In this post I’m sharing with you TubeQuizard, a new free Youtube-based service that makes it possible to (1) find Youtube videos that contain a large number of examples of target grammar and vocabulary and (2) automatically create listening quizzes that allow learners to practice catching this language in authentic speech. It also features a collection of over 80 ready-made Grammar for listeners and Pronunciation for listeners quizzes.
- briefly explain the rationale behind the service and explain why I think listening practice belongs in grammar lessons
- explain how to look for videos using the service and share some tips how to consistently incorporate receptive grammar practice into your course
- share six key questions that I ask myself when deciding if a video that I found through this service will provide good input for my learners.
What are listening decoding skills and what do they have to do with grammar?
So to start with, if the term ‘listening decoding skills’ doesn’t sound familiar, here’s a quick recap. Listen to this short extract from an interview with Daniel Radcliffe (2 min 16 seconds to 2 min 39 seconds) and notice the way the words highlighted in the transcript are pronounced:
I’d rather know eight reason why you’re a terrible boyfriend.
Okay, I can do…
We don’t have to do eight.
I was going to say eight is like… I want to give myself somewhere to go in the public’s
estimation like… I can come up with a few.
You could notice that can was pronounced very close to /kn/, was to /wz/ and don’t lost the /t/ at the end. According to research, these and other features or real life pronunciation (very weak pronunciation of the schwa in functional words, the loss of /t/ at the end of a word, etc) tend to make it very difficult for the learners to catch –decode – the words that contain them. I myself discovered well past reaching C2 level of English that what I wasn’t catching in British and American series were very ‘basic’ words like ‘cn’ (can) and ‘thz’ (there’s), ‘ut’ (out) and ‘dosy’ (does he). What is more, not only are these features challenging, they’re extremely frequent – for example, it is difficult to think of a grammar topic at A2 – B2 levels that isn’t associated with one of these features. For instance, regular verbs in 2nd and 3rd form lose ‘-ed’ ending, past continuous contains weakly pronounced ‘was’ and ‘were’, and so on and so forth.
How to make sure the learners can catch these words despite their pronunciation? Awareness raising is one important step, but it’s not enough because decoding these pronunciation features in real time is a skill that needs to be practiced. The books on teaching listening (notably, Listening in the Language Classroom by John Field and the Real Lives Real Listening series by Sheila Thorn) make a strong point that learners need intensive decoding practice, i.e. short exercises during which they transcribe decontextualized phrases that contain the same feature. My own and my learners’ experience convinced me that intensive practice is indeed extremely efficient – the learners report that they feel progress after decoding about a dozen instances.
This is why I feel rather strongly that whenever we cover a grammar feature with my learners, I really ought to give them a chance to listen to this grammar feature in authentic speech, focus on the way it’s pronounced and then practice decoding this feature.
Basic functionality of TubeQuizard
Now, what material can I use to give my learners listening decoding exercises targeting features of grammar? John Field recommends simply reading out sentences for the learners to transcribe, but that doesn’t really work with my learners because they generally understand my accent too well. Also, the coursebooks that I use don’t feature any listening decoding tasks (although there’s at least one coursebook that does – check out Nagivate!) This is why about three years ago I started creating intensive listening decoding quizzes from scratch using free audio editing tools like Audacity to locate and cut out 2-5 second extracts with target language. As you can imagine, those first listening decoding exercises took me ages to create.
Around that time Kirill Sukhomlin, a software developer at my company, offered to help me automate this work. What followed was almost three years of collaboration that resulted in a service that we dubbed TubeQuizard. Below is a video demonstrating its basic functionality: looking for words and expressions in Youtube subs. You’ll notice that our service is similar in concept to a variety of other services out there:
- Ted Corpus Search engine, which searches for words and expressions in TED videos (both on TED.com and on TED youtube channel);
- YouGlish, which searches for words and expressions in Youtube subs;
- PlayPhrase.me, which searches for words and expressions in popular TV series.
What I am lacking in all those services is the ability to exploit them for listening work by looking more than one word / expression at a time and creating listening gap-fills.
So as you will see in the video, TubeQuizard allows one to look for and play
- individual words, e.g. someone saying awesome
- expressions, e.g. I’m not sure
- alternatives, e.g. someone saying awesome or amazing
- any word using * as a wildcard, e.g. a * of will return a whole range of expressions, like ‘a lot of‘, ‘a bit of‘, etc.
You can also tick the ‘Create a quiz’ box to generate a listening gap-fill that will look something like this:
Looking for examples of grammar structures using TubeQuizard
Combining alternatives and wildcards one can find a variety of grammar structures. For example, the following search will return lots of examples of questions in present simple: (do|does) (you|they|I|he|she|it|we) (want|mean|know|think). However, in my experience new users find it quite difficult to formulate such searches, so we’ve been working on filters – click on ‘Grammar filters’ under the search field to pick a grammar structure you’d like to find. Just like in the example above with present simple questions, we use lists of top frequency vocabulary for the filters, so the resulting quizzes can be meaningfully attempted even by lower level learners (I normally start at A2).
Incorporating focus on decoding grammar into your teaching using TubeQuizard
So now that I can look for examples of grammar features, what can I do with them? I think there are at least three options:
Supplement regular video-based activities (e.g. video-based discussions) with a focus on decoding skills (either in class or done for homework). In order to make this easier to do, we’ve created a feature that can be accessed under the Train with your video tab. If you have a subtitled Youtube video, insert a URL and we’ll automatically run it through all our filters and generate the quizzes for you. I always check one of the quizzes to make sure that the subs are in sync with the video. Below is a video that demonstrate this functionality – you can check out these quizzes here.
Just in case you don’t know how to look for subtitled videos on Youtube: run your search, then click on ‘Filters’ right above your search results, choose ‘Subtitles/CC’.
Provide the learners with fully decontextualized practice of target grammar – i.e. during a lesson on, say, past simple, get the learners to spend around five minutes doing a video-based gapfill without working with the videos in any other way. It’s true that one has to think twice before doing decontextualized work, but I think there’s a case for using this type of exercise provided that it’s kept brief and provided that the teacher uses it to encourage the learners to notice the features of pronunciation associated with the grammar structure – in this case, elision of the /d/ and /t/ sounds at the end of the verbs.
Find a video that contains a lot of instances of target grammar and build a whole lesson around the video. This is the most time-consuming option and it’s rather tricky because, as Chris Jones rightfully pointed out on twitter, a random video would not always engage the learners.
To make it less time-consuming to find the right video, we’ve implemented a few filters, accessible under the channel tub. You can specify the topic, e.g. Business / Entertainment / Films (trailers) / News, etc. You can also look for short videos and specify a minimum number of instances of the grammar structure in the video. For example, in the screen cast below I’m looking for videos that
- contain at least five instances of modals (can|could|should|must) * and
- are no longer than 3 minutes
Some key lessons I’ve learnt about choosing the videos and working them
A while ago I posted a lesson plan based around the video that I found in the screen cast above. I think it took me less than 5 minutes to find the video – although creating the lesson plan itself was a lot more time-consuming. The lesson was based on the following video of a speaker talking about the features of his favourite mobile browser. It went really well with my learners (and the follow-up which allowed them to talk about technology that they can’t stand worked even better :)).
Generally, I’ve been using a lot of video-based activities lately, now that I can easily find video snippets that exemplify the language that I want to target. Below are six key questions that I ask myself when planning a video-based lesson.
1. Does the video that I’ve found provide a useful model for a task? In other words, are the speakers doing something that my learners might want to do?
The video above was a useful model for my learners who sometimes need to explain why they like / chose to use a certain technology.
2. Would the challenge presented by the video lie in the features of pronunciation or in the language used in the video? In other words, would the learners have trouble reading the transcript?
If the video contains too much vocabulary and grammar structures above the learners’ level, it won’t be appropriate. Unfortunately, with lower levels this eliminates most Educational videos.
3. Is the speakers’ accent clear enough for my learners to cope with it?
This is based entirely on intuition and experience. As a rough pointer, in my experience Pre-Intermediate learners need a video like the one above: one speaker talking extremely clearly, preferably filmed in a studio. B1-B1+ learners will need something a bit less well-articulated, but still something that generally sounds very clear to me, like this video. I feel that the majority of talks on channels like Talks at Google and TED Talks fall under this category. For levels B2 and higher, it actually becomes rather difficult to find videos that will be challenging for them to transcribe because most talks and interviews are too clear. The video in this post and this interview with Elon Musk are good examples of the level that was right for my B2 – C1 students. Also, the videos in the Entertainment and Films categories tend to be quite challenging.
4. Is the grammar feature that I want to explore through the video essential for the task that is suggested by the video?
For the video in the example above, the answer was yes, modals are key to talking about the features of the browser.
5. What other language features in the video are key to the task?
The video above contains a lot of expressions for listing – key to enumerating a number features, so we focused on this language too.
6. What scaffolding will the learners need?
Here are my top tips here.
First, the beginning of the video is crucial. Often that’s where the speakers set the context and explain what the video is about, and if the learners don’t get these few sentences, they will be lost and won’t cope with the gist task. Unfortunately, the first sentences are also the most challenging, because the learners haven’t got used to the speaker’s accent yet. Possible task types:
- give the learners the print-out of the first few sentences with gaps, to listen and fill in before watching the video
- scramble the sentences – the learners unscramble and then listen and check. To make it less challenging, don’t scramble into individual words – keep chunks, e.g.
hi / one of the / I’m / my name is Leland / user experience designers on Android
- get the learners to transcribe the sentence
Second, what comprehension tasks can I give to the learners? I normally try to replicate the real life experience – i.e. I don’t give the learners any questions in advance. Instead, they watch the beginning, predict what they will see and then check their predictions.
Third, what scaffolding do they need with the meaning, form and pronunciation of target grammar? I won’t go into meaning and form here, but I’d like to comment on pronunciation. As I pointed out before, I feel that these authentic videos provide me with a crucial opportunity to get the learners to notice what sounds are missing from the natural pronunciation of target grammar and train catching them in real life. On the other hand, I’ve observed a good number of lessons and I notice that a lot of teachers tend to scrap pronunciation work altogether. So my top tip is to make sure that there is focus on pronunciation, and also that the learners do a listening decoding quiz during which they tell you what target language sounds like in authentic speech. I also focus on pronunciation of any other useful language that we explore. In this lesson, we were looking at expressions for listing, like one of the things I like / another thing I like / the last thing I like – this language naturally prompted focus on sentence stress.
Phew, I wonder if this was the longest post on this blog? I do hope that other teachers and learners of English find this service useful. Let me know what you think I myself can play with it for hours on end and have learnt an incredible lot about English discourse, the use of lexis, pronunciation and what not. And I can’t express how grateful I am to Kirill who has invested hundreds of hours of his free time into creating this tool.
I might write more posts about how I’ve been using the service in the next few weeks. I’ll also be doing a workshop for IATEFL Business English Special Interest Group on 10 December about the ways I’ve used it with Business English learners. If you’re interested, you’re very welcome to join!