The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, August 11, 2017

Word Booster vocabulary tool: a review

This morning a new online vocabulary tool popped up on my Twitter feed that claimed to create vocabulary activities from authentic texts in minutes. Of course, I couldn’t resist, so I went to check it out.

Word Booster is a website that allows you to input the URL of an online text, such as a news article, it then extracts a list of words a learner is “likely to look up in the dictionary”. From this, it generates a wordlist that includes dictionary definitions and follows up with a quiz based on these words, definitions and example sentences. It is incredibly easy to use and creates a reformatted version of the text, the wordlist with definitions and the quiz as three pdfs in just a couple of minutes. The results are nicely presented and, I was pleased to see, give appropriate acknowledgements for both the text and the source of the dictionary definitions. The reformatted version of the text, which you’d print out and give to students, gives not just the details of the source, author, etc. at the top of the page, but it also has a QR code which students can scan to take them directly to the original– a nice touch.

You can probably sense there’s a ‘but’ coming though … I was immediately wary for several key reasons:
1 Selecting the vocabulary that’s most useful for students to look up and then practise from a text isn’t a simple task. Do you just want to pick out the potentially ‘unknown’ words which will help them to process the text for comprehension? In which case, the definitions might be useful, but these might not be especially useful words to focus on and practise. Do you want to choose higher-frequency words which might be more useful to learn? In which case, you need to know something about the learner (their level, context, etc.) in order to make those choices.
2 To my knowledge, no one’s yet come up with a reliable computational method of distinguishing the correct sense of words in context.
3 Activities based purely on dictionary definitions are, at best, very limited and at worst, downright unhelpful, especially without any human editing.

Because the link to the site came via a couple of respected sources, I was hopeful that this tool might have found a way of getting round these problems. I tried it out with a news article from the Guardian than I used in a talk I gave earlier this year about choosing which vocabulary in a text to focus on. Because it was an article I’d already worked with, I had an idea which vocabulary I might expect to crop up.

Text length: Because you enter the URL of the text, the tool automatically uses the whole text. In an ELT class, you often want to shorten a text to make it fit more easily into a lesson and because the results are produced as pdfs, they’re not easily edited.  Not ideal, but something I could live with.

Word selection: This was decidedly odd. The list generated for this text was as below, EVP CEFR levels shown in brackets where relevant.

weather (A1), autumn (A2), freezing (B1), shocking (B1), scary (B1), flood (B1), sunlight (B2), alarming (C1), continual (C1), retreat (C2), unprecedented (C2), vicious (C2), Danish, peak, anomaly, magnitude, moisture, perpetuate, polar, hiccup

Even if you have niggles with the EVP classifications, I think this is clearly a slightly strange spread of vocabulary. For students tackling an authentic text of this kind, I would say the first 6-8 words would be unlikely look-ups and the first handful would probably be unhelpful even as revision.

Sense identification: I was unsurprised to find the tool didn’t always manage to assign the correct dictionary sense to words in context. The website acknowledges that it might sometimes get this wrong, but for this text the error rate was 5 words out of 20, that’s 25% of the words wrongly assigned. That seems quite high to me and is not only potentially pretty misleading for a learner, but awkward for the teacher who finds themselves in class trying to explain the mismatches. The clear errors here were:
vicious: this appears in the text in the idiom ‘a vicious circle’, but sees the individual adjective defined as ‘deliberately cruel and violent’
retreat: the text talks about retreating polar ice, but the definition is specifically about armies. The more general, usually second sense about something ‘moving back’ would have fitted here.
flood: again, the definition picked here is the first, most frequent sense involving water, but the text is actually talking about warm air moving in suddenly, a slightly different sense.
weather: this is perhaps the biggest gaffe as it fails to even identify the correct part of speech. It gives a verb definition for what’s actually a simple noun in the text. (The software is confused by the fact that it follows ‘to’: “Ice is very sensitive to weather.”)
hiccup: once more, we get the most literal definition here when the text is using the word in a metaphorical sense, to mean ‘a minor problem’

Dictionary choice: Even setting those issues aside, my really big bone of contention comes with the choice of dictionary. The definitions used by Word Booster come from Oxford Dictionaries, a reputable source yes, but with definitions taken from one of their native speaker dictionaries, not a learner’s dictionary **big sigh, shoulders sag** I’m not going to go through the reasons for using learner’s dictionaries in ELT again, but let’s just look at one definition from this text for ‘moisture’:
NS def used by Word Booster: water or other liquid diffused in a small quantity as vapour, within a solid, or condensed on a surface
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: very small drops of water that are present in the air, on a surface or in a substance
Not only does this make many of the definitions incredibly unhelpful for the average learner (because many contain words that are far above the level of the word being defined), but it makes many of the items in the follow-up quiz completely incomprehensible.
[STOP PRESS: It looks like if you register with Word Booster and download the Chrome extension, it may be possible to choose between the OED and the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, which would potentially solve this particular issue - although the option certainly isn't obvious at first sight. When I've had a chance to investigate further, I'll report back with another update ...]

Quiz: I could go on to critique the quiz format, but to be honest, there’s no point. Starting off with inappropriate definitions and example sentences aimed at native speakers rather than learners, the confusion just gets compounded. Then add to that a multiple-choice activity with randomly chosen definitions as distractors and I can no longer even bear to look.

If …: I was really hoping that this was going to be an exciting new tool, and I think the intention is good, but it just falls at too many key hurdles. I think it could maybe work if:
- it used a learner’s dictionary as its source
- it allowed some intervention from the teacher at the level of word selection (it could maybe suggest a wordlist that the teacher could then edit)
- it allowed teacher intervention again to check the sense selections
- it allowed teachers to edit the quiz

Of course, all that would make it much less of an instant tool providing a quickie, ready-made lesson. But with the tool doing a lot of the legwork and the teacher just needing to intervene where necessary to tidy things up, I think it would still be useful and it would certainly produce much more credible results.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Home alone

I've been working freelance from home for 17 years now and, with a few interruptions, I've pretty much settled into a routine. So when my partner was made redundant at Easter, one of my first thoughts was that he'd be at home - and in my space - while he looked for his next job. 

We've had 9 weeks now of sharing the same daytime space, but this morning, I packed him off for a weekend camping trip with friends (rather him than me looking at the weather!), which means that I have the house back to myself for 4 whole days! So, partly inspired by Karen White's blog post about sharing a workspace with her husband, it seemed like a good point at which to reflect on how I'm getting on with having someone else in the house.

Plus points:
  • He's always been really good at understanding that when I'm working, I don't want to be disturbed, so generally, I'm upstairs in my office and he stays downstairs and keeps out of my way.
  • It's nice to share a break with someone, whether that's a chat over lunch or an afternoon cup of tea in the sun. He even goes and gets in afternoon cake ... 
  • It's good to have someone to moan to. A few times when I've been really frustrated with work, it's been nice to let off a bit of steam and get a bit of sympathy. 
  • I'm less tied to the working week. When the weather's been nice during the week, we've gone out and done something together and then I've worked a weekend day instead. Both of us having that flexibility is fun.

  • I think I've mentioned before that when I work, I don't sit silently at my desk for hours on end. I like to wander around the house, especially when I'm thinking. So I might compose a tricky email to an editor while I pull up a few weeds in the garden or mull over contexts for practising countable and uncountable nouns while I'm emptying the dishwasher. Or I might just stand and stare out the window while I'm trying to work out the wording for a grammar note. Having someone else in the house makes me a bit more self-conscious, especially as when I go downstairs, he tends to take it as a sign that I'm having a break and I'm ready to chat.
  • And then I talk to myself ... not all the time, but on and off through the day. Sometimes that's exclaiming at a stupid feedback comment out loud or more often it's just reading back something I've written to see how is scans. Again, it feels odd when there's someone else in earshot.
  • Although the shared breaks are nice, they do seem to be longer than the ones I'd have on my own, which eats into my working time. And while it's good to have a mental break too and chat about something non-work, that's also thinking time lost.
Wording while weeding ...

All round, it's actually been fine. It wasn't until today when I realized how excited I was at the prospect of having the place back to myself that I really noticed how having someone else in the house had affected the way I work. And after all, hopefully, it's only a temporary arrangement, so I'm sure we'll continue to muddle through.

So what is this mouse going to do while the cat's away? I suspect I might just work through the whole weekend ... after all, the forecast's rotten ...

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Why I'm not an academic ...

I've always had a love-hate sort of relationship with academia. I love learning new stuff and getting to grips with ideas, but I get incredibly frustrated by the academic world and a lot of what goes along with it.

Throughout my career I've dipped in and out, with an MA in Applied Linguistics that helped me make the transition from classroom teacher to lexicographer (and beyond), thoughts of a PhD a few years ago that never went past a meeting with a potential supervisor and a bit of reading, then quite a bit of contact with the academic world as I got involved in EAP (both keeping up with ideas and research in EAP and getting to grips with texts from other disciplines). And as some of you will know, my latest foray has been into a slightly new area, embarking on a part-time MA in Forensic Linguistics last October.

I've found exploring the world of Forensic Linguistics fascinating and I've really loved learning new stuff. As my partner will attest to, there were days when I came home absolutely buzzing with new ideas and babbling on about possible new career directions. There was also a lot that I found insanely frustrating though and by the time I got to the end of my first year (the course is 2 years part time), those frustrations were starting to outweigh the excitement. It was a relief to get to the end of term and I realized that the prospect of having to do the same all over again rather filled me with dread ... which is never a good sign! 

I didn't want to give up too easily though, so I signed up for a 4-day summer school in Porto ahead of the Internatonal Association of Forensic Linguists conference, which I also registered for. The summer school consisted of a programme of largely practical workshops led by well-known forensic linguists, significantly, from different universities ... giving me a slightly different angle on the field from my MA course. It was an incredibly intense few days in terms of taking everything in, trying to process ideas to complete the practical tasks, both in the workshops and as 'homework', and in terms of some of the content; murder, drug-dealing, child abuse ... when you're dealing with the law, the topics are rarely light! But it was absolutely fascinating and provided lots of new angles on the field which hadn't cropped up on my course.

It also confirmed though that Forensic Linguistics is still a new field that's very much finding its feet. There aren't yet accepted methods and standards for the analysis of linguistic evidence. Instead, various academics are trying out different avenues of research, some theoretical, some practical, and those actually working with the police and courts almost all have 'day jobs' in academia. Which means that if I wanted to pursue a career, I'd not only have to finish my MA, but I'd really need to do a PhD too before I could even get a foot in the door. Which means more academia ... which brings me back to my problem ...

As I said, I love exercising my grey cells, but there are just some types of academic I really struggle with. They seem to fall into two camps. The first group are concerned with very abstract, esoteric ideas that seem to have little or no bearing on the real world ... study for study's sake. The second type are more practical, dealing with real data, but their studies have become super-narrow; they're investigating pronoun use by 15-year-old female English-French bilinguals in Vanuatu in text messages (that's a made-up example but not far off some of the papers at the conference!!). And when they present their research, they go into the minutiae of how they collected their data and exactly what they found, but never seem to get to any broader conclusions about what it might mean in the wider world. Leaving you with a distinct 'so what?' feeling.

And I can see that there's maybe a place for both types of study to feed into the general knowledge soup that eventually moves the whole field forward. But add onto that the insistence on using unnecessarily impenetrable language and an often shocking lack of rigour and  ... it's just not for me. And even if I wanted to focus on the more applied end of things that most interests me, I'd still have to plough through all that other stuff  - and cite and acknowledge it and 'situate' my work amongst it, etc. And you know, at this stage of my career, I just don't have the patience for often poorly-communicated ideas which seem to be going nowhere.

So somewhere in-between the summer school and looking at the programme for the conference, I decided it was time to cut my losses and step away from academia once again. I did go to a couple of conference plenaries, but I soon realized my motivation had evaporated, so I escaped the stuffy darkened rooms of the university to enjoy the Porto sunshine instead. 

What next? Well, I'll withdraw from the MA and go back to the 'day job' (which, thankfully, I've kept ticking over). I'd like to keep exploring Forensic Linguistics and maybe somewhere along the line find an 'in' where I can use my language analysis skills without jumping through all the academic hoops. Unfortunately though, once I lose my student log-in, I also lose access to all those academic journals. Journal subscription for Christmas maybe ...?

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is café working really workable?

Working from home is fabulous. I’ve been doing it for 17 years now and most of the time I love it.  Just occasionally though, domestic life gets in the way. For the past week and a bit, we’ve had workmen in renovating our bathroom. The work was pencilled in months ago when I had no idea how it’d fit into my work schedule and inevitably, it’s come at exactly the wrong time, just when I’m at my busiest, juggling a couple of projects and really can’t afford the disruption. What with the noise, the mess, no loo and the water and power going on and off, it’s meant that I haven’t been able to work from home.

Because I can’t afford to lose the hours, I’ve worked through the past two weekends, I’ve been squeezing a couple of hours in each evening and I’ve been trying to get in a few hours during the day working in cafés. All of which has left me exhausted, frustrated and having actually achieved very little in the way of work.

The idea of the freelancer sat in acafé with their laptop seems very appealing, but in my experience, it’s really not a workable solution.

I’m lucky that living right in the city centre, I have a huge choice of cafés all within a few minutes’ walk, so I can pick spots that are relatively quiet. Even so, there is inevitable background noise and distractions. And however laid-back the café, you’re always a bit conscious of the time. The waitress has cleared away your coffee cup and you’re wondering how long you can stretch it out before you order something else. Or the free wi-fi only lasts for an hour.

That’s not so bad when you’re working on things that don’t need your full focus and that you can pick up and put down. I soon exhausted those tasks though and found that I was onto new, from-scratch writing that really needed my full attention and an uninterrupted run. In trying to squeeze in bits and pieces here and there, I was being really unproductive – spending ages puzzling over the same thing, going back over stuff again and again and just not moving forward. To the point where I just had to give up and admit it was better to lose a few days.

I generally work at a desktop pc, so decamping to a café means transferring stuff to my laptop. That isn’t that difficult in an age of Dropbox, but it still requires a bit of thought and planning. Making sure you’re always working on the latest version, uploading all those incidental files you might need to refer to and oh yes, coping with slow/intermittent wi-fi.

For me though, the real killer is the physical workspace. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, working at a laptop for an extended period is generally a no-no – you’re hunched over with the screen at completely the wrong height in relation to the keyboard and those horrible fiddly little trackpads are a nightmare. Then when you add to that flimsy café chairs that don’t offer any proper support and a table that’s at the wrong height for the chair, it’s a recipe for disaster. This morning’s café stop, for example, had a nice quiet table with a reasonably comfy chair, but the chair was much too low for the table and within minutes, my shoulder was killing me. This afternoon, I’ve switched to somewhere with a high, bench-style table and a seat that puts me at the right height for my arms to drop down more comfortably onto the keyboard, but I’m perched on a stool with no back, which is starting to take its toll on my lower back.

The good news is, the work on the bathroom is due to finish tomorrow, so fingers crossed, I’ll be back at my own desk by Thursday. And yes, at least I’ll have a nice new bathroom …

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