Monday, October 29, 2012

The Dreaded "D" Word

Dictionaries have always been part of the language classroom – even if only as background props used by teachers and students when an unknown word crops up. However, despite their usefulness, they are seldom allowed to take center stage.

WebWords 001For many teachers and students, the idea of using monolingual learners’ dictionaries to supplement the staple diet of every class sounds unappealing. This is partly due to teachers’ ignorance of the strategies they can employ to help their learners build dictionary skills and partly due to students’ lack of ability to use dictionaries appropriately.

In this post, we will consider some of the reasons teachers should integrate dictionary work into their classes, and take a look at some possible class activities.

Why should we use dictionaries?

Dictionaries provide not only definitions of words, but also phonemic transcriptions. These are especially useful given the confusing nature of English spelling, which often
misleads us as to how words should be pronounced (consider, for instance, though, trough and thought).

Another reason is that by reading through the example sentences illustrating how words are commonly used, students are exposed to natural-sounding ways of using new input, to words and phrases that usually co-occur with the headword, and to the grammatical patterns a word can take. An interesting side-effect of this is that users can acquire the ability to self-correct once they realize how much potential there is to be exploited in dictionary examples.

In addition, building dictionary skills leads students towards autonomy, thereby giving them the chance to work independently, especially in situations where this is crucial (e.g. when writing a business email to a foreign colleague).

Teachers often forget that one’s first encounter with a monolingual dictionary can be very daunting and that learners may need time to become comfortable with definitions written in the target language. However, integrating continual dictionary work into your classes should help your students overcome their initial reservations.

Ideas for using dictionaries

1 Elicit the meanings and pronunciation of new words from the students. When no one can provide these, have one or two students look up the words in the dictionary. Encourage them to help each other with phonemic transcriptions. Point out the example sentences and how the students can use them as a way of increasing their access to how words are used – by learning collocates, grammatical patterns, etc.

2 Before a test, or after the students have worked intensively on a unit or two, split the class into small groups. Have each group pick out a few words from each unit and look up how they’re transcribed phonemically. They then give these transcriptions to the other groups, who must write the words in ordinary spelling.
Note: Tell the students which pages of the coursebook each group will cover so that they don’t pick out the same words. Extend this activity by having the students work on meaning and collocations, too.

3 Give the students definitions of new words on small cards and ask them to work out what words are being defined. Then hand out cards with example sentences of the words and get the students to match the sentences to the definitions.

4 Write a couple of new words in phonemic script on the board. Split the class into two groups and get them to take turns trying to guess how the words are pronounced. Award a point for each correct answer.

5 Prepare a quiz with mistakes your students have made, e.g. incorrect use of dependent prepositions, awkward collocations, etc. Using dictionaries, the students work together to correct the errors.

6 Prepare a quiz with useful collocations which you think your students might not know. Gap example sentences from the dictionary, leaving only the headword. Students then have to look up the headwords to find out what the collocations are, e.g.:
Managers are __________ aware of the need to provide new staff with appropriate support. (Answer: acutely aware)

7 When students are confused about a pair of words, ask them to look both words up in the dictionary and find the difference between them. This works with words which have similar meanings (e.g. say and tell), those that students have difficulty pronouncing accurately (e.g. ship and sheep) and those that are pronounced the same (e.g. won and one).

8 Split the class into two teams. Explain that you will dictate some words, but that you will also mispronounce some of them. If the students are not sure whether a word was pronounced correctly or not, they look it up in the dictionary. Points are awarded for each (first) correct answer.

9 Tell the students that you are going to dictate a number of sentences, but you will hum some words in each sentence. (Make sure all the words you hum are the same part of speech, i.e. all prepositions, verbs, nouns, etc.) The students write down the complete sentences, including the missing words. They then check their answers in pairs, by looking up the appropriate dictionary entries.
Note: Students are often not aware of how to learn how to use prepositions accurately. This can be a useful strategy to help them understand that they can use a dictionary whenever they are not sure which preposition to use.

10 To teach students how to make their writing more “colorful”, pick out some sentences from their essays that make little use of interesting adjectives or adverbs. Get them to work together, using dictionaries, to make their writing more vivid by adding adjective + noun, adverb + adjective or adverb + verb couplings. For example, they can rewrite The girl was beautiful as The girl was remarkably beautiful.

Many teachers and students do not feel comfortable using dictionaries, and for this reason many of the activities proposed here aim at building dictionary skills without necessarily making use of dictionaries proper. However, it is my firm belief that students should be told about the important role dictionaries can play in their learning process. By gradually introducing our students to dictionary skill-building tasks such as these, we can make them feel more at ease with the dreaded “d” word – as well as making the task much lighter and more appealing to everyone involved.

Online resources:

Learners’ dictionaries

ELTChat summary on how to integrate dictionary work into classes

* This post was originally published in issue 80 of English Teaching Professional.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

mLearning and Digital Images

Picture this scene: You ask your students to open their books to work on a grammar exercise. You decide to walk around to check how they are doing the exercise, but you, unfortunately, realize some students are actually using their mobile devices to check updates on Facebook and Twitter or sending an SMS to a friend. 

Would you call that fiction? Definitely not! I am quite sure this has already happened to you if you teach tennagers! So, how do you deal with it? Should you ban mobile devices from your classroom? Every time new technologies land in the classroom, students do naturally react with excitement to them. After a while they get used and tend to calm down. As an educator, I believe that we should never ignore the "world" students live in, but rather find ways to bring it to the learning environment. The number of students who own mobile devices has skyrocketed in recent years and the prediction is that every single person will have a digital camera, a cellphone or a tablet in the near future. In some cases, some might already have them all! So, how about thinking of ways to use these devices creatively in order to effectively teach and practice different grammar points and even improve levels of interaction and communication? Here is one idea I have recently developed for the typical ESL/EFL setting. This activity can be used to practice vocabulary related to clothing and the present continuous as well!

Activity: What's the Occasion?

Level: beginning/intermediate 
Vocabulary: clothing
Grammar topic: Present Continuous
Language skill: speaking 
Device needed: any device with a built-in digital camera
Number of devices needed: one per student 
Internet connection: offline

This is a class project that requires in-class and outside-class work. 

Part 1: On the first day, give each student a slip with a particular situation written in it (EX: GOING TO SCHOOL/CHURCH/WORK/THE BEACH/THE CHURCH/THE MALL/THE GYM/A WEDDING/A JOB INTERVIEW/ A ROMANTIC DINNER/ A FAMILY PICNIC/A NIGHTCLUB/ETC...). 

Remind them that they should not reveal which situation they were given. Then, explain that they should go home, pick up in their closet the outfit they would wear for that occasion and take pictures of all items (clothes/shoes/accessories) and a picture of themselves wearing the outfit for that occasion. 

Part 2: On the second day, ask students to sit in small groups. Explain that they should show the pictures they have taken (and orally say the name of all clothing items) and other group members should guess where their classmates are going dressed like that. As a follow-up, ask students to show the picture in which they are wearing their outfit and have other classmates describe using the Present Continuous (ex: you are wearing a pink dress, high heels, a watch and a necklace). You can also have them vote on the student who was best dressed for the assigned occasion. 

Alternative suggestion: In part 1, ask students to send you via e-mail their picture wearing the outfit. Then, in part 2, you can show the pictures of all students in a slide presentation and elicit from them the sentences in the Present Continuous (follow-up part).

I hope you liked it and let me know if you ever have the chance to test it with your students. I am a mobile learning junkie and I display all my ideas in my blog If you want to learn more about mobile learning, be my guest!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading Recommendations for English Teachers

Dear teachers,

I strongly recommend two articles I've recently read in the Times. One is about how British English is more and more present in conversations in the USA. Very funny and, after all, pertinent to our discussions regarding whose English we speak after all.
The other article refers to teachers' evaluations in the USA and how this issue has gained importance lately.

Hope you enjoy them!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wikis for Empowering Teachers and Students

This article is the summary of a workshop presented in the 13th Braz-Tesol National Convention last July in Rio de Janeiro.

In the last decade the way we access and share information has changed dramatically. One of the examples of this change can be seen in Wikipedia and its growing reputation as a source of information for students, teachers, and the larger community in general. The advent of Wikipedia and so many other similar tools has not only transformed the way we catalogue and share knowledge but also empowered users when it allows them to create and distribute content. Amazing as it might sound, we teachers, have at our disposal software that enables us to do for our classes and for professional development the same thing that Wikipedia has done for the whole world: share knowledge and collaborate. In this article, we are going to write a little about this very software (wikis) and some ways in which they can be used to empower teachers and students. As we describe these wikis, we will also provide samples of real ones that fall into the categories we assigned. The only exception will be intranet wikis, that being private can only be accessed by its members.

First, let us begin with a definition of what a wiki is. A wiki is a free, online writing space that allows collaboration among multiple editors. It also has simple formatting rules and dispenses knowledge of HTML or any other computer programming language to add content. Its collaborative nature coupled with its user friendly interface, makes it an ideal collaborative tool for teachers and teachers, teachers and students, or students and students. As you can see, a huge spectrum of collaboration is possible if you opt for using it. In the lines below, we are going to give you some examples of usage of wikis for collaborative work having teachers and students in most of the combinations mentioned above.

One reason for using a platform that allows multile editing is that teachers, as a rule, have lots of ideas to share, but many times do not have a channel to do so. This necessity for sharing ideas calls for using wikis is as an intranet: a collaborative space restricted to teachers of a given institution. Having such a user friendly interface, a wiki allows teachers to upload power point presentations, videos, word documents, and other kinds of files that are part of their lesson plans, and therefore, making a whole range of resources available for their teaching community. Besides that, one can also add links to external resources that contributes to make it a rich catalogue of possibilities for adding content that is relevant for educators. One example of such experience is the one at our institution (Casa Thomas Jefferson). We have an intranet wiki harboring around ten thousand files and around three hundred teachers sharing and collaborating. Another language institute using a wiki as an intranet is IBEU in Rio de Janeiro which as of July of 2012 (according to informationtion shared in a presentation on the subject) had around twenty eight thousand files and also connected hundreds of teachers. An intranet wiki, besides being a place for sharing files and lesson plans, is also a venue for keeping staff informed about institutional events, sharing changes in policy and procedures, and fundamentally, a channel for communication.

A second reason for the use of wiki by educators is that in an age where e-learning seems to have become so popular, teachers involved in an online course can be at the four corners of the globe and, as a result, in different time zones. So, a wiki can be the platform of choice for collaboration and serves as the course platform and a channel for communication between course tutors and participants. The feature allowing one to create pages and folders makes it possible to have pages for participants’ and coordinators' profiles, syllabus, schedule for course activities and many other trinkets that are part of such courses. A practical example of such kind of cyber space is the Webheads’ wiki for the Becoming a Weabhead (BaW) online course. This is a yearly free five-week online course for language teachers interested in learning how to integrate technology into their classes. The course usually has around two hundred and fifty participants and they are all connected to the course wiki. This online space teaches and guides participants and empowers them once it allows them to collaborate and learn with course instructors and their peers.

A third motive for using wikis can be drawn from the Project/Problem Based Learning approach.This is an approach that has collaboration as one of its principles. Therefore, if a group has to come up with a final product that is a result of collaborative team work, a wiki can be the platform of choice. Once the group agrees on a project idea, members can start working on their own with the advantage that all group members can visualize, edit, and add their contribution to their partners ongoing work. This allows members to see the format the product is taking as it develops, and as a result, permitting members to have a more holistic view of what is being done. Such platform also enables participants to volonteer whichever specialized they have to the service of the group. A good example of such endeavor is the wiki with reading activities for EFL teachers created by three teachers (one in Argentina, another in Brazil, and another in Chile) while taking an online course in the University of Oregon.

A fourth reason for adopting wikis arises from the fact that teachers many times need to create a cyber space for students to add content and collaborate. The challenge, quite often, resides in finding a platform that would allow the creation of different pages and folders and permit students to work individually and access and see the work of others in the same web address as well. A wiki is such a tool: it allows the teacher to create pages for students and put them in charge of editing and adding content. For young learners, that in general do not have e-mail accounts, the platform makes it possible for the teacher to create an account with different user names and password for every single learner in his class. A great example of such achievement is the prize winning work of the Egyptian educator Azhar Yousef and her students . This was a project started by this teacher and her students after the political turmoil in Egypt. The goal of this collaborative project was to invite tourists to go back to visit Egypt and its amazing tourist attractions.

Finally, we would like to point out that this is in no way a final, comprehensive list of all the possibilities wikis can offer educators. If you enjoyed reading and happen to be interested in learning how to set up your own wiki, you can browse an example of wiki as a handout. This one was created specifically to teach workshop participants attending our presentation in the 13th Braz-Tesol National Convention how to create their own wikis.

by Jose Antonio da Silva and Maria Ines Saboya

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Going Mobile


Nowadays, it's much easier to find interesting ideas online that can cause a great impact on our teaching practice. One of these days, I came across a blog called Mapping Media to the Curriculum which starts with a very simple question: what do you want to create today? The author talks about different apps that students can use to produce digital content. I explored some of the ideas and decided to experiment with Mobile Learning (mLearning). Learning a language has to be a dynamic and automonous process.  However, I had some questions on the back of my mind:

Does Mlearning add value to my lessons?
What are the benefits?
Can I use it with all group levels effectively?
Do I have to work harder?

I got together with  Jose Antonio and we presented a workshop called - One Ipad-Only Class - to tell our peers about our experiences, tips and ideas regarding mlearning. Here you can read about what we said.

We talked about the main characteristics of each age group, and we showed activities that are easy to carry out to maximize learning that respect the aforementioned general traits.

We started talking about adult learners. What are the main characteristics? What should a task designer have in mind when planning a task?

The adult learner


  • Long attention span.
  • Ability to deal with tasks that are not intrinsically motivating.
  • To maximize learning plan tasks that appeal to multiple senses and lower affective filters.

We then suggested some  activities that we used with our groups. It's important to mention that all the APPS used worked offline and are free. Click on the links below for details.
Order of adjectives
Subordinating conjunctions

The teenage learner

  • Child- like playfulness
  • Adult-like ability to hypothesize and think critically
  • Facts surrounding ego, self -esteem and  self- image are at pinnacle.
  • Teachers should affirm talents and strengths and encourage collaboration
Suggested activities

The young learner

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

  • Concrete operation
  • Centeredness in functional purposes of the language
  • Can understand patterns and examples

Suggested activities

José Antonio and I counted with the contribution of Denise De Felice, who added a prespective on how the brain works and how/why the proposed activities might be effective to boost learning.

When I reflect upon my experience, I come to the conclusion that Mlearning can be very powerful if we hold truth to our teaching principles, respect our students and find the correct practices that mirror our beliefs. I have gone mobile. Have you?

Monday, October 01, 2012

Roaming Mode & Productivity Tools for Busy Educators

Educators are are always on the move. In many different ways.

In class, we move around to connect to our learners and assess their activity during the tasks.  We ask our students to do the same, moving, standing up, connecting to peers for the sake of keeping them attentive and interactive.

Many English teachers have more than one job, so they need to constantly commute to go from one class to the other, sometimes even going from one part of the city to the other extreme. Even when educators are full-time teachers in an institution, they have to move from one class to the other, one break time to the next. Circulating is part of an educator´s daily job. An itinerant life at its best.

Peseux calibre 320 movement Not to mention our roaming mode, trying to juggle the intensity of school work and our personal lives. There´s no need to say that the golden asset for an educator is time. The currency that we always lack and long for more. As there´s no magic trick to extend the number of hours we have in a day, the only viable solution is to find ways to enhance our productivity and efficiency. Educators need to realize they should be managers of their own time, and good ones!

If somebody asked me the toolkit that could optimize an educator´s urgency to better manage his life, I´d start by exploring four! Four seems to be a manageable number for exploration.
An educator´s toolkit should be composed of tools that are cross-platform, working in different devices and operational systems. So here´s a basic toolkit to get started:

EVERNOTE - Your virtual notebook. You create your notes, to-do lists, lesson plans and aggregate them in one single place. Once you download the app to your cellphone, desktop computer, laptop, and you create an account in Evernote, all your notes are automatically synchronized, which means that important moments, documents, ideas, and visuals are kept portable. Wherever you go, you can access them. Evernote is a powerful tool to organize your main resources, be it professional or personal, and easily retrieve them.
Check the Epic Experiment the Nerdy Teacher is doing with his students using Evernote:

DROPBOX - Your virtual flashdrive. Dropbox, just like Evernote, works in the cloud, synchronizing all the files you add to it with all your devices (cellphones, laptops, desktops). When I want to open any file in my iPad, for example, I just add it to my dropbox and open it in my iPad, using the Dropbox app. It stores all my main files and you can share folders and files with whomever you want, including your students and family members! You can share files and folders.
Here´s an example of some questions I used in class with my students:

FLIPBOARD - Your virtual newsstand. My favorite app ever! It works on cellphones and tablets. What makes it a very special tool is that in one single place, you can aggregate all your social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader...), and you can subscribe to specific news feeds, specialized sites, interesting magazines to follow the latest updates. On top of it, the user experience is simply amazing. Though it can add to your productivity and keep you updated on the latest news, you can lose yourself in so many interesting, serendipitous resources that can be a drain to your lack of time. The good thing is that you can always save an article to read it later or email it to yourself and share it with friends and students.

PINTEREST - Your virtual visually-enhanced bookmark. Organize your boards by topic, start following people, grow your personal networks and let the platform and the people behind it filter relevant information for you. You can "repin" relevant resources to your own boards, you can pin interesting links and digital treasures as you browse the Net. Instead of relying on you computer´s favorites, you can now take bookmarking to a more social and fun level.
Here are my Pinterest boards for you to have an idea of how it works:

An educator´s life is always in shifting mode, but with the mobile possibilities we have in our hands, we can better manage our routine on the go and add a more enterprising and enthusiastic feel to the many daily tasks we carry out.

I know, I know... The question is always, "From where do I start?"
First, stop lamenting the time you don´t have! Start by signing up for an account in those platforms, click and touch fearlessly, watch youtube tutorials, ask around or ask me. I´d be more than glad to give you the push you need to be a happier and more productive educator! I´m sure once you dig into this digital exploration, you´ll have a smile on your face to have worked on your own personal and professional survival toolkit.

Cross-posted at