Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why students fail to guess meanings of words from context

Do you ever feel like you are banging your head against the wall after hammering away at your students to get them to guess meaning from context, often to little avail.  The real crux of the matter of guessing words from context is being able to understand all the words that form the context. The fact of the matter is that the majority of our students seem to fall well below the threshold of vocabulary knowledge that is generally accepted to give them the wherewithal to understand contexts well enough to guess unknown words.

Over the last two years, as a matter of course in trying to get a feel for the profile of my students, I have been conducting a sort of 'needs analysis' of METU students vocabulary, using Tom Cobb's test of the 14,000 most commonly used words in English (see I ask my students to go as far as 10,000 words only. This tests their receptive knowledge of words, which is a key factor in reading. This is all voluntary, so I don't have a lot of data, but I do have data from 40 students (most freshmen, but about one-third are ELT students). I suspect that the trend would still be the same if I had surveyed 4,000 students. :)

The results displayed below in the bar chart are quite an eye-opener...the AVERAGE word knowledge among the students who volunteered to take the test is 4,755 words out of the most common 10,000 words. Consider that the 'barest of bare' minimums that researchers like Paul Nation suggest is 7,000 -- but the caveat here is that this should include a productive knowledge of ALL of the first 3,000 most commonly used words (as these make up around 90% of any text). More recent research suggests that students receptive knowledge of vocabulary should extend upwards of 9,000 if a student is to really function 'at ease' in English as a medium of instruction.

You can see the 'gap' in the graph below, which explains why a lot of METU students really grapple with English in the departments. It also suggests that the chances of them guessing the meaning from context as a regular reading strategy will be of limited use.  So, don't beat yourself up if your students don't seem to be able to develop the ability to do this.  In reality, the educational system has failed to provide them with a systematic approach at learning vocabulary based on the proven research by applied linguists--some of which dates back almost 100 years to pioneers like Thorndike, Palmer and Hornby, not to mention the work of Michael West on the General Service List, which was published 60 years ago--see A primer on the General Service List  for an excellent historical perspective.  To put this into more recent context, see The bare necessities in Lexis: a new perspective on vocabulary profiling and The graded reader is dead.  Long live the e-Reader for some current research in this area.

Friday, November 23, 2012


The NORTH CYPRUS UNIVERSITY FREERICE challenge is on again for 2012.  Last year, Middle East Technical University and Eastern Mediterranean University battled it out, with EMU coming out on top.  You can follow the progress of the challenge in the chart below.

In case you are new to FREERICE, here is a video that explains how playing this online game can help fight the war on hunger.

It's a new year, so METU.NCC has a chance to redeem itself and win the FREERICE challenge for 2012.  Bookmark this post, which will include an interactive chart of the competition which we'll update daily.

How to start?

Just go to and create an account if you don't have one.
You need to JOIN the  The group page should look like this:

  1. After you login for the first time, go to GROUPS and search for METU. Join the METU NCC FREERICE CHALLENGE 2012
  2. When viewing the GROUP DASHBOARD click PLAY (button is on the right) to send any rice that you start earning to that group. 
  3. MAKE SURE you PLAY for our METU group each time you log in, so that the grains of rice are allocated to our group.
  4. Please encourage your peers to play.  If only 200 METU students and staff spend 15 minutes playing FREERICE before the 31st, they will each earn 5,000 grains of rice, or 1,000,000 grains in total.  That would put enough to put the pressure on EMU to keep up.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How to use free text-to-speech software for dialogue completion tasks


Do you use text-to-speech software with your students? 

  • There are some really good software packages these days, such as Nuance's Dragon Naturally Speaking--however, the services with high quality voices usually have a price tag.  
  • one free site that I use that has reasonable quality voices.  It also has options for other European languages, like Spanish, German and French.

This free text-to-speech engine runs in the browser.  
  • You can also download an MP3 created from the text you type.  
  • In English, you can use UK or US accents, and select female or male voices.  You can also have the speech created at normal or slow pace.  
  • There are some simple 'voice tags' you can use within the transcript to change voices (if you want to create a dialogue), add pauses, or adjust the speed.
Why use TTS?

As part of the curriculum, students here at METU NCC are expected to complete gaps in a dialogue.  Students can get a bit bored of doing this on paper, so I thought that YAKiToMe would offer a nice alternative.

How to use TTS in class?

One idea I had would be for the students to work in groups and create 'one side' of a dialogue as text.  
  1. Then, they use YAKiToMe to create the 'one sided' dialogue as an MP3 audio file.
  2. Groups then exchange the MP3 dialogues with another group. 
  3. In a computer lab, the group then uses AUDACITY to edit the 'one sided' dialogue, and insert their responses for the 'other side' of the dialogue.  
Alternatively, if you only have one computer in the class, once a group has created a 'one sided' dialogue, you just play the MP3 in class and stop it after every line.  
  1. Students then transcribe the audio individually and then compare their transcription with a partner.  
  2. Together, the write the complete dialogue.  
  3. Afterwards, they can do a role play and you can discuss the variety of responses given.


I think that this would be an interesting way to practice writing dialogues.  But, what is more, once your students are aware of how to create audio from text, you could cajole them into creating their own 'talking books' class library, and the students could then use the site on their own to create and share 'talking books' for listening practice.

Just as an example, here is the dialogue I wrote:
You will hear 'one side' of a conversation with Lauren. Edit the MP3 file and use AUDACITY to complete the conversation with you as the person Lauren is speaking with. Afterwards, delete these instructions and set the scene for the conversation for the listener - who are the characters, where is it taking place, etc.
My name is Lauren. What is your name?
I'm fine.
My favourite colour is black. I am a bit of a sadist. What about you?
That's interesting. Why?
I'd love to, but I have to run.
Yes, that's a good idea. Give me a ring.
I then converted this text to audio using YAKiToMe.  I published this as a podcast below.

If you want to try out the procedure, download the MP3 and edit it on AUDACITY.  To do this, go to the EPISODE in PODMATIC by clicking on theYAKiToME podcast title.  At the bottom of the episode podcast you will see a DOWNLOAD EPISODE option. Once downloaded, you can open it in AUDACITY for editing.
 Upload your final version as a podcast and share it here or on TWITTER.

The use of computer-generated language tools is a relatively new development.  No doubt there will be more developments on the horizon.  Consider the text-to-speech (TTS) application and reflect on the issues and challenges this may present to teachers and students.  Here are a few issues that come to my mind:

  1. Would I recommend this to students for listening or speaking practice?  Why/Why not?
  2. What objections might teachers and students have about TTS?  How would I respond to such objections?
  3. Will the evolution of computer generated language change the why and wherefore of teaching English as a foreign language? 
If you are keeping a blog for reflective practice, create a blog post with your musings.  Share it with your PLN.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be.

I recently read a precis of a talk given by Sugata MitraProfessor of Educational Technology, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, at Newcastle University in the UK, and I wanted to share a few highlights here.

Mitra is perhaps most well known for his 'Hole in the Wall' programme in India, where he installed computers in 'holes in the wall' in local, mostly illiterate, communities.  The people were not given any training at all.  They would just walk up to the computer and 'play around' with it.  He went away and then returned nine months later and asked the children in the village to take a computer literacy test.  He was astonished to find that these children had taught themselves to use the computer to a similar ability as the average secretary: using email, word processing, spreadsheets, and communicating on social networks. Without any formal 'education', these children had managed to teach themselves how to use computers.  If you have time, here is Mitra talking about this project in a TED talk.

In a conversation with Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction writer most well-known for the film 2001: A Space Oddysey, the two discussed the obsession people have with understanding objects, rather than using objects to understand meaning. Mitra came away with two tenets related to education:
  • A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.
  • When learners have interest, education happens.
Mitra now proposes a radically different mode of education, which he calls "Emergent Learning".  His model is simple...REDUCE the number of computers to force people to work together (in a class of twenty children, provide only four computers so children must work in groups of 4-5), have the class elect a 'police officer' to keep 'law and order', and encourage discussion, movement and play. The 'curriculum' then becomes a series of 'big questions', i..e., topics where adults may not know the answers, such as 'Can trees think?'  Groups are given a tight time limit of 45 minutes to try to find an answer.  In order to maintain momentum, Mitra advocates the availability of a 'Granny cloud' - a network of people who provide remote encouragement and support. If the children get stuck, a remote granny is projected onto the wall via a projector. However, the function of the 'cloud grannies' is not to teach, rather they just ask questions and admire the learners.  Note...there is no teacher in this scenario.
At the end of his presentation, Mitra shared a list of provocative ideas about the future of education...the 'big questions' we should think about:
  • How do we 'test' a connected student?
  • Is it necessary to learn new languages at all? Maybe machines will translate.
  • Is arithmetic obsolete? Very few store clerks need this anymore, and we now have computing devices. Indians used to consider astrology a life skill, but it's now obsolete. Self defense with a sword and horse riding used to be basic life skills, but they're now obsolete.
  • Is vocational training meaningless? Why go to culinary school when you can watch a cooking video on YouTube?
  • Is the absence of a teacher a pedagogic tool?
  • Can cheating improve learning? If you allow some people to use the Internet in exams, might the cheaters learn over time?
Mitra suggests that the connections we get from the cloud are making our current concept of education as obsolete today as riding a horse and fighting with a sword.  Perhaps even within our generation, our grandchildren might come to us and ask us incredulously if it was really true that "there was a time that people used to believe that education was very important."

Is our current system of education obsolete? Do you have any experiences as a student that would support Mitra that 'the absence of a teacher is a pedagogic tool'?