Mobile Assisted Language Learning - English TeachingApps (1)

This is the first in a series of posts on MALL (mobile assisted language learning) apps currently available via GooglePlay.

The infographic was created as one of the appendices for a recent assignment on my MA in Educational Technology & TESOL and shows a general overview of Android Apps for English language learning.  The second post in this series will feature the top 7 and also explain why they're definitely worth recommending to students and the third will highlight some of the design and pedagogical problems in other apps.

(view infographic in higher quality here)

To see this infographic full-sized/better quality, please click: here

Despite all the hype surrounding the use of mobile language learning apps (dominating the discussions at many global ELT conferences these days) in a recent study by Busuu and the I.E. Business School, they disclose that only 2% of the global language learners they polled currently consider mlearning as an efficient way to study.  In part it may only be because we're simply at the start of a trend, but it is also possible that this is due to the fact that a great deal of the apps produced today for "anytime, anywhere" learning (Geddes, 2004 cited in Kukulska-Hulme & Shield, 2008) aren't actually pedagogically sound, aren't convenient to use and aren't well designed. 

What do you think?

Is the problem the cost?
Is the problem size?
Is the problem usability?

Is it something else?

Let me/us know your thoughts!

Those Greedy Publishers (by Sue Jones)

It's a super honour for me to present a special guest post for you on the issues of finance within the ELT publishing industry, by a true veteran of the business.  The post is in response to a discussion we were both a part of in the IATEFL Young Learner Yahoo Group and I'm delighted to host it here.

Are you amongst those who can’t even look at a textbook without feeling annoyed?

Let me try and explain why you needn’t feel like this, even if you don’t like text books, never use one and may have personal views about individuals in the business as well!

How did textbooks start?

Usually because some smart teacher arranged,organized, sequenced, sliced and diced and generally managed the material to be taught in a way that helped her, produced results, and her colleagues found it helpful and time-saving as well. So those smart teacher-publishers rapidly became rather richer, so of course they started to look around for other subjects to apply the same approach to.

To do this, they learned how to deal with the mimeograph machine, or haggle with printers, how to store and distribute in practical and economic ways, howto find other teachers who could assemble content in a meaningful way to other teachers, how to find others who could manage and improve these teachers’ work, and so on. Thus publishing companies were born.

In that original print-based world, an initial one-time investment is made in the creation of the fixed format of the book, and then of course the more copies sold, the more attractive that fixed amount looks when spread over a very large number of copies, amortizing (paying off a debt over a period of time) the initial investment to reach a break-even point, after which it’s all profit.

The cost of printing

Of course, there are some costs related to each individual book – the cost of printing, and the royalty paid to the author. Those two sums have to be paid on every single book. But there’s an upside to printing - the larger the number of copies printed, the cheaper each one becomes, because the key cost in traditional printing is associated with the initial setting up of the print run – cleaning printing plates and presses, making and mounting the film and so on.

This outlines the basic print publishing business model – find out and offer what people really feel is valuable to them, invest a fixed sum once to create it, and replicate it at reasonable cost many times over.

So two different sorts of publishing investment is required. One is a fixed, one-time investment (the editing, design, planning, research etc to get to a point where there is something to print) and the other is a variable cost, which depends on the number of books printed and sold (the per-copy printing cost and author royalty cost), and which is paid on every single copy.

This means it is extremely difficult, not to say impossible, to say exactly what each individual book costs to create. If the book sells well, the amount of the fixed, pre-press investment will look quite small on a per-book basis, and of course the converse is true.

A wrinkle in this picture is that the costs of some of the items in the pre-press investment may be considered overhead – the salaries and overhead connected with maintaining editorial, marketing and sales staff, for example. This overhead is probably not taken into the costs for each individual book.

Of course the publisher’s goal is to invest once, cover all those costs as well as contribute to the cost of maintaining the necessary overhead, have the cash flow to continue to be able to print as required, and when all that has been paid for, to have a profit – a surplus after all the bills have been paid and the revenue from sales has come in. It sometimes works and it sometimes doesn’t. So it helps to have a lot of books, so that some are moving into the market and will take a little while to become profitable, while others are at their peak and yet others declining.

Complexities to costing

While this business model is essentially simple, there are complexities this picture doesn’t capture. For example, the publisher is almost certainly not the final sales point for the book. This may be a local retailer in the international market, a local education or school district distribution point in some countries, or Amazon etc. To make the book available to the buying public, the publisher offers a discount, which inevitably means the price the ultimate consumer pays is not the price the publisher receives. In overseas markets, the publisher may give 60% or 70% discount, so the amount the publisher receives from what the customer pays may be only 30% or 40%.

In addition, publishing is a very time-sensitive business. Books must be available when schools open. Often teachers won’t commit to a book without seeing that the whole series is available. The effect of all this is that the publisher has to make all investment up front, before a single book has been sold. If there has been any delay in receiving payments from the previous year (more common than you would think), or if a book didn’t sell as well as expected, the publisher may need to buy cash flow from the bank. This of course adds to the publisher’s costs.

So if you pay £20 in a bookshop, the publisher will receive between £14 (if the discount is only 30%) and £6 (if the discount is 70%). Nowadays most books are targeted at specific local markets and it is rare for the exact same book to sell throughout the world - there are exceptions, mostly amongst books published before the mid 90s, and there’s a reason for this, which is that the massive increase in computer and desk top publishing since the mid 1990s has made it much easier to be a publisher.

This led to massive fragmentation and increase in numbers of publishers serving their own specific, local market. This increased level of competition leads in turn to greater sales and marketing cost, which may now be 5-7 times greater than editorial overhead costs. In attempting to manage this risk, publishers avoid anything experimental or outside the normal publishing pattern, leading to a lot of over-similar books. (Perhaps in any case be argued that since books are chiefly used by mainstream, time-poor teachers, this is the area of greatest demand – adventurous teachers can and will create their own experimental materials.)

The end result

The result of all this is that negotiations for adoptions rapidly become focused on price or added value (additional give-away items, seminars, sometimes even downright bribery which is of course now very severely punished under new UK legislation). So although there are of course authors who have made a good living, there are no longer authors who have literally made a fortune.

The publisher will already know what the expected price will be and have made all calculations with the likely end revenue in mind. It’s likely that the print cost will be in the region of £1 – this varies according to the size of the book (format), number of pages (extent), the number printed (print run), number of colours, weight and type of paper, type of cover. The author royalty will be in the region of 10% of the final price the publisher receives. After that, the publisher needs to use the balance to cover all other costs – fixed pre-press investment, overhead and other costs, some of which I have mentioned above. So the picture of profitability (or loss) only really emerges over all the years the book is actively in the market.

Still think they're so greedy?

A 35-year veteran of ELT publishing, Sue sees this career as three distinct stages – then, in between, and now. ‘Then’ was when ELT course materials were special, valuable things, so there were fewer of them around and they were easy to sell (which suited the hedonistic lifestyle she enthusiastically pursued as a rep in Greece). ‘In between’ got going in the 90s, when the wide availability of computers removed barriers to entry to the publishing business. For a lengthy period Sue published materials for Latin America after a spell Asia, based in Hong Kong. ‘Now’ has seen periods as managing director of two different publishers in the US and UK, as publishers struggle to identify a way forward into the flexible, creative, digital world they’d like to be in, but which hasn’t really settled into identifiable business models with clear market segments. 
imagecredit: Fat Cat, Russell Heisteman

Why I don’t like Second Life (by Jacqueline Goulbourne)

Imagine a world where you can make a cartoon avatar of yourself and do whatever you like in an international community of English speakers.

Well, it already exists, in Taiwan where I have spent most of my career teaching,  it's called ‘World of Warcraft‘ and the mission of almost every parent of teenagers there to wrest their kids off of it!  But imagine if something similar existed, primarily for education, business and sex.  That exists too and I’m fairly certain that it’s nothing we’d really want to get students involved in.

I’m sure many of you disagree and are using Second Life in your practice to good effect, so my intent is not to disrespect your work, but to explain the problems I have with Second Life and other such virtual worlds.

I first experimented with Second Life in 2003 when friends of mine had set up an experimental teacher training space.  I didn’t really get interested.  More recently I came across Second Life in a wee teacher training course I’m doing.  I fought against my inherent tendency to not engage with things that don’t resonate with me and decided to ‘join in’ and not be such a negative Nancy.  Although I have an aversion to ‘virtual worlds’ and to speaking through machines in any way (I don’t use telephones) I put this aside in order to try and retrieve any babies in this bathwater.

I Googled up Second Life and was met with this screen:

[screenshot from ]

The user sees this screen with avatars that can be chosen.  Your avatar can be customised later on but I immediately took real exception to the prototype avatars that were presented for customisation.  These include a slightly scary rabbit, a robot and lots of white kids who clearly resembled extras from a 90s vampire film.  The only black woman present is wearing a short dress with a flower in her hair and high heeled shoes - a very different aesthetic to the white women presented.  One of the men has a shirt open to show rippling pecs but generally, the male figures are covered up.  For me, it doesn’t represent an acceptable aesthetic to present to students in my care, particularly young women.

There are two strands to my  misgivings: firstly the absence of ethnic diversity and secondly, the overt sexualisation of young women, in the Second Life avatar choices.   As a teacher joining in, I tried to choose an avatar that could represent my self without making myself ridiculous.  I’m 37, pretty fat, greying, and generally get dressed in the dark.  My choices ranged from avatars that mostly looked like a 14 year old version on myself: pale skinned, bone thin, and dressed in black with lots of eyeliner and it seemed undignified and self-abasing. 

I’m not scarred by the experience. But then I’m a confident, English-speaking adult.  I can articulate why I don’t want to be this 1990 version of myself and tried to change it.  Can we expect young, perhaps not so good at English students to raise their own misgivings to their educators or will they simply go along with what the teacher, or the authority wants them to do?  Thinking back to my time teaching junior high school girls in Taiwan, none of those prototype avatars is of Han Chinese or any other Taiwanese ethnicities.

What’s the message here?

White people (and the token African American) own English. You are different. Go get yourself a white identity to join our English-speaking world!

OK, yes, you can choose to brown/yellow/black up later if you want to, but that’s not the standard issue human in this community.

Don’t we want our students to come and sit at the table as equals? To join the English-speaking communities that they are passionate about?

In my Real Life classes, every kid is a beautiful prototype of the individual they want to become as they are: be they fat or thin, with braces, wearing unsexy clothes - with a wonderful inheritance of Chinese ethnicity, not something to be tagged on later, once they have chosen their ‘core’ avatar.

Am I over-thinking this?

Perhaps, but if we use these tools in the classroom, we are also raising the question of who ‘owns’ English.  We have to ask who funds a lot of these communities and to what business or political ends?  To promote ELT as a British, Australian, White American/European activity?  Why?

Is that congruent with our principles, desirable for our personal teaching contexts?

Cartoon images hurt as much as photographic images.

As a teacher I’m rarely didactic and I know I can’t change the world, but I am absolutely committed to making every child  in my care feel like they can be whoever they want to be and that includes valuing and celebrating every child’s individuality and identity and not promoting certain images as a norm within an educational context.

Jackie has been a teacher for 15 years, around the world,
but mostly in Taiwan.

English: time 4 a revamp?

Nothing so amazes me more than the fact, that despite so many other languages havie large governing bodies which analyze, stay on top of and make changes to their language in order to better fit the times, that English doesn't.

I think we should, especially as its reach extends across the globe.

If I could change the English language., then I would

- add an extra grammatical tense:  The "Ever Present" Tense
  • it annoys me somewhat to tell students to use the present for "habits, permanence, facts." If it's for all time, then there should be a specific tense that refers to this because for most people, present = now.

- I'd add two extra pronouns to reflect gender reality.
  • heshe and shehe

- I'd also love to revamp spelling entirely to make it better reflect the way words sound
  • if the ch sounds like an sh, it should be an sh
  • regular past tense endings are a waste of time teaching.  Why not write workt not worked, filld not filled - loaded can stay loaded.

What do you think?  Any bug-bears you've noticed while teaching our fair language?  What would you change if you could?


image credit
Teaching an old dog new tricks by Fouquier on Flickr

Extrinsic "VS" or "AND" Intrinsic Motivation?

In the last couple of weeks prior to restarting classes, I've been watching a lot of television. The weather's not been particularly nice and I'm too poor to do anything else.  That's the downside to being a student at my age, I guess.  The upside is: imagine the best conference you've ever been to and think of one of the great presentations - one that has really had an impact on your teaching... now imagine that instead of a 45 minute session you get to have access to months of amazing lectures, group discussions and articles to read to follow up and challenge yourself with.  So, poverty is worth it, I guess.

But anyway, back to TV, one of the theme songs, from Weeds, has become a real earworm.  It goes, for those of you who don't know it,

"Little Boxes, little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes all the same
There's a green one and a pink one and a blue one and yellow one 
And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same..."

The song makes me think about motivation, a lot.  Or maybe I was thinking about it before the song and it just drummed it in.  We all know that learning doesn't happen without motivation.  But what is it really?   Where does it come from?

Usually, it gets boiled down into three categories:

Extrinsic Motivation (external influences)
e.g. money, rewards, good grades, trophies, certificates, job position

Intrinsic Motivation (internal influences)
e.g. enjoyment of a task, passion, a drive to seek challenges, autonomy, inherent satisfaction

Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something simply because it is enjoyable while extrinsic motivation is more about getting a specific value or outcome based on what you have done (Ryan and Deci, 2000).

Amotivation is basically when you can't be bothered.

It has also been determined, through extensive empirical research by Deci & Ryan, Vallerand and others over the decades, that extrinsic rewards put a damper on intrinsic motivation.   I think though, that we have to be a bit cautious with this sort of thinking as it could very easily lead one into an assumption that extrinsic motivation is bad and that intrinsic motivation is best.  A dangerous position I feel, because for the most part, whether we like it or not, our adult language learners are more likely to come to us extrinsically motivated than intrinsically.

They want to learn English to integrate into society, to get a job promotion, to ensure job security, to get a better pay cheque, to speak to their foreign colleagues and close the deal.  If not this then they want to know that when they go on holiday, they won't get lost.  Sure, there are a handful of housewives who just fancy learning it, but usually because someone else told them it is the "thing" to do. And the teens mostly just want to pass the course, get the certificate, and get on with life.

So where it all gets a bit sticky for me, is that sometimes our extrinsically motivated learners really enjoy learning.  Why not, after all?  Sometimes we teachers can inspire them and sometimes their colleagues do and sometimes they develop an interest for the language - but all this interest and high from learning a second language does not take away their primary extrinsic goals.

In more recent research, Ryan and Deci have made a point of re-examining extrinsic motivation more closely, placing extrinsic motivation on a continuum and have created this taxonomy:

The idea is that learners can be in a state of external regulation (wanting rewards or avoiding criticism), or one of introjected regulation (constraints are internalized and set by the learner).  Identified regulation means that the behavior is thought of as being self-determined and finally the last type is integrated regulation - the person learns willingly because it fits in with the rest of the life activities and life goals (Vallerand, 1992).

Despite the fact that there is so much literature on extrinsic and intrinsic motivations and I'll continue reviewing it all, I really can't help but wonder if motivation is not actually something quite fluid. Can't you (or our learners) be one type and the next day, another?

But more importantly, if by categorizing motivation into boxes and then onto further hazy sub-boxes, might we be missing out on the fact that humans are infinitely complex creatures who can be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated at exactly the same time?

What d'ya think?


image credits:
plant fondo oscuro by eric caballero

Ryan, R. & Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 25, 54-67.

Vallerand, R. & Bissonnette, R. (1992). Intrinsic, Extrinsic and Amotivational Styles as Predictors of Behavior: A Prospective Study. Journal of Personality. 60:3. 599-620.

Sweet Words vs Monstrosities

More than a century ago, Henry Sweet wrote The Practical Study of Languages and through it, criticized the existing methods of the day, much as we still do now.   The book's myth-busting objectives reviews phonetics, alphabets and pronunciation issues before diving into methods, grammar, vocabulary and texts. 

In fact, while scanning through the text, I honestly couldn't help but think I bet he'd have been a blogger if he were around today.  His prose is tight, easy to read and the language direct.

His obvious annoyance at the 'insufficient knowledge of the science of language' (1899:3) like my own, literally jumps off the page.  Given that this post is part 2 of No Evidence for a Fixed Aquisition Order, I'll hone in on this one quote which I wanted to share with you, for reflection, as it neatly wraps up the debate on authenticity vs manufactured texts:

...the dilemma is that if we try to make our texts embody certain definite grammatical categories, the texts cease to be natural: they become either trivial, tedious and long-winded, or else they become more or less monstrosities' (1899:192).

Really sounds like he was describing Headway long before it ever arrived to influence all the other copy-cat productions from then on and into today.  The question is though, will it influence tomorrow's or can we teachers at least try to stop it before it does?


Image credit
Wikimedia commons, wolf in sheep's clothing

Sweet, H. (1899). The Practical Study of Languages.  London, UK. J.M. Dent & Co.
(Available for free online from Google Books)

Fixed Acquisition Order? = No Evidence

I'm busily packing up the stack of books I used for my MA assignment on Methods and Approaches while looking into authentic materials, yet before I take them on back to the library, I thought I'd share a little snippet I came across.

It's this:

"Very briefly, there is substantial research evidence to support the use in language learning of the linguistically rich, culturally faithful and potentially emotive input supplied by authentic texts. What is more, there is little evidence of a fixed acquisition order, which is the rationale for the use of phased language instruction and which is often used to repudiate the use of authentic texts for language learning.  (Mishan, 2005:11)

So not to harp on about all this again but what gets me when I read this is if publishers and textbook authors aren't simply churning out carbon copies of each other, albeit with ever glossier, shinier pictures than the last lot, then why do these tomes always start off and carry on virtually the same way?

Why do teachers teach the verb to be, there is/there are, present-tense followed by present-continuous, question words, prepositions of time and place and adverbs of frequency* and so on and so forth, ad infinitum?

And to top it all off, horror of all horrors, why do so many students think this must be the way to learn a language?

Did we come to this ideology because the holy books have logos on them, thus convincing us that there were at some point, a bunch of wise and saintly academic authorities who like monks in monasteries, researched language acquisition before writing up their commandments?  Who made this "order" - who publicized it? Who pushed it?  Where did it come from?

Have our beloved and not so loved at all textbook authors ever done any research into whether this "order" works or not, feel free to state your claim if so, or have they too assumed it to be so because their editor (or his boss) said so?  I do really want to know... if this phased language instruction has ever been tested scientifically, systemically, qualitatively, quantitatively, longitudinally and by whom because I'll happily eat my hat if you can prove it so.  Show me, please, where are the peer-reviewed research articles documenting the processes that occur and don't occur - why folks must learn just so?  Surely, truly, it can not be that with almost one third of the world now learning English and millions of others learning other languages that we still can't answer this rather simple and professional question? 

Or is our industry made up of snake-oil salesmen dancing in pale moonlight?

Of course not.  But nonetheless, I'm not kidding, be it down to good intentions or not, this billion-dollar grossing industry can not really have just been compiled on good faith alone, or can it?

Because it seems so.

Today, despite that I now have access to fields of journals I will tell you that not for a want of trying can I find one single verified report showing brain scans done on language learners proving on any kind of level that the brain receives and organizes grammatical structures this way.  Countless snoringly dull case studies and endless fascinating assessments to wade through that go into the depths of our practices and into what makes a good language learner and what doesn't, what strategies teachers can get students to employ, the effects of motivation, aptitude, age and gender studies and how there really is no best method, no there isn't... and yet, nope, nary a word on this so called fixed acquisition order, stage by stage and step by step, despite the fact that so many of us somehow continue to hail the god of grammar.

Were we sold a Brooklyn Bridge and made to sell it on classroom by classroom?

Time to wise up, folks, methinks.


Image credit:
The Brooklyn Bridge in New York City by Webfan29 at en.wikipedia


Mishan, F. (2005). Designing authenticity into language learning materials.  Bristol, UK: intellect.
Prabu, N. (1990). There Is No Best Method - Why? TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 24, no.2.  161-176.

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