Our favorite online resources for learning English

Kay: Hi, Rachelle. How was your first semester? I hope you wrapped it up nicely. Now that school is out, it is the perfect time to talk about learning tools students can use on their own. Rachelle, I know you use a lot of online resources in class. What do you recommend to your students to support their learning and help them become more proactive learners? Would you like to share them with me and the readers?

Rachelle: Hi Kay. I can’t believe how fast the semester has flown by! As usual, I didn’t do half the things I wanted to in my classes, but that’s what the second semester is for, right?

I’m a big fan of having students use online resources for their own self-directed study, and I encourage them to try a few to see what they like and what works for their own particular needs. One resource that I’ve known for quite a while but have just started using with any regularity is Voicethread. I’m sure it’s familiar to a lot of people. It’s a website that allows users to upload content and respond to other people’s content. For example, a student could upload a picture of something they’ve been studying about, and explain it. Then another student could listen to it and respond. There can be a lot of back and forth with this. Of course, Voicethread allows for both spoken and written comments, but I like it for the speaking aspect, something that can be difficult to do outside of class if you have no one to talk to. Voicethread is not that difficult to use or figure out, but it can be a little overwhelming to lower-level students, which is why we do one or two sessions in class to make sure that they get the hang of it. I’ve encouraged my students to do more uploads and comments over the summer holidays, as it’s a good way to get some speaking and listening practice in.

Another resource that I like for listening comprehension practice is ESLvideos.com. It’s a site that allows anyone to upload videos and create comprehension quizzes for it, which are graded immediately and the results can be sent to the teacher’s account, if they have one. Most, if not all the videos are linked through YouTube. The videos are broken down into beginner, intermediate, and advanced videos, and they range from music videos to Mr. Bean to TED talks. There is quite a range of materials to listen to, and students can focus on what they enjoy or find useful. The comprehension questions are generally multiple-choice questions ranging from being able to distinguish minimal pairs to vocabulary comprehension. I’ve uploaded and created quite a few videos myself, and have received a lot of positive feedback from my students about using it. Other listening sites that I’ve recommended to students include lyricsgaps (songs/music videos in various languages) and elllo.org (uploads from native and non-native speakers of English).

Finally, a reading site that I recommend to students is Breaking News English (BNE). I’m sure that this will be another familiar site to many teachers. I like it because the readings are broken down into various levels, so even low-level students can read about timely news reports. I know many schools have (or are developing) extensive reading programs, and I’ve been part of a couple now, but I think it’s good for the students to diversify their reading habits beyond graded readers. News sites, even ones like BBC English, can be a little intimidating to some students since there are so many study options available. BNE is good since it only has one focus, you can read the headlines and choose the level and then you are ready to go. I know many teachers use this site for in-class use, but I’ve recommended it to a number of my students for their own autonomous learning and quite a few have used it. There are many other resources out there as well, but I haven’t had a chance to use them with my students, or follow up on whether or not they use them. Another option that I’ve come across recently has been what is known as “choose your own adventure” stories. There are quite a number of different resources that use this concept in different ways. A couple that I like are We Tell Stories and Castaway. I think they make reading more accessible to students who do not have a particular fondness for the written word in either their L1 or L2.

Kay: I’ve used Voicethread and BNE before but not others. So I appreciate all your suggestions. I particularly like ESLvideos.com. What a great resource!

Since you introduced online resources for listening, speaking and reading, I will talk about useful sites for writing. What I often recommend to my students these days is Grammarly. It’s an online grammar checker. I sometimes use it myself too when I write something substantial and am too lazy to eliminate basic errors, or at the initial or final stage when someone has already proofread but I to do the final check for obvious errors. I also encourage my students to use Grammarly in my discussion class where they write a summary and opinion of a newspaper article although the focus of the course is on discussion and critical thinking. For the free portion of the software, it does not fix their grammar problems for them; it only shows them where and what kind of errors they are. But that prompts students to edit – to think and figure out how to correct their own errors. They may actually make another mistake by trying to correct, but at least it nudges students to engage in their writing once more before they submit their work. That is more effective than just telling them to read it again. Students seem to find it helpful, and the platform is very easy to use.

My second recommendation of an online resource for Japanese learners of English is actually something many people know about but often students don’t –at least the students I have taught don’t. It is a free online dictionary Eijiro/英辞郎on the web. It is a great dictionary put together and maintained by a group of translators, EDP (English Dictionary Project). What I like about it is that you can look up a word, phrase, or combination of words in both ways: English to Japanese and Japanese to English. Furthermore, it presents many examples and additional information. For example, I always find it difficult to translate “committed” into Japanese. It is one of those words that does not have a convenient counterpart in Japanese. If you look it up in Eijiro, you will get seven pages of examples, most drawn from how it has been translated and from various corpuses. The first entry after the definitions and translations is totally unexpected: Committed, a feature movie with its title in Japanese, the year of release, director, and main actors. Then the examples are presented in alphabetical order beginning with committed activist and ending with a sentence likely to be taken from the immigration form to enter Canada and its Japanese translation: I hereby certify that I have not been convicted in Canada or elsewhere of having committed or attempted to commit a crime of violence (私は、カナダまたはその他の地方で暴力犯罪または暴力犯罪未遂で有罪判決を受けたことがないことを誓約します。) The dictionary provides many examples like this. I encourage students to look through and find something similar to the meaning and use that fits the context in which they found the word or they intend to use it. It now indicates if the word or expression is politically incorrect, colloquial or slang. So when recommending this site to students, it is important to inform them of that and instruct them to double check with another dictionary. Of course, just as with any dictionary or online sources, a caveat to this is that it should be regarded as a reference rather than the “correct answer.” You also get a sense of how this site works by looking up Japanese words for which it is difficult to find corresponding words in English such as Oya-baka (親ばか) or Ne-mawashi (根回し).

Finally, the last online resource I always recommend to my students who are interested in football is languagecaster.com. It is a website hosted by two English teachers who love football. As the subtitle of the website, Learning English through Football, indicates, it provides reading and listening materials for learners of English who are interested in football as well as an opportunity to communicate with others by writing comments in the forum. It is a kind of content-based learning or content and language integrated learning! We often encourage students to find books on the topics or genre they like in extensive reading in the hope of increasing their exposure to English. But some students don’t read books in Japanese and it’s difficult for them to sustain their motivation. If you have students who love football, this is a great website for them. I will be interviewing the hosts of this website next month. So stay tuned!

Rachelle: Kay, I’m very interested in all the sites you’ve mentioned, as I haven’t come across them before. In particular, I really like the look of Grammarly, and I think I may introduce it to my writing students this fall. I do show them the Academic Word List, where they can upload their own writing and see how much of the vocabulary they’ve used comes from the lists, but I wonder if using both might be more useful to them. Of course, the problem with online resources, is that there are so many out there to try, that it becomes hard to focus on what really is the most helpful for students. However, getting the students to try them, whether it’s in or out of class, is a great way for them to take control of their own learning.

Kay: Thank you for another resource. The Academic Word List looks very useful too. Indeed, there are so many. Looking back at how I used to learn English when I was a student, it always amazes me that most of these resources are available for free. Yet the importance of willingness to try out new ways of learning and actively making decisions about learning hasn’t changed – it may even be more important.

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