Watch this video about how to use COCA as a reference tool in ESL writingBackground for developing “Word Search Strategies Using COCA” lesson
Word-choice problems, the most frequent type of errors in ESL 115 (Principles of Academic Writing) class that I am teaching, are often difficult for ESL students to self-correct, which is why they are often “treated” with direct feedback from teachers. However, giving direct feedback for individual students’ idiosyncratic word-choice errors requires significant amount of time and energy on the teacher’s part. Moreover, such direct feedback is less effective in bringing long-term improvement than indirect feedback. I wanted to help students self-check the appropriateness of their own word choices when problems are noticed either by themselves or by others by using a free online corpus concordancing program called Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). Many ESL students rely on bilingual dictionaries or thesauruses when searching for the “right words”, or the better words, which often results in collocation or register problems. Many empirical studies have already shown that learners’ direct corpora consultation in L2 writing courses can be of great help in this regard as long as it is assisted properly with teachers’ guidance. Specifically, by using Wildcard, Collocation, Key-Word-in-Context (KWIC), Chart (Genre), and Synonym search functions in COCA, students can solve and prevent various word choice problems: word form errors (e.g. wrong spelling, part of speech, etc.), style errors (using informal words), idiomatic errors (using wrong articles or prepositions for phrasal verbs), collocation errors. In terms of integrating this lesson to the existing curriculum, I taught this lesson at the end of the “Writing Process (Diagnostic Essay)” unit, where students learn basic skills for pre-writing, paragraph structures, writing introductions and conclusions, revising, and proofreading. In other words, this lesson was taught as one of the proofreading strategies lessons along with other mini grammar lessons.
Description of “Word Search Strategies Using COCA” lesson
The Word Search Strategies Using COCA” lesson were divided into two 50-minute class periods. The first part (day) of the lesson was created to diagnose and raise students’ awareness of common sources of word choice problems as well as to help them realize the importance of considering various aspects of vocabulary (part of speech, register, spelling, collocation, meaning in context, frequency, and synonymy) It was also aimed at encouraging students to share word search strategies that they commonly use when writing an academic assignment. Based on this raised awareness of common word choice problems and strategies to solve/prevent them, the second part (day) of the lesson was created to teach using corpus consultation as one of the reference tools for word choice problems. Since Google and dictionaries are the most widely used word search tools for most ESL students, the training was focused on showing how the search functions in COCA and its sister website Word and Phrase. Info can give more reliable and helpful search results for academic writing. The aim of the lesson, however, was not to encourage students to stop using Google or dictionaries, but to show them how COCA can complement using Google or dictionaries only for reference tools. Also, in order not to make them learn COCA as an end itself but as a “problem-solving” tool, I used word choice problem examples from the diagnostic quiz that students took in the first day of the lesson and encouraged students to think of as many solutions as possible before I showing them relevant search functions of COCA.
After the lesson, in order to test how much they gained from learning various word search strategies, I asked the students to hand in “word choice homework”, where students had to identify three word choice problems in their diagnostic essays and correct those problems by using Google, http://www.wordandphrase.info/frequencyList.asp or http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/. They were also asked to provide screenshot images for these three searches as evidence. If they wanted to, they could use the word choice problems that I had already pointed out (but not corrected) in my feedback to their essays. However, the fact that they had to devise their own search strategies for their own different kinds of word choice problems made this homework “their” work. Overall, the majority of the students could get successful search results and corrected their errors accurately. However, there were also many students who showed less successful work for the following reasons: failing to recognize the right type of word choice error which led them to devise a wrong search string, failing to devise the most effective search strategies even after establishing the right search string, failing to interpret the search results to correct the error in the right way, etc. Given that only one day of search strategy training session was provided and that not the entire 50 minute lesson was devoted to teaching corpus consultation skills, this moderate success in students’ performance is not surprising. In the literature review on corpus consultation in L2 writing that I conducted while teaching this lesson, all researchers recommend that a gradual, guided training with “apprenticeship” approach is the key for successful integration of corpus investigation in L2 writing classroom. Therefore, having a longer period of learner training session for corpus consultation strategies seems necessary in order to gain more successful effect for this lesson. Although I could not afford any more class time for holding further training sessions, I was pleased to find out that many students actually went on to use COCA for other word choice problems in other writing assignments.
As for the impact of teaching this lesson on my development as an instructor, there were several benefits that I gained. First of all, I realized how difficult it is to create a strategy training module that makes use of the class time to the maximum. One of the biggest challenges I faced when creating and implementing this lesson was “time” – fitting this lesson into an already tight course syllabus. Since the suggested ESL 115 course syllabus that I have to follow does not leave much room for spending much time on teaching “proofreading strategies”, I had to think of the most effective way to deliver this lesson, which led me to 1) analyze the most frequent types of word choice problems in their essays and focus on those problems only, 2) use the common search strategies that students are already familiar with as a starting point, and 3) assign individual corpus consultation work as homework and give individual feedback outside of class. Secondly, I learned that knowing effective word search strategies myself and teaching them are very different. Even though I could devise and carry out many advanced searches on my own for my own writing assignments, it was hard for me to come up with justifications for why certain search strategy works for a certain problem and explain the complicated search process in a very simple term for learners who are less fluent in using linguistic technology and English. Finally, the positive and rewarding feedback I received from the learners made me realize that despite numerous challenges expected, it is always worth “trying it out” when it comes to technology-enhanced teaching. Teachers, including myself, are often reluctant to trying new technology for fear that it may fail and we may lose confidence and authority if things go out of control (as all technologies often do). However, this is not a good excuse for not introducing the technology at all because we never know how much “just introducing it” can contribute to learning: from my experience, learners, who have much more imagination and creativity than teachers, can go “so much further” at exploring technology than we initially expect.