Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Helping ELT students to help themselves. Explore online tools together!

Working together with learners to refine their online search strategies

Whenever I commence with a new group of English language students or an individual student, I always ask them what tools they're using to help them with spoken and written English in the office or at school. This includes both digital and non digital tools and resources. The reason I ask this is because it gives me insight into their preferences and enables me to see whether there is anything else that I can introduce them to that will be more effective or perhaps complement their language learning toolkit.

Irrespective of whether my students are online or face-to-face, teenagers or adults, I always open a folder for them in Google Drive which usually contains documents with the following headings or something similar:
  • Language Learning Strategies
  • Writing Space 
  • Learner's Diary
  • Useful links for Language Learning

It's the latter that I'm going to speak about in this post. I'm not deliberately promoting any particular tools here. I'm more concerned about why it's important to discover how students are putting tools to use and why it's important, that we as teachers, should take the time to explore these tools with them.

Through experience I've learned that it's never enough to just add links to a list of tools for your students, even if they're accompanied by detailed written explanations or screencasts. In my opinion, it's worthwhile sitting down with your learners and working through the process of what they actually do when they search for words or phrases. I always find working through this process extremely enlightening because the steps they take are made visible. This visualisation of the process enables the students to see for themselves what's more effective and what can they do to ensure that their searches are producing reliable results. It also provides an opportunity for them to learn from one another and the  search strategies they're implementing. And I benefit as well. I learn more about my students and what they're doing to become more autonomous as language learners. It's all too easy for them to rely on me to provide the answers.

Last year, I introduced one of my business English groups to linguee.de. Beforehand, the majority were relying on Leo, an online translation dictionary to assist them, but weren't completely satisfied with it. The main problem being, that not enough context is displayed in the search results and this sometimes makes it difficult for them to decide whether they can use the word or phrase in their text or not. However, this is not the case with linguee.de as you can see from the example below. At the top of the site you're provided with translations and below this, the search word or phrase is contextualised.

                                               Image 1. Excerpt Linguee.de

It was only a couple of weeks ago that one of my business English students thanked me for introducing their group to linguee.de. She commented that it was of enormous assistance when writing any kind of business correspondence. But she also asked if there were any other tools that could help them check if they were using prepositions and word combinations correctly. I informed the group that the following lesson we'd look at Just The Word and SkELL (Sketch Engine for Language Learning) and also explore how they've been using linguee.de.

Exploring Just The Word, SkELL and Linguee.de 

I commenced this lesson by first discussing with my language students what steps they undertake when they need to translate a German word or phrase into English, or when they need to check that what they've written in English is in fact correct and appropriate for their requirements. The answers were interesting and diverse. Linguee.de seemed to be the favourite online tool. As to other strategies these included, asking someone in the office, searching through previous correspondence, searching Google for similar word usage, using gut feeling and asking me. It's worth noting that the students didn't mention dictionaries at all despite using Leo. I've noticed this with other language groups of mine. I don't know whether this is connected to earlier behaviour in other formal learning situations or whether they've become accustomed to using search engines and hence, dismiss specific tools such as dictionaries.

After this initial discussion, we delved into their search habits in more detail. I handed out part of a flowchart that I'd created and asked my students to choose between using this as a model to map out their online search strategies step for step, or commence with the prepared template and adjust it accordingly. Linguee.de was chosen as the first port of call for the majority, so I beamed the site up on the wall and asked my students to demonstrate how they go about searching for something. This is where I learned a lot about their search techniques and how they were using this specific tool.

This demonstration highlighted that some students:
  • only used the top part of the site (see image 1 above), and were satisfied with a decontextualised translation rather than browsing through the excerpts
  • read only the first couple of excerpts and chose what they felt was the closest result
  • used German to English translation but didn't check these results against an English to German search (This can be very revealing at times and is worth doing.)
  • didn't check these results against any other sources
  • didn't check where these excerpts were extracted from. (The primary source is always supplied as a hyperlink next to the text. I recommend that users do check these sources for reliability.)

After discussing what their search techniques revealed, I asked the group what they would do if their search in linguee.de wasn't satisfactory. They reiterated the points that were raised in our earlier discussion such as, asking office friends or asking me etc. So I prompted further and asked what steps  would they take if these other options weren't fruitful. This is where the dubious answers crept in e.g. using gut feeling or taking a guess! Certainly risky options when they're dealing with legal contracts or formal business letters don't you think?

This is where I introduced them to Just The Word and SkELL. From the images below you gain a sense of the potential of these tools and how useful they can be for language learners and teachers. Both tools are helpful for collocations and they illustrate these in colour in concordance lines. I feel that this makes these tools more visually appealing and user-friendly to students in comparison to corpus tools such as The British National Corpus. Ulugbek Nurmukhamedov has created a Just The Word tutorial on YouTube if you're interested in viewing it or sharing it with your students. SkELL on the other hand is slightly different in its construction and provides users with several search options and visualisations of the results, as you can see in images 4, 5 and 6 below.

 Just The Word images

                                 Image 2. Screenshot JTW illustrating collocations

                            Image 3. Screenshot JTW illustrating concordance lines

SkELL images


                               Image 4 Screenshot SkELL. Word sketch function / collocates


                                 Image 5 Screenshot SkELL. Example function / concordance lines


                                Image 6 Screenshot SkELL. Similar word function / not only synonyms 

Getting back to the purpose of this blog post, as I  previously stated, I feel that it's not enough just to pass on links to learners. They need to try them out for themselves in order to make their own decisions about their usefulness. With this particular group, I designed a translation task (as they have to do this quite often in the office), whereby the learners once again mapped out their search process step by step. Interestingly enough, the steps varied as did the completed translations. We compared all of the results and examined the steps that each student took to achieve their final text. And together, we explored whether or not the process could have been made more efficient.

For the future, I've asked this group to try and put into practice what they've learned from this experience and to try and be more conscious of what they're doing when they undertake online searches. We're going to have a reflective discussion session on this in a couple of months time to see whether their search strategies have improved or changed in any way.


From my perspective as a language teacher, I found this experience invaluable. I learned quite a bit about my students' online search behaviour, through the discussions we had, by exploring their flowcharts which made each individual's search process visible and by observing them search online.

So if I could pass on a tip to other educators it would be, don't only share links or resources with your learners in documents or via other channels,  take the time to explore the tools and resources together.  Encourage discussion and examine the pros and cons of each tool. This will then enable them to make informed decisions about the usefulness and suitability of tools in regard to their personal learning requirements and assist them in refining their searches.

List of tools

British National Corpus

Just The Word





Just The Word: Tutorial YouTube video, added by Ulugbek Nurmukhamedov [Online].
Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQZx0YNTUFo (Accessed 2 June 2015)

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