Monday, November 28, 2011

Can students use artificial intelligence (AI) and online chatbots to practice situational language?

Do you remember the character 'Hal' in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 Space Odyssey? Now in 2011, it seems that the real 'Hal' is no longer fiction.  Here is a BBC NEWS new report from 2006 about a robot who enjoys online chat. In fact, the artificial intelligence behind this 'chatbot' can be found on several websites that anyone can use for free.

One of these sites is - the site can be accessed via your browser at any time.
  • The artificial intelligences that you chat with have learned how to respond from the millions of people that have chatted with them,  Jabberwacky warns that because the chatbots have learned the behaviour and words of Jabberwacy's users, they may use language and produce apparent meanings that some will consider inappropriate. 
  • So, be sure that you use this site with discretion, and be aware of the risk. It could be okay to use with adult learners, but it wouldn't be recommended to use it with young learners.
  • Joan is one of the avatars you can chat with at
If you really like this idea, note that it is possible for you to create your own 'bot' with your own character.
  • It costs $30 a year, and you have to spend some time to transfer your character and knowledge to the 'bot'.
  • But remember that your 'bot' is 'intelligent', so not only will it learn from you, but your 'bot' will also learn from the people it chats with, so it will grow according to the input it gets from the people it chats with.
How to use with students?
  1. With adult students, you could give them a task to find out more about George and report back to the class. For example, you could choose different themes, e.g., sport, hobbies, work, etc. and students could attempt to have a conversation with George about a topic.
  2. I could ask the students to email a copy of their conversation to themselves, and then highlight any useful language that they learned from George and report back to class.
  3. I would also ask them to identify responses by George that were not appropriate, and tell me why and what they would suggest George should have said instead.

Here is a sample of a chat I just had with George.  You can email the conversation or simply copy and paste it from the web page.  For example, I've highlighted some useful language that emerged from my brief chat with George.

George: Are you male or female?
User: I am male.
George: I am also male.
User: What is your name?
George: I'm George of course. Otherwise known as Geo.
User: Are you married?
George: No, I'm not yet married. Too much work I suppose!
User: What kind of work do you do?
George: All sorts of things for the family, school and business.
User: Do you come from a big family?
George: Not yet.
User: Who are your parents?
George: That's none of your business!
User: Where did you go to school?
George: In a town called Cranehurst.
User: Were you born and raised in Cranehurst?
George: Naw, dude. I was born and raised in Qatar.
User: What is your nationality?
George: I am English. How about yourself?
User: I am Canadian.
George: That's cool, do you like Justin Bieber? He's Canadian too.
User: No, I don't like Justin Bieber. However, I do like Celine Dione. There are many famous Canadians.
George: Yes, indeed.
User: How long did you live in Qatar?
George: I was born in England. I have never lived in America.
User: Whereabouts in England?
George: Middle England.
User: Which city?
George: I do not feel comfortable telling you that.
User: Do you speak any other languages, other than English?
George: Yes but first of all tell me what other languages you speak.
User: I speak a bit of French, as that is the one of the official languages of Canada.
George: Yeah, right! Show me!
User: Well, it was nice chatting with you, George.
George: Don't go!
User: I'm sorry. I have work to do. Talk to you later.
George: No keep talking.
User: Perhaps tomorrow my students will talk with you.
George: Machines don't need to sleep. Anyway, about that source code. .

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Education World: Whiteboards Stimulate Student Learning

Following on from Alla Askarova; comment about the whiteboarding concept (in our post at, here is Education World's idea about how whiteboards stimulate student learning:

"Start with a clean slate next semester -- introduce mini-whiteboards to your classroom! Students love working on their own whiteboards; it's a great way of keeping an entire class actively involved in a lesson. Education World offers five lessons to engage students in learning with whiteboards. Included: Tips from whiteboard users plus alternatives to whiteboards! 
"Individual student whiteboards are the 21st-century version of the chalk slates used by students in colonial times! As thousands of teachers have found, whiteboards are a great way of actively involving students in the learning process -- and a terrific tool for immediate feedback and assessment."
More details and five simple lesson plans can be found at their post at

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

More IPA tools to use with students

Worth reading this New York Times article about gratitude...for us teachers, especially note the Arizona experiment of giving students feedback to their writing. :)

Anyway, I just came across another tool that creates an IPA phonetic transcription from an English text.  
  • The site can be found at and it works directly from the web page (giving 'RP' UK pronunciation).  I tried it, and the results are below.   See the other posts in this blog about IPA at 
    • I haven't tried the PC/MAC version, but it apparently supports American pronunciation as well.
  • I was thinking that this could be a nice idea to introduce a reading text (like the one above), by giving the students some IPA to transcribe back into English, so I came up with these three sentences, which  handily transcribed on the fly in the web page.   
    • These three sentences demonstrate some useful features of English pronounciation, e.g., oF, haLf and THe and healTH.  
    • By transcribing the sentences, the students would automatically start thinking about the topic of the reading.

‎"Hey, it could always be worse."
[heɪ ɪt kʊd ˈɔːlwəz biː wɜːs]

"Seeing a glass half full instead of half empty."
[ˈsiːɪŋ ə glɑːs hɑːf fʊl ɪnˈsted ɒv hɑːf ˈemptɪ]

The science of 'being grateful' indicates that it has many positive benefits, such as sleeping better, better health, and less aggression.
[ðə ˈsaɪəns ɒv ('being) (grateful') ˈɪndɪkeɪts ðæt ɪt hæz ˈmenɪ ˈpɒzətɪv ˈbenɪfɪts sʌʧ æz ˈsliːpɪŋ ˈbetə ˈbetə helθ ənd les əˈgreʃən]

Natural Reader - Students creating and controlling audio from text

Quite a few teachers have been experimenting with text-to-speech via GoANIMATE or xTRANORMAL animations, courtesy of YouTube at
  • There are quite a few other options for converting text to speech around; you may have noticed that we've added a 'Listen to this blog post' button to our blog posts.  
  • You can try this free service out and create an MP3 of the text in any of the blog posts.  This functions like a podcast, if you want, because you can save the MP3 file and listen to it later.
Another program that I have used is - it has a free version which allows anyone to convert text to speech.  
  • You have to download the program and use it on your computer, but the results are surprisingly good.   
  • There are obvious applications for creating listening tasks in class, and getting students used to different accents.  Even in the free version you are limited to the standard Microsoft voices...but at least this is different from the voices of their teachers that they get used to.

What is particularly good about this technology is that you can adjust the speed of the a natural way, just as you would get if you were to ask someone, "Could you please speak more slowly, please?"  
  • This would afford an opportunity for students to do their own extensive listening practice.  It could also get them used to listening to lectures, especially if the lecturers would provide their lecture notes.  
  • There are lots of appropriate academic materials in the OpenCourseWare project, or at OpenLearn.
  • See our READING page for other sources of texts that could be sources for creating MP3s.
  • As teachers, we could even use extracts from these sources for extensive reading and use the LessonWriter website to create reading lessons with more skills practice.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bank of exam questions for dialogue completion and situation response practice

From the desk of Demet Hoca. (Benim eskiden öğretim ortağı çok teşekkür ederim. ;) )

To follow up on the comic strip creation site workshop, and coming up with suitable dialogues and situations, I'd like to share the link to the OSYM website where you can download three types of exams which include English tests consisting of questions about dialogues and situations:
  1. The first exam type is "Öğrenci Seçme ve Yerleştirme Sınavı (ÖSYS)". 
  2. The second type is "Kamu Personeli Yabancı Dil Bilgisi Seviye Tespit Sınavı ( KPDS )". 
  3. The last type is "Üniversitelerarası Kurul Yabancı Dil Sınavı ( ÜDS )". 
The first type is the easiest; however, the others are worth looking at as they may also include some questions relevant to our students as they approach the proficiency level. 
  • The exams are arranged according to the years in a descending order. so the ones at the top have the most current questions. 
  • Although some of them may sound meaningless, the majority is good, and we can make use of them as they are prepared by a committee and most probably piloted.
When you click on each exam, you will see a list of the exam components. Look for "İngilizce Testi" and/or "İngilizce Testi Cevap Anahtarı". When you click on it and you will download a PDF and find the questions (and in the case of the second type, the answer key.)

If you do make comics based on dialogue completion or response to a situation, please share your images by uploading them to our blog and TAG them with 'EPE DIALOGUE' or 'EPE SITUATION'.  Thanks!

New EPE test items: dialogue completion and situation responses

The revamped English Proficiency Exam here at METU now includes a number of new test items.  The format, content and skills works related to some of the new items in will produce some challenges for teachers.

As normal, the test items will be devoid of any context, other than textual clues. Here is an example of what students will face on the EPE for the new test item for dialogue completion. What is the answer?  

Clerk: Next please. How can I help you?
Dina: I‘d like to open a bank account. ____ (22)____
Clerk: Only a copy of your ID card.
Dina: I only have my student ID card with me. Is it OK?
Clerk: Sure. And please fill in this form while I‘m photocopying your ID card.

For teaching purposes, working with such a dialogue in text-only format may present a challenge both for teachers as well as students.

Visualization and context through comics
  • Visualization clues, using pictures, realia, etc., are all tools of the teaching trade.  Creating a comic strip is another technique that is not normally available to teachers who are 'drawing-challenged' (such as myself!) 
  • However, the Internet has the answer.  Here is an example of a test item for dialogue completion as a comic (using

There are many other other comic creation sites around, but is probably the easiest.
  • The site is all black and white, but the characters have a useful range of emotions to choose from.  
  • Note that you cannot change anything once you've published it (unless you save it as a JPEG and edit it in an image editor like PAINT or GIMP).  
  • Also, make sure you send yourself the link to the comic so you can retrieve it in the future in case you lose the picture that you copy (generally using PRINT SCREEN or any SCREENSHOT program that you have.)
The other site that is worth a good look at is  This is a much more sophisticated than MakeBeliefsComix, but you can also waste a bit more time using all the features until you get used to the interface.  You can register and save your 'toons' in your account. Although you can't change them from your own account, others you share the 'toon' with can make changes.  Here is an example of the same dialogue complete in a ToonDoo to get a flavour of the difference in output.

If you find another site that you like and find useful in this context, please share your link by adding a comment.
Visualization and context through animation

There are other 'multimedia' options for dialogue completion, perhaps to add a bit of variety to comics, and the other techniques you employ from your personal bag of teaching tricks.
  • There is another animation tool, XTRANORMAL, which you can find in Youtube's create video option (, that allows you to add pauses and gestures.  
  • Using these you can create a 'gap' in the dialogue which could be another way to expose students to dialogue completion tasks.


Preparation for another test item, responding appropriately to a situation, may also benefit from the use of comics when presenting and practicing the skill in class.  Here is an example of a test item for response to a situation. What is the answer?

Your friend is supposed to pick you up from the station and you know that he/she is waiting for you now, but you have missed the train and you will be one hour late.
Call your friend and apologize by explaining the situation: ____(27)____

Again, creating a simple comic strip can perhaps bring the situation to life in class.  Here is a simple example of a MakeBeliefsComix for the situation above.  Click on the image to see the full-size version.

Learner awareness

If you are thinking of how to introduce the new test items in class, here are two draft worksheets (with tasks created using Teacher's Pet) that you can download and adapt.  These are in OpenOffice format.
  1. Worksheet to introduce Dialogue Completion
  2. Worksheet to introduce Response to Situation.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Now, a web site that makes a reading lesson for you

The site claims that all you have to do is find a suitable reading text, then "copy, paste, and submit. Simple, fast, and free" way to create a reading lesson.

  • In fact, I tried it and it is pretty good, I must admit. 
  •  However, you do have to do some thinking and make some decisions along the way. But the end product is certainly more than worth the effort. Check out the teacher introductory slidecast at Introduction to LessonWriter

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Make Ideas Real with SketchUp

I've played with SketchUp a bit in the past, but I hadn't thought too much about using in an English language teaching context. This short video just gives you a flavour for what can be done in Sketchup.

Here is a recent promotion that illustrate how GOOGLE SketchUp can 'mash' with GOOGLE Earth, in terms of modeling buildings and even neighbourhoods.

And here is an example of using SketchUp to visualize a project.

How to use this with students?

  1. Even at beginner or elementary levels, students can exercise their creativity and design their 'dream' home. They could then present this to their friends, to recycle vocabulary about furniture and rooms, as well as giving a 'guided' tour using directions, etc.
  2. Sketchup isn't restricted to architecture. Inventors use it to draw designs, and my friend suggested I use it to plan our garden. So, students could use Sketchup to visualize almost anything, and then use this visualization as a basis to practice real language, either by describing their creation or fielding questions from their peers.
  3. You could set a task to redesign the classroom, and have competitions for the best overall conception.
What I like about Sketchup
  1. Well, for a starter, it is free.  
  2. It seems to be fairly intuitive, and there is a GOOGLE SKETCHUP for Educators page at and a blog, so you can get up to speed quite quickly.
  3. Students find this sort of 'virtual' reality tool quite intuitive, so as teachers we can give them licence to put their imagination to work and then use their creations as access points to focus on the language that naturally evolves.
  4. Learning vocabulary is especially enriched when students can make their own associations to images; creating their own designs would allow them to individualize their lexis development.  Especially at university preparatory schools, where students will enter their undergraduate programmes after reaching the English proficiency required, this could provide a great way to allow students to learn English in the context of their field of interest.
  5. It is part of the GOOGLE suite of applications, so you can mashup up with GOOGLE earth, publish to YouTube and easily blog in BLOGGER.
What I am not sure about Sketchup
  1. The free version does have limitations.
  2. You need to download the Sketchup program on your computer (a bit like GOOGLE Earth), so you need relatively good Internet connection.
  3. Students would need to have concrete language tasks linked to any project that is assigned, to create a solid connection to the language syllabus.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Language and Your Brain

Lots of new research on the brain and language.  This is in fact, quite an nice infographic of relatively well-established research, but it might be interesting for students who are attempting to learn a foreign language.  The site itself has some ideas for using it in a lesson.

Certainly is comforting to me, who still struggles to communicate in basic terms in Turkish after living in North Cyprus for quite a few years. :)

Via: Voxy Blog

Monday, November 7, 2011

IATEFL webinar on Mobile Learning

Talip's demonstration of the mobile phone app for flashcards would suggest that the IWB is NOT the way of the future, but mobile learning is.

  •  The very simple example of creating flashcards 'on the fly' in class, and then publishing them to a web-based flashcard site was impressive in terms of its simplicity. 
  •  However, the real revolution was revealed by the fact that student can immediately download the flashcard set on their smart phones on their way to the canteen during the break. 

 So, have fun with the IWB when you can, but if you're looking to the future, then you should start getting up to speed on mobile learning technologies and techniques. IATEFL is hosting a webinar on Mobile Learning on 18 December, which will reveal the current state of mobile learning.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Innovative Educator: Why Smartboards are a Dumb Initiative

I love technology, but I must admit that when it comes to justifying the purchase of an interactive whiteboard, I am more of a luddite. Here is a good article that sums up my reservations about the interactive white board...

The Innovative Educator: Why Smartboards are a Dumb Initiative: By Michael Staton Cross posted at Edumorphology:  "I roll my eyes every time I hear people talk about putting Smartboards in the classroom. Ug..."