Listening and reading comprehension with online books

Most of the information I think I might need or want to keep either gets thrown in my Evernote « drawer », or subscribed to in Google Reader, but the reality is that there are few sites that I read in detail.  I said in a recent post that I don’t save bookmarks to my browser any more because there are too many to manage, but that’s not quite true.  The few sites that I know I will want to refer to regularly and read in detail have the honour of being saved to my Firefox bookmarks.

Openculture is one of them.

Open Culture explores cultural and educational media (podcasts, videos, online courses, online books etc.) that’s freely available on the web, and that makes learning dynamic, productive, and fun.

This site is all about learning.  It is a labour of love that provides links to audio, video and text resources in English for no cost other than the time you invest to study them.  Rather than having to Google these resources separately, Openculture conveniently groups them together in one place.  Most of the material is appropriate for listening and reading comprehension practice for higher level (B2 +)  students of English.  Here are just a few of the possibilities.

In the free audio books section you can download great online books from a variety of sources (Librivox, iTunes…),  and in different formats (mp3, m4p…)  Although some of the works are downloaded whole, many are formatted into chapters for easier handling.  The books are categorised into fiction and literature (Jane Austen’s Emma, The Wizard of Oz, Canterbury Tales, Great Expectations …) non fiction (Aristotle, Descartes, Roosevelt …), poetry (Blake, Coleridge, Tennyson…) plus links to a number of specialist audio-book sites.

There are free online university courses and lectures in fields as diverse as archaeology, economics, geography, history and literature.

Language-learning has its own section, with courses in 34 different languages, including English and French.  There is also general material on language learning skills.

If you have spent any time on YouTube, you have discovered that there is a lot of junk in online video land.  However, Openculture provides links to a variety of « intelligent video collections« , touching on a large range of general subjects, as well as university collections.

Podcast collections include ideas, books and writing, film, music and museums, news and current affairs, science, travel, technology.

If you prefer reading to listening, the « life-changing books »  section will give you some ideas, although these online books are for purchase, not free download.  If you were hoping for a free book, you can click through to a number of free fiction and non-fiction e-books,  which, while not life-changing, will no doubt give you food for thought.

There are also links to a huge number of culture-related blogs.

Most days the Openculture blog has articles featuring new content which is a must for the feedreader.

You could spend hours just looking through it all.  As for me I’m working my way through a list of 15 free Spanish courses on the foreign languages page.

What are you going to start with?  So much free learning to be had!  For some specific ideas on using Open Culture resources for language learning, try the following:

Newspapers aren’t dead – yet – how to use a pdf version of front page news for tried and true newspaper activities for language learners.

photo credit: Stella Dauer cc

Golden rules for English articles

Should I use the, a/an or no article? How can I know for sure? Are there any rules? It’s so complicated!

If you find it difficult to use the three English articles, you are not alone. It is one of the most difficult areas of English grammar. I have two pieces of good news for you if you are a learner having difficulty with English articles.

1. When you make mistakes it’s not usually serious. Most native speakers are used to « international English » and can usually understand what you mean.

2. If you can remember 3 simple rules, you will avoid the mistakes that are the most common and the most obvious. Here they are:

  • Don’t use singular countable nouns without articles.

Have you seen the car key? I don’t know; there is a car key on the table. Is it yours? (not *Have you seen car key? etc.)

  • Don’t use the with plural and uncountable nouns to talk about things in general.

Politics is boring. (not *The politics is boring)
Apples are good for your health (not *The apples … )

  • Use a/an to say what people’s professions or jobs are.

Peter was a salesman, but he is now training to become an architect. (not *Peter was salesman etc.)

Just remembering these three rules will fix most of your article errors.  Do you have questions about using articles? Ask your question in a comment.

photo credit: mikecogh cc

How to improve your language outside the classroom

I learned Japanese in school.  You would never know it today because I can hardly speak a word of Japanese.  The classes were interesting, but one of the big problems was that I never had the opportunity to practise what I had learnt outside of class time.  Japanese was just an academic subject with no connection to the real world for me.

logo_online1But that was in the 80s – we had never heard of the Internet.  EVERYTHING has changed!  The role of the teacher has changed – we are now motivators and facilitators, we help learners to help themselves learn.

If you would like help to achieve your English or French learning goals, talk to us at Contact us here for a free lesson.

The role of the learner has also changed.  Learners no longer sit passively and listen to information, they go out and find it themselves.

There are so many possibilities for live online language practice with native speakers.  Here are a few links to help you start :
Claims to be the world’s largest EFL/TEFL social network with 50,000 visits a day.   It’s main strength is the forums where learners ask all their questions concerning grammar, vocabulary, idioms, puzzles and games, distance learning, pronunciation, learning software etc.  There is a large number of faithful teachers who give their time freely for advice and support, and generally questions are answered very quickly.  There are also other social networking functions, such as photos & videos, live chat, and special interest forums.  This site is HUGE – you need to go and explore for yourself.

A completely free network for language exchange.  Connect with native speakers of the language you are learning who have similar interests to you.

Ning hosts a large number of social networks related to language learning.  These are just a few:


EFL Classroom 2.0 Definitely the most active Ning network that I use.  Although it seems more directed to teachers, there are also good resources for students (try the « English for Fun and Friendship » group).  4,900+ members
View my page on EFL CLASSROOM 2.0

EFL University

Teachers and students have FUN (Frivolous, Unanticipated, Nonsense) to learn together in English and Spanish (500 members)


L’école hors les murs Teachers and students (from middle school up) from several (mostly European) countries join for educational projects through social networking (900+ members)
Voir ma page au L’Ecole Hors les Murs – School Beyond The Walls

Campus FLE Education
Educational social network for teachers and learners based in the University of Leon Spain – some excellent learning materials on their front page.

Foreigners in Lille also looks very good for French, but unfortunately it seems to be limited to people who live in Lille, France, and although it is based in Lille, France, they are open to members from anywhere.

An ESL lesson plan from « History of the Internet »

One of the obscure but interesting things I came across this week was PICOL – Pictorial Communication Language.  You probably haven’t heard of it yet – it’s a fascinating project by some German graphic designers developing  » a standard and reduced sign system for electronic communication. »

So what’s a language teacher doing writing about graphic design?  Well, using these PICOL icons they’ve made an interesting short documentary entitled History of the Internet – very engaging.  I thought it would make a good English lesson for Upper Intermediate to Advanced students (that’s level B2 for CEF fans), or an ESP class related to computer science.  Here’s the online video.  There is also a YouTube version.

History of the Internet from PICOL on Vimeo.

Here are a few ideas I might use to craft an esl lesson plan out of this video.  You can download a transcript of the video here: pdf-iconhistory-of-the-internet-transcript

Lead-in (10 minutes).  What do your learners know about the history of the Internet?  Brainstorm and mindmap a few elements of Internet history.  Depending on how geeky your group is you may wish to set them homework the night before to do some very basic research (using Wikipedia, for example) so they have something to bring to the discussion.

Pre-teaching vocabulary (10-15 minutes).  Assuming this is an ESP class you could focus on the general theme of language to talk about NETWORKS.  Here’s a brief summary of useful material that comes up in the video:

remote connection, time-sharing, large-scale computer network, knowledge transfer, mainframe, interface, interconnected, TCP – Transmission Control Protocol, file transfer, packet switching, centralised/decentralised network architecture, node, compatibility

In ESP classes I love the way that students are usually the experts, and one of the most valuable language-learning experiences you can create is to have them explain their field to you using the language you are focusing on.  Being a complete dummy in this area I will have a great time asking my B2 IT expert to explain to me what ‘TCP’ is, the difference between a mainframe and an interface, how ‘packet switching’ works for example.

You could also design a matching activity with a jumbled list of the words to be matched to definitions.  A good online dictionary for computer and Internet technology terms is Webopedia.

Viewing (30 minutes). The clip is about 9 minutes long, the speech is very clear but quite fast, and the language quite challenging so even for higher-level students it should probably be viewed in three chunks.  Why not design a different viewing activity for each chunk?

  • Gap fill.  Very easy to prepare by cutting and pasting the text from the transcript into a Word document and creating gaps at meaningful points for learners to fill in.
  • Transcription.  Practising similar skills to gap fill but a lot more challenging.  It can be a very rewarding activity too.  Set a limited number of sentences to be transcribed depending on the level.
  • Viewing without sound.  View a brief section with the audio switched off and have learners discuss in pairs what they think the section is talking about.
  • Comprehension questions.   Best for the teacher to invent his own questions, particularly if you’re not familiar with the subject matter.  Your learners don’t need to know you’re a dummy!  There are two ways I like to attack comprehension questions: the traditional way (question + multi-choice or short answer) OR the back-to-front way.  In other words, I give the learners the answer, and then they have to produce the question.  In view of the difficulty even advanced students have formulating questions, this is always a meaningful activity (see Can you answer questions correctly?).

Follow-up.  Lots of scope here.  The documentary finishes with the real launch of the Internet in 1990.  What I would probably do is to set a research activity where pairs have to imagine the script for a follow-on documentary concerning the main events in Internet development say from 1990-2000.  This could either be structured for an oral presentation, or a piece of writing.  I think this kind of activity is more meaningful when learners can do the preparation between class sessions, and can email their work for comment and correction before actually giving the presentation.

So those are some of the ingredients I would probably throw together.  How would you use a video clip like this in a lesson?  Share some ideas in a comment.

Build an external brain with Evernote

Have you discovered Evernote yet? If so, have you made it part of your toolbox? If not, read on, as it will transform your Internet experience, and especially the way you use the Internet to improve your language learning.

FACT: the Internet has completely changed the way we learn. It has enabled us to take full responsibility for our learning, and to advance in our field whether or not we have a teacher to help us.

Web 2.0 has made knowledge accessible to everyone, not just to the experts.  However, the accessibility of knowledge can lead to the destruction of knowledge if we don’t find ways to manage information overload, and efficient methods for the retrieval of what we learn.

Evernote claims to help you « remember everything ». It is like a kind of external brain where you can store any piece of information that you would like to find again later. The great thing is that there are several ways of « capturing » this information:

• making notes using desktop, web or mobile phone versions of Evernote
• uploading snapshots from your camera phone or webcam
• adding clippings of anything you can copy on a webpage
• dragging and dropping content from your own computer
• emailing directly to your account
• scanning printed material
• recording audio notes

Great, but what’s to stop you just piling up information that you’ll never be able to find again?  I remember in the days before Internet stuffing printed material and notes that I wanted to keep into endless folders where they just gathered dust because I never had the time to search through them for what I wanted.

With Evernote you will never lose anything. You add tags to all your clippings, notes, audios, scans etc. for easy retrieval. Even if you forget to tag, you can just use the powerful search function. Evernote will even recognise text in an image (scan or photo) that you have uploaded – even if it’s handwritten! You needn’t worry about being away from your computer, as the desktop and Web versions of your Evernote account will automatically synchronise every time you log on.

How to use Evernote for language learning?

The possibilities are endless. It’s too much for one post, so click through for More ways to learn language with Evernote.

How do you use Evernote?