March 2013 – Volume 16, Number 4
|Contact Information||EDULANG.COM Ltd – Companies Registry 360987 – Unit 1701, 17th Floor, The Sun’s Group Centre, N° 200 Gloucester Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong H.K.|
|Type of product||Online grammar application|
|Price||“Pay What You Can” (one-year access)|
Grammar is often considered one of the more difficult aspects of a foreign language to master. English Language Learners (ELLs) learn new grammar rules every day, but they sometimes struggle to apply those rules automatically when they speak or write in English. Extra practice is needed in order for learners to be able to carry out their communication effectively. The Information Age has provided ELLs with a wide variety of technological aids to facilitate their learning processes and provide them with extra self-practice. However, it is important to determine whether or not those technological resources are genuinely effective for addressing new literacies that address users’ knowledge, context, engagement, use of critical thinking, interaction, and integration of different language skills. The purpose of this paper is to introduce Gramster II, an online application intended to help ELLs improve their grammar, and evaluate it in terms of the how is addresses the learning of new literacies.
Gramster II is an internet-based application which aims to help ELLs grammar development by providing students with practice exercises and highlighting primary grammatical points. After accessing Gramster II through http://www.edulang.com/en/, the user is provided with a login ID and password at no cost. The user then determines what he/she can pay, and half of that amount is used to give humanitarian organizations access to Edulang applications. The user may then use Gramster II for the next 12 months.
Gramster II consists of five levels of English proficiency as shown in Table 1. The program focuses on 35 grammar points as well as provides practice exercises depending on the user’s level of language proficiency. Table 1 lists the grammar topics covered under each level.
Gramster II content for varying English proficiency levels
Level 1: Beginner
Level 2: False Beginner
Level 3: Intermediate
Level 4: Advanced
Level 5: Proficiency
When a user clicks on a grammar topic, the application presents choices of ten sub-sections including a reading passage with pre and post reading tasks, a glossary list, and practice exercises such as multiple choice, drag and drop, gap filling, and word selection. At the end of each level, there is a test to assess the user’s progress. Samples of those sub-sections are displayed in Figures 1-3.
Figure 1. ‘Before you read’ beginner drag and drop task
Figure 2. False Beginner reading passage
Figure 3. Intermediate post reading task
Immediately following the subsections, a grammar rule (see Figure 4) is displayed.
Figure 4. Advanced grammar rule
Following each grammar rule, there is a ‘Did you understand the grammar rules?’ task (shown in Figure 5) in which the user is given the chance to review the grammar point by completing a practice exercise that asks direct questions about the construction of the rule.
Figure 5. ‘Did you understand the grammar rules?’ task
If a student needs assistance with an activity, he/she may click on the question mark box and be provided with a hint to help complete the activity. After providing an answer, the user receives instant feedback at the bottom of the page.
The criteria used to conduct this evaluation of Gramster II are part of the pedagogical framework provided by Jonassen (1999). This framework “help[s] analyze the extent to which computer applications are being used as mindtools to generate knowledge and promote critical thinking” (Cummins, Brown & Sayers, 2007, p. 111). Jonassen (1999) specifically identified three key dimensions to evaluate technological tools: (a) engagement, (b) generativity of knowledge and critical thinking, and (c) control (in Cummins, Brown & Sayers, 2007, p. 111). In addition to these dimensions of new literacies, the use of context, the integration of different language skills, and interaction are taken into consideration in this tool’s evaluation.
Engagement and Generativity
To some extent, Gramster II promotes generativity of knowledge and critical thinking, which enhance engaged learning. The adopted approach to practice grammar is the inductive approach, which “starts with some examples from which a rule is inferred” (Thornbury, 2000, p. 29). The ‘before you read’ task (see Figure 1) draws on the user’s prior knowledge. Instead of starting by introducing the grammar point, Gramster II gives the users the chance to use critical thinking skills and draw on prior knowledge to infer the application of a specific rule. Before the user reaches the grammar point, he/she goes through a reading passage in addition to pre-reading and post-reading tasks connected to the reading (as seen in Figures 1, 2, and 3).
Although the software offers different tasks to practice each grammar point, the number of tasks is limited, i.e. there is only one exercise for every sub-section. The small number of tasks would do little to improve the user’s level if they repeat the same exercise over and over again.
Gramster II subsections are formatted the same under each grammar point, making the tasks easy to navigate. Also, the program permits the user to control the learning process by easily navigating through the different options. In other words, if the user is engaged in a certain task in which he/she could not remember a certain grammar point or understand a word, the user can go back to the grammar rule or look up a word in the dictionary and then return to the task, thereby allowing greater control over the learning experience.
The examples in the grammar points are drawn from authentic discourse such as magazines, newspapers, surveys, reports, and quotes. This allows the user to see how a grammar rule is used in various daily-life contexts, and practice applications of appropriate use.
Integration of Different Language Skills
Another strength of Gramster II is the integration of different language skills that may increase the user’s engagement and learning. In addition to enhancing reading by allowing practice applications of grammar in context, Gramster II also works on developing the user’s vocabulary competence by providing tasks to practice vocabulary as connected to the theme of the topic. Also, the last section of each grammar point contains a glossary list with some of the encountered vocabulary words. Figures 6 and 7 show samples of a vocabulary practice exercise and a glossary list.
Figure 6. Sample of vocabulary exercise
Figure 7. Sample of glossary list
Although Gramster II assists in developing grammatical competence, reading, vocabulary, there are not explicit tasks designed for writing improvement. An example of a potential task which could be included is one which has learners write a paragraph or an essay related to the theme of the topic to encourage users to apply the learned grammar points. In addition, having audio assistance available for the instruction, reading, and exercises would add additional aural comprehension activities to Gramster II. The user could practice listening and learn how words are pronounced in addition to the suprasegmentals of English such as intonation and stress. This would also help users in learning the correct pronunciation of verb-endings of regular forms of the past tense /t/, /d/, and /id/, and the third person endings in the present simple tense /s/ and /z/.
Figure 8. Sample of feedback
An additional interactive feature is provided in the help options provided by Gramster II. One help option is the question mark box which, when clicked, gives users a hint to find the correct response. Another help option is available in the dictionary feature of the program. If the user does not understand a certain word, he/she can right-click on the word and different definitions are given. An example is provided in Figure 9.
Figure 9. Sample of dictionary definition
Overall, Gramster II is a useful resource for practicing grammar in an interactive and authentic context. Grammar rules are explained in a clear and simple way. The program activities focus on the meaning of grammar points, but also attend to the grammatical form. In addition to grammar, Gramster II integrates other skills such as reading and vocabulary. However, there are still drawbacks to the program. Shortcomings of Gramster II include: the limited content, which might make it less useable; a lack of explicit writing tasks to assist in applying grammar in context; lack of audio to improve the users’ listening skills and pronunciation. Despite these shortcomings, Gramster II can be a useful tool for self-practice or supplementary material to practice grammar.
Cummin, J., Brown, K., Sayers, D. (2007). Literacy, technology, and diversity: Teaching for success in changing times. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
Jonassen, D. H. (1999). Computers as mind-tools for schools: Engaging critical thinking (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Thornbury, S. (1999). How to teach grammar. London: Longman.
About the Reviewer
Eman Elturki is a doctoral candidate in the Language, Literacy and Technology program at Washington State University. Elturki holds a master’s degree in TESOL from the University of Southern California. She works as a part time ESL instructor at the Intensive American Language Center of Washington State University. Her research interests include ELT, SLA, Corpus Analysis, and Educational Technology.
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