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.

Dream Reader

This post is not about books or extensive reading, as the title and the image might imply. It is about another useful teaching/learning resource I’ve recently learned about and used in class. 
A few days ago, on his A new day, a new thingblog, David Harbinson shared a newly learned thing that had come to him via Mike Griffin’s blog. If you go to Mike’s blog, which I did today, you’ll find an interview with Neil Millington, a university teacher based in Japan, who, six months ago, co-set a website for English learners called  
After reading David’s post, nosey me immediately went to the website to see what it’s like. It reminded me of another website I like and use – News in Levels – so I decided to experiment with it a bit in the following lesson. This was on Friday and it was supposed to be a small class of only 10 students. Due to a flu epidemic, though, only 4 students finally turned up for that particular lesson, so the conditions were much more convenient for a language experiment I was up to. It turned out that four was actually a perfect number (but I believe it could work well with larger classes too). So, I’d like to tell you what I did with the website. Spoiler: it went really well. 
My students were pre-intermediate language learners aged 16 (3 boys and 1 girl). The lesson was in the morning and it was 45 minutes long. There are five categories on the site: Easy English, Interesting English, Fun English, Practical English and Academic English. For starters, I chose Fun English. I selected two audios which I thought everybody would be interested in: Minecraft – a PC game everybody knows and plays (or played in the past) and The Simpsons – an animated comedy TV show that is hugely popular over here in the Czech Republic. My plan was to exploit the two short texts to the full.
I projected the web page on the screen. I gave students some brief background information about what I was doing and why, we did some brainstorming, and I started with the first recording. I played the audio and asked Ss to answer the four simple questions that accompany the transcript (note: I had scrolled down the page so that Ss could not see the transcript while listening). The questions are very easy to answer; they serve as an introduction to the topic rather than as a listening/reading comprehension exercise. This is only to the good because it doesn’t put too much stress on Ss during the first encounter with the text. Then we checked the answers quickly as a class. I played the audio again; this time I let the kids follow the transcript. After that we looked at some useful expressions, especially collocations, and put them on the board. I removed the text and got Ss to retell (in pairs) what it said, in their own words, using the chunks on the board. I did the same with The Simpsons. 
I moved on to the next stage. I’m a big fan of Paul Nation’s Learning Vocabulary in Another Language and I love using some of the activities he suggests in this thick volume. So I projected the first text (Minecraft) on the screen again. I asked Ss to work in pairs. One student was sitting so that he faced the screen, the other one right opposite her partner. The one facing the screen was asked to read the text in this way: Look at the text and remember as much as possible (the amount doesn’t really matter – it can be two words up to a whole sentence). Then look at you partner and reproduce the bit you’ve just memorised. Then look at the screen again, memorise the next bit and tell your partner. Do the same with the rest of the text. It doesn’t matter if you only manage to memorise one word, but you must not look at the text and speak at the same time. You can only speak when you are looking at your partner. It is best if you only manage to move your eyes. Try not to move your head too much – it makes reading more difficult. 
This activity is called read-and-look-up and its value lies in the fact that the reader has to carry the words, phrases, or even sentences in his mind. The connection is not from the text to mouth but from text to brain, and then from brain to mouth (see this pdf for further info). 

The Ss then changed roles and worked the same way with the other text (The Simpsons). The final stage was something that I’d never done before but that I’d always wanted to try – simultaneous interpretation.  I asked the Ss to work as a class (which was actually a group of 4). The Ss were sitting in a circle, facing each other. I played the audio and asked them to take turns to translate the speech as the audio played. I only paused the audio when I wanted another student to take over. As the students were already familiar with the text, it made things much easier for them. However, I believe this technique helped them make more new brain connections because once again, they received language input which they had to retain in their memory for a short moment before letting it out – this time in their mother tongue. So it offered Ss an opportunity to work with L1 in a meaningful way. Needless to say, it was fun! 

I believe I managed to exploit the two short text/audios in a very effective way. Also, I gave my students a useful tip for an online resource which they can explore and use on their own. I wish there were more handy websites like this one. Hats off to those who take the time to create them and offer them for free!