Language teachers know that often the best lesson plans are those they develop themselves. Course books are fine used in moderation, and there is a wealth of ready-made lesson plans that can be found all over the Internet. But nearly everything needs at least some tweaking, if not a full scale adaptation if its going to suit the personality of the trainer and the specific needs of the learner.
But the big issue is time. With all the best of intentions its not easy to set aside time to develop new materials. This is where automated text analysis tools come in handy, and can save you time when creating reading comprehension activities. One such example is lingleonline.com. They are newly out of beta, and it looks like there are still a few wrinkles that need ironing out, but it’s well worth a try. Although it is not possible to upload your own text for analysis, there is an extensive database of recent news articles from a variety of sources, and it is fairly easy to find something topical and appropriate.
All of these tools are fairly customiseable, and if you you don’t like any of the words or expressions selected automatically for the gapfill exercises you can delete them and add your own with a little extra effort.
The goal of Lingle is to serve as a platform where you can build up your own collection of lessons, that your students can actually access and use online, so it lends itself well to creating self-access homework exercises. It is also easy to print .pdfs. But as with any automated tool, you may want to do some cutting, pasting and tweaking before you’re entirely satisfied with the result. As their user base increases the tool is only going to improve, and at 40€ for a year’s subscription it’s not bad value, and they have a free 30-day trial to take it for a spin.
There is no end to language-learning possibilities that are available to us through the Internet news media. Things might be getting dire for newspaper companies, but the general appetite for current affairs continues to encourage the launching of news sites of every flavour. Here are five you might like to try, as a teacher or a learner, each with a practical suggestion for a learning activity. The focus is on learning English, but the same ideas can be applied to other languages.
1. Google News Timeline is still fairly new and has loads of potential for language learning to be discovered. It’s very configurable. You can set it up for whatever newspapers, magazines, blogs etc. you prefer to focus on. Specific search queries are also possible. Type in the query “Ford” for example, and you can trace back articles and events related to the carmaker for as many years as you care to go.
Idea. For a self-access activity, have learners research the main headlines on the day of their birth, the day of their parents’ birth, their grandparents’ etc. (if they know it). Interesting conversations ensue about what was happening in the world the day they arrived, leading into how things have changed since. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)
We have also looked at how to set up Google News for language-learning.
2. BBC Learning English has a vast range of English-learning tools that are so well known that they hardly need mentioning here. Although have you come across the BBC World Service “Words in the News”? It’s primarily set up for listening and vocabulary activities, but each report contains a link to a corresponding print article that is different to the audio report. This provides a wealth of possibilities for integrating reading and listening: predictive activities, gap fills, writing summaries. They put the prescribed vocabulary to be studied in bold – not ideal as it doesn’t allow much latitude for tailoring to your learners’ particular needs. Some adaptation is usually required.
Idea. Use the prescribed vocabulary list as a predictive lead-in activity. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)
3. Breaking News English is a language-learning site, not a news site. It has been a great standby for teachers on those days where all the best intentions of preparing a super lesson go out the window and you need something ready-made. Breaking News English takes interesting news articles from a variety of sources and subjects, adds language points, discussion ideas and other activities, and puts them all together in an easily downloadable and copiable format. Just what you were looking for, right?
Idea. Running out of time to prepare lessons is hard to predict, but if you can see ahead of time that you’re going to be running, E-mail the article you choose to your learners before the session. It avoids the problem of extended reading in class feeling like “down time”, and encourages learners to read in their own time for pleasure. This saves time, gives the learners confidence and allows you to get more juice out of the article during the session. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)
4. Disinformation. Claims to have access to “hidden information that seldom slips through the cracks of the corporate-owned media conglomerates.” You’ll find the fringe, the bizarre, the extreme and the intriguing mixed with more mainstream articles sourced from all over the Internet news. Suited for more advanced students.
Idea. For an extensive reading activity, to practice fast-reading for gist, choose a provocative article. It works best with stories that are not too obscure, and that give a new slant on a known news headline. Set the learners the task of searching the Internet for two other articles, preferably originating in different countries, which give alternative views or explanations of the stories. As a follow-up speaking activity the learner could present the different points of view in the article and then discuss which arguments seem the most plausible. A good lead in for a debate activity, as long as it’s a subject learners have opinions about. (Level: Upper Int., Advanced)
5. Euronews. One of the unique features of Euronews is that it is a truly multilingual newspaper, with the same headline articles in 7 European languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian) and Arabic. It almost seems to be designed with learners in mind, with it’s very succint articles supported with video footage. If you’re looking for in-depth reporting, this isn’t your site. However, it opens up a number of possibilities for activities where comparing L1 and L2 can be advantageous.
Idea. For learners needing to improve translation skills into their L1, select 4-5 articles (they are generally short, 120 words or so) which deal with a particular lexical area needing work (there’s a good tabbed menu enabling easy navigation of the different categories of article so not too much hunting involved). Compare the articles in the L1 and L2 and study how the key words in the chosen field are translated. The discussion the follows could include which words were translated differently in different articles, which was the most unexpected translation, which words could have been translated alternatively, why did the translator choose a particular word etc. (Level: Intermediate )
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.
Judging by the large number of visits to last week’s post on More ways to learn language with Evernote, there is a lot of buzz about the many uses for this application that helps you to “remember everything”. Evernote just won Best Mobile Startup at the Crunchies 2008 Awards.
Here are a few more tips to help you learn language online with Evernote.
I gave up bookmarking to my Firefox toolbar a long time ago and adopted Delicious. The disadvantage of Delicious is that you can only save the link but not the content, which limits the capacity to search. In Evernote you can add the content of a webpage to a note in Evernote directly from your browser with two clicks, although to speed up searching it’s best to add tags. My Evernote is full of tags to help me find language-learning tools (‘reading’, ‘writing’, ‘listening’, ‘speaking’, ‘vocabulary’, ‘pronunciation’ etc.) For a better visual presentation of the page in Evernote, you can paste it as a screenshot into the note. The Firefox plugin screengrab does this well. You can also type your own notes into the bookmark to help you remember why you saved it. There is one negative though – clipping websites into Evernote seems to be slower than bookmarking in Delicious, something that should improve in future releases.
The best way to increase your vocabulary in a foreign language is through reading. The best way to increase your reading is to find material that you are really interested in. Doing reading comprehension exercises based on articles or books that don’t interest you at all is a waste of time. There is a huge amount of reading material on the Internet that matches our interest, but the problem is that the best articles usually turn up when we don’t have time to read them. So we bookmark them, but never remember to go back to them.
I hardly ever have time to read valuable material the moment I find it, so I have created a “read later” tag in Evernote. When I find an article that I would like to read, I save it using “read later” and then forget about it. I then plan “reading time” into my week when I have a spare hour, type “read later” into the search, and all my articles are there waiting for me. When I’ve finished reading I simply delete the tag.
In the post How to improve your language outside the classroom we talked about using social networks for language-learning. Sites like Ning Networks, EnglishForum and many others use Instant Messaging for live communication with your language-learning contacts. IM or chat is very effective for language-learning, especially if you combine it with Evernote. Copy and paste your IM chats into Evernote and make time later to study the conversation to revise the language that you learned from your language helper, and to see how you can improve and correct your own language. In the desktop version of Evernote you can use the Edit/Spelling and Grammar tool to help you.
Using Evernote is as easy as writing all your notes on post-its and throwing them into a drawer. Even when the drawer is overflowing with notes, you can still easily find the note you are looking for. In addition to the text search and tags, you can also filter notes based on when they were created or modified, what kind of media they contain, or the tool you used to capture them (web, mobile, desktop, etc.).