Saturday, 25 January 2014

Cats, Gorillas and Ebooks by Susan Price

          Have a look at this. Click on the link below, to go to the 'book.' Turn the pages by clicking the arrow at the sides, or by using the black tabs.

           It's a simple little story about the famous Koko - the gorilla who learned to communicate using American Sign Language (it's claimed) and had a pet cat.
          It's part of the library being developed by my friend, Alan Hess, a teacher, and myself. (Look along the toolbar at the top of Koko's page and, just to the left of the question mark and printer, you'll see a stack of books. Click on them, and you'll find the other books in the library.)
          It's still a work in progress at the moment, but please bear with us. We're still knocking through and laying wiring, our hair is full of virtual plaster dust.

          Try hovering your mouse over the words in the book. Some are highlighted in red, some in blue, some in green.
          These demonstrate 'blocks of meaning.'
          Every sentence is about a Who or a What. (Traditional grammar might talk about 'subject and object' but 'Who or What is easier to understand. Language is about communication, not rules and jargon.)
          Take the first sentence, 'Koko is a gorilla.'
          Who is the sentence about? - Koko.
          What is the sentence about? - A gorilla.
          The green blocks are what traditional grammar would call 'verbs' - they are words which describe actions or processes. So 'is' in the first sentence is highlighted in green.

          The next sentence, 'She lives in America,' contains a blue highlight on 'in America.' This is because How, Where and Why words, or Circumstances, are highlighted in blue. So 'in America' is blue because it is where Koko lives.

          'The little words' are often what most frustrate people trying to learn English - all those prepositions: in, on, up, at. When I was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I frequently met students who were driven half-mad by 'the' and 'a'. There is often no equivalent in their own language. "Where do you put them?" they would ask. "Why is it sometimes 'a' and sometimes 'the'? Why do you sometimes miss them out?"

          This system helps a lot with that. 'A gorilla' is given as a red block. 'In America' is given as a blue block. The blue gives the visual clue that 'in' is about where something is placed, or where someone is situated on the earth. The red gives the visual clue that the 'a' is part of saying what Koko is.

          Try clicking on the 'Hot Potato Brick' on the tool-bar. The screen-shot below shows you where to find it - the scribbly pink arrow points to it. The black and white striped brick with the brownish spot on it is the one you want.

          Three 'hot potatoes' appear at the end of each sentence. Click on the first - it takes you to a game.
          The words of the sentence have been cut into blocks and jumbled. Directly above the game are three buttons - Check - Cheat and Exit.
          Exit takes you back to the book.
          Check is for checking how well you did after you've played the game.
          Cheat lets you see the sentence as it should be written. Click on it and try.
          Alan tells me that his students love the 'Cheat' button because they think they're getting away with something sneaky. In fact, clicking means they read the sentence again. They can 'cheat' and read the sentence again as often as they like. Every time they 'cheat' and look at the sentence again, they are reinforcing its patterns in their minds.
          As with any learning, whether it's baking a cake or dribbling a football, 'Practice makes perfect' - and practice means repetition. The more you practice dribbling, the better you will become. The more attempts you make at choux pastry, the better your profiteroles or eclairs will be. Alan's students play the 'hot potato' game until they can score 100% and a happy face every time.

          Then they move on to the second hot-potato - try it. This cuts the sentence into individual words. Finally, the third hot potato cuts them into syllables. You can program it to cut the words into individual letters, if you like.

          There are other games - this memory game, for instance.
          Click one of the play buttons at the bottom, listen to the spoken English words, and then click on the question marks above to see if you can find the object named.
          Go HERE, and you'll see that there are also word-building and word-search games. They're all quite easy. Because they're easy, it's no hardship to repeat them. Repeat something, and you learn it.

          But all this has been a mere introduction. The teaching potential of this software is enormous.
          There are ready-made books on Alan's site, but it is also possible for anyone, using this system, to program their own texts. I have been doing this as part of my training to be an accredited Royal Literary Fund Consultant. As part of this, I need to do a ten minute workshop.
           As an RLF, I met lots of students who lost marks because they were embarrassed by apostrophes. They didn't know where to look or what to do when they met one. So I've written a text (My Sister, Brother and Me, in the library) specifically designed to illustrate this, full of phrases such as:
 'my sister's dress,'
'I didn't tell her.'
 'my brother's car,'
'He didn't know.'
          The possessive apostrophes, related to who owns what, are red. The ordinary apostrophes, which are shortened verbs, or shortened negative associated with verbs, are green.
          I was able to very quickly code this up myself, and add
illustrations (with acknowledgement) from Wikimedia Commons.
          I think Koko is even better because some of the illustrations are by one of Alan's students, the very talented FG. This has resulted in teacher and student working together to produce something which can be used world-wide. The student feels an added sense of involvement and ownership, learns a great deal, and grows in confidence.
          As with my apostrophe lesson, a teacher could write and code up a text on any subject that might interest students, or to teach any point of language. Or both.
          Students and teacher could work together to make an interactive book on anything they found interesting. And, in so doing, learn a great deal.
          Go back to the book - here's the link: KOKO
          Turn to page 2. Here there is an illustration of the finger-signs used for spelling in American Sign Language - but also an embedded video (from Wikimedia Commons) giving examples of ASL in use.
          Further on, there's a Google map showing the Isle of Man. It's there because Koko's pet cats were Manx cats, and the video makes clear where the Isle of Man is.
          In my own short text about apostrophes, I have the narrator drive 'my sister's car' to the Orkneys and onto the ferry - which sinks and, 'my sister's car is at the bottom of the Pentland Firth.' An embedded Google map shows where the Pentland Firth is.

          Go to the top left hand corner of Koko. See the speaker-bar? Click on it. (Have your computer volume turned up.) Those are Alan's pupils reading the Koko text. The first to speak is FG, who also did the illustrations.

          Alan is already working on blank versions of these books, which retain the illustrations, but have no text. The students write in their own text from memory - and expand it as they please, making descriptions more florid, and having fun with it.They can change or add to the illustrations - if they learn how to do it.

          The possibilities for teaching here, I think, are boggling. Take a student's interest, write some text - it doesn't have to be long or difficult. Get them researching (and reading) for pictures. Get them talking, and helping each other. Let them rewrite and expand the text they've worked on. They're adding to their vocabulary and knowledge of the world, learning by teaching each other, gaining in confidence.

          But you also have the option of using a ready-made text from the library.

          Being a cynical type myself, I can hear other cynical types saying: 'Yeah, you say it's easy. But how easy is it, actually?'
          Let me show you how to code up a sentence, so that it will highlight in different colours, and turn into hot-potato games.
          Here's a screen-shot showing a blank book.

          First, I go to the tool-bar, and click on the icon at the far right: (EDIT). Then I get this screen.

          Don't worry about the coding down the left-hand side. It says <fgnp> and is a piece of code which tells the programme to create a new page.
          So go the pointy end of one of these piece of code and press return.
          Then go to the control bar at the top and click on the two symbols circled in pink.

           Doing that will enter two pieces of code, like this:-

           The first piece, which looks like a 'p' in point brackets, tells the book to begin a new paragraph. The second, <hotpot> enters the code to create the 'hot potato' games, where the words are cut up and jumbled.
          Now I put my cursor at the centre of this code, and write the time honoured test sentence: 'Mary had a little lamb.'
          To enter the code that highlights the words in different colours (and also underlines them in red, blue or green), I use the coloured bricks at the left of the screen.

          Using my cursor, I highlight 'Mary', and then click the red brick. I then highlight 'a little lamb' and click the red again. I highlight 'had' and click the green brick. This enters the code for the colours.
          To finish the coding for the hot potato game, I use the vertical bar circled in blue in the screenshot below, which also shows the colour coding in place. I place the cursor where I want a word to be snipped into syllables, (or letters, or punctuation signs) and click the bar. Each individual teacher can decide how they want to do this.

           If I want to put in a title, I use the H1, H2 or H3 icons to the right of the coloured bricks. I can write the title first, then highlight it, and click one of the Header icons. This will automatically 'top and tail' the highlighted words with the code for larger, heavier title lettering. H1 gives the biggest letters.
          Or I can click H1 first, put my cursor at the centre of the code, and then write my title.
          The Eye icon at the far right gives a preview, so you can check things.
          Then you click 'Update Main Text.' Save. And you have text coded up like the Koko book at the beginning of this post.
          Of course, you can write the text first, copy it into a Stories4Learning book, and then code it.
          Inserting the illustrations is a little more tricky, but not very much.
          If you want to see how it's done, Alan has put up videos HERE, giving demonstrations.

          The advantage of the system is it provides a cheap and endlessly variable supply of teaching material tailored to the needs of an individual class or student.
          It can be projected on a screen for the whole class to see and work on together - or each student can work with it on their own computer or tablet.
          You don't have to adopt the Functional Grammar method of teaching, although it is proving immensely successful worldwide. - A teacher can simply use the colours to highlight any part of the text they want to draw attention to.

          If you want to hear more about Functional Grammar, from the mouth of, perhaps, its leading expert, follow this link to my own Nennius blog, where I'm posting an interview with Dr. David Rose, who developed his Reading2Learn method in Australia.

          Or find out more about the Swiss-Anglo approach - a PriceClan production! - by following this LINK.


julia jones said...

I'll have to come back and play this properly as there's so much in it. It's fascinating and optimistic and the simple strategies for using colour - for the different apostrophe-uses for instance - are brilliant. Clearly this can be used for teaching at many levels and could be heaven for TEFL teachers. I've always wondered how they manage. Thanks for this. I've bookmarked and will favourite it.

Mari Biella said...

Thanks for this! I'll have to investigate further - this really would be ideal for my TEFL students.

Chris Longmuir said...

I'm impressed, Susan, and although I'm not a teacher I want to play with the software. I'm another one who is going to have to come back and spend some time on it. In the meantime, congratulations on a great blog.

madwippitt said...

How very clever! (Although Koko had poor taste in pets - just think if she'd had wippitts, it could have been the Isle of Dogs instead of Man!) :-)

Susan Price said...

Folks - thanks for such a positive response! - I feared it might all be too boring for people not absorbed in it, as Alan and I are.

Chris, if you go to Alan's site at, you can find out more about the system and play with it in 'the sandbox.'

You'll find the link to the sandbox on page 13 of the virtual book, near the bottom.

Or just go to

Bill Kirton said...

It's far from boring, Susan. Fortunately, I have something to do which has a deadline attached so I can't play around with this as much as I'd like to at the moment. I know, however, that I'll be coming back to it to displace a few more hours as soon as I can. It's fascinating and its potential is huge. Thanks for sharing.

Lydia Bennet said...

Good heavens, what an amazing blog post, so much in it to play with, to study, to learn about! Very impressed indeed to see technology being used for learning in such important and innovative ways. Like the others, I'll need to come back to this and really follow your steps properly to appreciate the implications. Thanks for opening up this new 'book' of ideas and methods for us all to see.

Jenny Alexander said...

Fascinating! Your enthusiasm makes the subject feel exciting even for someone like me who generally shrinks away from anything technological. I think I could really engage with this if I was still involved in writing educational materials

Reb MacRath said...

Loved it and will be coming back to it as soon as I receive my Kindle Fire!