Technology attacks

I had this feeling that apart from the fact that I was probably the only English teacher registered on Blogger, I was also the last person in the world who didn’t have a smartphone. The truth is that I had been thinking of getting one for ages, but at the same time, I had deliberately resisted the change. The thing is that I have a tendency to get addicted to gadgets of all sorts. I already had a laptop and an i-pad, after all, so I knew that when one of these were within easy reach, I couldn’t resist the temptation to constantly check e-mails, all the social media notifications, latest blog posts, etc. I realized all too well that having a smartphone meant having it at my disposal all the time, which, in consequence, meant I would constantly be tapping the shiny screen.

But I don’t live in a vacuum and I know I have to adjust from time to time. I remember that whenever I was about to take a picture with my good, old phone, my students would smile understandingly and they would automatically offer their phones. They didn’t want to believe that my Nokia was actually quite good at taking photos. Anyway, I always kindly refused their generosity and stubbornly used my old buddy.

But it’s not just my students who make me reconsider my attitudes. I remember an occasion when Shaun Wilden asked us participants of his workshop at IH Brno to take out our phones. I looked around and saw the embarrassed expressions on some teachers’ faces. Shaun reacted promptly, saying: “Don’t be ashamed. It doesn’t matter what type of phone you have. By the way, I know that teachers typically have the worst phones in the world”.

As I had used my phone in the lessons on a regular basis, for example, to take pictures of the board or to make videos of parts of the lessons, my students immediately noticed and appreciated the upgrade. The first picture I took with my smartphone in class was a drawing one of my students had done on the board (see above). I was so excited about the fact that a student had taken the effort to draw such a beautiful scribble that I wanted to share it. And I did. And I immediately realized the power of this cool mobile device.

Some say progress is optional, but I think it’s inevitable. It’s not about feeling concerned about the type of phone you have; it’s about keeping up with people around you – in this case, your students. Also, having a smartphone myself, I’ll be able to get familiar with all the yet unexplored ways of learning English. Take Instagram, for example; by using English hashtags and comments, your students can interact with people all around the world and practice the language in a meaningful, authentic way. The possibilities technology offers are infinite. Let’s start exploring …

Making lessons authentic via the use of corpora

In one of my previous posts, I talked about a simple way of using corpora in class. I truly believe that a corpus can be a handy tool for any language learner, but the size of a corpus, as well as its layout, usually appears daunting at first glance, especially to less proficient learners of English. There’s no need to ask your students to laboriously analyse L2 data from a huge corpus when they still struggle with the language itself. In other words, as corpora are collections of authentic language, I estimate that an average A2 learner will find the enormous amount of data and the level of the language somewhat off-putting. From a teacher’s point of view, one of the prerequisites of a successful corpus-based lesson is its simplicity; it’s sufficient to show one simple, practical thing at a go.

Let me give you an example. My intermediate students (B1-B2) need to practise various written genres. Last time they were asked to write a formal letter as a reply to a job advertisement. I normally stick to a very commonplace procedure: I collect the assignments and correct and grade them at home, using various colour codes and abbreviations. I select the most recurring errors from all the essays, and afterwards I give my students detailed feedback (I wrote about it in detail here). However, I’m convinced there is more you can do for your students’ language progress.

Here are a couple of excerpts from a student’s writing I’ve just corrected:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writting to apply for the post of a part-time job, which I saw on a billboard next to the hospital. 

………. I consider myself to be accommodating, hard-working and I am good in talking and playing with children. 

……. I am enclosing my CV.
……. I look forward to hearing from you. 

For starters, you can teach your students a very simple thing – how to check the frequency of certain phrases and how to look for alternatives. As you can see, my student had decided to use Dear Sir or Madam at the beginning of the letter. This is fine, but I can ask the class if they are familiar with other ways of addressing people in formal correspondence. Let’s first look at the student’s choice, namely at how frequent it is in comparison with other possibilities. Dear Sir or Madam got 7 hits in the British National Corpus.

I remember that when I was an intermediate learner myself, we were taught that we can also use a plural form, Dear Sirs or Madams. Let’s check what the BNC has to say …

The empty result may imply that this way of greeting people is pretty unnatural. When checking out other possibilities, you’ll come across an option that is more frequent than the other two above – Dear Sir/Madam (26 hits). However, although the corpus shows that this way of addressing people is quite common, it doesn’t say if it’s always the best option. It turns out that under certain circumstances, it is safer to opt for a different greeting.

Let’s have a look at another chunk from the student’s writing I find worth focusing on a bit: I am writing to [apply for]. Now, I’d zoom in on I am writing to …  The first question I would ask my students is: Apart from apply, what other verbs can follow? You can find out by looking at the right collocation candidates. You’ll get the following examples:

I am writing to confirm
I am writing to express….¨
I am writing to inform
I am writing to thank ….
I am writing to offer ….

You might want to work with the above chunks and ask your students to complete them with their own answers. What do we normally confirm/express? What preposition do we typically use with thank/inform? What can you offer? Alternatively or additionally, you can check the corpus again; by clicking on a few example sentences you can see what other users of English opted for.

There’s one more thing I’d definitely elaborate on in a follow-up lesson and that is the phrase: I consider myself …. You can let your student figure out for themselves that it’s possible to say I consider myself to be [adjective/noun] or just I consider myself [adjective/noun]. I believe that their own discovery will make the structures more memorable than if they just saw them in a grammar table in their coursebook. Encourage your students to only focus on the red parts of the sentences and their immediate surroundings. Although there are tons of other things you can do with the sample sentences, this is, for the time being, just enough for an intermediate learner of English.

What comes to mind now is a personalised speaking activity. What qualities would you ascribe to you/your friends/other members of your family? I consider myself/my best friend/my brother …

The activities I describe above constitute the base of a very authentic lesson, which draws on students’ own written production, as well as examples of writing of other users of English. Such a lesson elaborates on what students already know, plus it demonstrates how to work with a very useful online tool.

Apart from corpora, there are other tools that work in the same vein, such as FrazeIt, Just The Word, or Netspeak, which are probably more user-friendly since you don’t need to register for them. Needless to say, Google is the easiest and most accessible web-based tool for working with authentic language, and it comes in handy when one needs to look up something really quickly.