Pros and cons of selected apps for adult learners of English

I’ve blogged about fun, productive apps on Ask Auntie Web, and posted a summary about technology in teaching a while ago, but check out apps all the time to ponder their overall usefulness. When assessing learner tools I ask:

  1. What does it actually require the learners to do linguistically (that they could not do equally well or better without it)?
  2. Can they modify their work, to discuss their work in progress (to avoid the slick surface hiding essential vacuity)?
  3. Does the app itself encourage learners to revisit and show off what they can do (not what the app can do)?
  4. Can learners share and collaborate in a way that makes immediate sense to them? (In other words, are they learning socially?)

Though I enjoy apps throughly myself, and encourage self-study and give feedback on work learners send me after using them, the social component is computer-mediated, heads together over a screen, and that rarely seems more valuable than other in-class activities – at least with academics and business people – and at least when time is very short. Apps, to me, are ideal when learners can dip in and do something, and then redo it better, after which they can take the learnings away and put them into something away from the computer or handheld device. At the purely technical level, these criteria must be met:

  1. Is it free? (In class individual use is obviously very different from what individual learners may do at home or on their hand-helds, or platforms we can provide and administrate for the whole group or school!)
  2. Is it simple enough to use for that particular group? (And do you have the time to engage them in tech learning)
  3. If it requires “sign-up” to output a result, are the learners able and willing to engage in that? (Remember privacy issues)
  4. Since I include apps with tasks in Moodle for self-study, apps that embed well are more attractive. Quite often the embed code interferes with HTML code, e.g. here on WordPress, so links are sometimes the better option.

One of the nice apps to use in class for dialogue scripting/building which meets the above criteria is the very easy, which I used to make this Bundestrojaner scene (Anne)

Benefits: The learner can access this app immediately and simply, without signing up or having to create avatars. (Caution: requires Flash.) Simply select a scenario and your actors and begin typing in text. After outputting the finished text-to-speech product, you can go back and edit the dialogue. The creator can share the link to the finished product through all the regular social media channels and e-mail, or embed it in a blog, wiki or website. For a small fee, it can also be downloaded as a file. On the whole, the scenarios are somewhat limited, but technologically more creative students will very quickly find that you can create your own cutomized animations, so taking a very simple and functional first step together is really all that is needed.

Drawbacks: Like most text to speech apps, the computer-generated audio leaves much to be desired, as it doesn’t translate into natural speech in terms of nuclear stress, intonation and connected speech (and in this case, gives incorrect word stress for “Facebook”, provides strange pronunciation for “discussing” that sounds as if I wrote “discursing” (but I doublechecked, honest!)  and makes mincemeat of the inserted German words). Creative punctuation helps a little to adjust nuclear stress, and the differences between machine speech and human speech are a great opportunity to discuss what makes English pronunciation special. But you do have to decide whether going the roundabout route of having two cartoon characters read out your dialogue is what you want. — Here’s another sample video made with this app, with similar issues: Hard copy by Anne at

Animating text using Wondersay

I dislike animated text for presentations, it just seems silly to make text hard to read. But giving the “solution” to a quiz, e.g. using the “letters falling into place” animation this app provides, adds a nice touch. Ask learners to fill in the blanks in a quote, e.g. “The learner needs _________ and _________ to learn the language fast.” Then play an answer:

made on Wondersay – Animate text with style

Benefits: No skills required, though the app allows the user to experiment with animations. And learners can select quotes and do the same exercise with their classmates.

Drawbacks: It’s actually quite difficult to get this app to give you the animation you selected. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Then, once you open the link to your Wondersay animation, it begins automatically as soon as the page opens, and you can’t start or stop it. Once played, the sentence is visible as part of a rather ugly initial screen, without the “film still” picture that many apps provide. This means that the app doesn’t work well as an embedded animation on Moodle or here on WordPress. It’s far better simply to link to it. But seriously, when would you really want to? You can’t study a nice-looking version of the sentence in peace, post-animation, so I see the educational value of this kind of tool to be very limited. (Prove me wrong!)

Phonology 101

On our course Patricia introduced us to two great sites to help with phonology.

First, there’s the excellent online typewriter, the Phonemic Character Keyboard, which is based on the comprehensive IPA character picker, two tools which, taken together, are just what you need to be able to write a post like this!

Then, there’s the University of Iowa Phonetics Flash Animation Project. This lets you go to three languages – American English, Spanish and German – to compare the phonemic characters with animated videos of the organs of speach and the ensuing sounds.

These tools are great extensions to the information contained in the Sound Foundations chart (app available) developed by Adrian Pilbeam, based on Received Pronunciation. While this is obviously a groundbreaking approach, and bible, so to speak, it needs extending when you’re focussing on moving students towards greater intelligibility in the ELF world. So this morning I’ve revisited that practice sentence I gave my students a few weeks ago: As she heard the bird, it occurred to her that the word she had heard was “a third”, not “a turd”. For orientation, I told the students to think “ö”. But the phoneme is not all that simple.

  • heard: BE: hɜːd – AE: hɝd
  • German uses different sounds and symbols: œ (öffnen) – ø (hören)

The sound descriptions from the IPA character picker are

  • ɜ – lower mid-central rounded
  • œ – lower mid front rounded
  • ø – upper mid front rounded

They may sound similar at first, but they’re made at different places in your mouth. The English phoneme sort of sits on your tongue, while the German ones are right up front.

Armin Berger writes: “Although the German vowel sounds differ slightly from their English counterparts, the German vowel inventory is sufficient for ELF communication. The English vowel sound /ɜː/, which is considered important for ELF, does not exist in German and might need some practice. In addition, German vowels are not shortened before voiceless consonants or lengthened before voiced consonants. This will be problematic for ELF.”  (In Robin Walker, Teaching the Pronunciation od English as a Lingua Franca, p.107)

So not only do German learners of English need to practice where the sound is made, they also need to make it long enough to be recognized. The most important thing remains for students to recognize when sounds are pronounced the same way, e.g. despite their divergent spellings, for consistent intelligibility. This allows listeners to tune in to them, and decode the sounds consistently.

Next time students need practice in this phoneme, I’ll still give them sentences containing many instances of it, but I’ll also present the four sounds (long and short ö in German, “heard” with and without the r) in comparision.

Phonemic typewriters:

Text to phonetics:

The answer to the poll is … The Island Weekly!

Riddles upside down

A man went on a trip on Friday, stayed for 2 days and returned on Friday. How is that possible?
Answer: ¡ǝsɹoɥ ɐ sı ʎɐpıɹɟ

What has 4 wheels and flies?
Answer: ¡ʞɔnɹʇ ǝƃɐqɹɐƃ ɐ

What did the fish say when he hit the side of his glass bowl at 50 miles per hour?
Answer: “˙uɯɐp”

Think fast: There’s an electric train traveling south. The wind is from the north-west. In which direction would the smoke from the train be blowing?
Answer: ¡ǝʞoɯs ou sɐɥ uıɐɹʇ ɔıɹʇɔǝlǝ uɐ

Well, did you have fun hanging from the ceiling? A nice tool to fool with, that, ˙ʇuoɟ ʎɯ ɥʇıʍ ʞɹoʍ ʇ’usǝop ʇı ɥƃnoɥʇ

Animoto: Men with beards

Just testing some edutech tools this morning, this is my first attempt with Animoto, which lets you make free 30 second animated slideshows. I’m picking up on a topic I wrote about two years ago. – Do you recognize all of the bearded men in the pictures?

Create your own video slideshow at

BTW: A group of us is going to see a great bearded man reading at Amerika Haus here in Munich on Sunday: Harry Rowohlt, quite possibly the greatest translator from English to German. He’s responsible for Winnie the Pooh, Shel Silverstein, Ernest Hemmingway,… and he’s been touring, reading the letters of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels with Gregor Gysi. On Sunday he’ll be reading from his translations.


Dorothy Parker: Superfluous Advice

Ian James presented a lovely recording tool, Vocaroo, on his blog, and I’ll be using it in online courses. But here on this blog, dear reader, it’s an easy way to record yourself and to practice your pronunciation. Listen to my recording to help with the more difficult words. Then record yourself (you might have to press “record” twice to make it work on the second go!)

Superfluous Advicedorothy-parker

By Dorothy Parker

Should they whisper false of you,
Never trouble to deny;
Should the words they say be true,
Weep and storm and swear they lie.

Powered by Vocaroo

Martin Dougiamas, father of Moodle

Great interview with Martin Dougiamas, father of Moodle, at Moodlemoot in Bamberg:

“Moodle is really a system of control. The web 2.0 is very much about complete freedom and openness and lack of privacy. And Moodle is obviously oriented to what institutions care about, which is about walls and protected spaces, and this just allows you to bring content from the wider world into these potected spaces do interesting things with them.”

“It’s for people who like islands. It’s for those people who need that. And it’s definitely not the solution for everybody.”

Interview audio at
tweetet by Spotlightverlag

Moodle for multiple choice

Using ICT for communication in teaching is great, and it’s what hooked me to adopting technology as a professional focus. It’s the “personal” quality of Web 2.0 tools that opens up new kinds of learning.

But systems really shine when they are allowed to be, well, systems. In teaching they need to be well-designed to provide the right kind of feedback to the user. They’re good for formative analysis – guiding the student in his or her learning process – and for final evaluation – passing the benchmark. How you set up the exercise or test visually on the page and how you word the feedback is important. When I run my next Moodle course for teachers, I’ll need to teach them how to make multiple choice tests. I’m not looking forward to it, though: the Moodle interface is so awful to use for input, and you can’t do much with it visually. Oh, well. It’s free 😉 – I’ll have to see what I can do with Hot Potatoes now, and whether that’s simpler.

Oh, boy. How many hours do we have?