They Won’t Know Unless You Tell Them

One of my least favourite genres of article is the Kids these days…!  or Back in my day, we…. article focusing specifically on university students. At a very regular frequency, these articles appear in the mainstream press and in publications focusing on academia alike. They invariably consist of a lot of hang-wringing because unlike the (usually Baby Boomer-age) authors of these articles, today’s university students are brainwashed capitalist zombies addicted to social media, who can’t spell or use grammar correctly, and are coddled snowflakes who can’t handle the real world without a trigger warning.

That’s why I loved this article, What First Years Might Not Know and What To Do About It. It’s short blog post listing academic behaviours–emailing, note-taking, interacting with professors–that many first-years lack upon arriving at university simply because they’ve never learned them. The post reminds faculty and staff that they may have to explicitly teach these behaviours. Your first-year students don’t know how to write a proper email? Rather than bemoan that this indicates that the decline of Western civilization, well, just teach them how to do it and get on with it.

And if students are not exposed to these academic behaviours in North American high schools and have to be taught, then what about students who are arriving to a completely new academic culture when they arrive at a Canadian university from another country? For me, this further underlines the need for academic expectations and behaviours to be made explicit and specifically taught to domestic and international students alike. Academic English is no one’s mother tongue, and similarly, no one is born knowing that you shouldn’t use emojis in an email to your prof. If you want someone to act in a certain way, well, then show and tell them what you want; otherwise, how are they supposed to know?

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Friends don’t let friends use bad dictionaries

There comes a time in every EAP course, usually at the beginning, when you have to have THE TALK with your students–that awkward moment when you address the elephant in the room.

“That crap dictionary/translator you rely heavily upon is making you sound dumb.”

While a crappy bilingual dictionary or online translator can be sufficient for some beginning students, those who have reached intermediate level, and especially those heading into EAP, may be hindered by simplistic or inaccurate dictionaries.

And while dictionary skills are on the curriculum for some EAP courses, they sometimes still focus on paper dictionaries and/or don’t talk about dictionary choice and the limitations of a lot of the translation websites and apps many of our students end up using out of convenience. Many of our students don’t realize that the translator they use like a dictionary is probably machine-driven. For their routine lookups of words they’d be better off with dictionaries compiled by humans.

Below is a handout I prepared for my colleagues with some of my faves. Share yours with me in the comments (especially apps for iOS).

 


TEACHERS FRIENDS DON’T LET STUDENTS FRIENDS USE BAD DICTIONARIES

Encourage students to not just use Google or whatever random dictionary website/app they come across, but to choose a quality dictionary site or app that is associated with a published dictionary brand. This means it should be compiled by lexicographers (and not via an algorithm/crowd-sourcing).

Some recommendations:

English-English Dictionaries Online (Web-based)

Personal Fave: Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary

  • Learner-appropriate level, with simple definitions
  • Usage notes, collocations, etc.
  • Tabs on top of homepage have wordlists, and words groups by topic
  • Free online via web; paid app (see below)

Also:

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Collins: English Dictionary, Thesaurus

 

Bilingual dictionaries Online (Free, web-based)

Many students use Google translate to translate single words. That tool is a powerful one, but I don’t find it very accurate for  single words. It mainly works based on algorithms and crowd-sourcing, and depends heavily on context, so it’s not as accurate as a “real” dictionary, especially for single words.

Collins Chinese , French, German, Italian, Spanish, , Hindi

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On collinsdictionary.com you can select the language pairing you want to the left of the search bar. 

Oxford Dictionaries Arabic (other languages are available, but by subscription only)

Cambridge Dictionaries: Chinese, Spanish, German, French, Indonesian, Arabic, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Catalan, Japanese, Malaysian, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese

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Click on the box near the search button on dictionary.cambridge.com to access all the bilingual and semi-bilingual dictionaries.

 

Apps

A lot of the good dictionaries and learner’s dictionaries are only available as paid apps. Despite pointing out to your students that $30 for an app they may use every day of their academic career is a good investment, they may balk at paying for one.

Search for the following in the iTunes/Android app stores:

Paid English-English Dictionary Apps:

Both platforms (iOS and Android):

  • Cambridge Advanced Learner’s dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

 

Free English-English Dictionary apps

Android:

  • Oxford Dictionary of English: Note this is not a learner’s dictionary, but the regular Oxford Dictionary
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Note this is not a learner’s dictionary, but the regular M-W dictionary
  • Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus

Apple iOS:

Bilingual Dictionary Apps: Paid/Free/Free trial

Android:

  • Oxford dictionaries: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian Greek, Thai, (all free)
  • Collins dictionaries: Korean (free trial, ~$10), Arabic (free trial, ~$10), Japanese, German, Norwegian

Apple iOS:

  • Oxford Dictionaries: French, Spanish, German, Italian Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Greek
  • Cambridge Dictionaries: Chinese (paid)

 

 

NYT Writing Prompts

Capture I recently came across the New York Time’s list of 401 prompts for argumentative writing. This would come in handy in many an EAP classroom, where opinion or argumentative essays in various forms are taught at most levels, really. The topics and questions are such that most of them could form the prompt for an essay being written purely from a student’s own background knowledge, experience and opinions, or for a research essay drawing on external sources of information.

There is also a list of prompts for personal or narrative writing, along with a lesson called “From ‘Lives’ to ‘Modern Love’, Writing Personal Essays with Help from the New York Times”. It’s true that those two particular sections/columns in the NYT are particularly interesting and engaging; not to mention that there’s an archive with thousands of relatively short, easy-to-engage-with texts that could be mined for any number of uses in a writing class.

Also fun to use would be the daily picture prompt. This could be especially flexible for use with lower levels, or as a prompt for genres other than the essay, such as creative writing.

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.