Thursday, July 27, 2006

The daily news is meaningless without history:
Rich contexts for vocabulary learning

There is an interesting thread on the role of journalism over at Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal. Here's the quote that attracted my attention:

"...instead of hoping that clever/informed readers will see through the kabuki to the facts, and leaving the less sophisticated readers to flounder about in disinformation, journalists should in fact make those value judgements plain and call a spade a spade...leaving utter nonsense unchallenged except by a partisan source, and failing to provide the necessary context."

I find this interesting because you can't really learn vocabulary without a rich context. So I succumbed to tempatation and made the following comment:

HISTORY has to be written in parallel with the news, also known as background info or rich context. Wikipedia's pretty good for this.

Working in the education department of a newspaper I have to repurpose articles for educational purposes.The lack of context and background information makes this very difficult for many articles. For example, today there is an article on the auctioning off of assets seized by banks after the 1997 economic crisis in Thailand, but the list of facts is really meaningless without background information.

Sometimes it is opaque rent-seeking relations with powerful people that makes the context unwritable. Informed sources have told me that this is the case
in the sugar industry.

Empowering knowledge-seeking readers, not the ones who just want to look in the the mirror, should be the goal, but the newsreaders have to become **good critical readers of history** to do this.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Good English listening practice for economics majors

For students in Thai, Korean, or Japanese universities studying economics, UC Berkeley professor of economics Brad de Long does a series of videocasts called the Morning Coffee Videocast.

Today's videocast, A Primer on the Federal Reserve, is particularly helpful for learning how to listen to people speaking about economics and also how speak about economics yourself.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Overcoming student plagiarism

Western teachers in Asia often have to contend with plagiarism. Besides wondering to what extent the very notion of plagiarism may be part of western culture and somewhat foreign to other cultures, we often wonder what simple or creative steps can be taken to eliminate it.

Extremely broad definitions of plagiarism can be an impediment to the free flow of information and knowledge to the developing world. Wikipedia never cites sources, but its much less successful predecessor Nupedia cited obsessively cited sources and had a rigorous regime of peer review also. One could argue that Wikipedia has pretty much redefined plagiarism. Here is Wikipedia's definition of plagiarism:

"Plagiarism is the use of another person’s work (this could be his or her words, products or ideas) for personal advantage, without proper acknowledgement of the original work."

Did I just commit an act of plagiarism by not citing the source? No, because there are links to the source in the quote and above the quote and I mentioned the source which is pretty easy to find with a Google search: "plagiarism wikipedia". I've even seen whole legitimate history books written by highly respected professors without any citations at all. Sometimes merely commenting that any scholar who is familiar with the subject will know the source is deemed enough. David Wyatt's A Short History of Thailand is one good example [my review].

It's better to give students an easy and explicit way to cite sources they use. Teach students to quote and paraphrase texts and to cite sources with an easycitation system like "(Smith, 1977, 123)" with simple bibliography entries like "Smith, John (1977) The Meaning of Life(New York: Profundity Press)". Then insist they use it all the time without exception. Soon citation of sources will become habit.

Another approach is to teach students how to immitate and adapt texts without plagiarizing. Copying verbatim without thought won't lead to language acquisition, but reflective adaptation of individual sentences, using perhaps select subject-object or adjective-noun collocations, is essential for language students to acquire language patterns for future reuse in freer speech and writing. Example sentences from learner's dictionaries and language corpora can be mined for patterns to re-use. To play it safe, always have students provide the citation for the source that was immitated or adapted.

At another level, the notion of inter-textuality is a rich source of ideas for teaching students legitimate ways to appropriate texts. One definition of inter-textuality from the definitions on the web reads: "When a media text makes reference to another text that, on the surface, appears to be unique and distinct" (

Doesn't this sound a lot like plagiarism? As Daniel Chandler's Semiotics for Beginners observes: "Gerard Genette proposed the term 'transtextuality' as a more inclusive term than 'intertextuality' (Genette 1997). He listed five subtypes:

"intertextuality: quotation, plagiarism, allusion;

paratextuality: the relation between a text and its 'paratext' - that which surrounds the main body of the text - such as titles, headings, prefaces, epigraphs, dedications, acknowledgements, footnotes, illustrations, dust jackets, etc.;

architextuality: designation of a text as part of a
genre or genres (Genette refers to designation by the text itself, but this could also be applied to its framing by readers);

metatextuality: explicit or implicit critical commentary of one text on another text (metatextuality can be hard to distinguish from the following category);

hypotextuality (Genette's term was hypertextuality): the relation between a text and a preceding 'hypotext' - a text or genre on which it is based but which it transforms, modifies, elaborates or extends (including parody, spoof, sequel, translation).

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Value-added journalism:
quotes as easy background

Background information for events in the news.

Is this the most important value-added feature that the web provides to journalism?

Writing good and comprehensive background articles takes time. For more general topics you can usually find background articles at Wikipedia. The Economist also has "Backgrounder" sections and Country Briefings

If you have no time, quotes from other sources are a good way to begin creating a "Backgrounder". That's what I see some people doing at Wikipedia, like this article on Web Mashups (see the quotes section). Wikipedia on Quotes

Blog Rhetoric: Organization

This article covers part of blogging rhetoric. Rhetoric is the study of how to communicate effectively and persuasively in writing or speech [web definitions].

Organization is an important component in most rubrics for assessing student writing. A specific length is usually part of the writing assignment specifications.

Here are the seven basic blog posting formats:

1. Link-only (few words, a bookmark like del-icio-us)
2. Link blurb (2 lines-few paragraphs, maybe an extract)
3. Brief remark (1-3 short paragraphs)
4. List
5. Short article (under 500-700 words)
6. Long article (700+ words)
7. Series postings (500-1000 words each)

"Some formats work best for commentary or explanation, others for alerts and references, etc."

The "brief remark" is "a blog posting that generally is just 1-3 short paragraphs long. It can contain virtually any kind of content: an observation on current events, an idea, an event announcement, a question for readers, an anecdote, a joke, a description, etc."

Of course, Jakob Nielsen must be ranked as number one web rhetorician.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Intrinsic Motivation
= Interesting and Relevant Content

University classes are a captive audience.

Business people studying in their free time are not captive.

If the content is not engaging and relevant, business people won't come to class. Eventually, if they are bored they won't come to school at all. What to do?

Add a little intrinsic motivation and we can often capture this demanding audience:

"People who are intrinsically motivated work on tasks because they find them enjoyable...choosing to do an activity for no compelling reason...[the activity] occurs for its own sake...requires no external supports or reinforcements."

Sometimes the preparation of language teaching material is a search for good content, for relevant and up-to-date news, the same thing that drives journalists.

Outsourcing blogs: My favorite

There are several blogs devoted to outsourcing where you can find the latest relevant developments in this area. My favorite blogs are this Globalization of Services blog and this Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) blog.

Teachers have an advantage over text book companies here. Textbook companies avoid using and providing materials in computer readable form out of the fear of being copied. With Google and knowledge of their students, any teacher can find the right fit between students and content with a little experimentation.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Theory Behind
Content-Based Instruction

This short paper has a nice concise statement of why content based instruction (CBI) is more effective than just teaching a language:

"One of the achievements of cognitive science is the confirmation of the dual nature of cognition given in the dictionary definition: all human intellectual activities, such as thinking, communicating, problem solving, and learning, require both processes and content (knowledge). This implies that attempting to raise people's cognitive abilities to high levels simply by improving processes such as "reading," "writing," "critical thinking" is nearly futile. To perform these processes well requires high levels of content knowledge on which the processes can operate."

Computer programs that understand natural language need databases of commonsense content knowledge like Cyc to function.

Humans like computers need these databases and they acquire them by osmosis through extensive reading and automatic word recognition:

"To efficiently read and comprehend, the decoding aspect of reading must become automatic, that is, performed without conscious attention. This can only be accomplished by hours and hours of practice in reading. This is one of the reasons why adults who leave literacy programs having completed just 50 to 100 or so hours of instruction do not make much improvement in general reading comprehension: they have not automated the decoding process. A second reason is that, to markedly improve reading comprehension, one must develop a large body of knowledge in long term memory relevant to what is being read. Like skills, the development of large bodies of knowledge takes a long time."

The article ends by suggesting that language training be combined with job training.

Language tests that even native speakers can't answer correctly

Are tests that even native speakers of a language might not answer correctly really legitimate? This gap-fill quiz for business vocabulary is from this quiz repository. Only scored 16 out of 20 and I have a masters in economics. Does that make me incompetent and shameless? Hardly.

Part of the problem is probably English teachers without subject-specific knowledge asking either irrelevant questions or questions with either multiple or no answers. Another problem may be United Kingdom-specific language. The problems were:

"allowance money" vs. "pocket money" ("pocket money" is quite a general word)

"socialist economy" vs. a "mixed economy" ("mixed" pretty vacuous here)

"gold reserves" vs. "gold reserve" ("is" forces a usage that I'm not familiar with)

"multi-use ticket" vs. "season ticket" (no reference to summer, winter, ...)

Nonetheless, such quizzes still have value as a sort of meeting of minds between teacher and student and it's probably better that a lot of time is not wasted writing air-tight valid questions. It is important that students are not assessed with questions like this. Sometimes this type of question actually penalizes the best students in the class. I've thrown away test questions like this that were given in exams and confused very competent students.

The bottom-line: focus on content and not language itself, i.e. Content Based Instruction (CBI) . Setting learning objectives for content that is expressed with vocabulary is more effective and natural than making the vocabulary itself an objective.

(London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) International Qualifications exam curriculae seem to be a good basis for content-based instruction).

Sunday, January 29, 2006

My Economics EAP Reading
Conference Paper

A conference paper I presented at the international TESOL conference at Mae Fah Luang University in Chiangrai, Thailand 2005.

Instead of just looking for simple word collocations in a corpora of economics texts, the paper advocates looking for semantic-syntactic patterns like TREND-CAUSES-TREND. Furthermore, the paper suggests how these patterns can be used in the teaching of large lecture classes of L2 students. It is based on my experience of teaching economics in such an environment.