Posts Tagged ‘English Profile’

Every now and then, someone recommends me to take a look at a flashcard app. It’s often interesting to see what developers have done with design, gamification and UX features, but the content is almost invariably awful. Most recently, I was encouraged to look at Word Pash. The screenshots below are from their promotional video.

word-pash-1 word-pash-2 word-pash-3 word-pash-4

The content problems are immediately apparent: an apparently random selection of target items, an apparently random mix of high and low frequency items, unidiomatic language examples, along with definitions and distractors that are less frequent than the target item. I don’t know if these are representative of the rest of the content. The examples seem to come from ‘Stage 1 Level 3’, whatever that means. (My confidence in the product was also damaged by the fact that the Word Pash website includes one testimonial from a certain ‘Janet Reed – Proud Mom’, whose son ‘was able to increase his score and qualify for academic scholarships at major universities’ after using the app. The picture accompanying ‘Janet Reed’ is a free stock image from Pexels and ‘Janet Reed’ is presumably fictional.)

According to the website, ‘WordPash is a free-to-play mobile app game for everyone in the global audience whether you are a 3rd grader or PhD, wordbuff or a student studying for their SATs, foreign student or international business person, you will become addicted to this fast paced word game’. On the basis of the promotional video, the app couldn’t be less appropriate for English language learners. It seems unlikely that it would help anyone improve their ACT or SAT test scores. The suggestion that the vocabulary development needs of 9-year-olds and doctoral students are comparable is pure chutzpah.

The deliberate study of more or less random words may be entertaining, but it’s unlikely to lead to very much in practical terms. For general purposes, the deliberate learning of the highest frequency words, up to about a frequency ranking of #7500, makes sense, because there’s a reasonably high probability that you’ll come across these items again before you’ve forgotten them. Beyond that frequency level, the value of the acquisition of an additional 1000 words tails off very quickly. Adding 1000 words from frequency ranking #8000 to #9000 is likely to result in an increase in lexical understanding of general purpose texts of about 0.2%. When we get to frequency ranks #19,000 to #20,000, the gain in understanding decreases to 0.01%[1]. In other words, deliberate vocabulary learning needs to be targeted. The data is relatively recent, but the principle goes back to at least the middle of the last century when Michael West argued that a principled approach to vocabulary development should be driven by a comparison of the usefulness of a word and its ‘learning cost’[2]. Three hundred years before that, Comenius had articulated something very similar: ‘in compiling vocabularies, my […] concern was to select the words in most frequent use[3].

I’ll return to ‘general purposes’ later in this post, but, for now, we should remember that very few language learners actually study a language for general purposes. Globally, the vast majority of English language learners study English in an academic (school) context and their immediate needs are usually exam-specific. For them, general purpose frequency lists are unlikely to be adequate. If they are studying with a coursebook and are going to be tested on the lexical content of that book, they will need to use the wordlist that matches the book. Increasingly, publishers make such lists available and content producers for vocabulary apps like Quizlet and Memrise often use them. Many examinations, both national and international, also have accompanying wordlists. Examples of such lists produced by examination boards include the Cambridge English young learners’ exams (Starters, Movers and Flyers) and Cambridge English Preliminary. Other exams do not have official word lists, but reasonably reliable lists have been produced by third parties. Examples include Cambridge First, IELTS and SAT. There are, in addition, well-researched wordlists for academic English, including the Academic Word List (AWL)  and the Academic Vocabulary List  (AVL). All of these make sensible starting points for deliberate vocabulary learning.

When we turn to other, out-of-school learners the number of reasons for studying English is huge. Different learners have different lexical needs, and working with a general purpose frequency list may be, at least in part, a waste of time. EFL and ESL learners are likely to have very different needs, as will EFL and ESP learners, as will older and younger learners, learners in different parts of the world, learners who will find themselves in English-speaking countries and those who won’t, etc., etc. For some of these demographics, specialised corpora (from which frequency-based wordlists can be drawn) exist. For most learners, though, the ideal list simply does not exist. Either it will have to be created (requiring a significant amount of time and expertise[4]) or an available best-fit will have to suffice. Paul Nation, in his recent ‘Making and Using Word Lists for Language Learning and Testing’ (John Benjamins, 2016) includes a useful chapter on critiquing wordlists. For anyone interested in better understanding the issues surrounding the development and use of wordlists, three good articles are freely available online. These are:making-and-using-word-lists-for-language-learning-and-testing

Lessard-Clouston, M. 2012 / 2013. ‘Word Lists for Vocabulary Learning and Teaching’ The CATESOL Journal 24.1: 287- 304

Lessard-Clouston, M. 2016. ‘Word lists and vocabulary teaching: options and suggestions’ Cornerstone ESL Conference 2016

Sorell, C. J. 2013. A study of issues and techniques for creating core vocabulary lists for English as an International Language. Doctoral thesis.

But, back to ‘general purposes’ …. Frequency lists are the obvious starting point for preparing a wordlist for deliberate learning, but they are very problematic. Frequency rankings depend on the corpus on which they are based and, since these are different, rankings vary from one list to another. Even drawing on just one corpus, rankings can be a little strange. In the British National Corpus, for example, ‘May’ (the month) is about twice as frequent as ‘August’[5], but we would be foolish to infer from this that the learning of ‘May’ should be prioritised over the learning of ‘August’. An even more striking example from the same corpus is the fact that ‘he’ is about twice as frequent as ‘she’[6]: should, therefore, ‘he’ be learnt before ‘she’?

List compilers have to make a number of judgement calls in their work. There is not space here to consider these in detail, but two particularly tricky questions concerning the way that words are chosen may be mentioned: Is a verb like ‘list’, with two different and unrelated meanings, one word or two? Should inflected forms be considered as separate words? The judgements are not usually informed by considerations of learners’ needs. Learners will probably best approach vocabulary development by building their store of word senses: attempting to learn all the meanings and related forms of any given word is unlikely to be either useful or successful.

Frequency lists, in other words, are not statements of scientific ‘fact’: they are interpretative documents. They have been compiled for descriptive purposes, not as ways of structuring vocabulary learning, and it cannot be assumed they will necessarily be appropriate for a purpose for which they were not designed.

A further major problem concerns the corpus on which the frequency list is based. Large databases, such as the British National Corpus or the Corpus of Contemporary American English, are collections of language used by native speakers in certain parts of the world, usually of a restricted social class. As such, they are of relatively little value to learners who will be using English in contexts that are not covered by the corpus. A context where English is a lingua franca is one such example.

A different kind of corpus is the Cambridge Learner Corpus (CLC), a collection of exam scripts produced by candidates in Cambridge exams. This has led to the development of the English Vocabulary Profile (EVP) , where word senses are tagged as corresponding to particular levels in the Common European Framework scale. At first glance, this looks like a good alternative to frequency lists based on native-speaker corpora. But closer consideration reveals many problems. The design of examination tasks inevitably results in the production of language of a very different kind from that produced in other contexts. Many high frequency words simply do not appear in the CLC because it is unlikely that a candidate would use them in an exam. Other items are very frequent in this corpus just because they are likely to be produced in examination tasks. Unsurprisingly, frequency rankings in EVP do not correlate very well with frequency rankings from other corpora. The EVP, then, like other frequency lists, can only serve, at best, as a rough guide for the drawing up of target item vocabulary lists in general purpose apps or coursebooks[7].

There is no easy solution to the problems involved in devising suitable lexical content for the ‘global audience’. Tagging words to levels (i.e. grouping them into frequency bands) will always be problematic, unless very specific user groups are identified. Writers, like myself, of general purpose English language teaching materials are justifiably irritated by some publishers’ insistence on allocating words to levels with numerical values. The policy, taken to extremes (as is increasingly the case), has little to recommend it in linguistic terms. But it’s still a whole lot better than the aleatory content of apps like Word Pash.

[1] See Nation, I.S.P. 2013. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language 2nd edition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 21 for statistical tables. See also Nation, P. & R. Waring 1997. ‘Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists’ in Schmitt & McCarthy (eds.) 1997. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) pp. 6 -19

[2] See Kelly, L.G. 1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. (Rowley, Mass.: Rowley House) p.206 for a discussion of West’s ideas.

[3] Kelly, L.G. 1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. (Rowley, Mass.: Rowley House) p. 184

[4] See Timmis, I. 2015. Corpus Linguistics for ELT (Abingdon: Routledge) for practical advice on doing this.

[5] Nation, I.S.P. 2016. Making and Using Word Lists for Language Learning and Testing. (Amsterdam: John Benjamins) p.58

[6] Taylor, J.R. 2012. The Mental Corpus. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p.151

[7] For a detailed critique of the limitations of using the CLC as a guide to syllabus design and textbook development, see Swan, M. 2014. ‘A Review of English Profile Studies’ ELTJ 68/1: 89-96

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In a recent interesting post on eltjam, Cleve Miller wrote the following

Knewton asks its publishing partners to organize their courses into a “knowledge graph” where content is mapped to an analyzable form that consists of the smallest meaningful chunks (called “concepts”), organized as prerequisites to specific learning goals. You can see here the influence of general learning theory and not SLA/ELT, but let’s not concern ourselves with nomenclature and just call their “knowledge graph” an “acquisition graph”, and call “concepts” anything else at all, say…“items”. Basically our acquisition graph could be something like the CEFR, and the items are the specifications in a completed English Profile project that detail the grammar, lexis, and functions necessary for each of the can-do’s in the CEFR. Now, even though this is a somewhat plausible scenario, it opens Knewton up to several objections, foremost the degree of granularity and linearity.

In this post, Cleve acknowledges that, for the time being, adaptive learning may be best suited to ‘certain self-study material, some online homework, and exam prep – anywhere the language is fairly defined and the content more amenable to algorithmic micro-adaptation.’ I would agree, but its value / usefulness will depend on getting the knowledge graph right.

Which knowledge graph, then? Cleve suggests that it could be something like the CEFR, but it couldn’t be the CEFR itself because it is, quite simply, too vague. This was recognized by Pearson when they developed their Global Scale of English (GSE), an instrument which, they claim, can provide ‘for more granular and detailed measurements of learners’ levels than is possible with the CEFR itself, with its limited number of wide levels’. This Global Scale of English will serve as ‘the metric underlying all Pearson English learning, teaching and assessment products’, including, therefore, the adaptive products under development.

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‘As part of the GSE project, Pearson is creating an associated set of Pearson Syllabuses […]. These will help to link instructional content with assessments and to create a reference for authoring, instruction and testing.’ These syllabuses will contain grammar and vocabulary inventories which ‘will be expressed in the form of can-do statements with suggested sample exponents rather than as the prescriptive lists found in more traditional syllabuses.’ I haven’t been able to get my hands on one of these syllabuses yet: perhaps someone could help me out?

Informal feedback from writer colleagues working for Pearson suggests that, in practice, these inventories are much more prescriptive than Pearson claim, but this is hardly surprising, as the value of an inventory is precisely its more-or-less finite nature.

Until I see more, I will have to limit my observations to two documents in the public domain which are the closest we have to what might become knowledge graphs. The first of these is the British Council / EAQUALS Core Inventory for General EnglishScott Thornbury, back in 2011, very clearly set out the problems with this document and, to my knowledge, the reservations he expressed have not yet been adequately answered. To be fair, this inventory was never meant to be used as a knowledge graph: ‘It is a description, not a prescription’, wrote the author (North, 2010). But presumably a knowledge graph would look much like this, and it would have the same problems. The second place where we can find what a knowledge graph might look like is English Profile and this is mentioned by Cleve. Would English Profile work any better? Possibly not. Michael Swan’s critique of English Profile (ELTJ 68/1 January 2014 pp.89-96) asks some big questions that have yet, to my knowledge, to be answered.

Knewton’s Sally Searby has said that, for ELT, knowledge graphing needs to be ‘much more nuanced’. Her comment suggests a belief that knowledge graphing can be much more nuanced, but this is open to debate. Michael Swan quotes Prodeau, Lopez and Véronique (2012): ‘the sum of pragmatic and linguistic skills needed to achieve communicative success at each level makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find lexical and grammatical means that would characterize only one level’. He observes that ‘the problem may, in fact, simply not be soluble’.

So, what kind of knowledge graph are we likely to see? My best bet is that it would look a bit like a Headway syllabus.

Given what we know, it is possible to make some predictions about what the next generation of adult ELT materials will be like when they emerge a few years from now. Making predictions is always a hazardous game, but there are a number of reasonable certainties that can be identified, based on the statements and claims of the major publishers and software providers.

1 Major publishers will move gradually away from traditional coursebooks (whether in print or ebook format) towards the delivery of learning content on learning platforms. At its most limited, this will be in the form of workbook-style material with an adaptive element. At its most developed, this will be in the form of courses that can be delivered entirely without traditional coursebooks. These will allow teachers or institutions to decide the extent to which they wish to blend online and face-to-face instruction.

2 The adaptive elements of these courses will focus primarily or exclusively on discrete item grammar, vocabulary, functional language and phonology, since these lend themselves most readily to the software. These courses will be targeted mainly at lower level (B1 and below) learners.

3 The methodological approach of these courses will be significantly influenced by the expectations of the markets where they are predicted to be most popular and most profitable: South and Central America, the Arabian Gulf and Asia.

4 These courses will permit multiple modifications to suit local requirements. They will also allow additional content to be uploaded.

5 Assessment will play an important role in the design of all these courses. Things like discrete item grammar, vocabulary, functional language and phonology, which lend themselves most readily to assessment, will be prioritized over language skills, which are harder to assess.

6 The discrete items of language that are presented will be tagged to level descriptors, using scales like the Common European Framework or English Profile.

7 Language skills work will be included, but only in the more sophisticated (and better-funded) projects will these components be closely tied to the adaptive software.

8 Because of technological differences between different parts of the world, adaptive courses will co-exist with closely related, more traditional print (or ebook) courses.

9 Training for teachers (especially concerning blended learning) will become an increasingly important part of the package sold by the major publishers.

10 These courses will be more than ever driven by the publishers’ perceptions of what the market wants. There will be a concomitant decrease in the extent to which individual authors, or author teams, influence the material.

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