I was fortunate to meet Junko Yamanaka at the 5th Annual Extensive Reading Seminar in Nagoya, Japan. She is a well known figure in extensive reading circles, especially in Nagoya, and I have used several of her textbooks very successfully. We talked about her experience as a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer, about education in Japan, and many other things. It was great to finally meet her!

Thanks also to the JALT ER SIG for putting on such a great event and doing such great work all year round promoting Extensive Reading in Japan.

I was very pleased to spend some time with Dr. Stephen Krashen at the 5th Annual Extensive Reading Seminar in Nagoya, Japan. Dr. Krashen is a man so well known that even my wife was impressed when I set this one up. We talked about some of his hundreds of publications, about his groundbreaking hypotheses, and about learning to read in first and second languages.

If you would like to know more, Dr. Krashen makes plenty of his work available online. Scott Thornbury’s blog post ‘K is for Krashen’ is interesting as ever, but the comments (including those from Stephen Krashen himself) add value. Finally, thanks to the JALT ER SIG for putting on such a great event and doing such great work all year round promoting Extensive Reading in Japan.

As mobile learning takes off, it’s inevitable that the big publishers are going to want in on the act. The question is, will they do a good job? Oxford University Press have started fairly gently by adapting existing print products for the iTunes store, and have very kindly gifted me a number of iPad apps for review. In today’s post I would like to focus on their dictionary apps.

The first is the Oxford Advanced Learners dictionary, (ALD) which I suppose we ought to look at as both a dictionary and as an app. As a dictionary, I like it – the definitions are clear and there are plenty of authentic (at least, they look authentic) example sentences. Words are also marked with symbols to indicate their ‘importance’ – a key shows that the word is within the Oxford 3000, and AWL indicates that the word is on the Academic Wordlist. Both lists are based partly or solely on corpora, and are worth taking the time to explain to students as part of dictionary training.

As an app it has strengths and weaknesses. The best way to look at it, I think, is in comparison with two other dictionaries I frequently use. One is the combined Deluxe Oxford Dictionary of English and Oxford Thesaurus of English which I bought for myself some time ago. At nearly forty quid, It’s not cheap by any means, but I find it pretty handy – especially when I sit down with my Guardian crossword. The other is a Japanese / English dictionary called Midori which I use as a learner of Japanese. Let’s look at the features in comparison.


Midori has none. The deluxe plays words in isolation, but the ALD wins here with it’s bank of audio example sentences. This can be downloaded for use off line, or not, depending on your memory space, at no extra cost. Both American and British banks are available.

Lists and Folders

One of the problems I have with dictionaries (as both a teacher and a learner) is that it’s very easy to look up a word, use it, and instantly forget it. These apps all allow book marking for later review with varying degrees of success. In the ALD, users can save words to a list, but that’s all. If you are good at reviewing at the end of the day, and transferring such information to organised notebooks or flashcards, then great, but otherwise it’s not especially helpful. The Deluxe is more useful, in that it allows the user to create and save words to certain folders. This way a user can organise lists to review in their own way… and as a teacher I can create lists to pull up in particular classes if I anticipate vocabulary ahead of time. Best of all though, by a clear margin, is the Midori app. Users can create their own folders, and the app will take your saved lists and turn them instantly into two sided flashcards. It also has a number of ready made lists, including sets of characters learnt by pupils in each year of elementary school, and sets for each level of the internationally recognised Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Perhaps this is not a like for like comparison – translating dictionaries and monolingual dictionaries are not really the same thing. Nonetheless, I feel that an app should offer something which its paper equivalent can’t apart from portability and novelty.


All three dictionaries have a ‘jump’ function, enabling the user to press a word or character within a definition and leap on to the entry for that word.  The Deluxe lets readers switch between the thesaurus and dictionary for the same word.  All three dictionaries will also automatically save your history, so if you know you checked a word yesterday you can pop back and find it again. As well as keyboard entry, you can look up words on Midori by using your finger or a stylus to write characters directly onto the screen. Japanese lends itself to such input methods, of course, but it might be a useful feature for students who want to check their handwriting in English!

Other Settings

Midori is plain black and white with a hint of red. But the OUP apps are far more customisable in terms of style, font sizes and colours. The ALD can also be adapted to show or hide certain aspects of definitions.

If you are looking for an English dictionary (and I think it’s a pretty important tool for a teacher) then I would certainly recommend both the OUP offerings. The features they have are generally well done and, compared to the cost of an electronic dictionary,  these are very portable and user-friendly. Both are compatible with iTouch, iPhone and iPad.

However, this is a hard review to write, as I realise my criticisms are not about what the apps do badly; rather, what they might possibly do but don’t. The best app developers are fully exploring the opportunities mobile learning affords. Features like jump navigation and audio examples are great compared to paper dictionaries, but nothing new to my Japanese learners used to electronic dictionaries. Whilst the OUP dictionaries are very nice looking, easy to use, and functional, neither will change the way you learn. A dictionary like Midori, on the other hand, might. A dictionary with the best features of all of them would absolutely blow your socks off!

An Interview with Miles Craven from darren elliott on Vimeo.

I first saw Miles speak a couple of years ago at another JALT event, and at the time was very impressed with his fair but candid assessment of writing and publishing in ELT. When I started this series he was one of the people I was hoping to talk to, so I was delighted to see his name as a featured speaker at this years JALT conference in Shizuoka.  Amongst other things, we talked about how a book is put together, design, the pain of writing, the needs of students and teachers and the future of the publishing industry.

The edit point is for me to politely ask a couple of blokes to pipe down, not for Miles to dish any major dirt on well-known authors, so don’t get too excited. Once again, the worms-eye view is in operation. We do what we can with the equipment…..

In a previous post I mentioned an article I had read on ‘nativised’ reading materials – readings which are adapted to include local (and familiar) names, places and foods (for example) whilst retaining the vocabulary and grammar structures of the original. In the article, the researchers took a story based in New York and transplanted it to Canakkale, a coastal Turkish city. The authors reported that students’ reading fluency was best with a combination of pre-reading tasks and ‘nativised’ readings. I had a little correspondance with Salim Razi, one of the authors, who is kind enough to allow me to reproduce some of his insights here.

Recently I have been reading a book titled ‘Acts of reading: Exploring connections in pedagogy of Japanese’ which was edited by Hiroshi Nara and Mari Noda (2003). It might help me answer your question, I suppose. Nara gives an example of a tofu recipe in the book (I think, you are familiar with tofu soup as you are living in Japan but I am not as a Turkish resident). It is important to make an awareness of the topic by providing essential background knowledge in case of lack of relevant prior knowledge; however it is also important to provide the balance between teaching culture and reading comprehension. The teacher needs to consider his/her aims in asking students to read the text. If the aim is comprehension then is it really vital to spend much time on culture? I do not mean to imply that we should not teach culture in foreign language classes; but I try to stress that culture should be taken into consideration when it is necessary. Especially if we are teaching English which has more non-native speakers than native ones and called as franca lingua. The case might be different for Japanese language teaching as Japan is the only country in the world speaking it. We have Japanese language teaching department here at Canakkale and I know that they integrate much more cultural elements into their curriculum.

It’s a point I think we have to consider. If we learn the Japanese language, we need to study the culture too. I don’t disagree with that. Is English different from other languages in this regard? Is there even an ‘English’ culture? And how do teachers of Spanish, French, Arabic and other languages with a wide range deal with it? Is it a debate for them too?

I didn’t set out to rip off Lindsay Clandfield’s excellent blog gimmick, but it turned out that the number of free online journals I like is six!

First up is elearn magazine, collecting papers on learning with technology (mainly) for educators in tertiary education. The journal has been going for a few years now, and still has a fairly strong focus on multi-media online programmes (what might be called Virtual Learning Environments) rather than individual applications or websites. It also looks at the deeper impact of changing technology on the ways that we learn and teach. Stephen Downes’ article, Elearning 2.0, from 2005, is quite a good place to start.

The National University of Singapore has been publishing the Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching for the last five years, covering language instruction across Asia in a number of different languages. I particularly recommend Nikitina and Furuoka’s article “A Language Teacher is Like…”: Examining Malaysian Students’ Perceptions of Language Teachers through Metaphor Analysis, being a big fan of metaphor in the exploration of beliefs and attitudes.

The Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick produces an annual, peer-reviewed journal entitled “English Language Teacher Education and Development” which does what you would expect, very well. This article, written by the editors in the latest edition, gives an excellent overview of the project, its beginnings and where it stands now. I also enjoyed Elham Sadat Mousavi’s article about teacher stress in native and non-native teachers of English. The NNEST / NEST thing is one of those ongoing issues that never loses steam…..

 If you are at all interested in reading, then “Reading in a Foreign Language” should have something for you. It’s co-edited by Richard Day at the University of Hawai’i, a man who knows a thing or two about extensive reading. I like İsmail Hakkı Erten and Salim Razı’s fascinating study into “The effects of cultural familiarity on reading comprehension“, which looks at the impact on fluency of using “nativised” texts – the question is whether we are using texts purely for building skills, or for teaching culture and content. Either way, the study has definite implications for the selection and creation of extensive reading materials.

TESL-EJ covers a broad range of language teaching issues in a quarterly journal, usually with one or two feature articles and a lot of great book reviews. Reinders and Lazaro’s article “Current Approaches to Assessment in Self-Access Language Learning” struck a chord with me; the space at my university has been very successful, but one is always walking the tightrope in trying to encourage students to exercise their autonomy. The minute it becomes a requirement, it dies, right?

Finally, a relative newcomer to serve the growing needs of International Foundation Programme Teachers produced by the University of Reading, InForm. It is not specifically aimed at language teachers, but most international foundations are studying content in a second language (CLIL?). You should go straight to issue four and read the article about learner / teacher development through reflection by a young man with a bright future called Darren Elliott…..

Please comment on any recommended links you have, and I’d also like to know what you think of the articles I have recommended.

(Update – 26/4/2010: Comments disabled due to huge spammage! Please email darrenrelliott@gmail.com if you have any recommendations)

A vocabulary test in which the students merely have to vomit the words onto the page, and once purged walk away fresh with no memory of the incident, is no good to anyone. How can we ensure our students LEARN words, rather than just REMEMBER them.

  • Learner Autonomy – Are students more likely to learn words if they are relevant, personal and useful?
  • Learner Training – Is it better to teach students how to study vocabulary, rather than teach them vocabulary?
  • Language – What does it actually mean to learn a word? When can you truly say “Yes, I KNOW this word”?

I’ll point you in the direction of two excellent resources, and bear in mind that quite a few academics offer pdf downloads of scholarly articles on their websites these days. Both names will be familiar if you know a little about vocabulary. The first is Norbert Schmitt ‘s staff page at the University of Nottingham, the second is Paul Nation‘s page at the University of Wellington. Both are chock full of reading, but if you wander about halfway down each I’d recommend two particular articles (citations after the jump). Nation suggests self-selection of vocabulary, and Schmitt recommends a system of whole-word study.

I decided to try an experiment with a couple of reading classes I teach. As the students are focussing mainly on their extensive reading, and thus encountering completely different vocabulary, it seemed a good fit. Each student would compile a list of new words encountered in their reading (or anywhere else), and check for synonyms, definitions, antonyms, translations, word family and collocations. I also pointed out that they should check how useful a word is before studying it – most modern dictionaries (certainly the electronic ones my students use) will tell you if a word is amongst the top 1000, 2000 or 3000 words in spoken or written English. I encouraged them to choose words they liked for whatever reason.

Every couple of weeks, I’d take in the list of words and write a code beside each. For example, (C) means collocation, (ES) stands for example sentence and so on. In the second semester, I am dropping in words from their previous lists to recycle. This pdf is the handout I gave to the learners to explain the task

How to learn vocabulary

..and this pdf is the template for the tests

Vocabulary Test Template

Both are specific to Japanese learners, so if you want a word document you can play with, email me ; D

So far, it has been fairly successful. There are a couple of question marks.

  • There is some evidence that antonyms and synonyms cause interference, if BOTH words are new. For example, it may well be wrong to teach left and right together – fix one concept first, then introduce the next.
  • Some students will choose words which are too ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ for their needs or current language level.

Working on these, but it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Moir, J. and Nation, I.S.P. (2002) Learners’ use of strategies for effective vocabulary learning Prospect 17, 1: 15-35.

Schmitt, N. and Schmitt, D. (1995). Vocabulary notebooks: Theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions. English Language Teaching Journal, 49, 2: 133-143.

ibuki, reading for pleasure

Extensive reading –  reading for pleasure, reading widely, reading what one wants to read, reading at one’s current level of attainment. Does it actually work? You’ll be waiting a long time if you want conclusive proof of anything to do with learning languages, but the general consensus seems to be that it is a pretty good thing (another good article here).

The publishers are certainly getting behind it. If I were wearing my cynical hat I would suggest that they might make more money shifting millions of little books that take less effort to develop. But I don’t really have a head that suits hats, and a lot of the graded readers being produced these days are, in fairness, very nice indeed and thoughtfully put together.

The trouble is how to use them. True extensive reading is autonomous; the very second a teacher puts a hand to it it loses that quality. However, some choices are better than others when choosing how to proceed.

  • Keeping track of student reading.

Some would question whether this is necessary at all. Realistically, for most of us it is a requirement in an academic programme. A paper reading record (pdf here) can be sufficient, but this semester I am using librarything.com (a very handy guide to which can be found here). On balance, it is probably better not to give a reading requirement. If you do, although some students might choose to exercise their right to read nothing, even the most keen will probably just stop at the minimum asked of them. With no clear guidance, though, I find that most students tend to read as much as they can to be safe.

  • Choosing what the students read.

Basically, you shouldn’t, although this may depend on what is available. I am currently fortunate enough to work in a school with an extensive library, so the only limit I put on students is that they try and read at their level. I’m not especially dogmatic about this, either – I also ask the learners to find news articles of interest to them to bring in for discussion. Strictly speaking, news articles (being short and complex) constitute intensive reading, but the freedom to choose from the entire internet is very “extensive”.

Some teachers like to use class sets, and have everyone read together. Although this removes freedom of choice, it can be less intimidating in the early stages of a project as students can discuss shared readings from a position of mutual understanding.

  • Reacting to reading.

Almost all graded readers have comprehension questions at the back, and (as is the trend these days), a raft of supporting test books, activity worksheets and teachers guides. I understand that the market probably demands it, that it is a great selling point for the busy / lazy teacher, but it is somewhat contrary to what extensive reading ought to be.  A graded reader can very easily become a very long intensive reading. One notable exception is the Oxford Bookworms Club, which introduces learners to reading circles for discussion. Largely, though, most published materials appear to place greater emphasis on checking comprehension than interperating or responding to reading in a personal way.

I ask students to summarise what they are reading for one another, and to create their own discussion questions based on the themes or ideas in their books. Plundered partly from Maley and Duff’s “Literature”, partly from Bamford and Day’s “Extensive Reading Activities for Language Teaching” , I’ve set my students a choice of two assignments from a possible eleven (pdf here) this semester. It’s not huge, but it does give them a variety of ways to respond to what they have read.

There is a great deal of joy in finishing a whole book in a foreign language, more so if it’s one you chose yourself, and you understood it. If you are lucky enough to have access to graded readers, make the most of them. ( All books mentioned available in the bookstore, folks!)