Using Google as a Tool for Writing Instruction
Increasingly, language teachers are realizing the value of Google for language
support rather than just as an informational search engine. Although Google
lacks features of even a simple concordance program, such as wildcard functions,
it is a useful “quick and dirty concordancer” (Robb, 2003) that is free, fast,
and powerful, tapping into a corpus of over 3,000,000,000 web pages. This show
and tell highlights Google applications developed for an advanced ESL writing
class. However, as Google searches are not limited to English, the content is
relevant to other languages, skills, and levels.
The presentation focuses on a number of techniques for using Google in providing lexical, grammatical, and stylistic feedback on student papers, especially in face to face tutorials. For example, if a student produces a phrase like “each 3 seconds”, instead of just correcting it arbitrarily or attempting an ad hoc rule-based explanation, the instructor can point to the following Google data: “each 3 seconds” = 59 hits; “every 3 seconds” = 13,600 hits. In such cases, issues of correctness become secondary to convention—with better than a 200-1 ratio, “every 3 hits” (or more generally, “every n [plural noun]”) is the phrase to learn and use.
Examples of techniques covered include the following: using quotations in searches, using cached pages to improve speed and highlight items in context, using search limiters (such as “.edu” to restrict the corpus to academic sites), using “X is a” and “X refers to” to find definitions, using advanced search options, judging the relevance of results (e.g., when a large number of hits come from non-native sources), using Google’s image search as a picture dictionary, and keeping Google logs. These and other techniques, along with appropriate examples, will be presented, discussed, and made available on the presenter’s website for future reference.
Below is the handout I use in my advanced graduate writing course—it covers much of what is discussed in the September 2, 2004 presentation at EuroCALL Vienna.
Some Key Points for Using Google
Basics: finding examples
1) If looking for a phrase, always use quotation marks (“ “) to get an exact match.
2) Used the cached version if available—it’s faster and highlights the search terms: otherwise use the “find” command.
3) For a general phrase, add a keyword from your field of research.
4) Try limiting the domain. e.g. to “.edu” (but note what you miss that way).
5) If you aren’t sure of the basic commands, use advanced search.
6) Remember that you may need to try different combinations to get the most useful results: if it’s important, don’t give up too early!
Basics: interpreting examples
1) Look for examples in sentences, not headings: you may need to go to page 10 or even later. You may also use the command “intext:” before your search term.
the source: Is it from the
3) Be sure the word or phrase is being used in the same sense as you intend.
4) Numbers alone are not enough, but huge differences in counts between alternatives are a likely sign of the one with more hits being more grammatical or at least conventional. In your field, would you rather be “right” or conventional?
Deciding what to look up
1) Think of particular “problem phrases” for you; try alternatives that you think you might have seen in papers you’ve read.
2) If you’re worried about articles, check article use in phrases you’re unsure of. Remember in advanced search you can use the “not” option to check the phrase with no article.
3) If you couldn’t think of a phrase but translated it instead, try putting your translated phrase in Google to see if it exists widely: sometimes word for word translations work; often they don’t.
4) Anything you’re unsure of is a good candidate. Don’t be shy about exploring.
Using Google for enhancing reading
1) If you’re not sure what a word or phrase means, use Image Search for anything that you think may have a picture on the web.
2) Use combinations of defining phrases to try to get a definition of a term, especially a technical term or an idiom (but note Google’s definition function first).
3) If you find a potentially useful word or phrase and aren’t sure how it’s used, put it into Google to get contextualized examples. Add one or more keywords from your field to increase the chances of finding relevant uses.
Robb, Tom (2003) Google as a Quick 'n Dirty Corpus Tool. TESL Electronic Journal Online:
Calashain, Tara & Dorfest, Rael (2003) Google Hacks: 100 Industrial Strength Tips