CyWrite co-sponsors international conference on technology in language acquisition

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Researchers, developers and practitioners from across the globe gathered at Iowa State University for the 13th annual Technology for Second Language Learning Conference (TSLL) this weekend. The ISU Applied Linguistics and Technology Program and the CyWrite project co-hosted the conference. Each year, the conference has a topical area of focus. This year’s topic was phraseology, a field of study within linguistics that focuses on fixed expressions and formulaic sequences of words.

“I love conferences like this,” said Dr. Philip Durrant of the University of Exeter in the UK, also one of the conference speakers. “They are relatively small in attendance, with a tight topic focus. You get to meet a lot of people and talk with them properly. It’s been a nice opportunity to get to know people here.”

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Durrant’s research looks at the order in which people use words in preset, common phrases (known as n-grams). In his presentation, he showed that students in different areas of study put words in a different order. This research might tell teachers that students who don’t include any of the n-grams common to the writing genre or specific writing assignment that they have been given are probably not adequately fulfilling the requirements or the expectations of the genre, and need feedback accordingly.

Dr. Mikhail Kopotev, from Harvard University and the University of Helsinki, presented a paper about patterns in languages. He discussed how languages, like anything, are learned through pattern recognition. This awareness, he said, is one of the keys to understanding language education.

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“I have to say thank you to the Fulbright Program and Evgeny Chukharev-Hudilainen for bringing me to this unique conference, I have enjoyed meeting people and learning about research in technology for second language learning and programs like CyWrite,” Kopotev said.

Conference speakers presented their research findings and how they impact teaching and student learning; in addition, several software programs were introduced that build on the research to create innovative experiences for language learners. Among those programs was CyWrite, an automated writing evaluation tool currently being developed at Iowa State University. CyWrite can help students become better writers by giving both big-pictureand surface-level feedback to the students.

“Writing instructors don’t stand behind students’ shoulders and read everything they write. Therefore, we know very little about how the process of composition unfolds. CyWrite can analyze student writing in various ways and provide feedback both on the written products and the very process of writing,” Dr. Evgeny Chukharev-Hudilainen, one of the CyWrite creators, said.

Conference attendees had the opportunity to test out CyWrite first hand in a workshop.

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“In my classroom, I try to give my students tools to get extra practice after class. I came here to find tools and technology based on research to learn how to improve my students’ language learning, and CyWrite sounds like a great tool for doing that,” Professor Sonia Rodriguez, conference attendee from Costa Rica, said.

While there are other tools to help students learn languages, CyWrite stands out.

“The big difference about CyWrite and other software programs is the people working on this project are in applied linguistics and language teaching… they are the ones who can decide what kind of errors are going to be corrected. This software that allows you to make an iterative connection between research ideas and real students is very precious and that’s what is needed. Commercial programs don’t do that,” said Distinguished Professor Carol Chapelle, who has been an instrumental part of the CyWrite team.

CyWrite is still being developed, but writing teachers at ISU are already using it in their classes.

“This is an entirely different era than it was 30 years ago in the technology for language teaching and learning realm,” Chapelle said. “It’s really interesting to work through all the changes, and discover better ways of helping students learn, and this conference is a great way to do that.”

Shown in photos: (1) TSLL-2015 conference attendees; (2) Philip Durrant delivering his keynote speech; (3) Mikhail Kopotev interviewed for the CyWrite blog; (4) Carol Chapelle at the conference reception. Photo credit: Sinem Sonsaat and Phuong Nguyen

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