VocabKitchen determines reading text level

EFL teachers often ask me how they can be certain that a reading text they use in class or for an assessment has the right level for their pupils. Until a few months ago, I was also looking for a website or a tool that could help me out with this. But then, I discovered VocabKitchen, a tool I would like to share with you. It was developed by Jeremy Garner, former teacher and examiner, and now a developer in the USA.

Part of the VocabKitchen website is a so-called “vocabulary profiler”. You can access it on the right side of the site’s homepage, the blue part. Vocabulary profilers are tools that check if a text (or a part of it) contains words from a vocabulary list. VocabKitchen uses two different lists: the Academic Word List (AWL) and the  Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR – check post). The latter seems like the most interesting one to us teachers, since most curricula draw on the levels of the CEFR to define a language learner’s proficiency.

How does it work? Once you have clicked the CEFR-button, you get to a new page with a rectangular space. To determine your reading text level, you simply have to copy and paste it into that rectangle. By clicking the “profile” button you ask the tool to match the words in your text with the six main levels (A1 to C2) of the Common European Framework of Reference. You will get the result of this matching in two ways. Words in the original text are given a different colour-code according to their level, from blue for A1, green for A2, orange for B1, red for B2 to pink for C1 & 2.  You also get a list of all the words in some kind of table, organized by level. The picture shows an analysis of the first part of this blogpost. As you can see, most of the words fall in the A1 to B2 range, but you can also notice that some words are off-list. 

You can save the results of your text by pressing the Word icon on top of the web page. A dictionary is also at your disposal. If you doubleclick on a word, you will get a definition. This can be very handy, if you want to create a gloss for your reading text with all the words from the highest levels. This means VocabKitchen is not only suitable to check the level of a reading text. It can also help to identify which words in a text should be given more attention.

Oh, and before I forget, there is no need to register in order to use the CEFR profiler.

Dictogloss – a dictation with a twist

When I talk to EFL teachers and ask them whether they regularly use dictations in their courses, very often the answer is negative. They seem out-of-date and not really appealing to them and their pupils. However, there are some enjoyable variations to the old-style dictation. One of my favourites is the so-called “dictogloss” and it can be done at any age or language level.

The principle is easy: the teacher reads a text twice at a normal speed and the pupils are asked to reconstruct it. With the first listening, they are not allowed to jot anything down. While listening for a second time, they should note down a few keywords that will help them to rebuild the story. Afterwards, the pupils work together in pairs or small groups to produce their version of the text, as close to the original one as possible.

An essential thing with dictogloss is picking the right text. At first, it should not be more than just a paragraph, until the pupils become more accustomed to the activity or have developed their listening skills. The ideal transcript is at a language level slightly above that of the pupils and it could also be used to introduce or revise some vocabulary or grammatical items.

I find jokes to be first-rate dictogloss material. This is an example I have used in my teaching practice: “Eleven people were hanging under a helicopter on a rope. There were ten men and one woman. The rope wasn’t strong enough to carry them all, one person would have to let go. They were unable to decide, until the woman made a touching speech. She said she was used to give up everything for her husband, her children, her family. As soon as she had finished her speech, all the men started clapping.”

Now, why do I like dictogloss that much? First of all, it is easy for the teacher to prepare and set up. Moreover, it is a very effective language learning task: it requires pupils to listen, take notes, collaborate and talk (by working in pairs or groups), write and read (if they present their result orally). Next, dictogloss is the kind of mixed-ability activity that I like best. You can do it with the whole class, but by grouping less strong pupils with more confident peers, you are differentiating. Finally, pupils like this activity. They listen very attentively, like working together and are eager to check in how far their reconstructed version differs from the original one.

English initiation in a Flemish primary school

No, at this moment there is not really a lot of English language teaching and learning in the Flemish primary schools. And yet, since 1 September 2017, schools are allowed to introduce English (and even German, btw) as a formal subject to their pupils, at least if they master the L1, Dutch, rather well. To my knowledge, there aren’t any schools that do this. The same decree also provides the possibility to set up English language initiation programmes, even from a very early age. There is definitely one school that does this: VBS Duinen in the coastal town of Bredene.

I have recently had the chance to visit VBS Duinen and attend an English lesson in a mixed-level class; the pupils were aged 10 to 12 and they had very diverse backgrounds. Providing the English language initiation programme is part of the school’s policy to offer kids every possible chance to discover and develop their talents. In this respect, they also have a French language initiation programme in nursery school, cooking classes, STEM projects, etc.

The language initiation is taught by an MA in foreign languages, who was especially recruited for three periods a week. She is not really a primary teacher of the school; she normally works in a secondary school and does this initiation as an extra. The school board pays her with its own resources, quite an investment. This has of course to do with the fact that primary teacher trainees in Flanders don’t get any formal English classes (yet).

I have really enjoyed the lesson that I could attend. It was about “Father’s Day” and the ultimate goal was to create a paper tie for daddy, with all his good characteristics written on it in English. Pictures were used to present the adjectives, a memory game was played to practise them and, finally, the pupils could make their tie in the colour they had chosen (in English). The lesson was finished with an English YouTube song about dads and why we love them. What a great, fun and activating English initiation lesson this was. Pupils using English without being afraid to make mistakes, pupils using the Past Simple correctly without knowing what it is (“We made a flower for Mother’s Day”), if only formal English lessons in secondary schools could be like this.

The CEFR Companion Volume: beyond the four skills

At the IATEFL Conference in Brighton last April, I attended a session about the new Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) Companion Volume. This session was given by Tim Goodier, one of its authors. The work will be officially presented at a special conference in Strasbourg in the upcoming days and will surely have an influence on new language courses and curricula. One of the most striking things about this Companion Volume: it gets rid of the very traditional division of language into the so-called four skills.

The Common European Framework for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment (CEFR) was first released in 2001 after extended research that started in the 1960s and 70s. As a framework of reference, it was intended to guide people in language teaching and learning and help them qualify what “language proficiency” really meant. To do this, the framework used various levels (from A1 to C2) and described what people should be able to do with the language at one of these stages (the so-called “can do”-descriptor scales) for any of the four skills (listening, reading, writing, speaking). This common outline made it easier to set up standards (e.g. for assessment, course books, curricula) across Europe and even beyond.

Because the world has changed a lot since 2001, an update to the CEFR has now been released. So, what’s new? Well, in the Companion Volume some of the key aspects of the original CEFR have been updated to suit our current multicultural and technological society. In this respect some new descriptor scales have been written as well. Moreover, extra proficiency levels have been added to the original ones. The new scales start at a “pre-A1” level and also have A2+, B1+ and B2+ scales included now.

Most importantly, the Companion Volume replaces the “four skills model” (dating from 1961, by the way) with four modes of communication: reception, production, interaction and mediation, all of these four in both spoken and written form. Especially, the term “mediation” is quite new. As the term suggests, with mediation the language user is sort of “in the middle”. He is not concerned with expressing his own thoughts or meanings, he is some kind of “intermediary” between people who are not able to understand each other directly. So, the focus is on facilitating collaboration and interaction with others; it is about building bridges across an understanding gap that other people have. An example of this could be spoken translation of a written text (e.g. explaining the contents of a L1 poster to an L2 speaker).

This is where the concept of plurilingualism (or pluricultural competences) comes in, another new notion in the Companion Volume. For a long time, it was thought that using different languages together was confusing for the human brain. New research however has proven the opposite: it is highly beneficial for people to use different languages together to construct meaning. The fusing or blending of the different languages you know, can help you when communicating. Here is an example of a new CEFR descriptor in this field: “Can exploit creatively his limited repertoire in different languages for everyday contexts, in order to cope with an unexpected situation.”

Finally, the Companion Volume also explicitly includes “online interaction” in its scales. Attention is paid to multimodal online conversation and discussion on the one hand, and goal-oriented online transactions and collaboration on the other hand.

Using TED Talks in the EFL Classroom

In April, I had the privilege of taking part in my first IATEFL Conference in Glasgow, together with about 2,500 other teachers of English from around the globe. I attended i.a. two workshops on using TED talks in the EFL classroom. Lots of teachers already use them with their learners. Those workshops have convinced me of their effectiveness, hence this blog post. If you have never used TED talks, you might do so after reading it; if you have already spiced up your English lessons with them, you could get inspired to try new things.

TED is short for Technology, Entertainment, Design; TED talks are video presentations of 3 to 18 minutes about a number of subjects. The talks can be found on www.ted.com. Because of the excellent speakers and/or the interesting topics, these clips really appeal to the learners. Moreover most talks can be viewed with subtitles, either in English or in the mother tongue.

When you are thinking of using a TED talk in the lesson, it is very important to choose the “proper” video for your learners. You might consider its topic (maybe with a link to the current one in the course book), the language level or the duration; with stronger and/or older students you might want to look for a talk that makes them think critically about the subject. A fine example was used by the Russian Svitlana Kurochkina in her workshop at the IATEFL Conference: a talk by fire fighter Mark Bezos. A TED talk lesson has the various step stones of an ordinary video lesson, with pre-watching, while-watching en post-watching activities. You could also use the ideas on ed.ted.com with nearly a quarter of a million (!) ready-made lessons.

If you want to tackle things in a different way, these suggestions might be helpful. You could e.g. download the TED talk’s transcript. With a short talk you could do this at home and cut up the text into short excerpts. After a short introductory conversation about the subject, you then ask the learners in small groups of two or three to try and reconstruct the transcript. When finished, they watch the video and check if they were right. Very strong language students could be asked to watch a TED talk with subtitles in their mother tongue. You could then ask them if they think the translation is accurate and/or what they would like to change about it. A challenging task!

Anyway, in my opinion, TED talks are an excellent way to develop and practise watching and listening skills in a motivating and authentic way.

 

Finding that new coursebook

It’s that time of the year again when publishers are overwhelming us with leaflets promoting their (latest) EFL publications and are inviting us to their book presentations. There is, of course, no such thing as the ideal English coursebook, yet as a teacher you should have some criteria when thinking of changing coursebooks. Mainly, it boils down to taking into account what the curriculum prescribes, what your pupils need and what you want as a teacher.

The curriculum

The curriculum (with all its teaching goals) is, in my opinion, the most important criterion. Does the coursebook provide a fun mixture of varied language activities to help your pupils reach those curriculum objectives? Are you able to find the references to those goals for every activity in the teacher’s manual? Make sure all communicative skills are worked on, with a variety of text types and tasks, integrating grammar and vocabulary. Are the communicative tasks realistic and challenging? Check if the book deals with intercultural differences and if authentic materials are provided to do so.

The pupil

A second criterion is the pupil. Does the language material fit your pupils’ language level? Do the different themes covered meet their real interests? Check if there is lots of variation in the language practice, in the working methods, the assignments, the activities. Is the overall lay-out appealing to them? Find out if you will be able to address mixed-ability, both for the stronger pupils as for those who are not that strong. In this respect, you could also have a look at the online course materials.

The teacher

We should not forget ourselves: the teacher is the third criterion. Is the teacher’s manual user friendly? Are the solutions to all exercises and tasks provided? Do you have access to extra teaching materials? Are the audio- and videofiles good quality (native speakers)? Are the board book, the DVDs and CDs easy to handle? Check if there are testing materials for all phases of teaching: reproduction, transfer and communicative activities? Are there any evaluation rubrics for the latter?

Looking for a new coursebook? Examine it with the criteria above. Pick a unit and try it out with some colleagues. Discuss your experiences afterwards. Hopefully, you can make the right choice then.

 

Penny Ur’s 100 Teaching Tips

On Satur9781316507285day 15 October I attended the London Language Show Live. At this event, I bought the pocket book with “100 Teaching Tips” by Penny Ur. The author started teaching in 1970 and has been working in primary, secondary and higher education. She has also worked as a teacher trainer, has authored lots of other books and presented at conferences around the world.

This book is really very useful to many teachers, both starting and more experienced. It provides exactly 100 practical tips, each covering one page. This is just the nice thing about it; I like taking the pocket with me to the “smallest room”, browsing through it and reading one or two tips.

People who prefer a more structural reading, might like the classification of the various tips into different areas of classroom teaching, including starting and ending the lesson, choosing a coursebook, classroom management, error correction, games, group work, working with mixed ability classes and assessment. Every different part of teaching English as a foreign language is covered with tips for teaching grammar, vocabulary, reading, listening, writing and speaking.

I particularly appreciate “tip 100”, the very final one: “Do your own thing”. Let me quote the lead to this tip: “To be really good at teaching you need to find your own teaching style and choose the methodology that suits you and your students”.

The 120-page book has been published this year by Cambridge University Press. Penny Ur talks about it in this YouTube video.

Integrating language skills through online music videos

The internet is a real treasure trove for every English teacher, but at the same time it can look like a maze. That is why I have made a personal selection of useful online resources that can make an English teacher’s life easier. You can find it online at http://www.symbaloo.com/mix/teacheronlinetoolkit. The selection contains portals, resources for (remedial) reading and listening, ready-to-use materials, and many, many more. My pupils’ absolute favourite one is LyricsTraining.com, a tool with online music videos that every teacher of English should add to her or his favourites. Why? Because it is a really fun way to practise (foreign) language skills in an integrated way.

knipselhttp://www.lyricstraining.com is a website that uses YouTube-hosted music videos to sharpen various language skills through the songs’ lyrics. The main idea is that pupils have to complete the lyrics while watching the clip, a kind of gap-fill with a twist. It is also a game-like activity, players get an individual score for each completed song, which makes it even more cool.

This is how it works. When you open the site, the first thing you notice are the clips that are being played at the moment and also the top songs. Every song has a coloured label indicating the lyric’s language level: green (easy), red (difficult) and orange (in-between). Moreover the label shows you what language the lyrics are. You cannot only play with English songs, the site also offers music videos in other languages, a.o. French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch and even Japanese. The most interesting way to find a song however is using the search options at the top of the page; you can search by genre and language, but there is also a bar where you can just type the artist and/or the song title.

Once you have chosen your favourite music video, there is one more step to go before you  can start playing. You have to select one of the four game modes: four mastery levels, depending on how many random words have been left out: beginner (with 10% missing words), intermediate (25%), advanced (50%) and the expert mode (with all words to type!). At the bottom there is also a “karaoke” button, allowing you just to sing along with the music video.

Now you can start playing, although the site first warns you that you have to register if you want your score to be displayed in the ranking. But even if you have not signed up, you can still compare your results with other players in the end. As the video finally begins to play, the song’s lyrics appear underneath with several words missing. Your job is to complete the lyrics with the missing words as they are sung. When you get stuck, the video stops playing until you can come up with the word. Don’t take too long, because above the video, apart from your score, a red timeline is getting shorter while you are thinking. When the line has disappeared completely, the game is over. Under the video however you can also press an arrow to re-listen or another one to skip the word. At the end of the song, you will get your final score.

How to use this in your teaching?

I mostly use LyricsTraining as a “filler”, at the end of a lesson, when there is not enough time left to start something new, but just too much to do nothing anymore. Sometimes, I use it even to motivate pupils: if they work hard, there might just be enough time left to play another song. I then have one pupil choosing a song and playing on the computer, whilst the others help him or her to complete the lyrics. They are mostly very keen to do so, because they don’t want the song to be interrupted. If you have laptops or tablets at your disposal, you could also let pupils compete each other in getting the highest score for a particular song. Another possibility is to set it as a fun homework, having pupils choose their own song and elicit five new words out of the lyrics.

Anyway, learners just adore working with this website, because it is so motivating. Since they are watching the video, listening to the song, reading the incomplete lyrics and writing down the missing words, many language skills are integrated in this gamelike activity. As pupils can play at their own level, you are also differentiating. Moreover they can practise at home. And even if not all lyrics are “proper” English and it may only look like another gap-fill, working on their language skills will never have been more enjoyable.