Corpus-based Grammars and Style Guides

I gave the keynote address at the AWELL Conference a few months ago, and one of the practical suggestions I included in my talk for writing teachers working with English language learners was to try to draw on corpus-based grammars and style guides based on real language use vs. those that try to pass off personal style preferences as hard and fast “rules”.

Here is an excerpt from that talk, with the references I included. The friendly folks of #tleap on Twitter pointed me toward some of them. I haven’t personally used all of these in the classroom, so welcome any comments and feedback on how well any of them hold up to real-life use.

 I suggest working from a grammar of English that draws on data from language corpora to determine what the constitutive rules of English are. For those of you that don’t know, a language corpus is a “body” of hundreds of millions of lines of text of the language in use. Some corpora compile thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, others academic texts, others fiction writing. So you have a huge repository of the language as its actually used by real people in real contexts. And you can analyze the language in a corpus using technological tools to determine the rules of a language based on how the language is actually used. So for example, if you’re wondering “Can I really never end a sentence in a preposition in an academic text?” corpus data will tell you that in fact, you can; lots of great writers do it all the time. They can’t all be wrong. Use determines the rules in the descriptive approach, remember? So that tells you that not ending a sentence in a preposition must simply be a style choice. (Though it’s debatable if it’s something everyone does literally all the time, if you’d really want to give much time to it. )

corpus grammarsSo here are some English Grammars that are corpus-based: 

Some of them have “learner’s editions” which are aimed at learners of English at lower levels of proficiency. They all endeavor to present the rules of English as it is actually used. Several will contrast frequency of use of a particular item in different contexts, for example in fiction writing versus academic writing.

garnerThe Garner texts (2016 editions), for example, highlight particular language points where there is disputed use. For example, maybe the traditional style guides say one thing, but lots of people do another. It gives corpus data showing the real patterns of use of that particular item, how common each variant is, and if there has been change over time.

 So for me, these are a more accurate choice. Why would we want to enforce grammar rules with multilingual writers that people don’t actually adhere to in real-life written academic English? And If you really want to nerd out, you can delve into corpora yourself to check out certain grammar points. The Google N-Gram viewer or the MICUSP corpus are good places to start. You may also be interested in reading linguist Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style”, which is written by a well-known author who grounds his advice for good writing in linguistic theory.

EAP Reading: Defining the Relationship

Here’s an interesting article that could make for a great reading for a class of EAP students about to enter their degree programs. As summarized by academica.ca:

Students need to better understand the role of a professor, writes CHE contributor

“I wonder if college students today truly understand the nature of their relationship to professors,” writes Rob Jenkins for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jenkins argues that over his 31-year teaching career, he has seen the lines defining the professor-student relationship become increasingly blurry. In response to this shift, Jenkins lays out several points that he thinks all postsecondary students should know: a professor does not “work for” a student; a student is not a customer; and a professor is not a high school teacher, boss, parent, BFF, or adversary. Jenkins concludes by laying out point-by-point what he is willing to do for students before adding, “All in all, that’s not a bad deal.”

It’s written from he American perspective, so those using this in another context might have to explain/adapt some of the terminology (university for college, etc.). But I think it could make for a good reading and some great ensuing discussion. (Particularly brave teachers might even want to wade into the comments section on the article for added debate).

Defining the Relationship – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Chatbots and Academic Writing?

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Astar the Robot could put their arm back on, but can they provide effective feedback on writing?

Today I came across this article on a university teaching assistant who was actually a computer. “Ms. Watson” managed to fool students and fellow TAs alike, as “she” quickly and accurately answered the barrage of questions on the online forum for a computer science course in Georgia.

Many of the questions this robot, and most of us teaching in a university setting, respond to are requests for information that is easily accessible elsewhere–course syllabus, handouts, lecture notes, textbook, etc. What if we extended this information-gathering function that AI is so good at to the regulative rules of English grammar, spelling and structure? Could a robot like this be useful in an EAP or academic writing class?

There already “robots” of sorts being used to correct writing, such as the ETS Criterion Online Writing Evaluation Service, which provides “immediate, detailed feedback on grammar, spelling, mechanics, usage, and organization and development” so that instructors can “can concentrate on the content and style of students’ work and teach higher level writing skills”. I’d love to hear from anyone who uses this or a similar service at their institution. I’ve only ever been exposed to this program in the context of TOEFL practice exams. I wonder, does this division of labour between grammar/mechanics and style/content actually work out this way? I also wonder about the format and nature of the feedback given by this software; there’s certainly no shortage of debate in the academic literature on the issue of written corrective feedback with far from across-the-board consensus on the most effective treatment of errors. .

My students regularly use software like Grammarly and Ginger Grammar, but in some cases, without the guidance of a teacher or someone more proficient in and knowledgeable about the English language, they often have difficulties in correctly applying the suggestions made or stumble on the gap between grammar and style. Chatbots have also been used as a tool for TESOL, mostly for writing practice to improve fluency, but they have their shortcomings as well.

AWELL 2016: Keynote Address

AWELLConferenceRackCard2016_02Feb03_Page_1-1200x533I’m giving the keynote address on the opening day of the Academic Writing and English Language Learners (AWELL) conference being held at Saint Mary’s University tomorrow. It’s a really neat conference which brings together a range of people who deal with writing in the university environment: ESL/EAP instructors, writing support centre tutors and administrators, and faculty who teach writing across the curriculum.

Here’s the abstract:

What to correct? How to correct? Why to correct? Focus on Form with Multilingual Writers

In the teaching of writing to multilingual writers, the grammar correction debate rages on—should we be sticklers about the fine points of grammatical accuracy or overlook errors that don’t inhibit communication? A focus on form gives rise to questions about which linguistic standards to adhere to, how to approach form and grammar when giving feedback, and what our students even gain from it. This talk will offer a look at differing approaches to form and grammar in the teaching of academic writing to multilingual writers, as well as the history, politics, and preferences surrounding these practices.

Here are the slides: AWELL 2016 Presentation

 My talk puts the forward the proposition that we should see our role as language specialists rather than just writing specialists. We should move past whatever prescriptivist tendencies we may have and work to promote a socio-literate perspective on language form and use in our classrooms that better suits the linguistically diverse university environment in Canada today.

Presentation @ IATEFL Birmingham

I’Birmingham_Logo_webm excited to be presenting at IATEFL Birmingham on the topic of EAP Pathway Program Study and Academic Success at University. My session is on  Friday 15th April at 12:30-13:00 in Executive Room 1.

My doctoral research revolves around the teaching and learning of English in the university context, and so I’m hoping some other people working and researching in this area make it out for my session so we can get a good discussion going. Unlike most of my past conference presentations, this is a research talk focusing on my and others’ research, rather than a practical talk full of immediately applicable ideas. It’s a bit of a change, but I’m looking forward to it.

Exploring EAP at TESL Canada 2015

TESL Canada LogoThe article below is my round-up of sessions from the recent TESL Canada conference in Lake Louise. It appeared in the TESL Nova Scotia newsletter.

Exploring EAP at TESL Canada 2015

The TESL Canada conference in Lake Louise could most likely go down in the books as the one of the most scenic teachers’ conferences ever. Getting to attend talks from EAP practitioners from across the country while taking in the breathtaking views of the mountains, snow-dusted forests and that turquoise lake was an absolute pleasure. It didn’t distract me from checking out several sessions on teaching English for Academic purposes, though. Here are some highlights:

Teaching EAP Students Academic Behaviours: Dianne Tyers, Christina Musa

This was a very participatory workshop where we brainstormed together with the presenters to come up with tips and techniques for developing seven non-linguistic academic behaviours (time management, self-efficacy, participation in seminars, collaboration, academic honesty, respectful communication, individual responsibility for learning) to complement the linguistic content of our EAP classes.

Complexity in L1 and L2 student writing: The development of Discourse styles: Douglas Biber

This talk fell more under the umbrella of applied linguistics rather than classroom practice, which was a nice counterpoint to a lot of a sessions at TESL Canada. It was an interesting demonstration of how we tend to describe academic writing as “complex”, although it’s not complex in the way we general define the term: in terms of frequency of dependent clauses. Academic English is complex in terms of a high frequency of dependent phrases, while non-academic discourse which tends to have a higher incidence of dependent clauses. In very simple terms, academic discourse is focused on the noun and complex noun phrases, as opposed to dependent clauses built around verbs. He explored these definitions of complexity across disciplines, and over time. He didn’t delve too far into the implications for teaching and materials development though it was a lot of food for thought.

Exploring the Rationale for Task-Based Language Teaching: Jane Willis

This wasn’t a specifically EAP-focused talk, but since many EAP teachers draw on task-based language teaching (TBLT), it was quite relevant to our interests. This opening keynote presentation was a nice review of the history, principles, and essential elements of TBLT, with some participation as demonstration.

Student Input and Curricular Alignment in EAP: Marcia Kim and Gregory Tweedie

In this talk the presenters shared the results of some recent research they’ve done where they interviewed graduates of their EAP program to see how well the content of the EAP courses aligned with the language demands of their first years of undergraduate study. It was very interesting to hear which areas aligned (group work, writing) and which areas didn’t (reading, lack of informal speaking, assessment style) and those present had a very lively discussion as to why these misalignments may have occurred and what was to be done about it. This type of research should be an important part of the systematic review of any EAP course.

Building L2 writing skills using Vocabulary and Grammar Resources: Randi Reppen

This was a practical talk, in which the presenter drew on the Grammar and Beyond series that she authored to give lots of ideas for activities for EAP writing and grammar that were informed by corpora and grounded in real language use.

Getting real about paraphrasing and anti-plagiarism instruction: John Sivell

One of the highlights of the conference was this talk by John Sivell, a faculty member at Brock University. His talk revolved around the assertion that the act of paraphrasing is a substantial linguistic, cognitive, academic and cultural challenge. However, on most university campuses, despite the fact that paraphrasing is a major obstacle for both English L1 and L2 speakers, the teaching and learning of this skills is relegated to the sidelines—an online course, writing centres or in EAP courses with crowded curricula. The session ended with both the presenter and the attendees sharing strategies, tips and ideas for anti-plagiarism instruction.

TESL Canada 2015: Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay in EAP Writing

TESL Canada Logo

Three colleagues and I are off to Lake Louise to represent the East Coast at the TESL Canada conference being held Oct. 29-Nov.1.

I’m doing a tweaked and updated version of my presentation Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay in EAP Writing.

Here’s the abstract:

The five-paragraph essay is omnipresent in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) coursebooks, despite corpus-based research that shows few university students are assigned essays of this type, but rather any number of genres. This presentation will look at alternatives to the five-paragraph essay in the teaching of EAP writing and propose practical teaching ideas to bring genre into the classroom.

Here’s a video of me talking a bit about the presentation and what I’m looking forward to at the conference that I filmed with the conference organizers a few months ago.

Click here to download the slides from my presentation.

I haven’t been to TESL Canada since 2012, so it’ll be nice to catch up with colleagues from across the country. (A flight from Halifax to Calgary is the same distance as the flight from Halifax to London, hence one of the reasons why I’ve been going to conferences in the UK the last few years.) Also, TESL Canada has been going through some turmoil the last few years, so it’ll be interesting to see how the organization is pulling through.

I’ll probably be sticking mostly to presentations on EAP and will try to blog/tweet during the conference as much as I can. Shoutout to Anna Maier and Sophie Paish who will be presenting on cultural attitudes toward grading systems, and Oksana Shkurska, who will talk about metaphors in academic English.