Posts Tagged ‘video’

Flipped learning undoubtedly has much potential and now, when F2F teaching is not always possible, the case for exploring what it might offer seems greater still. For a variety of reasons (not the least of which are motivational issues), it may not always be possible to flip the classroom, but, if and when it is, how and what should be flipped?

In the most well-known flipped approaches, such as the Khan Academy, students watch instructional videos in their own time, before coming to class where they can work together on practical problems, applying the knowledge they have gained from the instructional video. The flipped part of the learning does not need to be a video (Bergmann et al., 2013), but, in practice, it usually is. But whether video or something else, one of the big questions for me is what, precisely, does it make sense to flip?

In a recently published Cambridge Paper in ELT that I wrote on Flipped Learning, I noted that it is not uncommon for grammar instruction to be flipped. Al-Harbi & Alshumaimeri (2016), for example, describe a Saudi secondary school where the teacher selected a number of grammar areas from the coursebook and then identified instructional videos from YouTube that addressed these areas. Buitrago & Díaz (2018) describe a Colombian university where students were required to watch instructional videos about grammar, some of which were selected from YouTube and others created by members of staff.

To understand better what learners might be doing in their flipped time, I decided to take a look at a selection of YouTube grammar videos. I focussed on one area of grammar only (‘bored’ vs ‘boring’) and from the huge selection available, I prioritised those that were the most popular. Here’s what I found. After a brief commentary on each of the 10 videos, I wrap up with a few observations.

mmmEnglish 1245K views 8.33 minutes


Early on, Emma says ‘These endings are called suffixes and when we add them to the end of a verb, they transform our verb into an adjective, but you need to know how to use each of these types of adjectives and we’re gonna do that right now’. This gives a good taste of what follows. We learn that –ing adjectives refer to ‘the characteristics of a person, a thing, or a situation’ while –ed adjectives refer to an ‘emotion or a feeling’. Bearing in mind that this area of grammar is listed as A2+ (in Pearson’s GSE), explanations of this kind in English may be tricky for many learners. The language grading in explanations like ‘If you say that someone or something is boring, they or it makes you feel bored. Do the thing or the person that is boring is what makes you feel bored. It bores you. OK, there’s our verb’ needs a little attention! On and on goes Emma, until after almost five minutes she reads out a few sentences and students have to decide if the correct adjective has been used. Over a million people have watched this.

Learn English with Let’s Talk 452K views 8.52 minutes

Lets Talk

Rashna explains: ‘First, let’s begin by understanding what are adjectives’. My heart sinks. ‘So ‘pretty’ is doing the job of describing or bringing about a quality of the noun ‘girl’, so ‘pretty’ becomes my adjective. So when you’re confused and don’t know how to spot the adjectives, ask the question ‘what kind’. All right. So, if I say I live in a big city, and if I ask what kind of a city, it’s big, so ‘big’ is an adjective that is describing the noun ‘city’. All right. So remember, adjectives are nothing but just words that describe a noun that tell you more about it or bring about some quality.’ Over a quarter of the way through and we haven’t yet got on to –ed and –ing. I recommend watching all the way through to the end just to admire the whiteboard work. You might enjoy the comments, too (e.g. ‘Thanks very much. This lesson was confused me so much.’) Coming up for half a million views.

Alejo Lopera Inglés 428K views 4.07 minutes


The only English here is in the example sentences, with Spanish being used for the rest. The explanation hinges on ‘pienso’ (think) for –ing and ‘sentimiento’ (feeling) for –ed, which only kind of works. Alejo takes us through a few examples using a combination of talking-head video and background slides. His delivery is engaging and using Spanish makes things clearer than English only.

English Lessons with Adam 357K views 5.27 minutes


Standing in front of the whiteboard, Adam says that his video is especially useful for beginners. He rambles on for over 5 minutes in language which is far more complicated than the language he is explaining. Here’s a flavour: Now, what does it mean to be bored and what does it mean to be boring? When we talk about “bored”, we’re describing a feeling. Okay? When we talk about “interested”, we’re describing a feeling. So all of the “ed” adjectives are actually feelings, and you can only use them to talk about people and sometimes animals. Why? Because things, like chairs, or tables, or whatever, they don’t have feelings. […]”I am worried”, now people don’t realize that “worried” can have “worrying” as another adjective. “The situation is worrying” means the situation is making me feel worried. Okay? Maybe the whole global political situation, whatever. Now, hopefully none of you are confused by this lesson because I’m trying to make it not confusing. Okay? Everybody okay with that? […] Now, I just want to point out one other thing: Don’t confuse feeling adjectives with “ed” with actual feelings. Okay? If somebody is loved, does he feel loved? Maybe yes, maybe no. We’re not talking about that person’s feelings.

Crown Academy of English 270K views 26.57 minutes

Crown academy

Using screen capture and voiceover software, the script is mostly read aloud from the screen. There is no attempt to make either the script or the delivery interesting. The approach is as traditional as can be: it focuses first on form, with no shying away from grammatical jargon, and eventually moves on to meaning. And then, if you’re still awake, there’s a discrimination exercise. After over 25 minutes of death-by-Powerpoint, the lesson comes, mercifully, to an end.


Learn English with Rebecca 274K views 3.30 minutes


From the same stable as Adam’s video, this is more controlled than his ramble, and with slightly better language grading, but is still hard to follow, in part because no examples are given in written form. As with Adam, Rebecca bangs on about how important it is to get this grammar right, because ‘if you make a mistake you could be saying something very unpleasant about yourself’. It’s hard to tell what level it’s intended for.

Francisco Ochoa Inglés Fácil 64K views 11.02 minutes


Switching between Spanish and English, Pacho rattles non-stop through 6 discrimination sentences, taking the difference between feelings (which take the Spanish ‘estar’) and states (which take the Spanish ‘ser’) as his key explanatory tool. This doesn’t quite work, but following his breakneck delivery is more of a problem. The only thing he doesn’t translate are the commas in his examples. I challenge you not to feel confused / confusing by the time he gets to the third sentence. Even Pacho seems to be struggling. Words like ‘hence’ and tenses like past perfect continuous don’t help his 11 minute monologue. I loved the way that he says at the end that the only way to learn this stuff is by applying the language in the way he has just done.

BBC Learning English 48K views 0.56 minutes


In under a minute, Sam from BBC Learning English achieves much greater clarity than anyone else I watched, helped by a carefully planned script, very controlled language and a split screen showing the key points as she makes them. Towards the end, she rattles through 5 more –ed / -ing pairs rather too quickly. It’s a shame, I thought, that she (or the producers) felt the need to reference the old trope about how boring grammar lessons are.

Shaw English Online 46K views 8.49 minutes

Shaw English Online

The explanation is mercifully brief and the language of Fanny, the presenter, is well controlled. We could do without the exhortations to listen carefully, etc, ‘because this is very important’, but you can’t have everything. A lot of examples are given, before the explanations are repeated. The repetitions don’t help as Fanny resorts to more complicated language than the language she is explaining (e.g. ‘But when you say the teacher was boring, you are describing the teacher, OK, the teacher made the students feel bored, because he or she was boring’). After nearly 4 minutes of presentation, there are some practice discrimination tasks, but Fanny’s relentless commentary gets seriously in the way. The lesson is rounded off with a few minutes of repeat-after-me pronunciation practice.

Mad English TV 24K views 6.59 minutes


In a surreal opening, the presenter talks about the three different states of H2O, before explaining that people, too, can have different states. Eventually, we get to the idea that ‘boring’ is an accusation, ‘bored’ is a state: ‘If you go up to your teacher and say ‘you’re boring’, that’s an insult’. The language grading is all over the place, as is the explanation itself. As a general rule, the longer the explanation, the less clear it is. At 7 minutes, this video is no exception to the rule. When we get to a mini-test (a useful feature that not all other videos have), the choice is ‘My cat is _______’. To know the answer, you need to know if you’re making an accusation about the cat. Got it?

Flipped learning and grammar

Although grammar instruction might seem a strong candidate for a flipped treatment, videoed explanations are clearly not the way to do it. Many coursebooks have perfectly adequate guided discoveries of this and other standard grammar points. Newer courses on platforms have interactive guided discoveries (and often also offer a more traditional deductive route) that will also do the trick much better than videoed explanations. Would learners not be better off doing something else altogether with their time? Initial vocabulary study, listening, reading, writing, almost anything in fact, is a more appropriate target for flipping than grammar, when approached in this way. Video is not the solution to a problem: on the evidence here, it makes the problem worse.

The popularity of grammar videos

It’s very hard to watch this stuff and not scoff, but there’s no denying the immense popularity of videos like these. Much as I find it difficult to believe, people must be learning something (or think they are learning something) from watching them. Otherwise, they presumably wouldn’t consume them to such an extent. Perhaps, these videos conform to expectations about what English lessons should be like? Perhaps viewers subscribe to a belief in ‘no pain, no gain’? Perhaps they simply don’t know where to find something that would help them more? Or perhaps they have been told to watch by their flipping teachers?

Emma has had 1.25 million views. Advertising earnings from 1 million YouTube views are generally reckoned to be between $600-$7000, but are likely to be at the higher end of this scale if (1) people watch the video through to the end (which is probably the case here), and (2) viewers interact with the video through likes and comment (for this video Emma has received 2353 comments). Earnings are also higher when you have more subscribers to your channel. Emma can count on 3.25 million subscribers and Rachna of Let’s Talk has 4.77 million subscribers. By way of contrast, Russell Stannard’s Teacher Training Videos has 40,000 subscribers. There’s gold in them thar hills.

Grammar videos and the world of ELT

Free grammar videos, along with self-study apps like Duolingo, are a huge and thriving sector of ELT. They rarely, if ever, feature in research, conference presentations or the broader discourse of ELT, a world, it seems, much more oriented to products you have to pay for.


Al-Harbi, S.S., & Alshumaimeri, Y.A. (2016). The flipped classroom impact in grammar class on EFL Saudi secondary school students’ performances and attitudes. English Language Teaching, 9(10): 60–80. Available at:

Bergmann, J., Overmeyer, J., & Wilie, B. (2013). The flipped class: myth vs. reality. The Daily Riff, July 9, 2013. Available at:

Buitrago, C. R., & Díaz, J. (2018). Flipping your writing lessons: Optimizing your time in your EFL writing classroom. In Mehring, J., & Leis, A. (Eds.), Innovations in Flipping the Language Classroom. Singapore: Springer, 69–91.

The idea of ‘digital natives’ emerged at the turn of the century, was popularized by Marc Prensky (2001), and rapidly caught the public imagination, especially the imagination of technology marketers. Its popularity has dwindled a little since then, but is still widely used. Alternative terms include ‘Generation Y’, ‘Millennials’ and the ‘Net Generation’, definitions of which vary slightly from writer to writer. Two examples of the continued currency of the term ‘digital native’ are a 2019 article on the Pearson Global Scale of English website entitled ‘Teaching digital natives to become more human’ and an article in The Pie News (a trade magazine for ‘professionals in international education’), extolling the virtues of online learning for digital natives in times of Covid-19.

Key to understanding ‘digital natives’, according to users of the term, is their fundamental differences from previous generations. They have grown up immersed in technology, have shorter attention spans, and are adept at multitasking. They ‘are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach’ (Prensky, 2001), so educational systems must change in order to accommodate their needs.

The problem is that ‘digital natives’ are a myth. Prensky’s ideas were not based on any meaningful research: his observations and conclusions, seductive though they might be, were no more than opinions. Kirschner and De Bruyckere (2017) state the research consensus:

There is no such thing as a digital native who is information-skilled simply because (s)he has never known a world that was not digital. […] One of the alleged abilities of students in this generation, the ability to multitask, does not exist and that designing education that assumes the presence of this ability hinders rather than helps learning.

This is neither new (see Bennett et al., 2008) nor contentious. Almost ten years ago, Thomas (2011:3) reported that ‘some researchers have been asked to remove all trace of the term from academic papers submitted to conferences in order to be seriously considered for inclusion’. There are reasons, he added, to consider some uses of the term nothing more than technoevangelism (Thomas, 2011:4). Perhaps someone should tell Pearson and the Pie News? Then, again, perhaps, they wouldn’t care.

The attribution of particular characteristics to ‘digital natives’ / ‘Generation Y’ / ‘Millennials’ is an application of Generation Theory. This can be traced back to a 1928 paper by Karl Mannheim, called ‘Das Problem der Generationen’ which grew in popularity after being translated into English in the 1950s. According to Jauregui et al (2019), the theory was extensively debated in the 1960s and 1970s, but then disappeared from academic study. The theory was not supported by empirical research, was considered to be overly schematised and too culturally-bound, and led inexorably to essentialised and reductive stereotypes.

But Generation Theory gained a new lease of life in the 1990s, following the publication of ‘Generations’ by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book was so successful that it spawned a slew of other titles leading up to ‘Millennials Rising’ (Howe & Strauss, 2000). This popularity has continued to the present, with fans including Steve Bannon (Kaiser, 2016) who made an ‘apocalyptical and polemical’ documentary film about the 2007 – 2008 financial crisis entitled ‘Generation Zero’. The work of Strauss and Howe has been dismissed as ‘more popular culture than social science’ (Jauregui et al., 2019: 63) and in much harsher terms in two fascinating articles in Jacobin (Hart, 2018) and Aeon (Onion, 2015). The sub-heading of the latter is ‘generational labels are lazy, useless and just plain wrong’. Although dismissed by scholars as pseudo-science, the popularity of such Generation Theory helps explain why Prensky’s paper about ‘digital natives’ fell on such fertile ground. The saying, often falsely attributed to Mark Twain, that we should ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ comes to mind.

But by the end of the first decade of this century, ‘digital natives’ had become problematic in two ways: not only did the term not stand up to close analysis, but it also no longer referred to the generational cohort that pundits and marketers wanted to talk about.

Around January 2018, use of the term ‘Generation Z’ began to soar, and is currently at its highest point ever in the Google Trends graph. As with ‘digital natives’, the precise birth dates of Generation Z vary from writer to writer. After 2001, according to the Cambridge dictionary; slightly earlier according to other sources. The cut-off point is somewhere between the mid and late 2010s. Other terms for this cohort have been proposed, but ‘Generation Z’ is the most popular.

William Strauss died in 2007 and Neil Howe was in his late 60s when ‘Generation Z’ became a thing, so there was space for others to take up the baton. The most successful have probably been Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace, who, since 2016, have been churning out a book a year devoted to ‘Generation Z’. In the first of these (Seemiller & Grace, 2016), they were clearly keen to avoid some of the criticisms that had been levelled at Strauss and Howe, and they carried out research. This consisted of 1143 responses to a self-reporting questionnaire by students at US institutions of higher education. The survey also collected information about Kolb’s learning styles and multiple intelligences. With refreshing candour, they admit that the sample is not entirely representative of higher education in the US. And, since it only looked at students in higher education, it told us nothing at all about those who weren’t.

In August 2018, Pearson joined the party, bringing out a report entitled ‘Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners’. Conducted by the Harris Poll, the survey looked at 2,587 US respondents, aged between 14 and 40. The results were weighted for age, gender, race/ethnicity, marital status, household income, and education, so were rather more representative than the Seemiller & Grace research.

In ELT and educational references to ‘Generation Z’, research, of even the very limited kind mentioned above, is rarely cited. When it is, Seemiller and Grace feature prominently (e.g. Mohr & Mohr, 2017). Alternatively, even less reliable sources are used. In an ELT webinar entitled ‘Engaging Generation Z’, for example, information about the characteristics of ‘Generation Z’ learners is taken from an infographic produced by an American office furniture company.

But putting aside quibbles about the reliability of the information, and the fact that it most commonly[1] refers to Americans (who are not, perhaps, the most representative group in global terms), what do the polls tell us?

Despite claims that Generation Z are significantly different from their Millennial predecessors, the general picture that emerges suggests that differences are more a question of degree than substance. These include:

  • A preference for visual / video information over text
  • A variety of bite-sized, entertaining educational experiences
  • Short attention spans and zero tolerance for delay

All of these were identified in 2008 (Williams et al., 2008) as characteristics of the ‘Google Generation’ (a label which usually seems to span Millennials and Generation Z). There is nothing fundamentally different from Prensky’s description of ‘digital natives’. The Pearson report claimed that ‘Generation Z expects experiences both inside and outside the classroom that are more rewarding, more engaging and less time consuming. Technology is no longer a transformative phenomena for this generation, but rather a normal, integral part of life’. However, there is no clear disjuncture or discontinuity between Generation Z and Millennials, any more than there was between ‘digital natives’ and previous generations (Selwyn, 2009: 375). What has really changed is that the technology has moved on (e.g. YouTube was founded in 2005 and the first iPhone was released in 2007).

TESOL TurkeyThe discourse surrounding ‘Generation Z’ is now steadily finding its way into the world of English language teaching. The 2nd TESOL Turkey International ELT Conference took place last November with ‘Teaching Generation Z: Passing on the baton from K12 to University’ as its theme. A further gloss explained that the theme was ‘in reference to the new digital generation of learners with outstanding multitasking skills; learners who can process and absorb information within mere seconds and yet possess the shortest attention span ever’.


A few more examples … Cambridge University Press ran a webinar ELT webinar entitled ‘Engaging Generation Z’ and Macmillan Education has a coursebook series called ‘Exercising English for Generation Z’. EBC, a TEFL training provider, ran a blog post in November last year, ‘Teaching English to generation Z students’. And EFL Magazine had an article, ‘Critical Thinking – The Key Competence For The Z Generation’, in February of this year.

The pedagogical advice that results from this interest in Generation Z seems to boil down to: ‘Accept the digital desires of the learners, use lots of video (i.e. use more technology in the classroom) and encourage multi-tasking’.

No one, I suspect, would suggest that teachers should not make use of topics and technologies that appeal to their learners. But recommendations to change approaches to language teaching, ‘based solely on the supposed demands and needs of a new generation of digital natives must be treated with caution’ (Bennett et al., 2008: 782). It is far from clear that generational differences (even if they really exist) are important enough ‘to be considered during the design of instruction or the use of different educational technologies – at this time, the weight of the evidence is negative’ (Reeves, 2008: 21).

Perhaps, it would be more useful to turn away from surveys of attitudes and towards more fact-based research. Studies in both the US and the UK have found that myopia and other problems with the eyes is rising fast among the Generation Z cohort, and that there is a link with increased screen time, especially with handheld devices. At the same time, Generation Zers are much more likely than their predecessors to be diagnosed with anxiety disorder and depression. While the connection between technology use and mental health is far from clear, it is possible that  ‘the rise of the smartphone and social media have at least something to do with [the rise in mental health issues]’ (Twenge, 2017).

Should we be using more technology in class because learners say they want or need it? If we follow that logic, perhaps we should also be encouraging the consumption of fast food, energy drinks and Ritalin before and after lessons?

[1] Studies have been carried out in other geographical settings, including Europe (e.g. Triple-a-Team AG, 2016) and China (Tang, 2019).


Bennett S., Maton K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: a critical review of the evidence. British Jmournal of Educational Technology, 39 (5):pp. 775-786.

Hart, A. (2018). Against Generational Politics. Jacobin, 28 February 2018.

Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Jauregui, J., Watsjold, B., Welsh, L., Ilgen, J. S. & Robins, L. (2019). Generational “othering”: The myth of the Millennial learner. Medical Education,54: pp.60–65.

Kaiser, D. (2016). Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and the Coming Crisis in American National Life. Time, 18 November 2016.

Kirschner, P.A. & De Bruyckere P. (2017). The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. Teaching and Teacher Education, 67: pp. 135-142.

Mohr, K. A. J. & Mohr, E. S. (2017). Understanding Generation Z Students to Promote a Contemporary Learning Environment. Journal on Empowering Teacher Excellence, 1 (1), Article 9 DOI:

Onion, R. (2015). Against generations. Aeon, 19 May, 2015.

Pearson (2018). Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9: pp. 1- 6

Reeves, T.C. (2008). Do Generational Differences Matter in Instructional Design? Athens, GA: University of Georgia, Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology

Seemiller, C. & and Grace, M. (2016). Generation Z Goes to College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Selwyn, N. (2009). The digital native-myth and reality. Perspectives, 61: pp. 364-379

Strauss W. & Howe, N. (1991). Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York, New York: HarperCollins.

Tang F. (2019). A critical review of research on the work-related attitudes of Generation Z in China. Social Psychology and Society, 10 (2): pp. 19—28. Available at:

Thomas, M. (2011). Technology, Education, and the Discourse of the Digital Native: Between Evangelists and Dissenters. In Thomas, M. (ed). (2011). Deconstructing Digital Natives: Young people, technology and the new literacies. London: Routledge. pp. 1- 13)

Triple-a-Team AG. (2016). Generation Z Metastudie über die kommende Generation. Biglen, Switzerland. Available at:

Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen. New York: Atria Books

Williams, P., Rowlands, I. & Fieldhouse, M. (2008). The ‘Google Generation’ – myths and realities about young people’s digital information behaviour. In Nicholas, D. & Rowlands, I. (eds.) (2008). Digital Consumers. London: Facet Publishers.

Last month, I wrote a post about the automated generation of vocabulary learning materials. Yesterday, I got an email from Mike Elchik, inviting me to take a look at the product that his company, WeSpeke, has developed in partnership with CNN. Called, it’s a very regularly updated and wide selection of video clips and texts from CNN, which are then used to ‘automatically create a pedagogically structured, leveled and game-ified English lesson‘. Available at the AppStore and Google Play, as well as a desktop version, it’s free. Revenues will presumably be generated through advertising and later sales to corporate clients.

With 6.2 million dollars in funding so far, WeSpeke can leverage some state-of-the-art NLP and AI tools. Co-founder and chief technical adviser of the company is Jaime Carbonell, Director of the Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, described in Wikipedia as one of the gurus of machine learning. I decided to have a closer look.


Users are presented with a menu of CNN content (there were 38 items from yesterday alone), these are tagged with broad categories (Politics, Opinions, Money, Technology, Entertainment, etc.) and given a level, ranging from 1 to 5, although the vast majority of the material is at the two highest levels.


I picked two lessons: a reading text about Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional hearing (level 5) and a 9 minute news programme of mixed items (level 2 – illustrated above). In both cases, the lesson begins with the text. With the reading, you can click on words to bring up dictionary entries from the Collins dictionary. With the video, you can activate captions and again click on words for definitions. You can also slow down the speed. So far, so good.

There then follows a series of exercises which focus primarily on a set of words that have been automatically selected. This is where the problems began.


It’s far from clear what the levels (1 – 5) refer to. The Zuckerberg text is 930 words long and is rated as B2 by one readability tool. But, using the English Profile Text Inspector, there are 19 types at C1 level, 14 at C2, and 98 which are unlisted. That suggests something substantially higher than B2. The CNN10 video is delivered at breakneck speed (as is often the case with US news shows). Yes, it can be slowed down, but that still won’t help with some passages, such as the one below:

A squirrel recently fell out of a tree in Western New York. Why would that make news?Because she bwoke her widdle leg and needed a widdle cast! Yes, there are casts for squirrels, as you can see in this video from the Orphaned Wildlife Center. A windstorm knocked the animal’s nest out of a tree, and when a woman saw that the baby squirrel was injured, she took her to a local vet. Doctors say she’s going to be just fine in a couple of weeks. Well, why ‘rodent’ she be? She’s been ‘whiskered’ away and cast in both a video and a plaster. And as long as she doesn’t get too ‘squirrelly’ before she heals, she’ll have quite a ‘tail’ to tell.

It’s hard to understand how a text like this got through the algorithms. But, as materials writers know, it is extremely hard to find authentic text that lends itself to language learning at anything below C1. On the evidence here, there is still some way to go before the process of selection can be automated. It may well be the case that CNN simply isn’t a particularly appropriate source.

Target learning items

The primary focus of these lessons is vocabulary learning, and it’s vocabulary learning of a very deliberate kind. Applied linguists are in general agreement that it makes sense for learners to approach the building of their L2 lexicon in a deliberate way (i.e. by studying individual words) for high-frequency items or items that can be identified as having a high surrender value (e.g. items from the AWL for students studying in an EMI context). Once you get to items that are less frequent than, say, the top 8,000 most frequent words, the effort expended in studying new words needs to be offset against their usefulness. Why spend a lot of time studying low frequency words when you’re unlikely to come across them again for some time … and will probably forget them before you do? Vocabulary development at higher levels is better served by extensive reading (and listening), possibly accompanied by glosses.

The target items in the Zuckerberg text were: advocacy, grilled, handicapping, sparked, diagnose, testified, hefty, imminent, deliberative and hesitant. One of these ‘grilled‘ is listed as A2 by English Vocabulary Profile, but that is with its literal, not metaphorical, meaning. Four of them are listed as C2 and the remaining five are off-list. In the CNN10 video, the target items were: strive, humble (verb), amplify, trafficked, enslaved, enacted, algae, trafficking, ink and squirrels. Of these, one is B1, two are C2 and the rest are unlisted. What is the point of studying these essentially random words? Why spend time going through a series of exercises that practise these items? Wouldn’t your time be better spent just doing some more reading? I have no idea how the automated selection of these items takes place, but it’s clear that it’s not working very well.

Practice exercises

There is plenty of variety of task-type but there are,  I think, two reasons to query the claim that these lessons are ‘pedagogically structured’. The first is the nature of the practice exercises; the second is the sequencing of the exercises. I’ll restrict my observations to a selection of the tasks.

1. Users are presented with a dictionary definition and an anagrammed target item which they must unscramble. For example:

existing for the purpose of discussing or planning something     VLREDBETEIIA

If you can’t solve the problem, you can always scroll through the text to find the answer. Burt the problem is in the task design. Dictionary definitions have been written to help language users decode a word. They simply don’t work very well when they are used for another purpose (as prompts for encoding).

2. Users are presented with a dictionary definition for which they must choose one of four words. There are many potential problems here, not the least of which is that definitions are often more complex than the word they are defining, or they present other challenges. As an example: cause to be unpretentious for to humble. On top of that, lexicographers often need or choose to embed the target item in the definition. For example:

a hefty amount of something, especially money, is very large

an event that is imminent, especially an unpleasant one, will happen very soon

When this is the case, it makes no sense to present these definitions and ask learners to find the target item from a list of four.

The two key pieces of content in this product – the CNN texts and the Collins dictionaries – are both less than ideal for their purposes.

3. Users are presented with a box of jumbled words which they must unscramble to form sentences that appeared in the text.


The sentences are usually long and hard to reconstruct. You can scroll through the text to find the answer, but I’m unclear what the point of this would be. The example above contains a mistake (vie instead of vice), but this was one of only two glitches I encountered.

4. Users are asked to select the word that they hear on an audio recording. For example:

squirreling     squirrel     squirreled     squirrels

Given the high level of challenge of both the text and the target items, this was a rather strange exercise to kick off the practice. The meaning has not yet been presented (in a matching / definition task), so what exactly is the point of this exercise?

5. Users are presented with gapped sentences from the text and asked to choose the correct grammatical form of the missing word. Some of these were hard (e.g. adjective order), others were very easy (e.g. some vs any). The example below struck me as plain weird for a lesson at this level.

________ have zero expectation that this Congress is going to make adequate changes. (I or Me ?)

6. At the end of both lessons, there were a small number of questions that tested your memory of the text. If, like me, you couldn’t remember all that much about the text after twenty minutes of vocabulary activities, you can scroll through the text to find the answers. This is not a task type that will develop reading skills: I am unclear what it could possibly develop.


Using the lessons on offer here wouldn’t do a learner (as long as they already had a high level of proficiency) any harm, but it wouldn’t be the most productive use of their time, either. If a learner is motivated to read the text about Zuckerberg, rather than do lots of ‘busy’ work on a very odd set of words with gap-fills and matching tasks, they’d be better advised just to read the text again once or twice. They could use a look-up for words they want to understand and import them into a flashcard system with spaced repetition ( does have flashcards, but there’s no sign of spaced practice yet). More, they could check out another news website and read / watch other articles on the same subject (perhaps choosing websites with a different slant to CNN) and get valuable narrow-reading practice in this way.

My guess is that the technology has driven the product here, but without answering the fundamental questions about which words it’s appropriate for individual learners to study in a deliberate way and how this is best tackled, it doesn’t take learners very far.





FluentU, busuu, Bliu Bliu … what is it with all the ‘u’s? Hong-Kong based FluentU used to be called FluentFlix, but they changed their name a while back. The service for English learners is relatively new. Before that, they focused on Chinese, where the competition is much less fierce.

At the core of FluentU is a collection of short YouTube videos, which are sorted into 6 levels and grouped into 7 topic categories. The videos are accompanied by transcriptions. As learners watch a video, they can click on any word in the transcript. This will temporarily freeze the video and show a pop-up which offers a definition of the word, information about part of speech, a couple of examples of this word in other sentences, and more example sentences of the word from other videos that are linked on FluentU. These can, in turn, be clicked on to bring up a video collage of these sentences. Learners can click on an ‘Add to Vocab’ button, which will add the word to personalised vocabulary lists. These are later studied through spaced repetition.

FluentU describes its approach in the following terms: FluentU selects the best authentic video content from the web, and provides the scaffolding and support necessary to bring that authentic content within reach for your students. It seems appropriate, therefore, to look first at the nature of that content. At the moment, there appear to be just under 1,000 clips which are allocated to levels as follows:

Newbie 123 Intermediate 294 Advanced 111
Elementary 138 Upper Int 274 Native 40

It has to be assumed that the amount of content will continue to grow, but, for the time being, it’s not unreasonable to say that there isn’t a lot there. I looked at the Upper Intermediate level where the shortest was 32 seconds long, the longest 4 minutes 34 seconds, but most were between 1 and 2 minutes. That means that there is the equivalent of about 400 minutes (say, 7 hours) for this level.

The actual amount that anyone would want to watch / study can be seen to be significantly less when the topics are considered. These break down as follows:

Arts & entertainment 105 Everyday life 60 Science & tech 17
Business 34 Health & lifestyle 28
Culture 29 Politics & society 6

The screenshots below give an idea of the videos on offer:


I may be a little difficult, but there wasn’t much here that appealed. Forget the movie trailers for crap movies, for a start. Forget the low level business stuff, too. ‘The History of New Year’s Resolutions’ looked promising, but turned out to be a Wikipedia style piece. FluentU certainly doesn’t have the eye for interesting, original video content of someone like Jamie Keddie or Kieran Donaghy.

But, perhaps, the underwhelming content is of less importance than what you do with it. After all, if you’re really interested in content, you can just go to YouTube and struggle through the transcriptions on your own. The transcripts can be downloaded as pdfs, which, strangely are marked with a FluentU copyright notice.copyright FluentU doesn’t need to own the copyright of the videos, because they just provide links, but claiming copyright for someone else’s script seemed questionable to me. Anyway, the only real reason to be on this site is to learn some vocabulary. How well does it perform?


Level is self-selected. It wasn’t entirely clear how videos had been allocated to level, but I didn’t find any major discrepancies between FluentU’s allocation and my own, intuitive grading of the content. Clicking on words in the transcript, the look-up / dictionary function wasn’t too bad, compared to some competing products I have looked at. The system could deal with some chunks and phrases (e.g. at your service, figure out) and the definitions were appropriate to the way these had been used in context. The accuracy was far from consistent, though. Some definitions were harder than the word they were explaining (e.g. telephone = an instrument used to call someone) and some were plain silly (e.g. the definition of I is me).

have_been_definitionSome chunks were not recognised, so definitions were amusingly wonky. Come out, get through and have been were all wrong. For the phrase talk her into it, the program didn’t recognise the phrasal verb, and offered me communicate using speech for talk, and to the condition, state or form of for into.

For many words, there are pictures to help you with the meaning, but you wonder about some of them, e.g. the picture of someone clutching a suitcase to illustrate the meaning of of, or a woman holding up a finger and thumb to illustrate the meaning of what (as a pronoun).what_definition

The example sentences don’t seem to be graded in any way and are not always useful. The example sentences for of, for example, are The pages of the book are ripped, the lemurs of Madagascar and what time of day are you free. Since the definition is given as belonging to, there seems to be a problem with, at least, the last of these examples!

With the example sentence that link you to other video examples of this word being used, I found that it took a long time to load … and it really wasn’t worth waiting for.

After a catalogue of problems like this, you might wonder how I can say that this function wasn’t too bad, but I’ve seen a lot worse. It was, at least, mostly accurate.

Moving away from the ‘Watch’ options, I explored the ‘Learn’ section. Bearing in mind that I had described myself as ‘Upper Intermediate’, I was surprised to be offered the following words for study: Good morning, may, help, think, so. This then took me to the following screen:great job

I was getting increasingly confused. After watching another video, I could practise some of the words I had highlighted, but, again, I wasn’t sure quite what was going on. There was a task that asked me to ‘pick the correct translation’, but this was, in fact a multiple choice dictation task.translation task

Next, I was asked to study the meaning of the word in, followed by an unhelpful gap-fill task:gap fill

Confused? I was. I decided to look for something a little more straightforward, and clicked on a menu of vocabulary flash cards that I could import. These included sets based on copyright material from both CUP and OUP, and I wondered what these publishers might think of their property being used in this way.flashcards

FluentU claims  that it is based on the following principles:

  1. Individualized scaffolding: FluentU makes language learning easy by teaching new words with vocabulary students already know.
  2. Mastery Learning: FluentU sets students up for success by making sure they master the basics before moving on to more advanced topics.
  3. Gamification: FluentU incorporates the latest game design mechanics to make learning fun and engaging.
  4. Personalization: Each student’s FluentU experience is unlike anyone else’s. Video clips, examples, and quizzes are picked to match their vocabulary and interests.

The ‘individualized scaffolding’ is no more than common sense, dressed up in sciency-sounding language. The reference to ‘Mastery Learning’ is opaque, to say the least, with some confusion between language features and topic. The gamification is rudimentary, and the personalization is pretty limited. It doesn’t come cheap, either.

price table