TESOL 2015: Corpus Tools in Action

This year at TESOL, I didn’t get to go to a lot of sessions because I was busy exhibiting. However, I did run across this summary of some corpus tools I discovered at TESOL 2015 in Toronto. Since corpus tools never go out of style, I thought I’d share what I learned 6 years ago.

Why Use a Corpus?

There were really three reasons I kept hearing that resonated with me:

1. Our instincts aren’t always right. Looking at how language is actually used is important because frankly what we think we know about language usage isn’t always correct. I suspect that as teachers, we tend to get a lot of textbook, overly formal input which biases our ear. We also aren’t necessarily talking to a broad spectrum of society (no one is in constant communication with speakers from all different regions of the country (or the world) of all socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds). We’re also aging while language is changing, like it or now. We’ve all seen those little fun facts about language. My favorite two are: Use of the subjunctive is growing in the US, not shrinking. The subjunctive is almost unheard of in the UK (even though we think the subjunctive is a formal tense and UK English is more formal than US English). If we want to give our students accurate knowledge about vocabulary and grammar use, it’s good to consult a source and a corpus is a nice source of language as it is used. We can then temper that with our own instincts and textbooks, but I know every time I look up a word in a corpus I am surprised by what I learn.

2. We discover patterns and rules we never realized existed. My personal favorite was the discovery that “due to” is almost always used with negative causes. We never say, “We are having cake due to Bob’s birthday.” We say, “We don’t have any cake due to shortages.” Stumbling on those kinds of collocations and associations helps you teach better and gives your students more of that instinct for language that we often attribute to being a native-speaker, those rules we understand subconsciously, but never really think about. That leads me to my last reason for using corpuses.

3. Students can use corpuses  Letting students discover language for themselves is a great way to impart those subconscious rules of language, yes but also to help them build vocabulary (through collocations and word families) and use vocabulary better through real-world examples.

Corpus Tools

  1. The biggest find for me was MICUSP, the Michigan Corpus of Upper-Level Student Papers (Thanks to Ashley Hewlett). MICUSP is a collection of academic class essays from undergraduate seniors and graduate students. What makes it stand out are:
    • The search and filter functions let you search or filter by academic subject, type or genre of essay, native vs. non-native speaker, particular features of the paper (abstract, lit review, tables or graphs, etc.) What that means is that you can show students examples of argument essays in their own discipline. Or easily find a specific example paper meeting your requirements. You can have students compare argument essays in Philosophy classes with argument essays in English class, or compare an abstract of a critique with an abstract of a research paper. In this way, they can see how different aspects of the paper affect each other. Students can also see what kinds of papers are written in different fields and what kinds of papers are not written.
    • The corpus provides the full-text of the essay, not just the part where your keyword is.
    • Speaking of key words, you can search with or without a key word, so students can see how a word is used across disciplines or genres.
  2. Ashley Hewlett also mentioned the MICASE, the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English, which I have used before because there are fewer corpuses of spoken English. Like MICUSP, MICASE has nice search options. You can search by number and identity of speakers (professor, student, post doc fellow, etc.), gender, age, location of the encounter (seminar vs. lecture vs. service encounter), as well as discipline. You can even search by the speakers’ L1s and the nature of the interaction–more monologue or more interactive. Again, it’s nice because it provides sources (in the form of scripts unfortunately). And the corpus is fascinating because even in an academic environment, the spoken language is still full of grammar mistakes, run-on sentences, fragments, false starts, and non-sequiturs.
  3. In another presentation in the Electronic Village, Jon Smart introduced me to AntConc, a tool that lets you build and analyze your own corpus. It’s not super user-friendly but it’s also not terribly difficult. If you collect a series of texts in separate .txt files, you can use AntConc to search them for keywords, much as a traditional corpus tool does. I thought this would be great for collecting student essays in a class you teach year after year. After a few years, or semesters, you would have a nice set of student essays that you could let students search for language use or genre features. I was also playing with it by downloading the top 100 texts on Gutenberg press, which helps students see literary language in action.

What are your go-to corpus tools? How do you use corpora in your classroom?

The Art of Exams

There’s a lot of takeaways in Sharon Hartle’s new blog post, THE ART OF GATHERING… EVEN FOR EXAMS. I think assessment and examinations are a neglected topic in TESOL/EFL circles. Particularly in a world where examinations are necessary, there’s rarely much reflection on what exams mean and their purpose.

As Sharon writes, too often we think of exams as a form of assessment. The goal seems to be to judge. We take it for granted that some people will fail. We assume exams should be stressful and unpleasant. However, this (unconscious) attitude to examination does little to help our students pass those same exams.

Looking at exams as a form of objective ranking leads to more stress on the part of our students. I was shocked to read that Sharon had taken an exam in which the results were given publicly. Examiners were coming out of the oral examination room and telling candidates the results in front of the whole group. Very demoralizing to the student and to those who haven’t taken the exam yet!

However, we can change our attitude. We can think of exams as a gathering (See Sharon’s post to understand what she means by this term) and the purpose of exams as getting our students to do their best. Then, we might do more to help students not feel anxious. Perhaps the waiting area for the oral exams could be more comfortable and those who have finished the test could be separated from those who have not taken it yet.

Personally, I always appreciate teachers that acknowledge that a final exam can be stressful. It’s nice to have a chance to take a deep breath before the exam begins, or have the teacher crack a few jokes and lighten the mood a bit.

It’s worth checking out the original post to see all of Sharon’s thoughts, but feel free to share some of the ways you help students do well on exams in the comments.

If you enjoyed this post, check out Sharon’s book:

Slides from TESOL 2019 Presentations

The banner from TESOL19 featuring a yellow background, a picture of the Georgia World Congress Center, and the words TESOL 2019. Check out our slides from TESOLIt was an honor to present at the 2019 TESOL Conference and spread the word about using drama and video in language learning. Our author, Taylor Sapp, also presented on using his story prompts to help reluctant writers write and I hear it was very well-received. Patrice Palmer presented on teamwork skills and is getting ready to release a book on teacher self-care later this year! In case you’re looking for our slides from TESOL. I have put them on the TESOL schedule website/app. But I’d also like to share my presentations to make sure everyone gets a chance to take a look.

And please do leave comments, questions, and critiques in the comments!

Slides from TESOL

  • Videos are a powerful tool for language learning because they engage and motivate students, reach beyond the classroom context, and provide rich verbal and nonverbal input. Learn about a new video and course book series, about a private investigator with a mysterious past, that teaches language, particularly pragmatics and communication skills. Slides from Using Video to Teach Language [PDF]
  • Because plays are written to simulate natural conversation in realistic settings, they’re a wonderful resource to teach speaking. Plays let students practice using intonation, voice, rhetorical devices, and conversational strategies to make meaning. Experience activities from our scripts that exploit plays to improve students’ communication skills. Slides from Speaking Skills and Scripts [PDF]
  • Unfortunately, Alice Savage couldn’t be at TESOL this year, due to a medical emergency. She’s fine now, but I did have to step in and try to give her presentation. I can’t share her slides from TESOL, but we do have a nice handout:Theatre offers a staging ground for developing conversational skills. Participants use plays to explore pragmatics elements of interactions including intonation, body language, backchanneling, conversation repair, transitions and expressions that signal intentions, emotions and other implicit meanings. Participants work with scripts and come away with lesson plan options and resources. Teaching Pragmatics with Theatre Handout [PDF]

What do you think? Did you learn anything interesting at TESOL this year?

Looking for more?

Browse all our free resources for doing drama in the classroom at Plays and Drama Resources for Students.

Come Learn with Us at TESOL19

The banner from TESOL19 featuring a yellow background, a picture of the Georgia World Congress Center, and the words TESOL 2019. Check out our slides from TESOL

We’re going to be at TESOL19 Convention this year exhibiting at Booth 939, so please come on down and check out our books, including our newest releases: Adrift, Short Plays for Language Learners, and 60 Positive Activities for Kids. You can also hear about what we’ve got coming for the rest of 2019, download a free ebook, enter our raffle, and watch some movies! But they’re educational movies, so it’s OK!

We’ll also be presenting on our books and how to use them in the classroom. Here’s our list of TESOL19 sessions. If you scroll down, you’ll also find a Google Calendar you can check out and copy to your own GCal.

Alphabet Publishing at TESOL19

Wednesday, March 13

4:00pm – 4:45pm: Teaching Pragmatics Through Theatre

Come learn about how plays can help teach the hidden language of pragmatics and improve students’ speaking skills. Alice Savage will demonstrate several drama activities and highlight why non-verbal communication is so important to teach to students. (Omni Atlanta Hotel, International Ballroom D)

5:00 – 5:45pm:  Speaking Skills and Scripts: Using Plays in Class

If all the world’s a stage and we are merely players, then play scripts are a powerful resource to help our students learn the communication skills they need to join this giant improv community we fluent English speakers share. (GWCC, Room A401)

Thursday, March 14

12:30 – 1:15pm: Stories Without End: Engaging Students with Creative Writing

Learn how short story prompts can get even the most reluctant student reading and writing! Taylor Sapp talks about his book Stories Without End and how to use it in the classroom! (GWCC, Room A407)

5:00 – 5:45pm: Teaching Teamwork Skills for Successful Group Work

Learn about activities that teach teamwork skills from teacher-trainer Patrice Palmer. (GWCC, Room A309)

Friday, March 15

10:30 – 11:15am: Video Dramas for Language Learning

Video dramas are a powerful tool for teaching communication skills. Come learn how to exploit them and also motivate students with exciting dramas written for learners by Chasing Time English! (GWCC, Room A407)

Google Calendar of Alphabet Publishing’s TESOL19 Events

Building Classroom Community Presentation

When I started writing this, I was coming off my high from an awesome TESOL 2018, and apparently it was a pretty good conference, as the first clause of this sentence is all I wrote before saving this to my drafts folder. So here, belatedly, is my presentation on from the TESOL Conference in Chicago on building classroom community. Specifically I talk about the four conditions that go into really building classroom community. For each principle, I’ve also shared a few activities that you can use in your classroom. I’ve posted about this elsewhere but I think the presentation works really well.

Note that the second slide is meant to represent a class of bored, unengaged students. It’s a stock photo, not my actual students. Some members of the audience thought it was real. One way to definitely destroy rapport with students is to use their images publicly like that. I would never do that.

The third slide shows the “fun” teacher. This is a popular approach to building community. But it’s an approach that doesn’t really build community because:

  1. It’s hard to be funny and cute all the time. You can’t be performing every minute of every class.
  2. Sometimes you have to be serious or even discipline a student and that can feel harsh coming from the “fun” teacher.
  3. You’re really building community between you (or a persona of you, in fact) and the students, but not a community among the whole students themselves.

Hence my four conditions that exist in places where community is built organically, such as sports teams. I hope this presentation and the free activity ideas are helpful. Please feel free to get in touch with questions or comments.

You can also check out resources for creating classroom community, and our advice on creating your own classroom community builders.

Browse our books on classroom community building and back to school activities:

Liked this advice? Check out our teacher tools that build community with engaging activities:
50 Activities for the First Day of School by Walton Burns Alphabet PublishingFront Cover of Classroom Community Builders by Walton Burns from Alphabet PublishingSuccessful Group Work by Patrice Palmer Alphabet Publishing


And if you’re interested in classroom community building, you’re probably doing a lot of group work in your class. Check out our free ebook full of tips for putting students in groups, including factors that lead to strong groups and fun ways to form groups quickly by joining our mailing list!