Study Materials: LingQ

First in the series of looking at study materials is going to be LingQ. LingQ is the brainchild of Steve Kaufmann. Steve speaks a number of languages very well and the site is very much a mirror of his own preferred learning style, by self-admission. In short, if you can’t be bothered reading what I say about LingQ… visit, sign-up (it’s free), and try it out. It’s not going to be a waste of time… so enjoy the offerings in English, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, German, Swedish, Russian, Chinese and Japanese… and soon to come it looks like Korean. In long, I’ll say a bit more but I should start with a disclaimer saying that I don’t use LingQ to it’s full potential. I only use a few features of the site as I have my own learning style that works for me, and if it ain’t broke as they say. Anyway, I’m happy to use LingQ as a supplement to my own methods. Let’s start with the bad… I find LingQ a little slow at times; probably due to the high user number. I find LingQ a little cumbersome to navigate and use at times, but that’s probably due to my familiarity with the system. It’s online, so website downtime can mean learning downtime (although many things are available offline if you download them). Plus I’ve never seen LingQ down. A server crash could kill your learning database….. so could a harddrive crash at home…. or a small fire 😉 Now, let’s get on with the serious stuff. What is at LingQ… umm, what is at LingQ that I use: Texts, lots of multi-levelled, good quality texts. Audio, lots of multi-levelled, good quality audio. Confidence building graphs that tell you how much you have read, listened, etc. There are also a few other things at LingQ that I don’t make use of, such as: A form of flashcard system (the cards are called LingQs I believe… I could be wrong) – I prefer Anki as I can take it anywhere and it’s what I’m used to using. Tutoring service where you can speak with natives of your target language and receive a report detailing corrections – I use Skype conversations and if I want my speaking corrected I record the conversation to go over with a tutor or language exchange later. Have your writing corrected with a report – I use other sites such as Lang-8 for this. I’ve probably missed a few things, but like I say, I only use LingQ for a few features; it’s a supplement to my learning, not my entire learning. And as an added note, I...

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Teaching Culture

Culture in the classroom.. is this something that the students need or want? This argument can very much go both ways and much of it relies on what exactly your students want, but one model for the classroom isn’t likely to please everyone… as you’re not doubt aware. On the one hand we have the ongoing debates of English as an International Language (EIL) and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) being strictly language as a tool – devoid of culture… I’ll come back to this later. The other hand has the Native English Speaker (NES) as the teacher, and he relies greatly on emploring his students with his culture… Whether this is American, British, Australian, etc. depends on the NES’s origins of course. Typically, students enjoy learning about their teacher’s homeland and culture, and just how things are abroad in general because it seems to give them a sense of adventure. But will this serve them well in the future? Yes… if they are communicating with other speakers from those countries. Which brings me back to EIL/ELF devoid of culture. The idea is to implement a tool that can serve it’s users well in an international setting. This tool requires no need for cultural norms and understandings of the NES’s realm… but, the question remains, is culture integral to successful communication? I believe so… as behaving in a culturally acceptable way is above all else in many settings and can make or break a deal, so to speak. However, if our students are communicating in a tool that is devoid of culture and they basically just transfers their L1 norms across to the English tool, well… imagine the chaos. So, there is the question; which culture are they to acquire and how are they to acquire it? Perhaps the answer lies in cultural lectures in the classroom… not cultural lectures as the NES typically provides of their homeland, but cultural lectures in the worldly sense; a general liberal arts sense. If we have an ESP class that has the goal of communicating across North-East Asia in the medium of English, then we should perhaps attempt to provide cultural awareness and sensitivity to these respective cultures so our students are better equipped. Although, we have a conflict that may arise with this; the NES interpretation of the culture they are teaching and the reality of the culture may be on totally different planes. Again.. imagine the chaos. At the end of the day, where are we going with this? EIL/EFL is a great idea.. a great concept. But is it realistic if the NES is still the preferred teacher...

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Which Pronunciation?

I’m sure as language teachers that this thought goes through our head a fair bit. It’s not a difficult decision for most languages since there is the standard. And yes, while there are varying dialects and accents, there is typically the one golden standard that we can revert to. Let our students fall back on if they want to work their new tongue in a familiar and intelligible style. The problem here is that English doesn’t have this golden standard. There are just too many standards to count. The powerhouses are British English (BE) and General American English (GAE), with some others gaining popularity and credibility – Canadian English, Australian English, Irish English, and so on. On top of these we also have the concept of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) that has some momentum thanks to linguists. I believe that in the international community with international communication being the main objective that ELF is a fantastic notion, but there are still problems with it in design and implementation. Basically, ELF looks at removing those phonological features that if omitted don’t hamper intelligibility. Great right? Well, here’s the catch… do the students really want to learn this reduced variety of English? In a recent study I conducted (with Koreans as my focus group), I tried to find out from a sample of learners just what they wanted… The result? Overwhelmingly GAE for pronunciation. Next challenge… ‘Native’ models of English are supposedly difficult to understand… hence ELF being a notion of importance. However, what happened in this study? GAE was found to be the most intelligible to this sample as well. So.. a unanimous decision from my Korean sample. Irish English was the biggest surprise for me since it received quite high ratings for pronunciation desirability. Intelligibility was on par with BE and Korean English, which wasn’t so bad considering the majority of participants informed me that it was a totally unfamiliar sound to them. Something they had not heard before (or too often). But this poses the question… Since GAE is what is most familiar to English learners in Korea, then did it only return the number one position due to this familiarity? If given more exposure, will Irish English be the global standard of...

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L1 Tests, L2 Setting

I’m sure if you’ve been a teacher for any length of time you will have stumbled more than once at creating a valid and reliable test for your classroom. The question is, why are we always struggling along attempting to reinvent the wheel? Countless people before us have researched and implemented successful assessments for the classroom… the problem is, many of these are for the L1 setting. If you’re following me, I’m talking about tests like Informal Prose Inventory (IPI), Early Names and Names Tests, St Lucia Graded Word Reading Test and so on and so forth. Assuming you’re familiar with any of these then you’ll know they tend to focus on reading skill primarily. And correct me if I’m wrong… but our L2 students still read don’t they? So, why can’t we use them in our classroom and cut back on some preparation time? Well.. there’s not reason why you can’t… A minor tweak here and there, modify some of the data analysis and away you go… assessment in hand. Things like the Early Names and Names Tests don’t need to be touched. They focus on phonological awareness and give you an idea as to which areas of phonology are troubling your students. The St Lucia does something similar, but has the added bonus of assigning a reading age to your students. This in itself is nothing but a number… but let’s introduce the big daddy of the ones I mention above… IPI. Without a reading age or intimate knowledge of your students abilities, the IPI can become pretty invalid. The material will be too difficult or too simple and the whole process will be fruitless… but let’s assume you select something in the right atmosphere for your students… you have a winner. IPI is designed to be primarily a reading test. It is supposed to assess decoding skills, reading strategies, comprehension through question and answer… and also has a retell aspect that indirectly assesses speaking and structural awareness. …Now, let’s side step a little… you’re in a L2 classroom… how can you use IPI and what will it assess? Assuming your students are literate in their own L1 – which is likely in most instances …unless you’re teaching refugees, asylum seekers or similar – then we can ignore the area of decoding skills and reading strategies as metalinguistic transfer from their L1 should take care of this. Instead, the direct read aloud aspect can be used to analyse and assess phonological awareness. Something of use to monitor progress and development in earlier level learners that wish to improve (reduce) their accent. Comprehension Q&A covers some listening and...

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Needs Analysis

As a teacher it is ultimately up to us to decide what our students should be learning… but on the other hand, it’s also up to the student to let the their teachers know what they could be learning. This is where needs analysis comes into play. Teachers aren’t mind readers as much as we pretend to be and we will quite often need a kick in the right direction when it comes to understanding our students’ wants and needs. This is particularly the case when it comes to English for Specific Purpose (ESP) classes. It’s fine to teach engineering English, but which engineering? This is one of the things we need to find out and getting that information doesn’t need to be a complicated process. In fact, it’s as easy as providing your students with a questionnaire of sorts. Things like background information (college department, language experience, L1, how do you use English) act as a nice softener and can lead into language needs (technical reading, instructions, assignment writing, listening to presentations, discussion participation, etc) together with a self-assessment of their English abilities across the four skills (R, W, S, L) together vocabulary knowledge and grammatical understanding. The final section could include how they want materials and classes to be presented. This is something of a formal questionnaire in effect and can be somewhat leading in the answers you receive… so perhaps the better option? A blank sheet of paper…. Just ask the students to write a short paragraph about their background, language ability and what areas they want to improve. This has the added bonus of giving you some direct feedback on their actual language level as well. From this feedback it’s possible to perceive which directions the class should be heading in and how the existing syllabus can be tailored to suit this classes specific needs. And voila… everyone should be a happy camper by and large. (If you want to take it a little further, you can focus a bit more on the students’ learning styles and look at people like Gardner and his Multiple Intelligences – which I will write about...

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Zone Of Proximal Development

The Zone of Proximal Development is a concept that was introduced by Lev Vygotsky and is still one of the foundations for educational development together with Piagetian theory. I’m personally a big fan of the Zone of Proximal Development and it’s little brother, scaffolding. Whether this is teacher-initiated or self-guided scaffolding it doesn’t matter… finding your own zone or the zone for your students is integral. Much as Krashen’s Input Hypotheses focuses on comprehensible input, the Zone of Proximal Development has this same notion at it’s core. As an approximation, if you can understand 90-95% of something, you are in your ideal zone. And even though Vygotsky’s idea is typically aimed at the education field globally, it’s pretty ideal for the language setting. There is a focus on language and understanding… which is fundamentally what language is about right? …understanding? …Vygotsky’s biggest critics point at his stress of language in relation to understanding, but how do we understand without language? (even observing actions is language right? …body language… and you still need to understand it to learn…) So take the Zone of Proximal Development and apply it to your setting… You are likely to already do it even if you aren’t aware of it. If you’re a teacher, you typically tailor your language usage to your students – aiming for comprehensible input… If you’re a student, you typically select material that challenges you but isn’t beyond your ability or too easy. I would hazard a guess that without actually being aware of the theory, you are selecting things that are somewhere approaching the 90% mark… maybe 85%? I find that as a motivated language learner, people are capable of pushing the boundaries of the Zone of Proximal Development. They will gain benefit from materials that are below their proximal zone by Vygotsky’s definition. Not because it’s ideal, but because they have concrete goals that they are aware of. Material which you have 85% comprehension of is going to improve your language ability… but will it improve your ability as much as material you have 90% comprehension of? This is an interesting question… In my opinion, I do think that Vygotsky’s boundaries can be stretched a little further in the language learning setting; mainly because the aim is language and not a secondary topic through language. In the language classroom it may be worth considering that if you do select materials that your students have a 90-95% understanding of, they may in fact become bored becase they consider it too easy… it’s a fine balancing act. And at the end of the day, experiment… you will find the level that certain...

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