The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, June 20, 2016


I'm on the train on my way home from a great weekend in Liverpool for the MATSDA (Materials Development Association) conference and reflecting on the similarities and differences between the MaWSIG crew who I usually hang out with and the MATSDA crowd ... or at least I'm trying to over a rather raucous hen party who I'll be sharing my journey with as far as Wolverhampton!

I was invited to speak at the conference as a step towards encouraging more cooperation between the two groups. We're both involved in working on ELT materials, after all, so there should be lots of overlap. So what did I notice?

Well, I think the first clue is perhaps in the name - materials writers vs materials developers. The difference may seem a subtle one, but it came out quite clearly in a number of ways. As I looked down the programme of presenters, only 5 out of 53 (including myself) weren't representing universities. This gave the event a much more academic feel than the average MaWSIG gathering which is typically dominated by freelancers who work on projects for commercial publishers.

This academic bent also came through in the sessions. Many had a fairly abstract focus on pedagogy and were peppered with references to academic research, others were about individual research projects, presenting or evaluating materials developed for very specific, generally small-scale, contexts (South Korean tour guides, German police officers, Malaysian university students). MaWSIG events tend to focus more on the work of materials writing; the constraints and issues around working with publishers, the practicalities of being freelance. That's not to say that they don't address pedagogical issues too sometimes, but they tend to come at them from a slightly different perspective.

One of the other things that really struck me was the international nature of MATSDA, with probably more people from outside of the UK than inside. There were people who'd come from Asia, Africa and South America just for the two-day event, which was both impressive and made for some fascinating insights. This perhaps comes back to the fact that most of the delegates were funded by their institutions, an option not open to self-employed freelancers who typically have to self-fund any trips. My experience of most MaWSIG events is a largely British crowd either based in the UK or travelling in from Europe (on budget airlines!), rarely from any further afield.

So what am I taking away from the weekend? Well, when I joined MaWSIG, it was great to meet up with a group of people who did the same thing as me, who understood the joys and frustrations of being a freelance writer, people with whom I could share ideas, problems, advice or just have a laugh. Although many of the MATSDA members didn't quite share my professional context, we still found plenty we had in common and we still had a laugh. I found it really useful to forget about commercial constraints and the woes of the publishing industry for a while and to get back to thinking about the basics of what materials writing's about at its heart; helping teachers to teach and students to learn in the most effective, engaging way possible. It felt like a bit of a luxury that I rarely get time for and it was much more fun being involved in informal, interactive sessions with academics than trying to keep up with 'the literature'!

I also found it really fascinating to meet people working in so many different contexts. Although I get to meet teachers from around the world when I'm giving talks and workshops, it was interesting to get a slightly different take from folks who are developing materials independently; a world away from the large-scale, global projects I'm generally involved in. I came away with a number of ideas that I think I can transfer to my own work in some form.

So there are lots of things that I think other MaWSIG members like myself could get from dipping a toe into MATSDA territory every now and then. But what could MATSDA members gain from exploring what MaWSIG has to offer? As well as insights into the world of commercial publishing, I think the main thing they might gain is more practical hands-on ideas that they can take away and make use of. Although the MATSDA sessions provided plenty of food for thought, I didn't come away with concrete things to try out, links to follow, tools to play with in the same way that I often do after a MaWSIG event.

Overall, I think there's definitely room for both groups to continue looking at the world of ELT materials from their slightly different perspectives, but I also think there's lots of scope for overlap and sharing too.
If you're interested in finding out more about either group:
MATSDA:  https://www.matsda.org/

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, June 10, 2016


Yesterday was National Freelancers Day in the UK and it got me thinking about the pros and cons of working for myself. So here are four things I love and hate most about freelancing:

1 I first went freelance back in 2000 primarily because it allows me to manage a chronic pain condition that makes it almost impossible for me to hold down a 9-to-5 job. That 'management' involves rubbish stuff like not having to be bright and perky on days when my pains are really bad or when I'm suffering from a 'painkiller hangover'. But it also involves fun stuff like finding ways to avoid long, unbroken stretches at my desk and making sure I move about as much as possible. At a MaWSIG event back in January, Antonia Clare mentioned my 'dance breaks' - where I get up from my desk for 5 mins and dance round my office to my favourite tunes. Well, these have now been replaced by hula-hooping breaks (thanks to Karen White), which take place in my back garden and also involve being very silly to dodgy dance tracks!

2 Being able to manage my own time has other advantages too. Rather than having to do things at the same time as nine-to-fivers, I can go for a swim, do a bit of shopping or get my haircut at those quiet times in the middle of the day. And no, it's not just slacking ... I still have to put in the hours to get paid, I just have the flexibility to shuffle them around a bit without having to get anyone's permission.

3 One of the great things about being freelance is not being tied to a job title. In my time as a freelancer, I've worked as a lexicographer, a materials' writer (on a massive range of different materials), as an editor, academic proofreader, reviewer, corpus researcher, teacher, teacher trainer, conference presenter ... who knows what I'll try next if it crops up!

Although I spend a large chunk of my time alone at my desk, I still come into contact with an amazing variety of lovely people. There are the people I work with on writing projects, both in-house and fellow freelancers. When I do training or give talks, I get to meet teachers and other colleagues from all over the world. And don't even get me started on all my fabulous network of folks I communicate with through social media and meet up with in person at conferences and events.

1 My biggest bugbear about being freelance is uneven workflow. However hard I try to plan my schedule so I can tick along happily with a reasonable number of hours per week that will allow me to control my pain, it never seems to work out. Projects that I've planned to fit in perfectly get delayed starting then either they have to be done in half the time or they crash into something else I've agreed to and suddenly I'm working all hours and my pains are building up and I know I should ease off, but deadlines are looming. Then other times I find myself twiddling my thumbs, especially when planned projects are delayed or fall through, and I'm worrying about how I'm going to pay the bills.
2 Which brings me onto the irregular income. Somehow in 16 years I've always managed to make a living from freelancing, but my income's varied wildly - from a low of about £11,000 to around £30,000 in a good year. Sometimes the money comes in in little dribs and drabs, sometimes on a long project, I have months with nothing coming in then a big chunk at the end. I spent a whole year working on one royalties-based project living on just £5000 ... and as yet, I've made absolutely nothing back in royalties.
3 No sick pay, no holiday pay, no IT support ...
4 When you have a job, there's generally a fairly clear career progression; promotions to apply for, a ladder to climb. As a freelancer, it's much more difficult to see how you're going to progress. Over time, I've consciously developed new skills and specialisms, I've worked hard to build my profile and reputation (I'd like to think with some success), but that doesn't necessarily come with a pay rise. Rather depressingly, I often find myself being offered much the same rate of pay now as I was 16 years ago. I know that's probably more of a reflection on the state of the industry than on how much my skills are valued ... but it doesn't always feel that way.

So is it worth it? Well, when I was making my lists, I initially jotted down six 'loves' and could easily have kept going with more, but I struggled to come up with more than four 'hates' .... which I think says it all. #lovefreelancing

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Evernote convert

I didn’t really ‘get’ note-taking apps until I tried one out. What’s wrong with good old pen and paper?

Several people had mentioned Evernote and I already had it preloaded on my tablet and laptop, so it didn’t take more than a quick sign-up to get going. I first gave it a go to see how it would work as a way for students to record vocabulary. As I started exploring what it could do though, I soon realized how useful it would be for all kinds of things. 

I’d envisaged that it would be just about taking notes on screen instead of on paper, but I soon realized that the real purpose of it is as a place to collect information from different sources (and in different formats) in one place; curating as I think we’re meant to be calling it now. Let me give you an example.
I go to quite a few conferences and other events. Especially if I’m speaking, they involve quite a bit of information which previously I stored in different places:
As bookmarks in my web browser:
  •  the event website
  •  hotel website
In a folder in my email:
  • information sent to me in emails from the organizers and sometimes from the publishers I’m representing; some of it in the body of messages, some in attachments
  • email confirmations for hotels and travel arrangements
In a folder on my desktop PC:
  • a proposal form or document that I’ve filled out with my presentation title, summary, etc.
  • my PowerPoints
  • any handouts
Using Evernote, I can put it altogether in one place, add notes to myself AND because it synchs across devices, I can access all of it via my desktop, laptop, tablet or even my phone. This is an example from a recent event in Brussels where I’ve got the link to the event website, my talk title and summary, a map of the venue, the address of my hotel, the programme schedule, information for presenters and my PowerPoint slides all in one place (click to see image full-size). 

Now when I sign up for a new event, I just start a new note and as stuff comes in, I add it to the note. It doesn’t take much imagination to see lots of other uses:

  • Preparing a talk, an article or a blog post: to collect notes, links/references, quotes, images
  • Writing materials: to collect links to authentic texts and other sources and annotate them
  • Any project: to collect documents, links and notes from emails all in one place

For information collected online, you can either just cut and paste the link into your note or you can download the Web Clipper tool to copy the actual content direct into a note. If it’s an event website, you’ll want to copy the link (because the info may change), but if it’s a blog post or an article you want to refer back to, you might want to ‘clip’ it. Once clipped, you can then annotate the content.

I’m definitely a convert. I haven’t tried other note-taking apps, but I guess they can do similar things and people will have personal preferences. What’s your favourite and how do you use it?

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Online dictionaries: What's wrong with the hippo?

Last weekend I was at an ELT conference in Brussels talking about online dictionaries and digital literacy. Just before my session, I got chatting to one of the other presenters. It turned out that he was presenting at the same time as me so wouldn't be able to come to my session. I briefly explained that I'd be talking about how, with the proliferation of online dictionary sites about, it's important for teachers to help their students find sites that are relevant and useful.

Photo credit: Alexdi at English Wikipedia

He started telling me enthusiastically about a site he loved to use with his students called wordhippo.com. He explained that it contained a whole wealth of information, not just definitions, but lots of synonyms and antonyms too. It wasn't a site that I'd come across, so I quicky checked it out. I was using a couple of key words as examples in my session, so I looked up one of these, sensible, as a quick point of comparison:

Definitions for expert speakers:
I immediately recognized the definitions that popped up as coming from oxforddictionaries.com; they were word-for-word identical. Now lots of dictionary sites quite legitimately license data from big dictionary publishers, but an alarm bell started to tinkle when I couldn't find the source of the definitions credited anywhere on the site. Ethical and legal concerns aside though, from a pedagogical perspective, I was more worried by the fact that the definitions were quite clearly aimed at native/expert speakers, not learners. Unlike learner's dictionaries, which carefully grade the level of the language in definitions - typically using a restricted 'defining vocabulary' to ensure that the words in a definition are less difficult than the word itself - native speaker dictionaries aim to explain the nature of a word in a way that will be useful to an expert speaker of English, but which is often completely inaccessible to an average learner.
Compare these definitions for the first sense of sensible
"chosen in accordance with wisdom or prudence; likely to be of benefit" (wordhippo.com; originally from oxforddictionaries.com?)
"reasonable, practical, and showing good judgment" (ldoceonline.com)

A bewildering plethora of synonyms:
When I searched for synonyms of sensible, I was faced with a list of 49 possible options, in no clearly discernible order, ranging from the predictable (and useful) reasonable and logical, to obscure and sometimes downright baffling suggestions such as sagaciouscognizant and consequent. I can just see those slotting in naturally to an intermediate learner's essay, can't you?! Any thesaurus or list of synonyms can be a bit of a minefield for even advanced learners, but the longer they are, the more obscure the options and the less information given about each one, arguably the more confusing and problematic they become. The thesaurus facilities available with several of the online learner's dictionaries at least produce more restricted sets of relatively high-frequency alternatives, which students are quite likely to recognize and more realistically make use of.  My personal favourite is the 'Explore thesaurus' feature at macmillandictionary.com which for each sense of a word provides a manageable list of synonyms and related words along with their definitions to help students see right away how the words are similar, and perhaps more importantly, different. At the first sense of sensible, for example, they offer practical, rational, logical, realistic, rightly, sound and mature.

Why do we love the hippo?
I felt a bit bad dissing a site that a fellow professional clearly enjoyed using. As I explained to him though, as expert speakers, it's easy to get drawn in by what appeals to us as fans of the language rather than what might be useful for our students. I admit that as a language nerd that juicy long list of quirky synonyms was fun. I enjoyed skimming through all the words and picking out the ones I wouldn't have thought of and even the ones I'd never heard of - refractory as a synonym of difficult anyone?

When you're looking for an online dictionary to use with or recommend to your learners, you might ask the following questions:
  • Is the source of the content clear?
  • Is the content designed for language learners?
  • Is the content clear, accessible and useful for your learners? 
Chances are, that'll lead you to the sites of the 'big five' learner's dictionaries. There are lots of fascinating dictionary and vocabulary-related websites out there which all have their attractions and uses, but if you're looking for a reliable, appropriate, well-presented resource for your students, I think it's still hard to beat the old favourites.

The 'big five' learner's dictionaries online:

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Dipping a toe in the Duolingo pond

If you follow certain social media threads, then apps seem to be where it's at in language learning at the moment. I have to admit I was a rather late adopter when it came to smartphones and tablets, but over the past year or two I've quietly been converted. I wouldn't say I'm an app aficionado, but they're slowly creeping into my everyday life and I can certainly see the appeal. But for language learning ... really? I've been sceptical about the benefits.

When I first heard folks talking about Duolingo (by far the most popular language learning app out there), it seemed it was clearly a gimmick which people would soon see through. Everyone talked about the bizarre sentences it asked you to translate and ELT colleagues largely dismissed it out of hand. But it's continuing to grow (with tens of millions of users worldwide) and recently, I've come across a number of family and friends who are using it and seem to be fans. So I decided to check it out for myself.

What follows isn't intended to be a definitive review - I honestly haven't decided what I think of it yet. Instead, it’s just my initial thoughts and reactions as a user...

Spanish and Me

I chose Spanish as a language to learn, partly because I'm at more-or-less beginner level, so come into the experience without too much baggage and also because it's a language I'd like to know. 
- I did one term of Spanish at evening classes (once a week) about 15 years ago. So I do have some basic passive knowledge, but I've forgotten the details and certainly couldn't produce anything beyond odd words and phrases.
- I speak French (and bits of other European languages) which have similarities to Spanish.
- I've also done corpus research into errors by Spanish-speaking learners of English, so I know quite a bit about what Spanish does differently from English that leads to common transfer errors; such as adjectives that agree with nouns. I took the Duolingo placement test and failed ... or at least I think I did, because the wording of the message that came up was a bit odd! So it started me off with the basics.

Duolingo - the first 10 days

So I signed up for 10 minutes a day and currently I'm on 10-day streak, I've reached level 4 and I'm 6% fluent in Spanish ... apparently!  It's all quite exciting and yes, I admit, I'm quite hooked!  I'm generally not a gamey type of person - I've never played computer games - but somehow I'm really enjoying the slightly frivolous, gamey aspect of the app. I hate going to language classes (sorry, but I do!) because I know it’s going to involve lots of boring memorization and I know all the things I'm going to be rubbish at and get frustrated by. But somehow this feels different. It's just a bit of fun, it's free, low-stakes, no one's judging me and if I do get something wrong, it’s no big deal. That's very appealing.

So apart from being fun, what have I noticed about how I've interacted with the app?

Well, I guess the most obvious thing is that I'm whizzing through and not thinking about it too much. It wasn't a conscious decision, but I find that I'm not spending too much time lingering over each item. I'm not analysing endings or noting down nouns according to gender. Something about the quiz-like format makes me skip through the questions as quickly as I can. With my language background, I can't help but be aware of certain linguistic features (more about that below), but I'm not focusing on particular words or forms as they pop up on screen. I'm rather letting it all wash over me and seeing how much just sticks. Which feels oddly liberating!

Warning flags

Having said all that, with my teacher’s hat on, I am aware of all kinds of warning flags popping up:

Odd language: I'm only on the early levels, but I'm already getting some odd sentences cropping up; The ducks eat a strawberry, You are my horse, etc. Hardly the kind of language I'm likely to find useful should I meet a Spanish speaker! But then, lots of young learners’ materials use animals to bring the language to life and to make it more fun and memorable. And there is evidence that learners remember stuff better when it's cognitively salient - in other words, when it strikes them as odd or funny, rather than being bland and unmemorable. I'll see as I carry on how much that starts to grate. The odd bit of silliness is good, but I think there comes a point when you want to be learning language that's genuinely usable.

Where's the strawberry?
Lack of explanation: There's no actual explanation of the language points you're learning within the app, it's all based on pictures and translations. On the whole, that's fine for vocabulary (so far), but means that the grammar is very much down to guesswork. Amongst the things which haven't been explicitly explained so far are:
- gender of nouns and the accompanying implications for articles and adjectives
- verb conjugations (it exposes you to the different verb forms and 'tests' them, but doesn't explain them or set out any 'rules')
- the two forms of 'you'
- the use (or non-use) of subject pronouns. I know from my previous classes that subject pronouns aren't always needed in Spanish, because the form of the verb conveys the information about the subject. The app started off always including subject pronouns - probably because it made for simpler direct translations into English. But as I go through, I've noticed it's now dropping them. I don't know whether it's doing it in some principled way or whether it's just trying to wean me off them.
All of this raises two questions for me ... firstly, could this be confusing and frustrating for someone who didn't understand what was going on? Could it be misleading, as learners formulate their own, possibly incorrect, hypotheses, then later realize they've got it wrong and have to backtrack and 'unlearn'? And secondly, I’m wondering how it’s going to cope with more complex language features as I move up the levels.

Lack of production: The vast majority of the exercises so far only test receptive knowledge. You're asked to translate a word, phrase or sentence, either to or from Spanish, and you're given options to choose from. There's speaking practice where you use the microphone to record your own voice, but so far at least, this is just listen and repeat, so just parroting what you hear. The only more 'productive' exercises so far ask you to type in a word or phrase in Spanish. I'm definitely finding these the trickiest and they're the only ones where I'm making mistakes; largely errors with spelling or endings. I can't yet see how it's going to become more productive, at least not in more than a very limited sort of way.

But how much have I learnt?

Well, considering I've completed less than 2 hours of instruction in total, I feel like I've actually learnt quite a bit, especially in terms of vocabulary. Yesterday, I started going back to the early lessons - if you don't keep 'topping up' your skills by revisiting them, you're ratings for that skill fade - and I found that words I remember hesitating over a bit initially, now seem really obvious. That's perhaps not surprising given that repeated exposure to and engagement with words is known to be a key factor in vocabulary learning. What's interesting is the amount of repetition you're prepared to accept as a learner in this sort of format compared to what a teacher could get away with in a classroom setting.

I'm not going to draw any conclusions just yet - although I already have a few brewing - because I want to carry on with as open a mind as I can and see how things develop. I'll report back ...

Labels: , , ,