Groupwork and the NASA Survival Activity

It can be vital to establish a pattern of effective group work among a cohort of student, particularly at the beginning of the course.  International students may not be used to working in groups or even using English to communicate their ideas, so they need to see that doing so can be enjoyable and rewarding, but also relevant and intellectually stimulating.

The NASA Survival Task – which genuinely originates with NASA, but which I was introduced to by the wonderful Rob Reynolds and Oaklands College, St Albans – involves a sequence of thinking and speaking tasks, and in my classroom ends with a short piece of self-reflective evaluative writing.  I first did this task as a trainee teacher on my Cert TESOL course, and it’s always gone down well with students.

A suggested lesson plan is best followed via the Powerpoint slides above and involves the following steps:

1. To pre-teach / check vocabulary, show the students pictures of the 15 objects they will later discuss.  They should see each picture for 20-30 seconds; the room should be silent, and students should not take notes.

2. When the 15 pictures have been seen, ask students in groups to recount what they saw using ONLY ENGLISH.  Slides provide linguistic structures for circumlocution; students no doubt know the names of the objects in their first language, but several are likely to evade them in English.  It’s important for them to realise, however, that they can do this using only English, so make sure nobody reverts back to their L1 (encouraging peer-discipline will help).  Assure students that they will get a chance to check words and spelling later.

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Academic Collocations : STUDY and RESEARCH

A simple task with potential for further exploration and exploitation:

Ask students to brainstorm which words they might expect to see immediately before and after RESEARCH and STUDY.  Can they identify which are verbs, adjectives, and nouns?

Brainstorming done, give the students the selection below, extracted from data provided very kindly by Pearson (see here for more on their Academic Collocations List).  Can they find all of their own suggestions?  Can they find “better” versions of what they might have been trying to communicate?  Are there any surprises within the lists?

academic adj research n
basic adj research n
carry out v research n
comparative adj research n
conduct v research n
considerable adj research n
current adj research n
earlier adj research n
educational adj research n
empirical adj research n
existing adj research n
experimental adj research n
extensive adj research n
field n research n
further adj research n
future adj research n
initial adj research n
little adj research n
original adj research n
past adj research n
previous adj research n
primary adj research n
publish v research n
published adj research n
qualitative adj research n
quantitative adj research n
recent adj research n
scholarly adj research n
scientific adj research n
traditional adj research n
undertake v research n


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Tools for analysing vocabulary within texts

Various online tools can tell you a thing or two about the vocabulary used in a particular text.  To provide a concrete example of how these work, I’m using a piece from the Economist on the legacy of the Bretton Woods Agreements.

Wordle clouds seem to be everywhere these days, and perhaps it’s not surprising when you consider how neat yet simple a tool Wordle is.  Copy and paste text and Wordle processes it, removing common function words, and counting the frequency of lexical items.  It then produces a visual “cloud” of words, each sized according to their frequency within the text.  Designs can be randomised or tweaked until they meet the user’s approval, after which they can be printed to PDF, saved and linked to, or embedded in a website, like this:

Wordle: bretton woods

As well as being very pretty, Wordle clouds have a nice application in class: students can be shown a cloud in order to predict content before reading, and if any prominent words are completely unknown, they can be checked and discussed prior to any sight of the original text. Continue reading “Tools for analysing vocabulary within texts”

What’s in the news? An example EAP sequence

Colleagues in departments tell me that they want international students to be able to participate, think critically analytically, and to be in touch with what’s going on in the real world.  This last issue seems – to me at least – to be underrepresented in the wider world of EAP teaching, but it’s a potentially rich seam of potential for the teacher and learner alike.  Students who can apply theory to practice are valued by their departments, and if doing so involves applying the academic to the real world then perhaps EAP courses should be paying more attention to what’s going on outside of the classroom.

In the early stages of EAP courses, I like to get students involved in a reading-to-write project using whatever is in the news and of interest to them.  The students pick a news item (from a “simpler” source like the BBC News if proficiency levels are low), read a text that reports it, and then attempt to write a very brief summary (50-100 words, depending on the students) to explain to me what it’s about.  I’ll typically given them question prompts as guidance (see below).

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Thoughts on writing tutor notes

Nigel Slater changed my life.  Or rather, his recipe for chicken wings with lemon and cracked black pepper did.  I was once a shamefully unashamed fussy eater, who barely cooked or thought with any imagination about food, and I rarely even glanced at Slater’s cookery column in the Observer Magazine.  But something about those glossy, sticky wings caught my eye – and my appetite – back in 2003.  I followed the recipe myself and miraculously pulled out an identikit glossy sticky feast from the oven, the warmth and aroma showing me that extra magic that no Sunday supplement ever could.  And I was converted: to cooking, to eating, and notably to Nigel.  I followed his column avidly.  I bought Real Fast Food and started to build a repertoire: penne with walnuts and gorgonzola, chicken breast with pesto and mozzarella, scallops with lime and coriander.  Every recipe delivered what it promised and what I craved.  It was easy; it was fun; it was delicious.  And Nigel’s words guided me generously throughout.  Despite my complete lack of expertise, he never talked down to me.  He taught me to notice the changing sights and smells in my pan, and helped me to understand the consequences of however I was choosing to slice and chop ingredients. He coaxed me into making my own choices with his subtle suggestions: substitute the walnuts with pine nuts; try rosemary instead of thyme; if you’re daring, melt the cheese in the pan rather than under the grill. Never any pressure, just encouragement to follow my own senses.

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Academic writing is…

I recently blogged whimsically about metaphors, the post kickstarted by some thoughts on an EAP sequence on the subject. Here I am simply to summarise some metaphors for academic writing (or writing from sources to be more exact) that I have encountered in my work:

AN ESSAY IS A CONTAINER : The essay contains ideas.  If it only contains opinions without support, it’s empty.  It’s also important not to over-fill it.  (more here – but personally I find this metaphor links the sense of direction and purpose essential to effective academic writing)

AN ESSAY IS A JOURNEY : The writer needs to guide their reader to a destination worth visiting.  If the writer begins by establishing what the destination is, why it is worth visiting, and what route will be taken, the reader is genuinely guided and will persist with the journey. Without this guidance, the reader may become lost and unmotivated.

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Who’s in the room? Metaphors I teach by

My daughter opened her bedroom door this morning, and with it a world of opportunities. She’d snatched at the handle before but never quite managed to turn it. Happy and fearful in equal measure at her achievement, she turned to me and reached for my hand before taking a step out into the dark hallway, like the world’s cutest bunny about to set foot on the first sheet of white snow of the winter.

So, a doorway into a world of opportunities. “A metaphor. Things are looking up” to borrow words (and another metaphor) from Spooner in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. I read No Man’s Land at secondary school (and loved it, not least for the brilliant swearing) but didn’t begin to understand it until much more recently. I also learned about metaphors at secondary school, and have also only recently begun to give them more thought.

At school I learned the difference between a metaphor and a simile. A metaphor is when you say that X is Y; a simile is when you say that X is like Y. My daughter opening up a world of opportunities is a metaphor, but when I compare her to a cautious yet excited rabbit, I’m using simile. This distinction is useful if we want to point out the shortcomings of others, since nothing could make us feel more intelligent than smugly telling a friend or colleague “that’s not a metaphor — it’s a simile”. If we want to try to be even smarter, though, linguistic analysis provides a further distinction between a metaphor and a metonym. A common example of a metonym would be when Wall Street is used to refer to US financial markets (a place representing what goes on within it) or when we are told potentially bizarre pieces of information like “I’m parked in the multi-storey”. Rather than respond with “No, you’re not, you’re sitting here in Café Rouge with me” we understand that the speaker is using the controller of an object (“I”) as a representative of the object itself (“my car”). Here we are in the realm of metonymy, because in context, there is a salient link between the driver and the car. Suggesting that the traffic outside Café Rouge is crawling past would also be metonymic (since movement is a property of traffic and crawling is a slow form of movement), but to suggest that our lunch hour was crawling by with all my tedious talk of semantics would be a fully-fledged metaphor, since physical movement is not a property of time. Now, if like me you’re ever-so-slightly confused about the difference between metaphor and metonym, you can perhaps stop acting like a smartarse because you know that neither of them is a simile.

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Google Music Play v Spotify

I’ve just started an experiment which I’ll log within this post.  Now that Google Music Play is on Sonos, I thought I’d give it a whirl.  I like Spotify and was happily converted a year or so ago, enticed by a collaborative playlist created for a weekend away in a cottage, but I’m very anal about music and the gaps on Spotify do bother me.  I’ve imported lots of old playlists from iTunes, and typically 5 out of 40 tracks will fail to play.  Now, since I’ve already paid for these songs (mostly in non digital format and ripped to iTunes), I’m not too impressed with a service that charges me £10 a month for admittedly brilliant access to lots of other stuff but which won’t let me play the music I OWN. If I could upload all of my bought music to a cloud to which only I have access, Spotify would be perfect.  But I can’t, so it’s not.  Google Music Play allows me to upload 20,000 tracks.  I’ve got more than that, but have settled for a “canon” of around 11,000.  A decent start, although being petty and anal I would prefer to be able to upload *everything* I own and curate later. But let’s see how this goes. I have a month’s trial with Google, so let’s see if it can convert me in 30 days.

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