Recycling Bin Dumpster Diving

I have to admit it: I have been known to dive into our massive recycling bins if some material or discarded resource catches my eye.  (Ooh, shiny!)  When I first started out, raiding recycling bins was a great way to gather material, and to see what the seasoned professionals used.  The fallback, though, was that I might find a great resource, but would have no idea from which grammar book it was copied.  

Our photocopiers are, shall we say, mature, and have been digesting print and copy jobs in progressively creative ways.  After I reached into the bowels of the infernal machine and retrieved the jam, I dutifully placed it in the bin.  That’s when I noticed the paper copy of TESL Ontario’s Contact magazine, Spring/Summer 1999.

Intro to the Canadian Language Benchmarks

Curious, I opened it up to see what articles, issues, etc. were relevant to the pre-2000 TESL professionals.  The front page story was “Problems and Issues in Using the Canadian Language Benchmarks to Develop Curriculum Materials” by Robert Courchene.   The majority of these problems and issues have since been addressed (listening/speaking was once considered a single skill, sociocultural considerations hadn’t been explicit). The article is fascinating.  It’s something like reverse engineering for PBLA.  Courchene’s analysis was bang on; the article is a true artifact and I’m glad I came across it.

Technology Articles – Care to Concordance with Me?

However, it wasn’t the opening article that caught my eye; it was a piece on technology in the classroom by John Allan and Judy Kelly, “ESL and Electronic Age: Data Driven Learning…” John and Judy had access to a computer program known as a “concordancer”  which would essentially allow them to analyze electronic text, make word lists, count frequencies,  with the goal “to produce data that the teacher and students use to resolve a linguistic query.” (Allan and Kelly, 1999). The idea was to use corpora in teaching, for the students and teacher to use data to show patterns and to gain insight.

Allan and Kelly wrote that some of the challenges in taking on this data-driven-learning challenge was having enough computers, training teachers and students on how to use the program, and figuring out a way to make effective use of the concordance printouts (it was the 90s, I wonder if they were still using dot printers.)

Allan and Kelly didn’t know it at the time, but they were pioneers.  Corpora in language learning and teaching is a hot topic, and a recurring one at TESL conferences.  It is growing traction in the TESL community, and there are now online concordancers that instructors can use (

Online in the 1990s

The only other technology article was a short summary of a conference presentation “ESL On-Line” by Sharon Rajabi and Joan Reynolds.  Navigating the internet for appropriate ESL material can be time-consuming.  One can spend hours just building up one’s online resources.  Rajabi and Reynolds guided instructors through a set of pre-selected websites, and introduced Clarity Tense Busters software.

Except for maybe the Clarity Tense Busters software, Rajabi and Reynold’s presentation could be done today at any TESL conference.  As for using DDL to create corpora, I can see its value, especially in academic ESL classes.  I would like to know what Allan and Kelly think about concordancing today, given that they have now had 15+ years to experiment with learners.

Technology + Language Learning

This printed issue of Contact magazine sitting here in front of me is a piece of history, an artifact.  Technology is changing the way we process information, the way we learn, teach and communicate.   Some of the questions raised in 1999 are still present today.   How do we get our learners to be more culturally competent?  How do we shift from the teacher as “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” (and avoid just being there, on the chair)?  How can we use technology to guide our learners’ language journeys and to help develop essential skills they need to be successful in Canadian post-secondary institutions and in the workplace?

I’m a PBLA Cohort II graduate.  I’ve had a chance to briefly skim a program that is being developed to help instructors design their courses, produce outlines, generate rubrics, track competencies, etc. (Quartz).  The CLB was piloted in the late 90s, and has evolved.  Critical analysis and review ultimately contributed to its improvement.  That’s how we grow.  I see PBLA and the tech to support it as being in the early stages.  I wonder what it will look like in 15 years?

It’s amazing what you can find in a recycling bin.


About jenniferartan

ESL instructor in London. Level 2 Google Certified Educator. Blended Learning. Learning Management Systems. TESL Ontario Webinar Manager. Edutech Conference Junkie. Smartboards. Reluctant Techie.
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1 Response to Recycling Bin Dumpster Diving

  1. John Allan says:

    It is amazing what you can find in a recycling bin. I hope the magazine was near or above the rim! ☺

    Just to provide a little background on that article, in 1998, TESL Contact published a primer to concordancing based on a session I had given at the TESL Ontario 1997 conference. This piece introduced basic terms, tools and a step-by-step guide on how to run a concordance on a corpus. It concluded with offering the reader with the option of using a concordance to create materials or consider Data Driven Learning in the classroom.

    I was in the fortunate position to be working at the old Centre for Language Training and Assessment in Brampton. The management and the teaching team were quite open to new ideas. Judy and I did explore DDL in all of its contemporary wonder with the students. It was an imaginative means of getting the students to actively learn vocabulary. It would have great to explore further but we both moved on to different instructional experiences.
    Pioneers? We were certainly looking into new ways of teaching at the CLTA, but the real pioneers were CALL folks such as John Higgins and Tim Johns. There are so many more, but I had the good fortune to meet and learn from these men in the UK.

    Over the past 15 years, I have used concordancing techniques for a variety of applications on the materials development side and to help my peers refine their job applications. I have not had the motivation or situation where I could exploit DDL, but now that I have looked back, I am sure that my students will be looking through some concordance output soon to identify meaning and usage characteristics soon. I can also dust off my old workshops on DDL and concordacning, modernize them and offer some sessions at my current institution and possibly on the TESL Ontario webinar series.

    Jen, thanks to your dumpster diving routine, I will be revisiting DDL.

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