The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, May 31, 2013

Tech tools in EAP: an #EAPchat contribution

The topic for next Monday's #EAPchat is:

"What tech is good tech for EAP?"

As I'm going to be away and will miss the chat, I thought I'd share my contribution in advance here instead. To be honest, on the very short, intensive, pre-sessional courses I teach on, I don't get much chance to play around with all the tech stuff I'd really like to, but below are a few things I have managed to squeeze in successfully in the past:

Online dictionaries: Perhaps unsurprisingly with my lexicography background, I'm keen on teaching/ encouraging dictionary skills and I think for EAP, that element of independent learning is even more important, so I use dictionaries a lot in class. Having them up on screen means I can more easily highlight useful features like collocations in examples and specialist senses (which are often the ones relevant in EAP and which students often miss down at the bottom of an entry). I tend to swap between the different online learner's dictionaries available to demo what's available to students:
OUP:  http://oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/ 
CUP: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/
Macmillan:  http://www.macmillandictionary.com/

Vocabulary Profiler: I try to demo the Compleat Lexical Tutor vocab profiler at least once with each class when I'm talking about the nature of academic language and the AWL. I put a text we've been working with through it to highlight the AWL words and show the breakdown of vocabulary (top 2000, AWL and 'specialist'). I don't generally make a big thing of the AWL (there isn't time on such a short course), but I find it helps students get a feel for academic vocabulary and style. Some students, especially from science and engineering tend to like the statistical/mathematical element of it and in my last group, a couple of students (one engineering and the other seismology) independently put their own writing through it and brought me the results. One lad consciously worked on getting his AWL 'score' up to 15% and I have to say, his writing style did noticeably improve! It's probably not an approach I'd actively promote, but if it works for some students ...

Corpora:  I also try to demo a corpus search at least once with a group and again, it depends on the type of students as to whether they latch onto it or not. (I don't push it if it doesn't get a good reaction.) A few years ago, I had a group of mostly Taiwanese English teachers preparing for an MA TESOL who were very into language and loved it. I try to introduce it when a language query has cropped up in class or in feedback on a writing task. I probably wouldn't risk doing a live off-the-cuff search as a first demo (in case it turns out to be messy and more confusing than helpful), instead I'll trial it at home first and if it's looking good, I'll repeat it in class. Patterns following a particular word (following prepositions or verb forms) work particularly well as they show up really clearly on screen (search for the key word then sort right and the patterns appear as if by magic!). Nowadays, I tend to use the BAWE corpus, made up of student writing, because it's the most relevant to what my students are aiming to produce. I know it's available on various platforms, but I access it via Sketch Engine: https://the.sketchengine.co.uk/open/ 

Whenever I use a tool or website in class, I put the link and some basic instructions on Blackboard (the university's online platform on which each class has its own space), so that students can follow up for themselves if they want. I'd love to experiment with other things, but on an intensive course there are so many competing priorities and things to fit in, I'm just pleased with whatever I can squeeze in and even more happy when it turns out to be just the thing to pique some students' interest.

Sorry I won't be able to join in on Monday, but I'll look forward to catching up on all your tips and links after the event ...

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Thursday, May 09, 2013

Twitter versus the bean seeds: the pressures of keeping across everything

A blog post I read this morning about the importance of editors keeping up-to-date with the latest trends in publishing (What Do Editors Need To Know Now? via White Ink Limited) got me thinking again about how good I am at keeping my finger on the professional pulse – not just of publishing trends, but also of all the ideas relevant to what I do in ELT, EAP, corpora, lexicography and just language trends generally. It seems that since the explosion of social media, there’s so much potentially relevant stuff being flagged up and available out there to check out, I could easily spend more time on ‘professional development’ than I do on actually getting on with work! Facebook and Twitter both seem to daily throw up links to interesting blog posts and online articles, then there’re Twitter chats (like #EAPchat) and Facebook threads. There are webinars and videos of talks to watch, either live or recorded, and of course, I also hear about more ‘real-life’ events worth attending too. A lot of it’s really useful, and often inspiring, stuff, but it just eats time!

And even then, when I meet up with colleagues, I still find myself embarrassingly ill-informed in comparison – whether that’s academic research that my EAP colleagues bandy around or the latest edtech that my techier pals slip nonchalantly into conversation (notice I’m at least picking up some of the jargon though!). Of course, I like to reassure myself that I’m not actually less informed, it’s just that we all tend to focus on different things. Although having a finger in lots of pies, I do sometimes feel like I just skim lots of things and don’t really spend enough time on any of them.

It seems amazing now that I spent the first 10 years or so of my freelancing career relying on not much more than a yearly visit to the IATEFL conference and the odd article in the IATEFL magazine to keep up-to-date with what was going on beyond what I was immediately working on. It makes me wonder ...

  • were we all just less-informed and narrower in outlook back then?
  • does having all this extra information make us better at what we do?
  • is a lot of what’s out there just an unnecessary waste of time? (I do find that I read a lot that goes over the same old ground and it’s only occasionally that I pick out a genuinely useful, informative nugget)
  • and if so, what’s the best way to filter out all the ‘noise’ and focus on the genuinely useful stuff?

On that last point, I do feel a bit of an undercurrent, especially on Twitter, of having to be seen to keep up with the right stuff and also of taking a supportive interest in what people you ‘know’ (in the loosest, social media sense of the word) are doing, even when it’s only on the periphery of your own interests. It’s a pressure I try to resist, but definitely one that’s difficult to ignore completely.

I guess everyone has to find their own balance and way of getting what they want from social media and the "information age" generally, and we all go through phases of being more or less connected, and more or less concerned about the pressure to be across everything all the time. Personally, with the coming of spring (at long last!), I think I’m going to be prioritizing time spent in my garden over time in front of my computer over the next few months … and I’m going to try really hard not to feel guilty or out-of-touch as a result!

Daily updates on the progress of my beans!

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