Connected English

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

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Language for Specific Academic Purposes

Andy Gillett’s UEFAP site, Using English for Academic Purposes, supported by BALEAP (the British Association of Lecturers in EAP) offers a deep set of resources for academic communication in all skill areas. The best segments of the site offer an introduction, strategic advice and practice exercises, and sample phrases for very specific communicative purposes. The advice given is solid, well-researched, and clearly explained.

UEFAPlisteningFrom the front page, users can navigate to sub-sections of the site based on skill area.  For example, in the Listening subsection, one can try out advice on listening strategies with a wide range of audio samples, playable in a wider





Sometimes, the best content is buried in unexpected places. In the Reading section of the website, for example, content may seem a bit sparse, but if you happen to click on the keyword “Efficient” in the left vertical frame, you land on a well-developed sequence of advice, models, exercises, and tests on strategies for efficient reading.


UEFAPspeakingintrophrasesThe Presentation-Language topic in the Speaking section of the site includes a useful list of phrases for each moment in a typical academic presentation, including the dreaded Q & A. The Groupwork topic in the Speaking section offers myriad phrases for language functions that might come in handy in discussion or collaboration contexts. Unfortunately, none of the phrases are contextualized, so information about use and frequency is absent.




UEFAPvocabularyIn the Vocabulary section of the site, there is an extensive and well-explained piece on word roots, prefixes, and suffixes. One can access lots of academic word lists here too.


The Writing section is the most extensive, with many more topics listed. I have found the “Reporting” topic particularly helpful to students in exploring strategies for paraphrasing and summarizing source texts.

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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 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 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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Pronunciation: SpeakAP displays pictures of your speech

SpeakAP is a fun little app for Android, iPhone, and iPad that offers a useful angle on pronunciation of individual words. Unlike software that seeks to tell you if you’ve matched the individual sounds in a word, SpeakAP focuses on the timing, intensity, and pitch of syllables in single words. This is a particularly good app for working on producing clearly marked word stress, because stressed syllables last longer (timing), are pronounced with more force and volume (intensity), and involve a change in tone (pitch). The app is produced by a firm that builds speech therapy technology, Aventusoft.

speakAPra-di-a-tionWhen you practice a single word (and there are several hundred on the first basic list), you see three graphs–one of volume over time, so you see the duration and loudness of each syllable, one of intensity over time, which is a similar measure represented by a continuous line, and then one of pitch. There is an original recording (which you can listen to) represented in blue, and then your recording is represented in yellow. You also get a percentage “score” as to your match to the reference recording on each of the three scales.

In this snapshot of my recording of “radiation” as ray[pause]-dee[pause]-yay[pause]-shun, you may be able to see down at the bottom of the screen that I got 79% speaking rate match, 54% energy match, and 65% pitch match. You can see in the middle graph in particular that my voice turned on and off because of the pauses in the word. While the app suggests aiming for at least 75% match in all categories, I found that In my experience with the app, pitch seemed to be the most sensitive score to incorrect syllable stress placement, and my “intensity” score was always low.  The images of the three superimposed graphs gave me more useful data than the percentage scores.


You can pick a word by clicking on the three-bars icon at the top-right of the screen, or you can just take the next word in the queue. As you can see in this picture of me picking out the word “radiation,” most of the words on the basic list are multisyllabic and at least somewhat academic.

There are word lists and idiom lists; unfortunately, only the wordlists supply feedback. The app itself is free on all platforms. In the Android version, the long basic list is free. It looks like the basic list costs $1.99 in the iPhone and iPad app, but double-check that on your device.

If you try this app, add a comment here to share your experience.

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Loads of free advanced English practice activities and tips on one website

L’Université de Franche-Comté in Besançon, France has a prominent “Applied Linguistics” program. Part of the way this program shares its expertise on language learning with the world is to host “English Online France”, a website with dozens of free interactive games, exercises, and tips for learning English independently. Most of the instructions and menus are in English, which enables advanced English learners from any language background to use the site.

new york minute on franche-comteI especially like the movie trailer dictation exercises under “ESL/EFL Listening Exercises.” Movie trailers contain a lot of dialogue, place names, and slang. You can watch your selected trailer as much as you like, and you can type any word you hear–if you’re right, the word is completed in the text and you win a point.

For these, a QuickTime plugin for your browser is needed, and it works much better in Firefox than in Chrome or Safari. If you test it in Explorer, you can leave a comment here telling us all how it worked.

billie holiday franche comte

In the Reading section, there are some nice activities that model things you could recreate–mixing up the sentences in an abstract in an academic research article, and then putting them back together, as a means of internalizing the structure of research articles. There are a variety of fun “interactive reading” exercises, where you guess the next few words of a reading from among three choices, which rehearses prediction, grammar, and collocations (which words sound right together).


Many of the pronunciation exercises are excellent. Influenced by the Silent Way method of teaching language, users are left to intuit rules from the patterns and tasks they observe and experience. The pronunciation tasks are well-designed to reveal patterns of stress, intonation, voicing, and more.

Most of the grammar exercises seem pretty easy (or are hard without explanation of the rationale behind answers), but some are both challenging and valuable practice, such as the “ESL/EFL Making Questions Exercises.” Note the asterisks (*) denoting level of difficulty, and go for two or three stars.

What activities did you try on this site? Which ones do you recommend? Leave a comment with your advice.


My favorite vocabulary & dictionary site/game

The terrific website has been out for several years now, and it just keeps getting better. This is a product of Thinkmap, the group that created Visual Thesaurus (the free sections of which will be discussed in a future post).

cell biology list

Text (of definitions) from (, Copyright ©1998-2013 Thinkmap, Inc. All rights reserved.

You might call it a dictionary with witty definitions. You might call it an advanced vocabulary game that can quiz you on up to thousands of words by definition, example usage, and spelling, and keep track of which ones you’ve mastered. You might call it a massive database of real examples of how words and phrases are actually used. You might call it a way to learn all the forms of a word and their relative frequencies of use in English. You might call it a resource full of useful wordlists that you can bookmark & learn. You might call it a great place to make your own vocabulary lists and quiz yourself on them.

For now, there are no ads, and signing up for an account is free.

Try these steps–then share a link to your wordlist here in a comment.
1. Create a free account and let the system quiz you a little bit—you’ll see it quickly adapt to your vocabulary knowledge.
3. Give your new list a title, click on the “shared” radio button, and click on Enter words “from text.”
4. Paste in a text with challenging vocabulary for you: and are good resources for this step.
5. Click the green “GRAB VOCAB” button.
6. Select the offered words that are of interest to you
7. Click the blue “SAVE LIST” button.
8. You’ll now see your list! from here, click “edit” to change definitions, add notes, and select example usage from a database of dozens of recently published articles. You can also click on any word in your list to learn a lot more about it and to see oodles of examples.
9. At any time, click the “LEARN THIS LIST” tab to be quizzed on your words.
10. Come back to this blog post and comment with a link to your cool new vocabulary list!

You might also find the page helpful. There is a good FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page too.

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Pick up slang, idioms, and fast spoken English on the YouTube “React” series

A little bit of lighthearted fun this week for listening to fast, fluent English and for expanding one’s casual, social vocabulary. A prolific YouTube channel, Fine Brothers Productions,, produces quite a bit of content reacting to other content–and the Teens React To X series is a great demonstration of everyday English, expression of opinions, fast speech, slang, idioms, and body language.
The speech is fast enough that the auto-subtitle feature in YouTube doesn’t work at all for these videos. But, since it’s YouTube, you can replay any part as often as you like.

Which one is your favorite video in this large collection? Leave a comment with your recommendations.