Aug 1, 2016

Binge on learning English with Netflix

Growing up in Greece in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, with no Internet and very limited TV channels, especially when it came to foreign satellite networks, it was almost impossible to have an immersive English content experience and practice listening properly. By immersive, I mean no localization whatsoever. English content was available on TV, but it was subtitled in Greek. Thankfully, dubbing was a failure, so we stuck with the European countries that subtitled foreign films and TV shows instead. I still remember sticking pieces of paper at the bottom of the screen as a last resort, after failing to avoid reading the Greek subtitles. The bright white letters kept magnetizing my gaze.

Therefore, practicing listening to English was possible, but only partially. Watching a programme without translated subtitles or with English subtitles (for the hearing impaired) was a much harder task.
You would either have to buy a satellite dish and receiver (quite expensive back then) or, if you were lucky enough to own a VCR and find a video store that imported VHS tapes, rent some of those. I still remember the first imported VHS tape I ever watched: Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis. If you wanted English subtitles, which was the best way to immerse yourself as a young learner in the content, you had to buy a captioning device, that magically revealed the closed captions.

Later, in the late ‘90s, you could rent and watch DVDs with the subtitles turned off, but since most Greek localization was done in the cheapest way possible, all other subtitle languages were not included on the disc, leaving you with either Greek or nothing. Thankfully, some international productions came with a vast array of languages to choose from, but this was not available on the majority of titles. Later on, you could order films online from abroad, but this meant buying every single film - not a very affordable solution.

Fast forward to today, there is a much easier and cheaper way and I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It’s Netflix.

Netflix became available in Greece in January 2016. With a monthly subscription, you can gain access to all content available for the region. (Some restrictions apply, based on existing local media network licensing).

Depending on the subscription you choose, after a 30-day free trial, you can watch on one or two screens at the same time. And by screens, I mean a TV (either a “smart” one or through Apple TV, Chromecast or Playstation), a computer, a tablet or a smartphone. Apart from Netflix Originals, you can watch a variety of series and films, new and old. There is a special area with films for kids, with easier navigation. All of this content is being streamed to your devices and includes English subtitles, if you wish to enable them.

Greek subtitles are not available yet, but that’s alright when you’re learning English, right? A very cool feature is being able to pick up watching from where you left off. You can hit pause on the living room big screen and continue watching on your tablet in bed. A very important feature will soon become available too: Being able to store content offline on your tablet or smartphone, so you can watch your favourite films and shows when not at home or on vacation. This way, English learners can enjoy watching while practicing listening (and reading) all year long, even during the summer.

This piece was written having the Greek audience in mind. Netflix was the only subscription content service available at the time.

This post is part of the When EdTech Meets ELT series, my regular column for the TESOL Macedonia Thrace Northern Greece e-bulletin, and was originally published in June 2016.

May 2, 2016

All you need is Chrome

This post is as a sneak peek of the presentation I did at the 23rd TESOL Macedonia Thrace Northern Greece International Annual Convention, on March 26, 2016 and was originally published on the TESOLMTh e-bulletin.

Computers have made it a lot easier to organize our work, do research and enhance teaching by incorporating creativity tools. The web has added flexibility and collaboration to the mix. Chrome is a web browser that brings everything together: Research, Collaboration, Productivity and Creativity. All this is achieved by both using the browser’s features and by adding third-party apps. Not like those on our smartphones, but web apps that bring additional features and functionality.

Everything syncs like magic

Got a new computer? Good for you! Been using Chrome? Once you log into Chrome on your shiny new laptop using your Google account, something wonderful happens. Have
you witnessed it? All your preferences, your bookmarks, your saved forms and passwords and all your extensions (apps) are there. Just like that. Isn't that wonderful?
Got a new smartphone? Log into the Chrome Browser app for Android or iOS and the same magic is now on your smartphone as well.

Pop-up dictionary

Remember those bulky dictionaries? You can forget all about them. Get the Google Dictionary extension and you’ll be able to right click on any word for a quick look-up. Click on the speaker icon to listen to the word. How cool is that?

Repeat yourself

Love formal emails? Hate typing the same canned feedback to your students? Auto Text Expander has you covered! Enter the phrases you use regularly and match them with a keyboard shortcut. When the time comes to type that repetitive and boring jargon, simply type the shortcut and voila. The entire phrase is there. Just like magic. You can even use it to quickly sign your name or full email signature. I type //dt and it gets replaced with my full name. Very useful. If you do a lot of email like I do, you’ll understand.
And of course, you can always revisit my previous post on doing research, featuring Diigo for online bookmarks and web annotations and Cite This for Me for automatic citations and bibliographies. Or the one on using Chrome for viewing and editing Office documents. Remember that one from a year ago?

One last thing: Smartphone notifications on your computer

Yes, you can do that. Simply add the Pushbullet extension to Chrome and download the app on your smartphone. You’ll be able to get notifications from your smartphone on your computer screen. Of course, you can block the apps you don’t want notifications from. Who needs an email notification from your phone when you have Gmail open on the browser anyway? But that SMS message is more than welcome to pop up, even just for 8 seconds. And the coolest thing: You can reply to it directly from your computer, using your keyboard!

The slides of the presentation are available here.

Jan 18, 2016

Can you hear that? Practice speaking and listening using free tools


How often do you listen? Especially to your own voice? For those learning a foreign language, speaking is a core skill and technology has made it really easy to practice speaking and listening back to our own voice. ESL learners are lucky, since most of the apps available today were made for English. It is, after all,  the language used in over 55% of the Internet.

Practice speaking and listen to your voice

It is very important for language learners to be able to listen to their own voice, since it helps them improve their pronunciation and intonation, both extremely important in verbal communication. There are many ways they can record their voice, play it back and share the recording with their teacher, relatives and friends. You could also do the same and share your voice comments with them.

Using a mobile device

iOS devices come equipped with the Voice Memo app, which allows easy recording and sharing via email or other apps, such as Dropbox. There are other apps, like Recordium, that allow editing too.

Most Android devices come with a sound recorder app as well and you can download apps like WavePad that allow editing.

Talking to a personal assistant

All modern smartphones come equipped with a personal assistant. iOS has Siri, Android has Google Now and Windows Phone has Cortana. Learners can easily converse with this form of artificial intelligence by asking questions -- either asking for information or instructions on various topics.

Using a desktop browser

You don’t necessarily need a mobile device in order to record sound. You can do a lot using your desktop or laptop. You can talk directly to Google Now from the Google Search page. Just click the microphone on the right side of the search box.
Also, here are some services you can use for free:

Vocaroo allows recording, saving and sharing using the computer microphone. Simple and easy to use, Vocaroo is very popular in the K-12 space, since it does not require registration. It also allows uploading existing recordings made with a portable voice recorder or a desktop application.


AudioBoom is a popular web and mobile app that includes a platform for sharing and discovering audio content. Learners can create a voice blog or personal podcast (up to 10 minutes for free) and make it public if they want. Audioboom can be used from simply sharing a thought or the sound of the train leaving the station, all the way to creating a full-fledged podcast.
Similar to AudioBoom, SoundCloud is a very popular web and mobile app that is used by music artists and DJs, as well as podcasters to create and publish audio content. SoundCloud is a platform for sound sharing that learners can easily tap into. What makes it different is the ability to add text comments to specific points in the recording, so you could actually send targeted feedback to your students, correcting their pronunciation, grammatical or syntactical mistakes. You can even include a link for your own recording.

This post is part of the When EdTech Meets ELT series, my regular column for the TESOL Macedonia Thrace Northern Greece e-bulletin, and was originally published in December 2015.

Sep 22, 2015

Doing Research 2.0

The following post is about organizing your bookmarks, annotations, PDFs and notes with Diigo Outliners as well as easily creating citations with Cite This For Me.

Diigo Outliners

How do you do research? Having ebooks and online journal databases at your disposal is a big help and means less trips to the library, right? But keeping everything organized in one place is very important and can become a helpful guide for your research. Plus, it gives you peace of mind.

Diigo was the first tool featured in this column, back in early 2014. Since then, the Diigo team has introduced a new feature: Outliners.

Outliners help you organize bookmarked websites, uploaded PDFs as well as your own thoughts and comments, all on one page.

Here’s an outliner example for a lesson plan from the Diigo website:

With the Diigo extension for Chrome or Firefox, you can bookmark any page on the web. You can also highlight parts of the text and add notes. Nothing new so far. By adding a page to an outliner, for example your conference paper outliner, you start to collect everything in one place. As you keep doing this for more websites, everything you need for your research gets added to the same page: the conference paper outliner.

If you find a useful journal or paper in PDF, you can upload it to your Diigo account and then make highlights, add notes and save the PDF in the same outliner. Being able to annotate PDFs in this way is very useful when doing research. All those highlights are very important because they are the points you want to remember and use in your paper. And the best part is: Everything is stored in the cloud. No saving. No files. No worries.

Here is a screenshot of a PDF with highlighted text that has been uploaded to Diigo and opened in Chrome.

Automatic Citations with Cite This For Me

Doing research means citing sources and doing so properly. But you don’t need to worry about that anymore. With Cite This For Me you can “outsource” all that work and focus on your research. It supports Harvard, MLA, APA and more citation styles. All you need to do is install the browser extension (available for Chrome and Firefox) and just click the magic button. You can also send the citation to a bibliography page, where you can collect all citations while doing your research.

With the free version of Cite This For Me, you can access and download your bibliography for 7 days, which is not bad for most college cases. With the premium version you can create your own account and have unlimited bibliographies for unlimited time, as well as extra features, including spell check, plagiarism check, and a Microsoft Word plug-in.

Enough for now. Back to your research!

This post is part of the When EdTech Meets ELT series, my regular column for the TESOL Macedonia Thrace Northern Greece e-bulletin, and was originally published in June 2015.

Jul 3, 2015

How do we tell stories?

The following report of Andrew Wright's storytelling workshop was originally written for the 22nd TESOL Macedonia Thrace Northern Greece Annual International convention and has been cross-posted on their blog.

Andrew Wright wasn’t wearing his storytelling coat on that Saturday morning, but he was definitely in storytelling mood. His workshop included tips on effective storytelling in our classrooms and of course, he read a few stories too.

But, why do we tell stories?
Andrew Wright believes that stories give motivation, they allow students to experience English instead of just study it, allow for bonding, support the four basic skills, help presenting and re-recycling and springboarding.

What are stories?
Stories can be real (facts, history, our life) or fiction (oral or written). They are life’s daily stage of events and we are the actors and how we talk, walk and behave is part of the story as well.

How to tell stories?

  • Be clear: Tell your story in such a way so that people can understand you. 
  • Include drama: Struggles (small or big) keep listeners engaged.
  • Be vivid: Describe as well as you can so people can see, hear and feel the story.
  • Commit and give yourself as much as you can.
  • Brainstorm your memories. Provide summary words and phrases. What is the situation? Who is involved? When? Where?
  • Use the five senses: See, hear, smell, taste, touch.
  • Include what you and key people thought, felt, said, did.

When telling a story, put your orchestra of telling to work: Content, words, voice, body, objects and pictures and participation.

In case of interruptions, cling on to your warm giving instead of introducing harsh negativity. If a book falls down, it can stay there. If two students are talking, walk near them and make eye contact or invite them to tell a story.

So make your story and try it on a friend. Tell your story based on your sequence summary and time it. Observe the changes you make to your sequence summary and revise it accordingly. It’s better not to write your story in full because this makes it difficult to narrate.

What is your story?

Image credits: Dimitris Tzouris CC BY-NC-SA Flickr & Dimitris Tzouris CC BY-SA Tumblr