A test for foreign students: TOEFL

A test for foreign students: TOEFL.

A grad student looking at just how to tackle this exam and make a it a piece of cake!  Practical tips for exam success.

Who’s got a tin ear?

Let a little music in…… get some English out……

As a teacher, I must say I don’t keep up with what’s on the radio, but I really love music.  For the most part, I play songs in class that have a grammar focus and are timeless.  A few lesser-known wonders surrounded by innocuous hits from different points in music history.  From time to time I do take some risks, however, and even listen to student suggestions from the Top 40!  At home, my tastes differ greatly from those of my students–Morrissey, Antony & the Johnsons,  Coco Rosie, Björk, Andrew Bird, and the list goes on.

What kind of risk, you might ask?  I fear exposing my tin ear?  If you looked at my last post, you surely are on your Merriam-Webster app looking at the meaning. If you still haven’t installed it, then I give you here the definition of tin ear.

tin ear (noun):  a lack of ability to hear something (such as music or speech) in an accurate and sensitive way.

One song that I listen to is called the “The Sly Seducer” which I miscoined as “The Slice of You, Sir”, having never seen the lyrics or the title in print.  See how I have a tin ear?  This is just one example.

So this post is about listening to music with support of some text and then filling in the gaps.  You know it as a student, your teacher has done this kind of activity on paper.  Teachers, you have painstakingly pulled out the words, maybe even in the old days, you did what I used to do and listened to songs over and over to try to catch all of the words.   Then you listened to the song twice in class and talked about its meaning.

Here’s an activity that can be done in class, using the projector, with students singing out the answer at the end of the line.  Or maybe writing the answer and showing it proudly, written large on a piece of paper.  Better yet, at home, it’s a really fun way to practice your English.


Once you get there, it’s just a matter of choosing a popular hit you’d like to listen to, and you can watch the video at the same time.

I chose “Mysterious Ways” by U2.  Once you are there, you can choose Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced or Expert level.  Depending on the level, you have to fill in more or fewer words.

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 11.33.02 AM

If you really “dig” the song, you can play it repeatedly and different words will be removed from the lyrics.  You might not want to practice Bruce Springteen’s “I’m goin’ down” where he sings the word “down” 33 times out of a total of 206 words.  Or even worse might be (depending on your goal!) Daft Punk’s 90’s hit “Around the World” where they repeat “around the world” 144 times.  In that particular musical nugget, there aren’t any other lyrics!

Don’t worry!  These songs aren’t actually on lyricstraining, but you get my point.  Nevertheless, if you’d really like to get a song onto lyricstraining, you can.  Once you sign up, you can learn how you can synchronize lyrics to the music and then others can play your song and train their ear.  Or maybe they’ll show they have a “tin ear!”

Do I look like a dictionary?

Has your teacher ever asked whether he looks like a dictionary?  Or have you ever asked your students whether you look like a dog-eared bound publication which is impossible to read but yet holds the wealth of the English language?  Fortunately I haven’t  said this for a long time.

One of my dreams in life was always to have a Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, which boasts more than 315,000 entries.  As I haven’t added on that new wing nor a sunroom to my house where it would look great perched on its own bookstand, I really do not foresee that particular addition to my book collection.  Also, since my great break from anything paper since I took up reading on my Kobo or iPod touch, I doubt that purchase will ever really be a reality.

I have found a solution, which makes me very happy, even when I’m offline.  Good students and teachers of English will find great use in the Merriam Webster free dictionaries for iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and android devices.

As I mentioned, this dictionary is available even when you don’t have wifi, although if you do, the dictionary also pronounces words for you.  For me, it’s the best dictionary because it has wonderful features like synonyms, antonyms, etymology of the words and examples, so you can see how words are used in context.

So, next time you are thinking about asking about a word (or if you as a teacher are stumped as to what “nefarious” means) then reach for your smartphone.  Because no one should ever really be a dictionary!

Merriam Webster Dictionary app



Soak up language @ NPR TED Radio Hour

Lately a lot of really good students have been asking me what they can listen to in order to enhance their English.  There’s no magic answer, but, yes, to some extent, one can expect that a certain amount of absorption will happen through well-spoken and well-thought out texts.  Well, for years, I have been a strong supporter of podcasts, and some students have really enjoyed using the ESL podcasts that are available.  What I am going to tell you about could be really good in the classroom, but why not also try it at home too.

Recently, I have been focussing more on how to make authentic materials accessible.  So, today’s treat is the NPR TED Radio Hour.


This morning while I was walking my dog, Oli, I listened to a TED speaker with schizophrenia telling her SUCCESS story.  It was a “voilà” sort of moment for me.  The way she told it (around 20 seconds into the podcast “Unquiet Minds”) was exactly how I would like an engaging essay to sound.  You can bet I will use that in one of my classes soon.   Also I have assigned several of my students recently to listen to these podcasts on the way to work or school.

Benefits of these podcasts include:

  • focus on language all centered on one topic
  • clear and careful speaking
  • several separate segments of the same episode allow for listening over the course of several listenings
  • possibility to repeat episodes as many times as desired for “osmosis” which can help in better pronunciation and more vocabulary
  • a challenging experience


How to get the NPR TED Radio Hours

1.  click on the picture above to go to the website where you can manually manage your podcasts.

2.  on an iPod touch, iPad or iPhone:  first, install “Podcasts” from the App Store, if you haven’t already.  Then search for the NPR TED Radio Hour and “subscribe”.  You can choose to download an episode each week, if you like.

3.  Through iTunes:  go to the iTunes store and search for NPR TED Radio Hour.  You can subscribe to all or download specific episodes.

It’s easy to soak up some good language and ways of speaking!

Wordle vs. Tagul for speaking and vocabulary practice


So, my last post was on Tagul for practicing vocabulary.  I promise to give the step-by-step lowdown, which is forthcoming.  For now, I’d like to show you a comparative analysis of Wordle and Tagul as they produce different results, bearing separate strengths.

What happens to be my starting point?  I watch the NY Times headlines each day and came to this article, “Moving Past Gender Barriers to Negotiate a Raise” which sounded like a pretty catchy topic to me.  Taking the first 3 short paragraphs (sentences really) and cutting and pasting into both programs, I got some interesting results.  With Tagul, I also added a picture of a briefcase for the shape.  With Wordle, I joined some word groups together that I considered inseparable or overly difficult to use separately, otherwise the site splits them up (after all, it’s the purpose of the site, really–to jumble things up).  Anyway, all in all, the amount of work was about the same.


Tagul Briefcase

Notice that in Tagul, lots of words get repeated to “fill space”.  This is fine as a vocab activity because it gets students to repeat, especially if pairs carry on a conversation until they have used all of the words!  Or at home, one could go through and study the whole page of words, pronouncing aloud, making sentences and doing translation, until all possibilities have been exhausted.

The Wordle is much more concise.  Each word is shown exactly once (except in the case of “women” here, where I have one capitalized and one not–little tricks that do cause repetition!), however the higher frequency words are made larger.

Moving Past Gender Barriers Wordle

Wordle Word Cloud

Once my students and I have talked about what the article might be about, then we can go through the actual text.  I think this can be done as self study too.  I know I need to try it out myself to upgrade my Portuguese!

Vocabulary taking shape in Tagul

Organize vocabulary in Word clouds, using tagul.com

Several years ago, a very innovative teacher (thanks Anna from Braga, Portugal!) introduced me to Wordle.net, which I still use to this day for long texts. Word clouds provide all of the vocabulary needed to retell a story or talk about a topic. Tagul is a word cloud development site that can place words in the actual shape of the central topic, promoting visual learning styles. The next post will show how to do it!Bon voyage

Let a TED-talker be your speech coach!

Not only is 12-year-old Thomas Suarez a talented app developer who actually taught himself how to write iPhone apps, but he is also an amazing speaker.   As a native of Wisconsin (a Wisconsinite or Cheesehead), I look at this kid with a bit of envy when I think about how clearly he speaks and just how well-rehearsed he is as a speaker.  If you guessed TED.com as the place where I heard this young man speak, then I guess that helps you understand 1.) that perhaps I might fear my public-speaking skills to be of a different caliber and 2.) that he must be a really good speaker or he must have trained very hard to give his talk.

So I say:  if you can’t beat him, join him!

My tip for the week is a simple one and provides you opportunities to speak like a pro.  TED talks are a wonderful source of ideas AND language.  Sure, some people have accents, like Arianna Huffington, so it’s best to screen for an accent you are looking for.  In my case, Thomas would help me with a clear “accent-less” American version.  To my ear, he speaks the standard that TV commentators aim for.

Speaking like a pro can be achieved over time by following three simple steps:

1.  find a good speaker & interesting talk on TED.com
2.  click on the interactive transcript as indicated by a red arrow in the image below.  This will show the entire transcript of the talk.

Interactive Transcript to read and practice pronunciation

3.  find a part you want to speak out.  Click and listen.  Stop and repeat.  Click and listen again.  Repeat as necessary.

Here is my example from TED

Looking at the transcript, you can then repeat as desired, in order to bring your pronunciation and speaking skills in line with those of these dynamic speakers.  In this example, you see where the speaker is at the moment, and you can skip ahead or go back to a part by clicking on the words you want to rehearse.

Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 9.42.24 AM

As a practice, this idea traces back to the old days at the language lab, listening to a recording from the textbook or that the teacher had recorded (in French, Spanish or German, I did the same in all 3 languages) then speaking what I heard into a microphone and making a cassette recording and finally going back to listen.  The difference is that this content is authentic and can be chosen at will!   While you are at it, you can enrich yourself with some new and innovative ideas that are on the cutting edge.

FlashPrezi instead of Flashcards: Learn vocab dynamically and easily

In my first post, I pointed out how Prezi is an easy way to practice vocabulary and even work on grammar structures, such as comparatives and superlatives.

But when you have a long list of vocabulary to learn and you want flashcards, you don’t want to spend any money on printing and you don’t want to do translation flashcards to learn the words (you know  what I mean, the ones where you write a word in one language on one side and the same meaning in another language on the other), what else can you do?

This is a complete lesson segment, centered around “daily routine” where various aspects of daily routines are presented to promote thinking about the topic and thinking about vocabulary, which will come up in the YouTube video included in the Prezi:


Zoom in around “What did you do this morning?”  That’s the type of flashcard set we can create to practice vocabulary.

Starting from scratch

Well, of course, you have to sign up for Prezi to do this, but I won’t go into those instructions.

Teachers:  keep in mind that you can get an EDU ENJOY account, which allows you to keep your Prezis private and also gives you an account with greater storage capacity.

So now on to the FlashPrezi:   You can choose a template if you like, a blank page.  I have chosen this one and then labeled the different areas with specific points of the day.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 12.32.31 PM

Now on to the cool part, which is why Prezi works to make FlashPrezi’s in a flash.

To put in your pics all you have to do is Insert Image.  From there you can do a Google search for the pic that you want to use in your FlashPrezi.

insert image

So that you can get all of the words on your vocabulary list — all onto one canvas.

brush your teeth vocab image

And this is the final effect:


Now all you have to do is go through the FlashPrezi to practice vocab or to teach it!

FlashPrezi in a flash…  the ecological way to learn.

Language springboards online

Language springboards online — What are they?

Sites & tools online for language teaching & learning, besides the obvious sites like ESL Café, about.com and others that have tailored materials for English as a Second Language, these sites are rich in language and potential for adaptation to the learning context.  The twist is in the ways in which these tools are used.

An example:  have you used Prezi as a system for filing and showing “flashcards”?  In just a few minutes, it’s possible to make a whole series of flashcards to practice English.  Take for instance practicing comparatives and superlatives, describing people, places, professions and pets:


In my first extended post, I’ll explain how to do this trick.  So stay tuned to my blog.

Teachers: some of the posts here you could give to your students.

Students:  Here are some posts you could use to help you with English (or maybe send to your teachers!)

The internet provides chances to learn English wherever you are.  With this blog, you can get ideas on how to do it.  Or how to create activities for your students that will get them engaged.