return to Papers and Presentations

return to Computers for Education home

Dancing with Concordances

Dr Elizabeth Hanson-Smith
California State University, Sacramento

originally published in 1993 in the CAELL Journal 4(2), p. 40

At the CATESOL conference this past spring, I was carrying on about concordancing, showing an overhead projection of a concordanced page, telling how one could view a text wih the selected word in the center of the page and a surrounding line of context--when a hand shot up. The question was, "Why would you want to do THAT?"

I was taken aback for a moment, as possible answers raced through my head: You could compare written versions of language with spoken. You could analyze (and learn) vocabulary in context. You could study surrounding context clues to meaning. You could examine tense sequences, the use of modals, the forms of irregular pasts. You could . . . when I suddenly realized that I was making many fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning that were not shared by my audience.

Instructors--and administrators--come to the computer room at teacher conferences asking for programs that they can plug students into. They want software that:
     (1) is "user-friendly"--students can access it themselves with minimal help from a non-teacher. Preferably, it would work from a file-server or hard drive menu;
     (2) allows students to engage in individual, self-directed practice--such as in discrete grammar points or reading sub-skills;
     (3) is avaliable at all and every level, preferably in a diagnostic and adaptive way, so that students can be directed to the appropriate skill level by the computer itself; and
     (4) is cheap.
How do those assumptions differ from my own? (As I thought to myself much later):
     (1) Sounds pretty reasonable: we want students to be computer-literate, independent learners anyway.
     (2) Contradicts almost everything I have read about pedagogy: language is communicative, that is, requires another person to help engage the mind and language centers. Practice in discrete grammar or skills doesn't seem to have much effect, in my experience, on how students actually speak, write, or read. So why ask a computer to do something a good teacher wouldn't?
     (3) Also contradicts much of what we know about language learning: language input should be at a variety of levels so that i + 1 can be sought and found. There is never an exact fit between input and intake. There is still greater inexactitude in the fit between discrete grammar points, general grammar competence, and communicative competence. So again, why ask the computer to do something that not only isn't very useful, but that computers are not sensitive enough to do very well?
     (4) Cheap is realtive: a program to do (1)-(3) would be about $999 and up. Such programs exist and they do keep students busy and quiet.
A concordancer won't do (2) and (3), but it makes a great group activity; it exposes students to real language and focuses them on authentic usage; it is self-accessible with a little instruction; and it can be very cheap. I'm waiting for the studies, but I am willing to guess concordancers can do more to change fossilized rammar patterns than any other "exercise." But they do require real teaching.

Author and editor of works for the technology- using teacher [you are here]
Creator of software  for the computer-using teacher
Contact me for further information about online and real time consulting
Tools and resources for the TELL educator

page updated 20 April 2013, copyright E. Hanson-Smith