Since the advent of the Internet in the early 1990s, the amount of new resources available to English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers and students seems to have multiplied exponentially. Indeed, the variety of resources in cyberspace is so vast that finding the best materials can be challenging. This paper first introduces some Internet commands and tools useful for obtaining quality search results; then it recommends sites that have particularly appealed to many Japanese high school and university students; and finally, it offers ideas and websites useful for finding language exchange partners.
Google Search Tips
According to comScore.com (2014), around two-thirds of Internet users in 2013 typically started their Internet searches with Google. To help users get the best information possible, Shaw (2007) provided tips to search Google like an expert. To illustrate how these might be useful in an EFL class, examples of PowerPoint slideshows can be found by using the specific document-type search command of topic:document-type, as in Japanese history:ppt. To retrieve published works or references to a specific author from a publication’s website, the site specific command author-name:publication-url, such as Noam Chomsky:http://jalt-publications.org/tlt, usually works well. Alternatively, users can use a website’s special search box when provided. Learning a few search tricks such as these can be a huge help for students when navigating Google’s vast domain.
Web Ranking Sites: Alexa.com and SimilarWeb.com
Two useful supplements to Google for finding teaching resources online are Alexa <http://www.alexa.com> and SimilarWeb <http://similarweb.com>. Users will quickly note that the method of search differs when using these types of sites. With Google, a regular search begins with keywords, whereas with Alexa and SimilarWeb, a search begins with a website domain name.
One of Alexa’s best features is its search index. To access it, open the main page and click on “Browse Top Sites,” which is found just to the left of the search box in the top right corner of the screen. Then, click on “By Categories” on the left side of the next screen and you will find the All Categories index. As an example, a teacher helping a student look for information about student exchange programs would find information on 29 different programs by using the following search sequence: All Categories>Reference>Education>International. Note that there are also 352 links under language schools, which a student interested in international student exchange might also find useful.
The most popular sites will usually rank highly in all search engines. While the use of keywords is a major advantage for Google and other large search engines, an advantage of using a web ranking service such as Alexa or SimilarWeb is that a regular domain search yields a number of related search terms and links, as well as referring and destination sites; the latter tell where users found the site and the ones they most often visited next.
Other powerful search tools are clustering engines, which conveniently organize search results into subtopics. Many algorithms for analyzing large fields of data exist, but cluster engines typically begin with Google’s search results and then group or cluster them, allowing users to find exactly what they are looking for more easily. One that is free and relatively simple to use is Carrot2 <http://www.carrot2.com>. Another clustering service that is free and user-friendly is Yippy <http://yippy.com>. In addition to clustering the data, Yippy also filters unwanted material such as pornography from the results. Everyone has their own preferences and Alexa or SimilarWeb and cluster engines can help teachers and students find high quality EFL materials. Figure 2 shows the Carrot2 search results for practice EFL.
Useful English Learner Websites
Two sites which have a variety of audio and visual materials as well as good quality business English materials are BBC Learning English and VoA Learn English. The BBC’s cloze exercises, located under “General and Business,” are great for higher levels since they include a good but rather challenging mix of business vocabulary. Upon completion, learners are given a score and are allowed multiple attempts at repeating the task until a perfect score is attained. The BBC site also has a great diversity of audio materials about topics ranging from a centuries old time capsule that was thought to have been laid by American revolutionaries in 1795 to a drama series about Frankenstein.
The VoA site also includes materials on a variety of contemporary issues at different levels. The audio lessons are downloadable as MP3 files and they are each narrated slowly and clearly at rates appropriate for most EFL learners. Moreover, the VoA site provides numerous video materials on global issues and each provides a transcript, discussion questions, and a blog for students to share their reactions.
Another site that many students enjoy is Kids’ Web Japan, which is part of the Web Japan provided by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs <http://web-japan.org/kidsweb>. The 19 Japanese children’s stories listed under Folk Legends and the numerous articles under Hi-tech are excellent. As a caveat, the latter are written on a level that would sufficiently challenge most university level EFL students. On the other hand, those teaching young children would probably find GenkiEnglish.net even more useful than Kids’ Web Japan because the topics and grammar are clearly intended for young English beginners.
For practicing English conversation, there are numerous websites that help students connect with other students who are also seeking language exchange partners worldwide; one excellent example is The Mixxer (for details, see <http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/departments/ tlt-wired/articles/2008-jump-mixxer>). Adult learners who prefer practicing face-to-face can peruse ads in the free Metropolis Magazine <http://metropolis.co.jp>. Friends of the author have met language partners through this site and they have enjoyed friendship and good language interactions. Other options are sites matching students with private teachers such as <http://senseinavi.com> or <http://findateacher.net>. These sites allow students to search the profiles of hundreds of English and other foreign language teachers, and for a fee of around Y4,000 students can get the names and contact information of several instructors. Students then contact the teacher and negotiate details such as a meeting place and lesson fees. Students can also arrange to take lessons online via services such as Skype. Students brave at heart and truly determined to learn English might want to consider living in a foreign residence house, or share house. Around half of the residents are usually Japanese and information can be found at <http://www.sakura-house.com> or at <http://www.borderless-house.com>.
Cyberspace is an appropriate metaphor for the Internet since the amount of materials available to teachers online is so vast. This article has provided English teachers with information on online resources that the author has found useful. The paper has also provided examples of search techniques and resources that teachers and students will hopefully find useful in discovering new resources to suit their own teaching and learning styles and needs. Google is surely among the most powerful resources availabe for locating English teaching and learning materials online, but learning a few relatively simple search commands can help users find better quality results with less time and effort. Even highly experienced users continue to discover and develop new ways to improve the search experience, and it behooves us all to utilize them. Web ranking sites such as Alexa and SimilarWeb, and cluster engines such as Carrot2 were provided to supplement rather than replace Google. One of the main goals of educators is to foster learner independence in our students, and ever more new tools are available to assist educators. It has been a pleasure sharing some online resources which have proven effective, particularly those sites that might help colleagues find new and better materials for their classes. A better learning experience for students will hopefully also inspire in them a lifelong love of learning English.
Lella, A. (2014, January 15). ComScore releases December 2013 U.S. Search Engine Rankings. comScore.com. Retrieved from <https://www.comscore.com/Insights/Press-Releases/2014/1/comScore-Release...
Shaw, D. (2007). 12 quick tips to search Google like an expert. HubSpot Blogs. Retrieved from <http://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/1264/12-Quick-Tips-To-Search...
Editor’s Note: I hope that some of the tips and websites discussed above were helpful. For a LOT MORE information and suggestions for using technology in language learning, be sure to join the JALTCALL 2015 Conference in Fukuoka on June 5 – 7, 2015. For more information, visit <http://conference.jaltcall.org>—conference attendees always come away Wired!