There is a brilliant quote about professional development which I always carry with me from Scrivener’s book Learning Teaching: “Twenty years’ experience can become no more than two years’ experience repeated ten times over” (1994, p195). It’s because of this quote that I continue to develop professionally and each journey usually begins by experimenting with something new in the classroom. In other words, experimental practice. Also known as EP, experimental practice is simply trying out something new – in your classroom and with your learners – and then evaluating what happened afterwards. Taking something fresh or different, exploring its theory and then considering if it works for me is a huge part of my life as a teacher. It not only builds my teaching repertoire but keeps things from going stale after so many years.
I’ve just finished a long-term experiment with online corpora use with my learners. Researching and writing about corpora got me interested in this area and made me think about how using corpora in the classroom could help my learners. My main objective was to see if learners could use one online corpus and then analyse its data to help them understand more about how language is used. Specifically, my goal broke down into three areas:
1. Train myself to access, navigate and evaluate the most common online corpora
2. Design a lesson plan to train my learners to use one corpus in class
3. Evaluate how useful corpora are for both me and my learners
Setting up the experiment was difficult as I had to learn how to use a variety of corpora, decide on which corpus to use and then design material to get my learners using it. In addition, I also had to make sure it met my learners’ needs, not just my own EP curiosity. I found the easiest way to do this was to use this guide to freely available corpora – http://www.corpora4learning.net/resources/corpora.html and follow these guides for using corpora – http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod2-4.htm and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCLgRTlxG0Y . Once I had a grasp of the tools, I felt confident I could train my learners – but I have to admit, it took some time and patience and without knowing the following three terms, it was really hard to understand the information I was reading:
1. Concordancer: the computer program which creates and sorts corpora results
2. Concordance lines: the lines of data which are organised and then displayed in the corpus
3. KWIC: Key Word In Context – this can be selected as you input a word or phrase into a corpus. If this is checked, your word or phrase will be formatted to appear in the middle of each concordance line so you can see words both before and after your word or phrase. This gives you a better idea of context and it’s easier to follow the data.
Carrying out the experiment was easy as they were really interested in trying out a new online tool they could use independently to learn a more about how English is used authentically. Thankfully, there were no disasters with the tool, everyone easily followed the instructions and, more often than not, it was hard to stop them from using the corpus! However, as they were not used to this type of language analysis, this took a lot more time than expected and they needed a lot more guidance than I had anticipated. Here’s the lesson plan I designed and used with over 100 learners: http://the-round.com/resource/experimental-practice-in-elt/ (scroll down to get the free pdf).
I carried out some learner feedback after the sessions to see if they were as enamoured with corpora as I was. As most of my learners had accessed a corpus on their smartphone and were happily playing with the corpus options by the end of the session, I was confident they liked the tool or at least found it easy to use. Some, however, commented that it would be better used outside of class independently because too many tools in the classroom would distract them from learning. Others thought it was quick and easy to use and could be used alongside dictionaries to support their ideas about applying new language. Overall, I’m happy to say that everyone was both fascinated with and inspired by corpora – a successful experiment!
So, lessons learnt, I created some key tips for others wanting to try out corpora in the classroom:
1. Take the time to look at the different corpora available, try them out and then decide on the corpus that meets your learners’ needs.
2. Have a backup if you plan on using an online corpus in class – I recommend printing out corpora results before class just in case something happens and you can’t access corpus data.
3. Make sure your learners understand that the data is authentic so the language samples can be unusual, exceptional or even flawed.
As a final note, experimental practice should be both enjoyable and stimulating – never a burden or taxing. And if you are interested in experimenting with corpora in the classroom, make sure you download the free lesson plan.
Jennie Wright is a teacher, teacher-trainer, blogger and ELT author based in Germany. With over 15 years of experience in language teaching, her blog features free professional development resources for teachers. She also co-authored Experimental Practice in ELT: Walk on the wild side which is published by www.the-round.com.