The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Word Booster update

Last year, I wrote a review of Word Booster, an online tool that allows you to create an ELT lesson from an online text. It creates a (fully credited) pdf of the text that you can print out for students, along with definitions for key words and a follow-up vocab quiz. At the time, I was disappointed that an idea which seemed so promising fell short on a number of important details.

As soon as I’d posted the blog, the creator of Word Booster got in touch. He was really positive about my feedback and keen to improve the tool as quickly as time, manpower and finances would allow. I was really impressed by his commitment and even more impressed when he got in touch again recently about the latest updates to Word Booster.

  • The latest version of the tool uses a learner’s dictionary (the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary) which makes the definitions appropriate and accessible to the average learner.
  • Whilst the tool makes suggestions about which words in a text to focus on, the user/teacher is now free to accept or reject these suggestions and to choose whichever words or phrases they feel are most appropriate for their learners or for the aims of the lesson.
  • The tool suggests an appropriate definition for each word, but allows the user to check it’s the correct sense manually and change it if necessary. This is a massive improvement as automated sense selection can be a bit hit and miss. You can see in the example below, using one of my own blog posts, that when I click on 'folk' in the text, I'm able to select the appropriate sense for the context (the tool had automatically selected the more frequent, 'music' sense). [Click on the picture to view it more clearly full-screen.]

  • There are also options to (de)select example sentences and to adjust the quiz activities slightly – although not to make edits beyond shuffling around which words appear in which activity type.

All of these changes make the tool far more usable. It still has a few minor technical glitches that I’ve passed back to the Word Booster team, but overall, it’s something I’d now happily recommend for teachers to try out.

I do, however, still have a few reservations.

Dictionary definitions in vocab activities

As a lexicographer myself, I’m a big fan of learner’s dictionaries, but I’m still slightly wary about the use of dictionary definitions in vocab practice activities. Research seems to show that using dictionary look-ups or referring to glosses while reading a text helps students’ incidental* vocabulary learning (Laufer & Hill, 2000). By actively looking up a word, focusing on the form and meaning, and relating it to the context, students are more likely to remember it later. And this is exactly what learner’s dictionaries are intended for. Definitions are written in the expectation that the students will come across a word and look it up to check the meaning – they’re intended for decoding. That’s what the first part of the Word Booster tool caters to perfectly.

Where I feel we get onto shakier ground is in the ‘reverse engineering’, if you like, where students are essentially given a definition and asked to guess the word. This is potentially a much more challenging task and isn’t something that dictionary definitions are designed for.  Without the target word alongside, a dictionary definition can seem vague, rather abstract and certainly very difficult to tell apart from definitions for similar words. 

That’s not a criticism of dictionary definitions, it’s just the nature of the beast. Definitions have to be concise, so there can’t be lots of detailed explanation to differentiate between similar words**. They have to be written within a defining vocabulary (a limited set of words that avoids the definitions being more difficult than the words they define), so they necessarily can’t be as subtle and nuanced as those in a dictionary for native speakers. They also have to cover all the possible uses of a word, which can make them a bit vague and sometimes slightly awkward. As a lexicographer, you split out clearly different senses, but you can’t just keep on splitting endlessly, you have to lump similar uses together at some point (e.g. this two-part definition from Cambridge Dictionaries – “option: one thing that can be chosen from a set of possibilities, or the freedom to make a choice”).

As a materials writer, if I want to create a practice activity around definitions (which, by the way, I’d do sparingly anyway), whilst I might start off by looking at a dictionary entry, I’d invariably edit the definition. I might change the wording, for example, losing slightly formal passives (e.g. “one thing that you can choose”). I might make it a bit more specific to the context at hand – so I’d choose just the relevant part of the above two-parter. And, if I was dealing with near synonyms, I’d probably add a bit more detail to help make the distinctions clearer.  

At the moment, many of the quiz questions generated by Word Booster are at best very tricky and at worst, downright confusing just because of the nature of the dictionary definitions. Being able to edit the defs in the quiz questions would undoubtedly help, but at the same time, it would add to the time required to create the material (which kind of negates one of the key selling points of the tool) and I guess, the ‘authority’ of the definitions would be lost somewhat. It seems to me that the key here is to use the activities sparingly and to choose items carefully, keeping an eye out for odd and confusing defs or combinations and deselecting them. Which brings me onto my main takeaway about this tool …

… it’s how you use it.

Just like any other tool, the success of what’s produced comes down not only to the features of the tool itself, but to how it’s used. As a novice teacher many years ago, I didn’t have fancy online tools like this, but I certainly fell into the trap of choosing a news article that I thought was interesting, photocopying it, picking out some random vocabulary and quite often writing out dictionary definitions for students to match to words from the text. The result was a bit of a confusing mess of a lesson, in which we’d invariably end up decoding the text as a class line-by-line because it was too hard for the students to manage. I’d have to give extra explanation of the definitions of above-level vocab and I’d often struggle to remember the correct answers to the questions that seemed obvious when I wrote them, but which, in the middle of a lesson with a load of confused students, suddenly didn’t make sense any more.

To use a tool like Word Booster effectively, the teacher needs to consider:

  1. The choice of text – is it at the right level for the students both linguistically and cognitively? A few above-level words might provide challenge and interest, but too many will be confusing and demotivating. Is it the right length for the lesson?
  2. The choice of vocab – in my last post, I wrote about the importance of choosing reasonable vocab sets to work with and about having a clear aim for vocab activities (Are you focusing on receptive or productive vocab? Do you want students just to decode the text or are these words useful to learn?). How many words is it reasonable to highlight and practise?
  3. The choice of definitions – the option for the user to pick the correct definition is really useful, but it requires some skill. How is the word being used here and which def fits best? Is the word being used metaphorically? Is it actually part of a phrase, a phrasal verb or an idiom? Is the correct sense available in this learner's dictionary at all?
  4. Activity selection – personally, I think one short-ish definition-based activity per text, using carefully-selected definitions that don’t cause confusion, is probably enough. I might stretch to a second that uses example sentences, but for me, any more than that and it’s becoming a bit mechanical and repetitive. I’d then want to supplement the material generated by Word Booster with some of my own content. Just mining a text for vocabulary doesn’t amount to a successful, engaging lesson. At a minimum, I’d want to add some kind of comprehension questions – whether those were traditional written questions about the text or looser points for discussion. I’d then want some kind of follow-up – a response to the content of the text, perhaps in the form of group discussions, maybe a writing task.

Overall, I’m really impressed with the improvements that Word Booster has made over the past year and I know the team have more upgrades in the pipeline to continue refining their algorithms and adding more features. I’d certainly say it’s worth trying out though. Whilst creating a usable lesson involves a bit of work in terms of choosing the vocab, checking definitions and selecting appropriate quiz questions, I think it does save time in creating a basis for a lesson that you can then build around.

*The term incidental vocabulary learning, doesn’t mean words that students just come across by accident. Incidental learning can be quite planned and intentional, but it just isn’t the main focus of the activity. So in a reading lesson, the main focus is on understanding the text, maybe for discussion or to answer some comprehension questions, but there can be a conscious focus on vocab too – this would be incidental learning.
**When I was working on the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus, we often needed to add whole extra sentences to help differentiate between synonyms.

Laufer, B. & Hill, M. (2000) ‘What lexical information do L2 learners select in a CALL dictionary and how does it affect word retention?’ Language Learning & Technology

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