A Lesson Plan, Ready in About a Minute? Free Web Site Is Ambitious
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AA: I'm Avi Arditti and this week on WORDMASTER: a new Web site that creates lesson plans for teaching English language skills. It can save hours of work and, best of all, it's free.
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "Hi, my name is Stephen Churchville and I'm the developer of LessonWriter.com. I've been an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher for about twenty years. And with LessonWriter.com, you can copy any text you want from any source: from a Web page, from a Word document, a pdf file, you can write your own. You paste it into a Web page and Lesson Writer does a linguistic analysis of the text, and it creates a complete student worksheet and teacher lesson plan in about one minute."
AA: "And this took you how long to develop this site?"
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "I've been working on this site for almost six years, testing it all the time in the classes that I've been teaching. I've been teaching full time while developing it, so every step of the way it's been tested on my students."
AA: "And your students are adults."
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "My students are adults. I teach for Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation in Washington Heights, in Manhattan, and we have primarily a Dominican population. But I've tested it with populations from all over. I used to work with a lot of West Africans and a lot of Asians, and I've had good responses from students everywhere with these lessons."
AA: "I understand you wrote your own dictionary to go with this?"
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "Yes. There are some public domain dictionaries and we took some words from those places, but mostly we've identified the words from our students and words that frequently come up on the SAT test, the TOEFL test, the EIKEN Test [in Practical English Proficiency, in Japan] and put those words into our system. We've been writing our own definitions and sometimes they're not so great, and so we've set up a system that teachers can tell us where we can improve. We're really looking for teacher feedback."
AA: "And so this site, for a teacher to use this site is free, it's completely free?"
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "It's completely free for teachers."
AA: "And so you hope to make your money how?"
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "We hope to make our money selling it to school districts, and administrative reporting, in the future. After all the teachers in the world need it -- use it, all the principals will need it."
AA: For a demonstration, Stephen Churchville goes on the Internet and finds a passage to copy into the site. He chooses a VOA profile of poet and musician Patti Smith. As one of the first steps, Lesson Writer identifies the vocabulary and calls attention to words with multiple meanings.
AA: "O.K., so now the Lesson Writer has pulled up some words here that I guess are perhaps going to be difficult for non-native speakers."
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "Yes, it also picks up phrasal verbs. There aren't any in this text. And if you notice that the word 'even,' which is a pretty easy word, but has multiple definitions, so we highlighted that word and offer three definitions for the word 'even,' so the teacher can choose what works best in this article. Here it is used to emphasize and make a meaning stronger. So we'll select that definition."
AA: "Because the sentence, the use in context, is 'There is even a hint of Smith's spirit in a lot of the music Americans revere today.' So they're using it as an adverb there."
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "Yes, and the other definitions -- something that can be divided by two, or equal or the same, we're going to ignore now."
AA: "O.K., so we're now clicking here on Save and Continue. So we're moving on now to pronunciation?"
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "Yes. It does a phonemic analysis. It goes through all the words in the article, identifies dominant phonemes and then suggests pronunciation exercises to accompany the lesson plan. Here we have the 'aah' sound in 'bat' and 'crab,' so Lesson Writer suggests we teach that. At any time you can override Lesson Writer's suggestions and teach something else."
AA: "So what led you to think up LessonWriter.com?"
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "I always liked to use authentic materials in the classroom. I found myself teaching populations that had different interests. I wanted to find things that motivated my students and I wasn't finding that in traditional textbooks. It was difficult to teach things that were [from] now or that my students were asking for."
AA: "And do you know of any other applications like this on the Web that create lesson plans on the fly like this in about a minute?"
STEPHEN CHURCHVILLE: "I've looked and looked and looked, and I never saw anything like it. If I'd seen one, I would have just bought theirs."
AA: Stephen Churchville and Ayan Pal developed LessonWriter.com. They debuted it last month in New York at the annual convention of TESOL, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. And it turns out, for demonstrations they use stories from voanews.com because the text is in the public domain. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Archives are at voanews.com/wordmaster. I'm Avi Arditti.