Connected English

Get connected—English language learning websites, apps, and ideas at your fingertips


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Funky English online community

What does “funky” mean?  According to vocabulary.com, it can mean “offensively malodorous” or “stylish and modern in an unconventional way.”

funkyenglishfrontpageFunky English at http://www.funkyenglish.com appears to embrace the second definition by developing an online social community for English language learning. Ironically, however, language instruction itself on the site is quite traditional and conventional. Nonetheless, Funky English may be a useful practice site for individuals who would enjoy participating in online forums on everyday life English usage with teachers and students of English.

Since Funky English (FE) is designed as a social networking space for individuals interested in learning or teaching English, it includes “Friends,” “Groups,” each user’s profile page, “Blogs,” and “Forums.” FE also offers a limited number of traditional English lesson topics, but the real value here again is generated in the comment threads that follow each lesson, vocabulary entry, or grammar point. Membership and access to all parts of the site are free.

Recommended sections of the site

forumdropdownThe Forum discussions may be the strongest feature of this site. Some popular discussions are launched by “English Teacher Jamie,” but other lively discussions are started by users of the site. The conversations are full of good tips on language learning, a variety of insights into cultures around the world, and ideas about ways to improve one’s English. The “Ask a Question” Forum promises that one can pose a question about English and get answers. Existing questions can be viewed too, and range from questions about surprising usage in political speeches to the meaning & usage of different members of a word family, e.g. “glorious day” vs. “glory days.”

FEBlogsThe Blogs tool is an interesting way to capitalize on the participatory FE student community. Members of FE can create blogs, and may generate quite a bit of conversation about what they post. Most of the comments seem to be good-natured and polite, so this may be a comfortable environment in which to strengthen one’s English fluency and explore one’s writing voice by starting a blog.

 

 

The Videos section is designed to encourage English listening and pronunciation practice through karaoke. This page features several hundred Ycan and can'touTube, Vimeo, and other publicly available lyrics videos. There are also a few instructional videos culled from YouTube and other sources. By looking at an instructional video, one can follow the “related videos” links for songs with lyrics that match words in the instructional video title, e.g. the word “can’t.”

The “Lessons: Idioms” section has a short set of idioms–the listing for each idiom does provide some useful information about collocates–words that tend to be used with that idiom, e.g. “head into” + choppy waters, and listings explain situations where that idiom would be used. There is not information, however, about how frequent or how up to date an idiom is, so there are a few such as “chin wag” that are a bit out of date.  The value in the FE context is the number of users who leave messages for each other and for English Teacher Jamie, which comprise a conversation about each word, with more usage examples and discussion of usage topics.bookwormcomments The responses to the idiom “bookworm,” for example, led into a conversation about good books to read in English. This conversation-by-commenting is one of the real strengths of the Funky English platform.

The “Lessons: Phrasal Verbs” section also features lively discussions, with some contributors adding cartoons and usage examples from Facebook. The phrasal verbs featured comprise only a very small subset of phrasal verbs in high-frequency use in spoken English. Phrasal verbs often pattern differently in different speech communities: it appears that the usage in the FE community is mainly British, so those in other English speaking contexts might want to “ask around” before adopting a phrasal verb from the site. An example is “break up,” which according to FE, can mean ending a romantic relationship, and can mean ending classes in a university over a holiday break. The latter meaning wouldn’t be meaningful in many English-speaking communities. Instead, “the University went on break” would be more appropriate in the Midwest in the United States, for example. Such variants are not comprehensively provided by Funky English.

The “Quizzes: English in Use” section offers “situational dialogues.” Each “dialogue” only suggests a situation in which to choose how to word a response, but engages the user in thinking through appropriate language usage in responding to that prompt. Again, the format is multiple choice.situationaldialogue

The “Chat” function available on the Home page in FE enables users to text-chat in real time, which could be quite helpful for developing greater fluency. Relative to other social media platforms, however, the number of FE users online at any given time may be small, so sometimes there aren’t enough people online to get a chat going.

Overall, Funky English capitalizes well on the text-based features of social network platforms, and provides a comfortable, encouraging space in which to practice English through participation in comment threads, forums, and chat rooms.

 

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Academic vocabulary and writing practice

Happy New Year! Sometimes, a gift arrives by email. I received one just before the new year: a link to Reading and Writing Tools for Academic English, a site designed by Eoin Jordan and Andy Snyder, instructors at  Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

This ad-free site offers a suite of nifty tools, games, and practice for academic reading, writing, and vocabulary.readingwritingtoolsAWLtest Let’s start with vocabulary. A quiz with a simple interface asks you to select words for which you know at least one definition, and then reports your probable vocabulary size (measured by the number of “word families” you likely know (e.g. “identity, identify, identification” would belong to one word family)). The quiz includes nonsense words on every page, which is fun. At the end, the results page points out words words you did not recognize at each level of the first 9,000 most common word families in written English. (I’m not sure what corpora this determination of word frequencies is based on.) The test generates a random list each time, so you can repeat the test multiple times. One version of the quiz focuses exclusively on Averil Coxhead’s (2002) Academic Word List (AWL), which is a collection of 570 word families identified as much more common in a corpus of academic texts than in other types of writing such as popular journalism or fiction.

When you explore the reading tools, the most interesting is Reading Mate. You copy in a text and get a markup of words that likely exceed your vocabulary knowledge (as measured by the first quiz), and an analysis of proper nouns, text readability, and more. While the highlighting doesn’t link to definitions or other example usage of highlighted words, it may reveal words that would be useful to look up (or that you see you can ignore and still get what you want from reading the text.) One objective of Reading Mate is to help you select texts that are at your independent reading level; this might be a helpful way to screen a novel or magazine you’d like to read for pleasure, for example (if you can find an excerpt electronically somewhere).

Under writing tools, thesisstatementtutorI don’t recommend the Thesis Statement Tutor for graduate and advanced undergraduate student writers, since it seems to produce overly formulaic thesis statements. Nonetheless, you may find this a useful way to force yourself to think through your purpose and organization of a piece of writing.

 

I do think that there are some ways in which the writing tool Marking Mate is useful. report detailsYou input a text you’ve written and get feedback through an automated text analyzer. Then Report Details provides feedback on academic style and grammatical accuracy. You may be able to find some grammar issues this way, and may be able to identify ways in which a text might sound too informal. Rather than seeing this tool as a sure-fire way to proofread your writing, consider it instead a diagnostic tool that can identify some potential areas for ongoing language improvement. Quite a few instances of unclear wording in my sample text were not identified by this tool. Nonetheless, the prevalence of informal expressions and the types of grammar errors found were spot-on. A nice bonus in Marking Mate is a set of links to advice on the topics identified for further work, and even some additional practice activities. Just click on underlined text in the Report Details.

Finally, I really recommend the Sentence Error Correction Game. sentence error correctionIt’s hard! You’re given a context in which a sentence is (poorly) written. You’re given blanks that indicate a paraphrased, formal, accurate rewritten version of that sentence. Your job is to guess what words might be in those blanks. It’s easy to lose, but after losing, you get to try the same sentence again. It took me three tries to figure out the first one. I think that the greatest value in this activity is in cultivating the ability to paraphrase an idea in formal written English. sentence error correction 2Even if the paraphrase you try isn’t what the game is looking for, the act of trying will expand your fluency and access to your vocabulary.

This site was a delight to discover. I hope that such gifts are sprinkled throughout your new year. Keep sending in your ideas for sites and apps that the University of Michigan English Language Institute can review here.


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“Got a minute?” Scientific American offers one every day.

Do you want to work on vocabulary, fluency, pitch range, or interpreting technical content to a lay audience?  Scientific American is a long-established magazine that publishes articles on a broad range of scientific topics for non-specialists. One of my students led me to the groovy “60-Second Science” daily audio podcast, which always starts with the question, “Got a minute?”  SAFrontPageAs I browsed the website, it quickly became clear that the Scientific American website offers a rich array of audio, video, and text articles. There are daily podcasts on “science” and then podcasts grouped by various broad topics within science, such as “the mind” or “technology.”

The search interface on the website is very nice, allowing users to refine a search by time period, by genre (podcast, video, article, etc.) or by broad topic area. In the app version (podcasts only), it appears that one can browse by broad topic area, but cannot search on keywords.

Because the content is intended for non-specialists, these brief pieces provide a great model of vocabulary and turns of phrase that allow us to explain technical content to friends, family, potential funders, policy-makers, administrators, managers, and students.

Articulation is crisp and clear, which makes for easier listening comprehension than one might find in less polished audio.

In the free app version (for podcasts only) and when you click on the title of a podcast on the website version, you’ll see a transcript, allowing you to grab phrases that might be hard to catch when just listening alone, and making it possible to speak along with the original to practice clear articulation and smooth delivery.

SATranscriptTo work on vocabulary, you might want to note down words or turns of phrase that seem useful in any one of the podcasts, and then maintain and practice them in a vocabulary.com wordlist (free account needed) or by using a free phone app like gFlash+ that lets you easily set up flashcards with your own content on your smart phone–even flashcards with more than two sides! This particular app (not related in any way to Scientific American) is available for Android, iPhone and iPad, Nooks, and at the Amazon.com App Store.

Another way to use the Scientific American site or podcast app to work on fluency is to search on a term of interest to you, listen to a couple of podcasts and read a short article, and then imagine what you’d say to tell someone in English about this content, synthesizing all three together. Practicing out loud even if you don’t have a real audience is helpful for fluency & solidifying new vocabulary.

There is one disappointment among the Scientific American resources. I wish that audio podcasts would provide an accurate model of intonation one might use in a conversation or presentation when not reading from notes, but intonation is typical of material read aloud by a dynamic speaker. These intonation patterns are certainly appropriate for the solo audio podcast genre, just not very helpful for types of speaking when others are physically present. Nonetheless, if you feel like your intonation in English is somewhat “flat,” it may be useful to imitate the original speakers’ intonation in order to explore a wider pitch range, because the intonation in the podcasts is quite expressive among both male and female speakers.


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Humor, idioms, fluency, and … science?

Sandra Tsing Loh hosts a 90-second radio show called the “Loh Down on Science” http://www.lohdownonscience.org/–the show is dedicated to finding humorous ways to introduce the general public to interesting science. Every episode is transcribed with about 95% accuracy. lohdownonscienceYou can work on fluency in two ways:
1. Practice telling someone else in English what you heard about. Speak and/or write without looking at the transcript. Even better, actually tell someone else, by speaking or in an email.
2. Figure out what’s intended to be funny in the episode you listen to. Often, the humor is a “play on words,” or two different meanings of the same phrase. The title of the website is an example: Sandra Tsing Loh is the name of the scientist/writer/performer who leads the site, and “the low down” means the real information about something.
3. Look up an idiom that you find in the episode, by putting the idiom in quote marks ” ” followed by the word definition in your favorite search engine. For example, in an episode  about babies in utero learning which syllables are meaningful in the language of the grownups around them, Loh said “watch your language, parents.” I looked up “watch your language” definition. This gave me multiple views of definitions and related idioms, and let me explore which idiom and dictionary sites I liked.watchyourlanguagedefinition

The Loh Down on Science website isn’t very easy to navigate, but if you click on “FUN CONTENT TROLLER” you can see a list of categories, or if you find the tiny VIEW ALL button in the middle of the left-margin frame, you can see a chronological listing of over 1,800 episodes. To search for topics that interest you, you can use the search box at the top of the page.

When you find an episode that interests you, you can just click the play button to hear it with no transcript, or you can click on the title of the episode to get to the transcript and play the episode too.


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Improve English fluency with the Mind Games app for Android

Mind Games (Android only) from Mindware Consulting, Inc is an app designed for improving cognition, not designed to promote language learning, but it offers a few fruitful games to improve fluency in English. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=mindware.mindgames

This post only reviews the free version, playing as a guest, not as a registered player. The app only requires limited permissions, which I like. Ads do get annoying, as they sometimes jump to half the screen size, but you can click “hide ad” to dismiss these.

A subset of these games involve high-level use of English: Speed Trivia, Vocabulary Star, Word Memory, Abstraction, and Vocabulary Power. Here is a description of these games and how you might use them to enhance your fluency in English.

Speed Trivia (unlimited play in free version) Answer questions by sorting the four mixed-up letters (or letter sequences) in the answer. Thus there is vocabulary retrieval and spelling knowledge tested. Here is an example item. “What activity other than jumping are kangaroos good at? oxi   g   n   b  → boxing.” I wish that the letter combinations were divided by syllables–it’s much harder (and probably not as productive for making sound/spelling connections and memory) to compose words with groups of letters that cross syllable boundaries. Nonetheless, this is a fun game that does involve a wide variety of vocabulary.

vocabularystarfrommindwareVocabulary Star (unlimited play in free version) Each round is three minutes. The game interface is just like Speed Trivia, but instead of a trivia question & mixed-up answer, you get a definition and a mixed-up word.  This one may be more useful for fluency if you try to think of possible answers before looking at the four sets of letters at the bottom of the screen.

Word Memory (unlimited play in free version) This game is designed to train “working memory” to hold lots of words at-the-ready. Whether it achieves that is questionable, but it is likely to be much harder to do this game in a second language, and if you can make connections between words or combine them in sentences to remember them, you may actually have a positive impact on your English fluency & vocabulary retrieval. So, you get three lists of ten words to memorize, for a total of 30. Then in the next part of the game, you see a word on your screen and have to tap a button to indicate if the word was on the lists or not. One of the words on my list the first time I played was “peen,” which I’ve never seen before, but which I remembered was on one of the lists. This helped me remember to look it up later. It’s part of the head of a hammer.

Abstraction (only available 3 times free) You see a bunch of words, and for each one, you press a button “abstract” or “concrete” to categorize the primary meaning. This is a useful vocabulary game, because it forces you to apply a binary sort on a broad variety of nouns based on their meaning, and thus can improve retrieval of those words when you need them for speaking. The game can also be helpful for grammar–when to use a/an and when is it unnecessary? Most abstract nouns are non-count, and articles work differently in English for count and non-count nouns, so this game is useful for distinguishing and remembering count and non-count nouns. (Some concrete nouns, especially those that denote substances, are also non-count, like “water.” Conversely, some abstract nouns have both a countable and an uncountable meaning: “The only thing to fear is fear itself” uses the verb and the non-count noun for a generalization, while “I have many fears about my future” uses the count noun. Many abstract nouns, in fact, have a count and a non-count version. There are also abstract ideas like “an attitude” which are countable, so this is only a tendency, not a rule). Pay attention to the suffixes (word endings) that are frequent in the abstract nouns. When you hit play, you get text instructions. There are some weird words, like “double-hung window,” which is only relevant if you need to buy a window-mounted air conditioner or buy new windows, and “propinquity,” which I’ve never had occasion to use, but most words are relatively frequent, with a combination of everyday and more academic terms. The first time I played, I scored in the 18th percentile, so don’t get discouraged.

Vocabulary Power (only available 3 times free) While this app does have solid definitions/synonyms, it’s just a multiple choice meaning matching game, and there are dozens of these out there, so nothing special. I’d play it three times and be done.

 


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For fluency–let TED Talks get you talking

TED Talks are a popular resource to learn about ideas that may transform our world. They also provide a platform for developing English fluency, vocabulary, pronunciation, listening, and more.  Let’s look at fluency, for example. Try this.

1. Watch a cool TED talk (one of the 6-minute talks if you’re in a hurry) at http://www.ted.com or with the Apple or Android TED app.

TED

2. Turn on the subtitles and watch a second time, and if you’re using the web browser version, click on any phrase to skip around the talk to parts that interest you the most.

3. Pause the video three times to ask a question. Yep. Just pretend the speaker can hear you. Ask out loud if you’re in a private space; imagine speaking your questions otherwise.  For each question, speak (or imagine speaking) a possible answer.

4. Tell a friend about the parts of the TED Talk that interested you. If there isn’t someone nearby who’d like to hear about it in English, pretend there is! Even without a real audience, speaking to an imagined audience will boost your fluency.

5. Add a comment here recommending TED Talks that others should check out. Thanks!