Monday, 9 September 2013

Text Analysis tool: a brief evaluation


Have you ever considered using a text analysis tool in the language classroom?

I am sure many of you are aware of text analysis tools and perhaps are already using them for assistance when designing texts for students, or as a means of evaluating their writing proficiency for formative purposes. There are a host of free text analysis tools online and many have similar functions, for example, details will be provided concerning the number and length of sentences, word and syllable count and figures illustrating lexical density. Some tools will provide these results as raw statistics and others present the results in a more visually attractive manner, such as, by using word clouds to foreground the prominence or function of the words.

Have you ever thought about using a text analysis tool to improve language or literacy skills? The text analysis tool developed by Road to Grammar is a good starting point. This tool has been designed to give you an approximate idea of what level of English a text is according to the Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFR) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). 

This tool is not exclusively for language students, but for anyone wanting to improve their reading and writing skills, as well as a valuable tool for practitioners. To commence, copy and paste a section of the text that you would like to work with, into the box,  (see Figure 1 below), then press enter.




    Figure 1 Road to Grammar Text Analyser


You will be given an approximate rating concerning the English language level of the text, such as B2 (First Certificate in English / Upper intermediate). This may or may not be of interest to you depending on your purpose for using the tool and whether you are a teacher or a student and of course the context. However, in regard to English language students, this is a simple user-friendly way for them to evaluate their own level of writing, bearing in mind that the results given are an approximate rating.
    I have tested the tool several times and found it to be quite reliable. Sometimes it has given me a rating just above or below that of the original First Certificate in English (FCE) texts that I pasted into the box. But there is more, and this is where I find the tool very useful. Once you have pressed enter, the tool extracts words and creates a vocabulary list (see Figure 2 below). This list was extracted from a FCE text. Not a particularly up-to-date text as you can see from the vocabulary list, but I was more interested in testing the tool for accuracy, functionality and user-friendliness at this stage.





                     Figure 2


As you can see there is a 'Get Definitions' box. After pressing this you will be given a list of definitions, with examples of the words in context and their functions. This is where you as teachers can apply your creativity and design numerous engaging activities for your students, or involve students in the process of creation so that they become active participants. I have listed a few suggestions below for activities, but the list is by no means comprehensive.



Possible Uses
Depending on the literacy level of the group of students, or individual student and the purpose of the lesson, you may as a teacher prefer to initially work through the text with them in order to assess their comprehension. This could be in the form of a warm-up discussion where the vocabulary is introduced, with or without other multimedia such as images or videos; or you might prefer simple mind-mapping techniques for extracting and expanding on vocabulary from the text. The approach chosen will naturally vary with the context, the purpose of the lesson and lesson outcomes.

Activity suggestions based on the vocabulary list (group or individual work):

-   ask the students to guess what the original text is about. (This could take the form of a brainstorming discussion.)

-  students should attempt to create sentences or a brief text in any genre from the vocabulary list.

-  use the list to practice vocabulary building and change the form of the words, for example, imaginable / imagine / imagination / imaginary and then place them in context.

add prefixes or suffixes and create sentences. Individual students or groups could select a couple of words from the list and then share and evaluate the results.

-   create word maps, for example, students can select one word and build a map from it. This could include, antonyms, synonyms, homophones and so on. If they have mobile devices (and have permission to use them), any mind-mapping tool would be suitable for this, otherwise pen and paper. To introduce some healthy competition, groups could compete against each other or against the clock. They could then compare and discuss their work and put some of the new vocabulary into context through a follow- up written or oral task.

-  ask students to silently select a word from the list and other students have to guess what is it by asking questions, for example, Is it a process?, Can I go shopping there?, Is it an activity?

-   students could attempt to use as many words as possible in a sentence (the form can be changed here).

-   collaborative storytelling. One student selects a word from the list and creates a sentence. The next student selects another and tries to link their sentence to the first and so on, around the group, until the entire list has been used. This can be as creative as you like.

-  if students are allowed to use mobile devices, ask them to record themselves using the vocabulary in sentences or short paragraphs. These recordings could be utilised for peer and self-assessment in order to evaluate pronunciation and the suitability of the chosen context. The recordings could take the form of an interview, a news report, as direct or reported speech. Give them a choice.

-  teachers, you can also use this tool to create gapped text exercises for a class activity or homework. Copy and paste your desired text into the box, wait for the extracted vocabulary to appear and then remove it from the original text. Distribute it is as a word document, a printed activity sheet, or beam it onto your interactive whiteboard. You will then have several resources to work with during the lesson such as, the incomplete text, the missing vocabulary, and a list of vocabulary with definitions, as well as the original text. This is only one example, I am certain you could add to this.


Mix genres and levels
If your language students are preparing for a specific exam, this tool can be of assistance for the writing process because they can check the approximate level of their writing and spelling and improve and build on their vocabulary. Additionally, it can help them develop a feel for writing a specific amount of words as the tool provides you with a word count and average number of words per sentence. This skill is of particular significance for any learners sitting for written exams.

Additionally, I would recommend moving beyond set texts and textbooks and include authentic material from newspapers and magazines. You could preselect and bookmark some online journals, websites or specific articles for this purpose. Each genre has features that are unique to it, for example, in news articles the structure of sentences will be more complex and there is often a high number of proper nouns, whereas a cooking or cosmetic article will be addressed to a specific audience and the syntactical structure will be less complex; the vocabulary will be narrower and specialized to suit these contexts.
      The broader the range of reading, the more opportunity a student will have to expand their vocabulary. And if students perceive a text as authentic, it may be easier for them to identity with it, which could help boost engagement.

Finally, ensure that your students use vocabulary in context. Playing with words and constructing their own sentences will enable them to derive meaning, which may assist with vocabulary retention. From my experience in English language teaching, asking students to memorize lists of words in isolation does not aid comprehension, but rather, contributes to boredom. Empower your students with autonomy by involving them in the process of choosing texts to work with. It may just help to promote engagement and motivation in the classroom. An added advantage is that you can use these topics for further lessons with the assurance that students can relate to them.

Links:
If you are interested in experimenting with this tool you can access it through the following link.
http://www.roadtogrammar.com/textanalysis/. You will also find a range of other tools and resources relevant to language learning here.

UsingEnglish.com also has a Text Analyser tool that will provide you with more extensive statistics. It depends on what you want to achieve with this resource. It is certainly worth testing both tools and making a comparison in order to form your own opinion. This website also has extensive material for teachers and students as well as an active forum site.





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