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Online reference tools

1.Dictionaries and thesauruses

2.Concordancers and corpuses for language analysis

3.Translators for language analysis

Encyclopedias for research and project work

Dictionaries and thesauruses


Whether your students are using bilingual, semi-bilingual or monolingual learners dictionaries in paper or electronic form, there is no denying that there is a far greater range of dictionary reference tools available than was the case even ten years ago. It is not the intention of this section to advise on the use of dictionaries in the classroom, but rather to outline some of the features that electronic dictionaries include and to show how they have developed beyond the printed page. Here we will be focusing on monolingual dictionaries. Traditionally these have been used by higher-level learners, but increasingly there is a wide range of monolingual dictionaries that have been written for students with a lower level of language proficiency.

Of course, you may well have the experience of students bringing into class small hand-held electronic dictionaries, which have translation features and audio recordings of the sounds of the words, alongside pocket-sized bilingual dictionaries in book form. The one thing we would say about these hand-held electronic dictionaries is that their content is often inaccurate and that, if you can, you should advise your students on the range of products before they purchase, as you probably have done in the past with paper dictionaries.

Virtually all of the major monolingual learners dictionaries are sold with a CD-ROM. These CD-ROMs often have some or all of these features:

• searchability (which is not alphabetically based).

• audio recordings of the words, often in both British and American English.

• games and exercises.

• information on typical errors.

• the ability to bookmark and personalise.

• thesaurus functionality.

• corpus informed information on frequency.

Some will even 'sit1 in the background on your computer, allowing you to click on terms in popular word processing programs or on web pages and be taken to the appropriate dictionary entry automatically. Also, some electronic dictionaries are available free online with limited functionality, for example including the definition but not giving you the audio. Your evaluation criteria will not vary hugely from the list we looked at in Chapter 3. Suffice it to say that the more authoritative the site, the better the content will be. For dictionaries and thesauruses, try to find resources which are based on available printed materials with a good history of accuracy.

Clearly these electronic dictionaries provide a powerful resource for students working on their own and for you in the classroom. In the classroom you can have the dictionary available at all times to check the meanings of words, and, if you are fortunate enough to have a PC linked to a data projector or interactive whiteboard, you can integrate the dictionary into your day-to-day teaching seamlessly and also carry out dictionary use training sessions more effectively.


While electronic dictionaries can be used at all levels, it is worth bearing in mind, initially, that thesauruses are more suited to the intermediate and advanced levels than to the elementary or pre-intermediate levels, where much more language is new to the learner. For higher levels, they can be used to enrich and extend your learners' vocabulary, whereas lower-level learners might find the variety of language on offer too overwhelming to be of any direct use.

A thesaurus can do wonders for writing projects. It can encourage learners to be more adventurous in their creative writing at the same time as helping them to analyse their output more critically. The activity below can be used as an introduction both to what thesauruses look like and to how they work.


Once they have seen how the thesaurus works, have them look back at some of their writing and identify the words and phrases they tend to overuse. Encourage them to take advantage of their new thesaurus skills to research alternatives to make their writing more interesting and varied. This kind of fine-tuning of their language skills is particularly useful at examination preparation levels where an individual writing style can help them to stand out from the crowd.

Concordancers and corpuses for language analysis

A concordancer is similar to a search engine in many respects. Essentially, it is a small program that can examine large quantities of text for patterns and occurrences of particular words or phrases. Concordancers are often considered to be the domain of the language researcher or the kind of tool used by writers of grammar references and weighty linguistic tomes. And indeed they are primarily used in this domain. However, they have played an increasingly large part in the lives of materials writers in ELT over the past few years. Being able to make informed decisions on the frequency of words and structures, their collocates and particular positions in the language now influences the writing of much of the printed materials we see in our daily teaching lives, and has transformed textbooks beyond all recognition.

Projects such as COBUILD (Collins Birmingham University International Language Database), which started in 1980 under the auspices of Professor Lohn Sinclair, have created vast databases of contemporary text which, in the case of COBUILD itself, led to the creation of the Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary, which was based on

an exhaustive study of the created database, the corpus. Such projects have led to better dictionaries and reference works, but they are also widely used by other writers, and their effects can be clearly seen in the coursebooks we use today, as we have said. But they a so have a part to play in the classroom. Let's turn now to examine how a concordancer works,

and what it does.

Concordancing involves the use of the program itself (the concordancer) and a corpus, or large body of text, to be analysed. Corpuses are compiled from a variety of sources: written collections such as newspapers or journals, or spoken collections taken from radio and television sources, or gathered on the street in audio format. The corpus of text is tagged, meaning that each word is described by its location, its position in relation to other words in a sentence, its frequency, and so on. The concordancer searches the corpus, asks it about a particular word and how it is used, and then you get a screen of results from a part of the corpus showing the word and enough text either side to be able to understand the context in which it is used. Here we are looking at when the words since and for occur in a corpus of spoken English. When working with concordancing we have the option to download and install both a concordancing program and a variety of corpuses (often called corpora in the formal or technical literature) to our own computers, or use an existing website which queries corpuses online. It is often the case that concordancing programs will be commercial, and websites will not. In this section we will list some of the main concordancing programs and corpuses, but will concentrate on free online resources for getting started in this area. Concordancing programs

• Monoconc (www.monoconc.com), $69.

• Concordance (www.concordancesoftware.co.uk), $99.

• Paraconc [for parallel corpuses] (www.athel.com), $95.

• Wordsmith Tools (http://www.lexically.net/wordsmith/index.html), $92.

(All prices at the time of writing.) Note that most of these programs will come with some corpuses - or text collections - already included to get you started. The ICAME Corpus Collection CD-ROM, for example, includes a set of corpuses and a copy of Wordsmith Tools (for more information, visit the site at: http://helmer.hit.uib.no/icame/newcd.htm).


When choosing a concordancer, the main evaluation criterion, apart from the price and ease of use of the software, will be the type of language you want to work with: spoken or written, American or British English, legal or journalistic, and so on. These choices will influence which corpus you decide to query, and what kind of results you will get. These are some of the most well-known corpuses. Please note that access is usually through subscription.

• British National Corpus (http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/), 100 million words.

• COBUILD (http://www.collins.co.uk/books.aspx?group=155), 56 million words.

• International Corpus of English (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/english-usage/projects/ ice-gb/index.htm),l million words.

• American National Corpus (http://americannationalcorpus.org/), 22 million words.

For a more complete guide to available corpuses go to David Lee's City University of Hong Kong collection at http://devoted.to/corpora. This page includes corpuses which can be accessed freely online or downloaded and incorporated into a concordancer program.

For those who do not want to spend money there are web-based alternatives which are both free and extremely useful and, while they might not help a writer of grammar books or ELT reference materials, are certainly good enough for classroom use. One such resource is the LexTutor online concordancer designed by Chris Greaves at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong (you can find the site at: http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/ concord_e.html).

At first, the page may seem daunting, and indeed there are plenty of options to tinker with, but for a simple concordance, put the word you want to find out about in the text entry box marked 'Keyword', choose the corpus you would like to search from the drop­down 'In corpus' list and then hit the 'Get concordance' button. You will see results similar to the for and since examples above. The corpuses on this site are generally limited samples of some of the bigger ones available. They include:

• 1,007,000 words of the written British National Corpus.

• 965,000 words of the spoken British National Corpus.

• 1,000,000 words of the Brown Corpus of Standard American English.

There is also a variety of other, smaller corpuses totalling over four million words. It is possible to search one corpus, or all at the same time. You should not feel that you necessarily need access to the larger corpuses to use concordancers effectively. Chris Tribble, who has a regular column in the Guardian Weekly ELT section devoted to the subject, has argued that much smaller corpuses can be of equal use (http://www.ctribble.co.uk/text/Palc.htm).

Use in class

But what is the use of all this data in the classroom - and is it only useful for higher levels? The answer to the second part of that question, as we saw above with the concordances on for and since, is definitely not! Those examples could certainly be used with lower levels to initiate some thought and discussion on the use of these two words. The answer to the first part of the question is slightly longer.

You can use the corpus for generating test material such as cloze exercises and exam practice materials. At higher levels, a corpus can serve as a useful reference tool in the classroom for the more intricate examples of language use. For example, 'What's the difference between glisten and glitterV Parallel concordancers, which compare texts in two or more languages, can also be useful for examining how structures are dealt with in first and second languages. Let's turn to an example class now, using go to (+ the) on the opposite page. Notice that for this concordance we have chosen to sort right, ensuring that the words following the search results are in alphabetical order. This makes it easier to see which words occur with go to the and go to, and in what frequency. A concordancer will also allow you to sort left, ordering words prior to the search term.

For another useful discovery activity, try blanking out the target words in concordances and having your learners work out which word is missing in each. Although this sounds quite easy, it can turn out to be more difficult than you think and is only suitable for higher-level language learners. Make sure that the examples you use are logical enough for your learners to be able to find the missing word. Try this one as an example:

1 York greenbelt to protect Skelton. It is, xxxxxx, a function of Skelton to

2 Mhm and erm in erm, speaking about it xxxxxx and in mentioning about the

3 were a mythical thing. Xxxxxx, as we write these continuous

4 Northern Region support a Special Report. Xxxxxx, at our pre-congress meeting,

5 on the way to improved working conditions. Xxxxxx, before these aims can be

6 want to get through the business we can and xxxxxx busy we are, erm. I wouldn't

7 be doing that quite quickly. Can I start, xxxxxx, by telling you what this case

8 the problems that might arise erm there is, xxxxxx, cause for some er optimism

9 they won't be inheriting anything anyway xxxxxx close they may be. And the

10 know I reckon er when it is... Yeah, xxxxxx did they employ him? He's had

1 Which word is missing from the sentences above?

2 How did you work out the missing word (think about location, punctuation, etc)?

3 What conclusions can you draw about the use of the word?

4 What is the difference in use of the word in examples 6 and 9, and in example 10?

Key: The missing word is however. It often starts a sentence, and is immediately followed by a comma. When it is in the middle of a sentence it is often preceded and followed by a comma, marking a pause. It often introduces a counterpoint. In sentences 6 and 9 it conveys the meaning of 'no matter how'. In example 10 it could be replaced by Why.

While they can certainly be useful, concordancers can also bring a lot of 'noise' into your classroom in the form of language that may be unfamiliar to your learners and which may be distracting for them, so distracting in fact that they detract from the main aims of your lesson.

A tool like this, which gives access to such a quantity and richness of language, should be used sparingly and thoughtfully, when you think that the discovery approach may lead to a better understanding of the language you are dealing with at that moment. You may also find that it is better to tailor the results of a concordance and present it in the form of a word processed document, rather than give access to the concordancer itself to your learners. A concordancer can be a powerful ally and helper, even in the single computer classroom, and is another tool to add to your collection of useful applications.

Whatever approach you adopt, make sure that the corpus fits what you are teaching, test the concordance results beforehand so that you are not caught unawares by the results your learners may get, and ensure that they are comfortable with the tool and the technology, leaving them free to concentrate on what it produces, rather than the production process itself. For more freely-available web-based concordancers, try the following sites:

• British National Corpus (http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/), limit of 50 results.

• Bank of English (http://www.collins.co.uk/Corpus/CorpusSearch.aspx), limit of 40 results.

Translators for language analysis

Translation software is still in its infancy and at the time of writing remains unreliable and in many instances of dubious quality. However, it is worth mentioning, if only to point out to your learners the dangers it poses if they use it inappropriately, for example to carry out a translation assignment into their own language. The AltaVista site, Babel Fish (http://babelfish.altavista.com/), leads the way in offering quick web-based translation, but you shouldn't expect great results from anything other than single words or very simple phrases. Nothing you will find on the web will be able to cope with the famous Groucho Marx one-liner, Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

By now you may be asking yourself why we are discussing translation sites at all. The simple answer to that is that it is precisely their fallibility and simplicity that make them interesting vehicles for getting learners to notice the language they are working with, to recognise structures and to process language in an engaging and often amusing way.

An intermediate translation class

Apart from being a fun activity, this involves quite a lot of language processing, and also highlights the problems of relying too heavily on technology.

While the translation back into English opposite isn't perfect, Babel Fish Translator was never intended to go backwards and forwards between languages like this. The original translation into Spanish was good enough to be understood, and we have used the site a few times to get an idea of the content of certain web pages in languages we do not speak, or even to engage in text chat with speakers of other languages.

Encyclopedias for research and project work

It used to be the case that having access to an encyclopedia meant also needing to have a large set of shelves on which to store all of the volumes. This collection of volumes then became a small CD-ROM sitting next to our computers, and these days is more likely to be a collection of web addresses to useful and authoritative sources online. Informational reference sites based on printed material are a good starting point and here we would include paper-based volumes such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as Microsoft Encarta, which was originally published on CD-ROM.

Do check out how often the content is updated. Microsoft Encarta is updated regularly, but more regularly for premium subscribers than for the free version. Wikipedia is updated every minute of every day, but then we have to bear in mind that it has thousands of editors worldwide, with varying degrees of experience. All this must be weighed up when deciding which to use. In the end referencing a variety of sources may help. Sites such as Encyclopedia Britannica, Encarta and the Columbia Encyclopedia can safely be considered both accurate and fairly comprehensive, but with some this may not be the case. It is worth remembering the caveat made in Chapter 7 about Wikipedia being user-produced, and therefore potentially prone to inaccuracies.

The wealth of information contained on these sites opens up the world to our learners in a way that more traditional collections of classroom objects simply can't. Project work, biographies and other fact-based lessons become less arduous for our learners, leaving them free to concentrate on the language side of things, and able to access the information they need for any particular task from a reliable source. On the next page is an example of a fact-finding activity which involves lower-level learners using encylopedias to find out information about a country they are interested in.



Date: 2014-12-22; view: 1334

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