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Readlang to the rescue
I learnt Mandarin for a number of years and my teachers encouraged me to read online newspapers and magazines. But sometimes I’d be reading articles with lots of words I couldn’t understand; feeling a bit overwhelmed about having to look up dozens of words in a dictionary. Readlang to the rescue!
The Readlang web reader is a browser extension available for Chrome and Safari. After adding it to your browser, you access a site with a text you’d like to read, for example, one of the blogs on TeachingEnglish. When you select the extension, it asks you to choose the language of the text you’d like to read and the language you’d like to translate it to. You can then left click any word from the text to instantly get a translation right above it. Here's an example.
I often set digital reading tasks as homework and I know that my learners sometimes struggle with unfamiliar words. I got them to add the Readlang extension to their browsers and find translations for some of these blocking words. They’ve told me that the tool has been useful in helping them get through texts quicker and making these reading tasks less stressful.
What’s more, all the words you select get added to a word list and the application automatically generates flashcards which can be used for review. Each flashcard is displayed with the sentence in which you first encountered the word so it doesn’t become decontextualised. Selecting a response to “Did you remember?” determines the frequency that the word will get repeated when you try to practise the words using the flashcards. Here's an example.
This digital tool can help support extensive reading activities which learners do in their own time and potentially promote learner autonomy. I attempt to include these sorts of activities because extensive reading appears to have a significantly positive impact on overall language learning (Nation, 2001).
As useful as Readlang is, there are some issues to be aware of when selecting texts for these extensive reading activities. Nation (2001) distinguishes between extensive reading for language development and extensive reading for fluency development. Both types of reading require texts which are appropriate for the learners’ language level. However, with reading for fluency development, Nation (2001) recommends that there ought to be little or no unfamiliar vocabulary in the texts you ask learners to read. With extensive reading for language development, between 95 and 98 percent of the words in the text should be familiar to learners for effective vocabulary growth (Nation, 2001). This echoes my own experience with getting learners to use Readlang with texts which were not level-appropriate. The ease of using Readlang to look up words often leads to learners clicking every other word, making these reading activities less meaningful. But finding level-appropriate authentic digital texts can be really challenging and ensuring that no more than 5% of the vocabulary is unfamiliar, a seemingly impossible task.
I’ve tried to get around this problem by doing some learner training and raising awareness of the drawbacks of an over-reliance on one click translations while also giving learners practice with guessing meaning from context. This too correlates with some of Nation’s (2015) ideas about dictionary use during extensive reading. As long as you have this caveat in mind, Readlang can be a useful tool for promoting learner autonomy with a focus on extensive reading and vocabulary development.
Readlang supports a large number of European languages and quite a few from Asia. Some languages such as Hindi, Arabic, Chinese and Kiswahili are in their beta version so expect some issues. The tool doesn't work on certain sites like Facebook.
Nation, I.S.P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Nation, I.S.P (2015) Principles guiding vocabulary learning through extensive reading. Reading in a Foreign Language. April 2015, Volume 27, No. 1. Available at http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/rfl/April2015/discussion/nation.pdf [Downloaded 9 May 2019]
Please note that there is a free version and a paid-for version of the Readlang extension.