mental and emotional ones.
  7. Make dedicated time for practice. – Ninety minutes each day, if possible.
  8. Create fast feedback loops. – This is needed to see how well you are performing.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts. – Pay attention to your time.
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed. – Try to get a lot done.
I liked his explanation of how 20 hours is a good benchmark for being decent at a skill. Being decent is a start. There is no need to start, but it is in these 20 hours that we can jump over the steep learning curve of knowing nothing to knowing enough to keep going. I’m sold.
Here’s a short list of everything I want to learn and why:
  • Computer Programming – creative output, job outlooks, coolness factor
    • Python – a programming useful for working with human languages
    • Android – to create useful and education-oriented apps on the most widespread and open platform
    • Ruby – dynamic application development, web apps
    • PHP, Javascript, responsive web design – for better-designed websites
  • The Cello – to make beautiful music like Apocalyptica or 2Cellos
  • Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – self-defense and fitness
  • French – because it is an interesting and beautiful language
  • Polish – because my wife and children speak it
  • Advanced linguistics (cognitive, computational) – because it is extremely interesting to me
  • Wilderness survival skills – because these will always come in handy
  • (I really thought my list would be longer)

Back to programming, this is where I will start with the 20-hour program. There are thousands of resources online on how to program. Kaufman himself has a chapter on programming with Ruby. Chris Wilson is also trying to learn Android in 20 hours. There are free videos, tutorials, and online courses. Where to start? I’m starting with the Introduction to Computer Science course offered by David Evans (University of Virginia) at Udacity because it introduces core concepts of CS while staying project-focused: we will learn Python by learning how to build a search engine. I’m going to start in a few weeks and you can follow my progress at http://20hourswithpython.tumblr.com. Here are some other useful resources for programming that I have come across. Check them out!

Review: Teaching Unplugged

I had been really looking forward to reading Teaching Unplugged (Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury, Delta Publishing, 2009). The idea of an unplugged teaching methodology- that is, a teaching methodology that does not use technology, or if it does, very minimally – is very appealing to me since I have a strong dependence on technology. I consistently use PowerPoint, YouTube, Google, smartphones, and this very site (to name a few examples) to try to enhance students’ learning experiences inside the classroom, as well as extend their learning outside the classroom. That being said, I feel one essential quality of a well-rounded teacher is to be able to teach in any environment, with minimal materials. Technology often fails, and it can often distract us from both content and real human interaction in the classroom, which is essential for learning.

In truth, both teachers and students enjoy using technology in the classroom, but it is nice to get a break from it. An over reliance on technology can lead to not only focusing on accoutrements extraneous to the what is being learned but also missing important interactions with the learners themselves. Therefore, I feel that being able to teach unplugged is a vital skill that all teachers should have.

What is Teaching Unplugged?

Enter Teaching Unplugged. Teaching Unplugged is based on the Dogme 95 film movement which tries to create films “based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology” (“Dogme 95”, 2013). Dogme ELT – the underlying philosophy of Teaching Unplugged – transforms these ideas for the language classroom. A Dogme ELT classroom sheds itself of coursebooks, materials, and technology while emphasizing a focus on the learners and the content they bring to the classroom, namely their lives. From this transformation, three core tenets arise: Dogme ELT is conversation-driven, materials-light, and focuses on emergent language. Dogme ELT is an extremely student-centered philosophy which shares much in common with task-based learning and communicative language teaching. Likewise, it is equally well rooted in theories of second language acquisition. That is, it is not simply an education fad but a sincere educational paradigm shift based on good research.

The Dogme 95 film movement bills itself as an avant-garde movement. Knowing this, I was expecting Teaching Unplugged to be similarly radical in its language teaching approaches. As I was reading this book, I kept wondering when the truly radical, transformative ideas would show up. They never did.

Good Teachers Already Do Dogme?

The ideas in Dogme ELT are nothing new. The book often refers to “Dogme moments” in which regular non-Dogme classes experience moments in which the focus is solely on the students and the teacher uses their students as a springboard to further language learning. These moments, according to the authors, have probably been experienced by all teachers at some point. Dogme ELT simply takes these moments as a starting point and runs with them.

The ideas, tips, and techniques in Teaching Unplugged are very common sense. For me, this was one of its downfalls. Many of the things it had to say about language teaching are things that I thought all good language teachers did. For example, personalization is a central theme in all Dogme ELT activities. But, don’t all good language teachers include personalization in their lessons? Sure, we don’t usually give the entire class period over to it, but every single lesson I teach allows for some personalization. I usually start the class with personal discussions so that students can relate to whatever topic we may be discussing, and I always have activities (especially at the end) that allow students to use whatever linguistic skills they covered to talk about themselves in some way. This is to ensure students are using language in meaningful contexts, a proven requisite for learning.

Dogme ELT is also very much against coursebooks. They see coursebooks, even those with the best of intentions, as never truly fitting the needs and interests of the courses. In addition, they feel teachers rely too much on these books. Hence, the idea of teaching to the book. But, I wonder how many teachers actually do every activity in the book without modification? How many teachers follow coursebooks as if they are the Bible? I believe any good teacher would skip, modify, adapt, and supplement activities to maximize learning and communication.

I’m not a coursebook apologist. I agree with almost everything they levee against coursebooks. Nonetheless, I think they have put too much emphasis on the role of the coursebook compared to the teacher and the students. After all, coursebooks are nothing but tools, and I think good teachers know this.

A typical Dogme ELT activity introduces a conversation-based task that is somehow connected to students lives. After the task, the lesson is built based on the language emerging from the users themselves. After the activity, the teacher highlights and expands upon the vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and other linguistic elements the learners used. A good teacher most likely already does this to some extent, though they probably don’t make it the major focus of the lesson. Here, I agree that non-Dogme teachers need to put more emphasis on emergent language, especially as a way to go beyond the linear nature of coursebook grammar and vocabulary and get to the multiple skills that need to be used for real communication..

Dogme as Disservice

The main area in which I strongly disagree is where Dogme ELT puts its strongest emphasis: an extreme student focus. As I said before, all good teachers allow for personalization. In fact, for young learners, personalization may be one of the best methods to follow. However, at higher levels and older ages, a sole focus on the personal may not just be a poor choice but may also be doing students a great disservice.

Students need to learn to talk about things other then themselves. That’s reality. We don’t just talk about our families, jobs, hobbies, and likes and dislikes. In fact, any good conversationalist knows not to talk about themselves for too long. In real life, we talk about a whole range of things that extend beyond the self: news, politics, the past, the future, the environment, justice, science, sports, philosophy. We can wait for these topics to naturally arise in the classroom, but we may be waiting forever. This may be especially true if students’ language abilities are limited. How much language can emerge when there is so little language to begin with? Similarly, how can anything but the personal emerge? Shouldn’t students be able to talk about more than themselves?

This kind of extreme student-centered teaching is called humanist English language teaching, or to be more specific: romantic humanist. Nick Gadd (1998) points out a number of downfalls of this approach:

Firstly, because it is based on a view of the English teacher’s role as a monitor and nurturer of the
student’s inner self which, while well established, is presumptuous and of doubtful value; secondly because it leads to the students being taught an inadequate number of registers of English, and thus hampers their progression towards independence as language users; and thirdly, taking a wider view, because a focus on the inner self as a source of learning does not encourage or permit the students’ intellectual and cognitive development. (p. 227)

A more apt quote that can directly be applied to Teaching Unplugged:

The problem is that so many of the activities proposed depend on the use of a register which is friendly, informal, even intimate, on the naive assumption that this kind of language is in some way more genuine. So students participate in discussions in which they interrogate each other about their habits, experiences, behaviour, personal histories, and hobbies; they write letters, diaries, poems, and stories. Amusing as these may be, they limit the students to being able to chat with friends and commune with themselves. (p. 229)

Essentially, while a humanist approach on the surface seems more meaningful and thus effective, it turns out that students are not being taught the language skills that are required for true second language communication. These types of skills are left to chance or not touched upon at all when the focus is solely on the students and their emergent language. Any number of coursebooks seem to take this approach. Thinking about the coursebooks I use, each one is essentially a guide to how to chat with friends, intermixed with grammar or language functions. Turning Teaching Unplugged on its head for a moment, it may serve one well to toss out these coursebooks not so much to unplug as to refocus back on students’ needs rather than there feelings.

Gadd recommends teaching students from a larger array of linguistic registers or discourses and focusing on more complex and critical language skills. I do not think his approach precludes one from being friendly or getting to know their students. Indeed, he embraces this type of rapport. Nor does it prevent one from using personalization (after all, the personal is one type of discourse, isn’t it?) in the classroom. In my opinion, a healthy mix of personalization and more external and critical linguistic discourse is needed. Unfortunately, Teaching Unplugged only offers the former.

Conclusion

Teaching Unplugged is a worthwhile book to read. It contains very useful, easily adaptable activities. In addition, it serves as motivation for connecting more with our students than we probably already do. Its focus on emergent language is perhaps its strongest point. Despite its limitations, all our classrooms need more “Dogme moments”. But, in the end, Dogme ELT represents what good teachers already do, taken to the extreme. If one truly wants to follow an avant-garde style of teaching, one that is a radical departure from the common approaches to ELT, Gadd’s arguments need to be taken to heart. I leave you with one final quote from Gadd’s article:

Moskowitz (1978: 4) asks ‘What greater knowledge can we give our students than knowledge of themselves?’, to which Atkinson (1989: 270) drily retorts: ‘Knowledge of the language we are teaching them, perhaps?’ (p. 226)

 

References

Gadd, N. (1998). Towards less humanistic English teaching. ELT Journal 52(3), 223-234.

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching unplugged: Dogme in English language teaching. DELTA Publishing.

Dogme 95. (2013, February 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:23, March 21, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dogme_95&oldid=539446140