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:


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.


This will give you the following tab:


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.


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!


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!

7 Techniques for Mining Vocabulary

Update: since writing this, I have learned of a few new tools that I have yet to try out. They are listed at the end of the post.

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.


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:


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.


Unorganized Text from Vocab Grabber


Sorted by frequency, words from list 4


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.

New Tools

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

My Favorite EAP Resources

Taking some inspiration from Joanna Malefaki, I thought I’d share some of my favorite EAP resources. I’ll list my most used resource for each of the functions below. Feel free to share your resources that you use in the comments!

For texts

For journalism-style texts, which have broad usage in EAP, I use Newsela. Newsela offers many free and paid services, but most of all I use them as a source of graded current event texts. You can find a single article written at four or more different language difficulties, and the original article (“Max” level) is always included.

For videos

TED Talk has enough videos to appeal to anyone and they are easily exploitable for a range of functions.

For listening practice

It’s hard to list only one, but I’ll start with Randall’s ESL Lab, which offers listenings at a range of levels, and includes short academic lectures. More listening sources are here.

For citations

I show students how to use bibme.org to make their citation life easier.

For looking up definitions

My favorite online dictionary has always been Webster’s Learners Dictionary because of the simple explanations of vocabulary. You don’t want to be bogged down with difficult vocabulary when you are looking up the meaning of difficult vocabulary, do you?

For teaching and learning vocabulary

Hands down, Quizlet is the go to tool for teaching and learning vocabulary. I use it personally for things I am studying, and I know my students love using it too. I can’t say enough good things about Quizlet! Check out their new “Gravity” game – it’s really fun.

For using academic phrases

I often use or direct students to use the Academic Phrasebank, which is a quite comprehensive list academic language use patterns.

For checking linguistic hunches

There are many corpora I use to check my linguistic hunches. The one I rely on the most for quick, in class checks is Netspeak, which offers a simple Google-like search interface with very simple search language. However, I’ve found many instances of the same text represented in their corpus, so I wouldn’t trust them with anything more than basic pattern checking.

For finding comprehensive grammar information

I love using Grammar-Quizzes.com, which offers great examples, explanation, and most of all – quizzes, for a variety of different grammar points. This is a great resource to adapt or supplement with.

For professional development

It’s a toss up between Twitter and Google Scholar!


Audio Diaries for Improved Spoken Proficiency

Note: This post is a modified version of the presentation I gave at SETESOL 2015 in New Orleans and GATESOL IEP Mini-Conference in Atlanta.

Quick Links

Accuracy and Fluency

I’ve met a lot of students who are fluent. English just flows out of them. They can express their thoughts clearly and succinctly with minimal communication problems. These are the end results most of our students strive for. I’ve also met a lot of students who were fluent at English, but what they think they are expressing as clear and succinct comes out is more of a word salad or garbled mess which takes time to piece together into resembling meaning. There are still others who can speak fluently, that is with ease of flow and at a decent pace, but with such simplicity in their spoken linguistic structures that find yourself comparing them to the way Native American speech have been represented in the media.

I’ve met these kinds of students all around the world. There is nothing wrong with them. They have just achieved fluency before accuracy. Some would argue this is a good thing. However, I think other conclusions can be drawn from this phenomenon:

  • Fluency is easier to obtain than accuracy.
  • Fluency is likely learned incidentally through our classroom activities and natural communication settings.
  • We might be focusing too much on fluency at the expense of accuracy.

Oral Corrective Feedback

So, like any good teacher, about a year or two ago I did some research on the subject. My research led me to Roy Lyster and his (and his co-authors’) research on oral corrective feedback as one pathway to improving accuracy. Feedback made such logical sense to me that I consumed the research with fervor. I was intrigued by feedback because it made me realize how I not only needed but craved feedback when I studied martial arts. I needed to hear from instructors and other students what was right and what needed to be adjustment. Correct, feedback-laden practice would hopefully lead to automaticity. Oral corrective feedback contains the same ideas.

I have already written about feedback here, but to summarize:

  • There are many different types of feedback.
  • Prompt-based feedback (elicitation, clarification, explicit correction, metalinguistic cues) as well as recasts seems to have a moderate to large effect on students language.
  • Feedback is useful for grammar, lexis, and pronunciation, with the latter two possibly having the larger improvements.
  • Feedback has an important counterpart: update – what students do with feedback, such as repairing their utterances or ignoring the mistake.
  • Uptake is extremely important in the feedback cycle.
  • There are numerous ways to deliver feedback: face to face, written, computer-mediated, and delayed. There is not much research about delayed feedback, but according to Quinn (2014), it seems just as effective.

Feedback is important. There is no doubt about that. The problem is time. It is very rare to be able to deliver enough effective and principled feedback to students in a classroom, especially when class sizes dip into double digits. Feedback is great, but difficult to deliver.

Extensive Speaking

Around the same time I was reading Lyster, I attended an interesting workshop at the 2014 National KOTESOL conference. The workshop was by Sarah Gu and it was on “Extensive Speaking“. Extensive speaking is based on principles behind extensive reading. Gu did simple but rather interesting research to test her ideas on extensive speaking. Here is a simple breakdown of the study:

  • Korean university students split into two groups:
    • Extensive Speaking group
      • 1-3 minute daily recorded monologues every school day for 6 weeks
      • non-linguistic “general” feedback given
    • Control group
      • no recorded monologues
  • Initial and final monologues were recorded of all students (control and extensive speaking)
  • Recordings were analyzed for proficiency based on the OPI rubric
  • Results: Extensive speaking group’s OPI scores had significant increases compared to control

Audio Diaries

My research on corrective feedback and my attendance at this workshop occurred around the same time and coalesced into an idea that I call Audio Diaries. The concept of Audio Diaries is actually quite simple. Students record something (on or off topic, with or without using target vocabulary or language structures). Students are then given feedback on their grammatical, lexical, and phonological errors. Finally, students re-record the same exact monologue, but this time, they must address their errors. In this way, students are getting delayed corrective feedback and forced uptake of feedback, in addition to raising their noticing and metacognitive skills. They are also getting individual attention, targeted practice in their “weak” areas, and more opportunities for speaking without the pressures of speaking in class.

Aside form typical complaints about too much homework, students seem to enjoy Audio Diaries. They enjoy the feedback and being able to have another chance to express their thoughts in a clearer way. In addition, by listening more closely to individuals I am better able to pinpoint and help them with their weaknesses in and out of class. Likewise, I am better able to notice persistent and common patterns and address them in class.

Several terms ago, I did a small experiment. I transcribed all initial and final recordings of my students (about 10) and analyzed the transcripts to for errors in grammar, lexis, and pronunciation. I also measured sentence complexity. In my small pseudo-experiment, the data showed some small increases to all areas. This was only after 8 weeks of class and 5 or 6 Audio Diary cycles. While not empirical evidence, this does suggest that I am heading in the right direction.

How to Do Audio Diaries

To complete Audio Diaries, I have my students use SoundCloud (see here for a SoundCloud / Audio Diary tutorial). SoundCloud is a social music site that offers the unique feature of allowing users to leave comments on audio files. The files appear both on the track’s wave form and in the track’s comment area. It is perfect for quickly and easily accessing and giving feedback.

This term, a typical Audio Diary cycle looks like this:

  • Monday – assign topic (always related to the unit, sometimes including new vocabulary). Students must record for 2-3 minutes. The first recording of the cycle is called “Audio Diary 1.1”. This means week one, attempt one. Students usually record using their smartphones, but they can also record through the SoundCloud website.
  • Tuesday-Thursday – I access their tracks through a private playlist they have shared. Students always upload to this playlist, so I only need to be emailed once to share the initial playlist. No further emails are necessary. Somewhere between Tuesday and Thursday, I listen to their recordings and leave feedback. My feedback may be explicit corrections, metalinguistic clues, or other types of corrective feedback. My pronunciation corrections always link to Forvo.com.
  • Friday – students look at my comments, listen to their track, practice the corrections, and then re-record. This track is named “Audio Diary 1.2” – week one, attempt 2.

Using SoundCloud is my own preference, but there is a small learning curve for students. However, after an cycle, most students have no problems using SoundCloud. Most problems occur because students forget their passwords. SoundCloud is not the only option. Classic email can be used, with the recordings being attached and the feedback being given in the body of the email. If this is done, it would be very important to include the time (in seconds or minutes) that the error occurred). This could also be done through BlackBoard, Google Classroom, Moodle, or any other LMS. The medium is not important. What is important is the record-feedback-re-record cycle.

Audio Diary Adaptation and Assessment

And Audio Diaries need not be once per week. That is just how the schedule worked out this term. They could also be done daily (which requires a bit more work on the part of the teacher) or semi-weekly. Students can record about any topic they wish (more inline with extensive speaking and reading) or the topic can be related to the unit. I also had students extend classroom discussions into Audio Diaries by summarizing and discussing the ideas they talked about in class. They can be recorded for any length of time: one minute for low-level students or five minutes for advanced students. You could also use this format to practice natural speech, reading aloud (for pronunciation, thought groups, intonation) or even presentation practice. There are many ways Audio Diaries can be changed to suit any context.

Another adaptation I have done was to have students keep an error diary of their mistakes and changes. I found this useful as it forced students to catalog their errors and not only orally produce correct utterances but do so in written form two. This could lead to increased noticing and uptake. For higher-level students, the first time I did Audio Diaries, I had students record themselves on Monday (1.1), then listen to themselves and try to find their own mistakes, re-recording on Wednesday (1.2) for me to comment on, leading to a final re-recording on Friday (1.3). Even for higher-level students, finding their own errors was difficult but the process of listening to themselves talk was very enlightening. Students became more aware of their speech, voice, fluency, and grammar.

In terms of assessment, I currently asses audio diaries on two dimensions: completion and effort. For completion, each Audio Diary is worth several points, part of a much larger point scheme. For improvement, I choose three audio diaries randomly and check both the x.1 and x.2 version to see how well they incorporated my feedback. You could also assess students on improvement by scoring each Audio Diary on a rubric, or you could do a sort of pre-test/post-test speaking assessment to measure the number of errors and look at overall improvement.


In summary, Audio Diaries is a small project that aims to give more feedback and attention to individual students in the hopes of improving their overall accuracy and proficiency. Audio Diaries consist of a simple cycle of students recording themselves speaking naturally for a short period of time, the teacher giving specific feedback on errors, and then the students re-recording themselves following the teacher’s feedback. Audio Diaries can be adapted to suit any level, goal, and almost any level of technology as well.

It is my hope that Audio Diaries gives teachers another method through which they can help their students best reach their English language goals.


Gu, S. & Reynolds, E.D. (2013). Imagining extensive speaking for Korean EFL. Modern English Education 14(4). 81-108. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/6088981/

Li, S. (2010). The Effectiveness of Corrective Feedback in SLA: A Meta‐Analysis. Language Learning60(2), 309-365.

Lyster, R. (2013). Roles for Corrective Feedback in Second Language Instruction. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics.

Lyster, R., & Ranta, L. (1997). Corrective feedback and learner uptake. Studies in second language acquisition19(01), 37-66. Retrieved from http://hyxy.nankai.edu.cn/jingpinke/

Lyster, R., & Saito, K. (2010). Oral feedback in classroom SLA. Studies in Second Language Acquisition32(02), 265-302. Retrieve from http://personnel.mcgill.ca/files/

Lyster, R., Saito, K., & Sato, M. (2013). Oral corrective feedback in second language classrooms. Language Teaching46(01), 1-40. Retrieved from http://people.mcgill.ca/files/roy.lyster/

Quinn, P. (2014). Delayed Versus Immediate Corrective Feedback on Orally Produced Passive Errors in English (Doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto). Retrieved from https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/65728/1/

Sheen, Y. (2010). Differential effects of oral and written corrective feedback in the ESL classroom. Studies in Second Language Acquisition32(02), 203-234.

Yang, Y., & Lyster, R. (2010). Effects of form-focused practice and feedback on Chinese EFL learners’acquisition of regular and irregular past tense forms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition32(02), 235-263. Retrieved from http://personnel.mcgill.ca/files/

Listening Journals: Redux

Listening Journals are a project/concept I have been toying with for the past few years and have been putting into practice into all my listening classes. I have presented the idea to colleagues in numerous settings and the ideas have been well received.

The basic premise is that students need both extensive and intensive listening practice. Extensive listening practice involves students listening to interesting, enjoyable and meaningful listening texts at or around their level. Intensive listening practice, in terms of listening journals, is exploiting these texts to practice important bottom-up listening skills (e.g. decoding). The journals in their various permutations set students on weekly or daily listening tasks that involve both aspects of listening while giving them a space for metacognitive reflection.

I still enjoy the idea, and my students have derived great benefits from it, but in my mind, it had become stagnant and disorganized as I had applied it in my classrooms. After talking with a colleague, I decided to restructure and simplify the format of it as a way to make it easier for students to complete and easier for me to assess. In addition, I think this idea makes it easier for other teachers to adapt.

For this redux – this re-visitation to my idea – I designed an actual printed journal (you can download it below) for my students that contained the template structure of the journals, as well as the possible listening sources they could choose from (chosen to be appropriate for their level).

Here is an overview of how the journal works. Parts one and two cover the extensive listening experience. Part three represents the intensive practice while part four is for reflection.

1. For each journal entry, students need to visit one of the websites below and choose something interesting to listen to.

The following websites I found suitable for intermediate to upper-intermediate level students. My listening resources page certainly has more sites for a range of levels.

      1. www.esl-lab.com
      2. www.newsinlevels.com
      3. learningenglish.voanews.com
      4. www.spotlightenglish.com
      5. www.youtube.com/storycorps (advanced)
      6. www.ted.com (advanced)

2. Students should listen as many times as they want, focusing on understanding the main ideas and details. If students want to, they can preview the script in order to deal with any unknown or problematic vocabulary. After reading the script, students are to provide a short response. A response means a response to the context of the listening text such as a short opinion or an explanation of what they learned. A response is not a summary, though a summary is acceptable if that is one of your class goals.

3. Students now use the text to complete intensive listening activities. One of the websites listed above (www.esl-lab.com) already contains activities on most of their listenings (quizzes and gap-fills). The other websites do not, but all contain the transcript. I have demonstrated to students how to take the transcript and produce an interactive gap-fill with a simple online tool. I focus on gap-fill activities because they require students to practice their decoding skills, focusing on processing sounds to hear distinct words and therefore better training their ears for listening. Other activities such as transcription or note-taking can also be used.

Furthermore, I have students write down new vocabulary as part of their activities. Among the various difficulties with listening (decoding, accent, speed, linked words, stress, etc.), vocabulary is often considered hindrance to understanding. Building their vocabularies is an important part of the listening experience.

4. Finally, I have created a simple form for students to reflect on their listening experience and skills. I used to use a more complicated series of questions for this section, but due to the level and student feedback, I have reduced my emphasis on this area. Still, it is an important area. Students need to be able to judge their listening skills, including their strengths or weaknesses. This allows them to find tune their future listening practice. Although I provide a simple form, students still need to be instructed on how to complete it and the reasons behind it.

In implementation, I have set this to be an independent project that needs to be completed throughout the term. I have set a specific number of journals as the goal (20) and have set three collection dates to assess student’s progress. This gives the students more autonomy in terms of completing them and makes assessing this project easier.

The purpose of this post was to explain my slimmed down version of one of my favorite and (in my opinion) most effective projects. I consider this Listening Journals 2.0. Below is the example journal as I have given it to the students. Feel free to download and adapt it as you see fit.

Listening Journals (Fall, 2015)

(Please note this file uses legal sized paper. It is printed double-sided as a “booklet” through the Adobe Acrobat print options.)

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


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!



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.


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


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.



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-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.


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.


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-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


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.


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.


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