Thursday, 30 January 2014

Word clouds: a great way to focus on form?

Podcasting, as illustrated by MyBrainshark, the topic of my last post, clearly has a lot of pedagogic potential and I'm pretty enthusiastic about it just now.

In today's post, though, I'd like to look at the idea of "Word clouds" and their potential to help language teachers focus learner attention on vocabulary and language forms. The first tool I'd like to review is Wordle, a free Internet-based application which allows you to input texts and then generate "word clouds" based on them. 

So here is one I prepared earlier, based on the transcript from the podcast I gave last time:

I've chosen to display words horizontally, but several display options exist (e.g. vertically, 50/50, "any which way"). I've also reduced the number of words shown from the 150 most common within the overall text to the top 30. This gives the key words from the test the greatest visual prominence; the most frequently occurring words are the largest of all. A significant variety of fonts, layouts and colour schemes for background and text is also available.

Relevance and rationale
Reading activities in ELT textbooks are often preceded by a short introduction focusing learner attention on the topic, topic vocabulary, or both. Wordle makes it easy for teachers to do the same with authentic texts in a way that is visually appealing.

Compared with a number of other tools, an advantage worth noting is that the images generated by Wordle are essentially yours: you don't need to sign up for an account or provide an e-mail address in order to use to the tool.

Propensity to promote language learning
In its basic form, Wordle is easy to use, and that's a definite plus for teachers who can experiment until they find designs that best suit their purposes. It's visually appealing, too: much better, you might argue, than a mere word list for teaching vocabulary! In a separate post which also looks at other "word cloud" tools, Shelly Terrell suggests ways in which phrases may be grouped together for such a purpose, or even overlaid on an image.

Wordle can also support reading lessons, as Russell Stannard points out. Word clouds can be used for the purposes of predicting what a text will be about. You can also elicit from students what they think key words mean. At higher ability levels, you can also use the tool to help students look for dominant motifs in "serious" discourse (see Teachers First for this, and other more challenging suggestions).

Russell is also right to point out that Wordle can also be used to support peer review of students' writing. It may help raise awareness of how the use of synonyms and a greater variety of language can improve one's style.

There are a few limitations, unfortunately. Once a "wordle" has been created, you cannot really modify the words; "randomizing" the design also does not allow you to go back to what you had earlier.

In addition, you cannot specify the canvas size or shape using the tool. Posters (e.g. Glogster) or web pages such as this blog may require more flexibility. I did find a way round this problem using a combination of Jing and Screencast to get the image shown here the size I wanted it, but I had to teach myself how to use another tool to achieve the end result.

Overall, though, Wordle looks like a good tool and worth using in a number of ways to focus learner attention on key words in texts you're showing them or in their own compositions. It doesn't have the "thesaurus" capability of Wordsift (another good tool), but it's a colourful way to do something akin to concordance analysis and looks nice: used well, I believe it can engage learners. I'd like to give it a try next time I have the opportunity.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

MyBrainshark: the incredible value of voice-over

This week at Warwick we had the unique privilege of being taught by Russell Stannard, who probably needs no introduction!

In the first of two sessions we were introduced to a number of important tools, several of which have considerable potential in terms of podcasting/vodcasting. They all have their uses and it was great to be shown!

Today, however, I'd like to focus on one in particular - MyBrainshark - as I believe it has huge potential: not just in terms of getting students to practise speaking (Russell is certainly right about that), but also in terms of facilitating constructivist learning in blended or "flipped classroom" contexts.

To illustrate what I mean, here is a short presentation I prepared earlier on the subject of "Learning Styles", a topic that aroused a great deal of interest during this week's EVO2014 Business English Teachers course (something I've been participating in online in parallel to my MA studies). In so doing, I'd like to thank the webinar presenter, Marjorie Rosenberg for getting me so interested in the topic.

I've used the tool in conjunction with PowerPoint in this instance, but MyBrainshark in fact works equally well with Word documents, PDF files and even pictures/videos…it compresses all the information and makes it available on the web. And in its basic form, it's free!

[Russell Stannard provides an excellent, step-by-step guide to the tool at]

Relevance and rationale
As such, it permits the easy distribution of mini-lectures like the one I've embedded above. These can be viewed by learners ahead of class, meaning they turn up briefed on the subject that's to be studied. 

As pioneers of the "flipped classroom" idea have previously pointed out, this saves a huge amount of classroom time and paves the way for students to concentrate on applying, rather than simply receiving ideas in class. Meanwhile, the teacher is better able to position himself/herself as a facilitator of learning during contact hours, and can better differentiate between individual learner needs as they have more time to spend with the students.

This "flipped classroom" approach will work provided that teachers from the outset get students to see  that the online and physical learning environments are connected, as Pete Sharma wisely points out in another post.

Propensity to foster language learning
Meanwhile, as Russell Stannard has pointed out, this tool can also offer students the opportunity digitally to reflect on their learning and practise their speaking without necessarily feeling under pressure of assessment. In business school contexts - where formal presentation skills are often highly emphasized and repeatedly assessed, but actual introductory training may be lacking - I'd suggest this offers two good ways forward.

First, teachers can demonstrate good presentation technique simply by showing a presentation they've prepared earlier and asking students to analyze it. In my experience, demonstrating communication skills (e.g. introducing the talk; signposting language) beats simply telling students to do things they're unfamiliar with any day!

But secondly, Russell's right when it comes to giving students more confidence to speak up. By allowing students a "dry run" (even if it's rehearsed) with their presentations - and giving personalized feedback - teachers can encourage students and help them feel a lot less stressed when they have to present to the class under test conditions.

Alternatively - within a different set-up, perhaps - students can be invited to create a number of reflective podcasts and submit those they're happiest with for assessment. MyBrainshark may not be the only tool worth using for this purpose, but it's certainly a good option for many students.

Potential limitations
Admittedly, (another great tool) offers one thing MyBrainshark does not - it permits viewers to watch both presentation slides and a presenter simultaneously, in a manner not unlike a webinar (minus the backchannel element).

However, one can argue that a) this isn't always necessary for a presentation to be considered successful, and b) some learners would rather opt for audio only if offered the choice over how to create content. So if it were up to me, I'd ask learners to decide for themselves which tool to go for.

All in all, I think MyBrainshark is a superb tool and well worth using for instructional purposes in E-learning/blended learning contexts. It can also be very motivating for students to use it and receive personalized feedback from their teacher online. I would recommend it to fellow teachers without hesitation.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Triptico: a "must have" app for teachers?

Interactive whiteboards (or IWBs, for short) have been introduced into a number of classroom environments now. Other classrooms may not yet feature this sort of hardware, but nevertheless do have a PC and projector available for teachers to use.

Either way, teachers may sense this provides an opportunity to engage learners more deeply. However, without adequate teacher training there is a danger that lessons may become more, and not less, teacher-centred, as critics are prone to pointing out. Meanwhile, plenty of teachers are only too aware that they need advice on how to get the most out of the technology.

Fortunately, there are some extremely easy-to-use resources available free of charge online which have the potential to foster the sort of interactivity, creativity and learner engagement language committed teachers want to see in their classrooms. So today I'll be reviewing a particular favourite: Triptico, which can be downloaded for free (in its basic form; additional features can be purchased with individual or school subscriptions from

If you're new to Triptico, the following short YouTube video is an excellent introduction:

Getting going with Triptico is relatively easy: you simply require Adobe Air and an Internet connection (for the initial download). You can store the application on a computer, pen drive or on the cloud using applications such as Dropbox.

Triptico advertises itself as "a simple desktop app, packed full of innovative resources to enable you quickly to create engaging interactive learning". These resources include 12 apps which are free, and classified/colour-coded into four groups: tools, timers, selectors and quizzes.

A detailed list of apps can be found on the Triptico website at However, based on the evidence of last week's seminar, the following features were especially popular with the teachers taking the ICT & Multimedia option at Warwick University this year!

1) Word Magnets - a really flexible resource, offering teachers a huge range of options. You can choose from a wide range of possible backgrounds, then either upload or key in text, colour it, move it around the whiteboard/screen or even delete it. Teachers can use this particular app to highlight language or get students to practise error correction in a myriad of ways.

If you'd like to know more, Russell Stannard provides a nice demonstration:!

2) Order Sorter - this allows users to order words or sentences by dragging and dropping, and can support the development of productive skills (both writing and speaking).

3) Student Group - this quickly (and randomly) assigns students to colour-coded groups, in really rather a playful way.

4) Flip Selector - this creates swipe cards, which can be set flipping randomly until one is chosen (the settings allow you to decide whether duplicates are possible). This can be used to nominate students for tasks, or to pose questions randomly from a selection.

There's a lot more to Triptico, of course, but these features on their own are pretty good!

Relevance and rationale
Triptico is interactive, as well as visual. These affordances ought to benefit visual and kinesthetic learners. It may also promote collaborative group work by making learning playful and fun, for younger learners especially.

Propensity to foster language learning
Triptico is colourful and engaging in a relaxed, "game show" kind of way. It can liven up "standard" classroom procedures like getting students to work in groups, or nominating students to speak. Features such as the Word Magnets app are also very good, as they give students a good reason to engage with and interact with content. The timers can also add a competitive dimension to activities, although of course Triptico doesn't have a monopoly on this type of feature online!

David Riley, Triptico's inventor keeps a blog on his website, where he announces new product features and also posts videos demonstrating the tool and making suggestions for classroom use. He elicits feedback from teachers (via a contact form or Twitter) and appears to respond to it, too!

So it's likely the product will improve further in future in response to feedback from teachers - surely a good thing.

Triptico may not yet work on iPad. However, I am led to understand that David Riley has promised to repackage the resources for tablet devices if his new commercial venture ("Triptico Plus") is successful.

From a pedagogical perspective, the only serious drawback I can see isn't really specific to the tool so much as the medium. Large classes can't all interact with objects on a screen at once, although teachers can still get the class to give instructions to a student "robot" in such situations. Beyond a certain point, the pedagogical affordances may be subject to diminishing returns as the class size grows.

Overall, though, I am convinced Triptico is something of a hit and well worth using in small or medium-sized classes. I'd love to demonstrate it to teachers back home in Hungary given the chance! What do you think?

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Voki: can avatars help foster language learning?

In the coming few posts, I will be reviewing a number of tools and technologies and attempt to evaluate their suitability for language learning purposes. In so doing, I'll each time be examining the following questions:

1) What is the relevance of this particular tool or technology to language learning? What methodological approaches or research underpin its use?

2) How might it be used to foster language learning? (I shall consider this question both in relation to younger learners, and with adult education, my principal background, in mind)

3) What limitations might there be with the use of the technology?

The first tool I'd like to evaluate today is Voki, a service that enables users to create their own speaking avatars (icons or figures representing a particular person or "alter ego" in a computer game, Internet forum, etc), often for free. Here is a character I created a little earlier: you can find out what he has to say by pressing "Play".

Russell Stannard provides a useful tutorial on how to get started with Voki at It's not too difficult to handle once you know how, and you can be almost certain that younger learners will be up-and-running with it very quickly!

In terms of its potential to assist language learning, I'm inclined to say the following:

1) Relevance and rationale
Actually, avatars have been with us for a while now, thanks to online games such as Second Life. Writers such as Prensky (2003, cited by Jarman 2008) have argued that "digital native" learners find interacting in 3-D virtual worlds highly motivating. 

Voki perhaps offers more limited affordances, but studies have certainly suggested that the presence of avatars enhances engagement and learning beyond computer-mediated communication without such agents (Atkinson et al., 2005; Moreno et al., 2001: all cited by Jarman 2008). 

If there is a pedagogical case to be made for Voki, it would surely be one based on its capacity to motivate learners to communicate and interact.

2) Avatars as an aid to language learning
Speaking as a language teacher, the use of an avatar as a vehicle for student expression appears to offer a number of possible pedagogical advantages, chiefly where younger learners are concerned.

Firstly, there are unlikely to be any "face" issues if the avatar is speaking, and not a shy or inhibited learner! It may also serve to "level the playing field" in a class containing both extroverts and introverts.

Second, avatar utterances may be planned in advance and what's more, extended. The characters can be used as a vehicle for monologue, storytelling, argument, and much more.  All of this encourages learners to be more courageous, say more, and utilize more of their emergent language.

Third, if students record their own voices rather than type what's to be said, they can play recordings back to themselves and practise their delivery in a safe, unthreatening way. This may help alleviate "language anxiety" for some learners.

Last but not least, it is likely that young learners will want to "play" with their avatars, e-mailing them to each other and so forth. That's a good thing if it makes students want to communicate in English more, but one should first make sure that everyone understands that cyber-bullying isn't acceptable.

A number of interesting lesson plans exploiting Voki can be found online. Here are a few I've found:

3) Possible limitations
From an adult education vantage point, Voki's advantages seem rather more limited as avatars are by their very nature inauthentic. One could get an avatar to advertise a product, for example, but wouldn't it be better to record the learners themselves?

Similar considerations apply in the case of Second Life, too. The trend I've observed is in my limited time as a teacher in higher education is instead one towards authentic communication between students from institutions in different countries, using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools such as Facebook and Skype. Authenticity has high face validity in business education, and it's clearly felt that students need to learn how to communicate this way in order to keep up-to-date.

Overall, it seems Voki has promise, but chiefly with younger learners. Even then I'd suggest it shouldn't be overused as there's a danger of the novelty wearing off. However, if used as a stepping stone towards learners recording videos of themselves, it might work especially well.

So that's my take on Voki. Have you used the tool with your learners? Or would you be tempted to give it a try? I'd be interested to know what you think.

Jarman, L. (2008). "Pedagogy and Learning in the Virtual World of Second Life" in Rogers, Berg, G., Boettcher, J., Howard, C., Justice, L., Schenk, K. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Online and Distance Learning, 2nd edition.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Can students also make use of your edublog?

A lot of teaching blogs I've read lately are aimed at fellow teachers…and that's fine.

However, the following YouTube video ("Ten Ways To Use Your Edublog") really caught my eye for rather different reasons:

This sounds like it could work really well as part of a "flipped classroom" or blended learning approach towards class teaching. From a language teacher's perspective, key vocabulary or grammar points could certainly be explained this way!

In other words: you can place key instructional content on your blog, and thereby clear classroom time for working on the actual application of content you've already shared with students (in our case as language teachers, that probably means more time for communicative activities, writing and so forth).

Or, you could get students themselves to contribute content…it could be really quite motivating for students to see their contributions valued in this way!

Of course, the blog and any videos placed there are a permanent record…students can go back to them any time they please. And there's plenty of SLA research evidence to suggest that spaced repetition of learning activities (here: reading, or viewing videos) assists language acquisition: it's just that this time the manner and timing of learning is more personalized and self-directed.

So what do you think? Do you think you'd be willing to give an approach like this a try? How do you think your students would react if you did?

Friday, 10 January 2014

Why I find Scott Thornbury's blog so inspiring

There are some very, very good ELT blogs out there on the Internet today! Several of the blogs my ICT & Multimedia class got introduced to this week are beautifully crafted, and have lots of valuable tips and/or links to share with their audiences.

Nevertheless, for me, Scott Thornbury's blog ("An A-Z of ELT" - remains a clear favourite.

I guess I feel this way for two reasons: firstly, Scott's standing in the ELT world means that he succeeds particularly well in attracting thoughtful commenters from around the world. Most of the time, he responds, and you get the impression that everyone, Scott included, is learning this way. Scott is unquestionably erudite, but he writes lucidly and it seems that all language teachers can benefit from reading his posts, regardless of their level of experience.

However, the ease with which past posts on topics of interest can be found - by virtue of alphabetical indexing - is also an important plus. It makes the whole blog a useful resource for educators, perhaps especially for those undertaking MA or DELTA studies.

Overall, then, I think Scott's blog embodies two important principles: thoughtful and accessible writing, and an encouragement of dialogue. This maybe matters most, and he is definitely a role model for me! Which blogs do you like best?