Academic Exchange Quarterly  Spring  2012  ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 1

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Web 2.0 and Part-of-Speech annotation in ESL

 Gloria Branca   ITIS “E.Fermi” – Fuscaldo (Cs) - Italy

Gloria Branca is an ESL secondary-school teacher and teacher trainer.

Abstract                                                                                                                                                    The field of education technology applied to language pedagogy has witnessed an increasing number of interactive web-based applications made available by the second-generation web (Web 2.0). These resources offer opportunities to enhance learner motivation and language awareness through a recreational approach, which is impossible to adopt in traditional classroom settings. Classroom experimentation was conducted to engage a group of ESL learners in the use of recreational folksonomies combined with computational POS (part-of-speech) annotation for learner-centered discovery learning.

Introduction                                                                                                                                          Communication technologies applied to language pedagogy have offered English as Second Language (ESL) teachers a wide range of didactic tools. These have helped promote language skills through the use of effective digital learning environments investigated by some fields of applied linguistics such as Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL). Recently, Web 2.0 has provided practitioners with many interactive web-based applications (e.g. blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networks, file sharing), that allow students to experience new motivating ways of learning a foreign language, using modalities that are impossible to create in a traditional classroom setting.

In this respect, social software applications, such as recreational folksonomies, which rely on tagging activities in web 2.0 social environments, can be introduced to promote motivation in ESL learning. Engaging learners in the process of folksonomic tagging may prove effective as it “[…] is intended to make a body of information increasingly easier to search, discover, and navigate over time […] the result, often, is an immediate and rewarding gain in the user’s capacity to find related content”(Bai et al., 2009: 631). Language awareness can be further enhanced by encouraging learners to mark up words in texts through computational POS (part-of-speech) annotation, which has shown to improve language learning (e.g. Plass et al., 2003).

Following these considerations, this paper describes how Web 2.0 and POS annotation were used for ESL classroom experimentation. First, two key concepts are briefly discussed: 1. motivation in ESL learning with regards to the effective use of web 2.0 tools; 2. the concept of tagging in Web 2.0 social environments and in Corpus Linguistics as POS annotations. The classroom experimentation is then described in its methodology and procedure. Findings are briefly presented and pedagogical implications are eventually discussed.

Motivation in ESL learning and Web 2.0                                                                                                      In second language acquisition, motivation has been identified as one of the key factors that determine L2 achievement and attainment (Gardner, 1985). In the late 50s, its conceptualization by researchers suggested that L2 motivation is nurtured by both attitudes toward the L2 community and learning goals (Gardner & Lambert, 1959). Motivation studies have, however, expanded by promoting cognitive aspects related to the learner’s self (need for achievement, self-confidence/efficacy, self-determination) and by focusing on situational factors relevant to classroom applications (Cheng & Dorneyei, 2007).

According to the self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985), there are two general types of motivation: one based on intrinsic interest in the activity per se and the other based on rewards, extrinsic to the activity itself. Intrinsic motivation (IM) refers to motivation to engage in activity because it is enjoyable. By contrast, extrinsic motivation (EM) refers to actions carried out to achieve some instrumental end. Following Vallerand (1997), IM is divided into three types: 1. intrinsic motivation to know (IM-Knowledge); 2. intrinsic motivation toward accomplishment (IM-Accomplishment); 3. intrinsic motivation to experience stimulation (IM-Stimulation).

In the field of education technology applied to language pedagogy, teachers, who integrate their didactic practice with digital task-based activities, commonly experience how this integration can foster student’s IM-Stimulation based on the sensations stimulated by doing attractive tasks, i.e. fun and excitement (Carreira, 2005). Web 2.0 technologies now offer ESL teachers many web-based applications to create language learning experiences that bring the teaching communication process closer to the media that students commonly use in their daily life as digital natives (Prensky, 2001). Thus, these technologies can be used by teachers as new stimulating learning environments in order to foster IM-stimulation, and provide new cognitive spaces for language awareness.


Moreover, these tools offer opportunities to implement a recreational approach, besides a global emotional involvement as an important factor of the affective approach in language learning (Balboni, 2002). Web-based applications further support some neurolinguistic aspects involved in SLA. In particular, the neurological bimodal approach (Danesi, 1988) claims that effective language learning engages both the left and the right hemispheres of the brain, and requires the use of their respective perceptual modalities. This approach encourages bimodal processing, which has been found to stimulate analytical and holistic cognitive styles (Danesi, 2005). “Bimodal presentation of content involves visual and auditory channels receiving sensory inputs from the environment simultaneously” (Lundsford 2007: 50). Bimodal processing is fostered by Web 2.0 through its multimedia organization of interactive content (text, video, audio), and therefore, language learners may benefit from its use. However, the risk of any naïve pedagogic adaptation of teaching techniques to new media needs to be avoided when in introducing a recreational approach. Web environments, in fact, represent very rich and complex semiotic universes, and they can produce a cognitive overload for students (Calvani, 2009). Therefore, a continuous development of self-reflection, control and analysis of language in use is required in using web 2.0 tools. For this reason, it is better to adopt an integrated approach by mixing different digital tools and cognitive processes with motivational activities and data-driven learning.


Tagging Web 2.0: folksonomy vs. taxonomy                                                                                                  A tag is any user-generated word or phrase applied to an object on the web to label content and help organize it following users’ choices. Tagging items with self-chosen labels, or personal markers, which provide description, in fact, creates a stronger identification of the content. Tagging is used for sorting, as a hook for aggregating as part of the collaborative nature of Web 2.0. It is very common on the web, and popular in social networks such as Flickr and Delicious.[1]

Tagging deals with the key aspect of folksonomy, a term which combines  taxonomy and folk to indicate the result of personal  free tagging,  collaboratively generated, open-ended labels that categorize content such as Web pages, online photographs, and Web links. Folksonomy defines a user-generated and distributed classification system, emerging through bottom-up consensus (Vander Wal, 2004). Folksonomies are simply classifications based on tags. Users can search content by tags, which differs from traditional keyword searches. The value of this external tagging is derived from people using their own vocabulary, and adding explicit meaning in their own understanding: every person is an expert in their own vocabulary (tags). Thus done by users and not by professionals, a folksonomy is most notably contrasted from a taxonomy, which is the technique of creating classifications, using a controlled vocabulary. It is hierarchical in nature, and represents information controlled by a scientific community of experts and professionals. Unlike taxonomy, folksonomy uses a collaborative method to categorize content, where freely chosen keywords are used instead of a controlled vocabulary.

Moreover, tagging is related to the process of categorization, but differs in that it has a lower cognitive cost (Ramshi, 2005). Tagging initially involves the related category of activation, followed by the computation of similarity between the item and candidate concepts. The semantic association is free and depends on individual experience. No filter is needed, so that as many of those associations as wanted can be noted. On the other hand, categorization is often based on cultural knowledge and shared ontology,  and  needs a step of decision in the choice of the right one following the ontology structures (Schmitz, 2006). Conversely, tagging eliminates the decision and can include all users’ free semantic association.

Overall, the difference between folksonomy and taxonomy is fundamental for students, who are reflecting on language at semantic and grammatical levels. Through the activity of tagging, ESL learners can observe users’ creation of free associations of meaning as a starting-point for reflective activities, given that meaning is organized on key aspects of language, such as frequency and semantic relations (e.g. hyperonomy).

Tagging words: POS annotations in Corpus linguistics                                                                            Part-of-speech (POS) tagging, also called grammatical tagging, is the most common form of corpus annotation. A corpus can generally be defined as a collection of machine-readable authentic texts (spoken or written) in electronic databases. These enable querying interfaces to carry out linguistic analysis. In particular, a tagged corpus is one where all its words have been marked in some way, for instance, for word category (e.g. nouns are tagged as nouns, verbs as verbs). Thus, POS tagging refers to the automatic process of marking up a word in an electronic text as corresponding to a particular part of speech, based on both its definition, as well as its context (e.g. relationship with adjacent and related words in a phrase, sentence, or paragraph). The use of POS tagging software in the ESL classroom allows learners to discover grammar taxonomy related to the annotation of wordclass categories from textual data.

The Classroom Experimentation                                                                                                     Classroom experimentation was carried out based on two main assumptions: 1. the use of Web 2.0 tools in the ESL classroom help learners to engage in more motivating activities, which trigger deeper cognitive processes of learning; 2. these tools encourage collaborative and reflective learning, whereby learners take more responsibility for their own learning.

Aims and participants                                                                                                                                  The main aims of the experimentation were to: 1. carry out a motivating recreational activity, such as tagging users’ content in web 2.0 social environments; 2. integrate this activity with a reflective activity of labeling English language items, such as grammar categories through online POS annotation tools. In particular, the experimentation focused on exploring the recognition of the nature of English verb structures, which would prove helpful in promoting learners’ motivation in grammar and writing. Furthermore, guiding ESL learners to carry out language investigation through the use of Web 2.0 folksonomy was intended to increase their declarative knowledge specifically about the nature of English location verbs used in descriptive texts. On the other hand, the direct use of online POS software was intended to increase learners’ procedural knowledge, or understanding of their own language learning process through conscious retrieval of prior language knowledge and recall of previous language learning experiences.

Participants in the experimentation were 24 Italian secondary-school students (17 males, 7 females), who were attending their first year at a technical High school in Southern Italy in 2010. Their language proficiency level had been previously diagnosed through curricula entry tests, and resulted at the CEF A2 level (Council of Europe, 2001). All students agreed to participate in the experimentation, and their willingness was understood to be related to the use of the web.

Method and Tools                                                                                                                                       A quantitative and qualitative approach was used to measure and interpret the small-scale findings, key processes and outcomes. Classroom data were collected through a semi-structured interview and a set of three short tests: 1. an essay-writing task to elicit free-production data; 2. a translation task; 3. a blank-filling task to elicit accuracy of use of English location verbs. Textual materials for the tests were selected from online descriptive texts of places by official tourist boards, and measures were based on the appropriateness of the chosen verbal items.

Moreover, the tool used for tagging was wikimapia, an online editable map allowing everyone to add tags and information to any location on the globe. [2] The online POS system used was the Constituent Likelihood Automatic Word-tagging System (CLAWS), which has been continuously developed since the early 1980s by UCREL, a research centre of Lancaster University. The latest version of the tagger was used to POS tag c.100 million words of the British National Corpus (BNC). A free CLAWS web trial service allows the submission of sample text to be POS tagged via the Internet. [3]


The experimentation was conducted for a total of 22 hours in five phases:

1. Preliminary: based on the discovery of some key aspects of folksonomy through the collection of textual tags on places in wikimapia. Students were asked to collect textual tags created by users of some famous locations in London. Students were then giving a written task to describe places where they live. All students found difficulties in choosing appropriate verbs and correct tenses in this descriptive language activity;

2. Noticing and investigation: this phase was targeted to make POS tagging more appealing to students, besides equipping them with basic technical skills to understand and manage processes in observing and investigating language items. For the purpose, the tagset of CLAWS POS annotation for English was used to allow students to notice and investigate language taxonomy. In particular, students were required to investigate the key aspects of the tagset of word class annotation related to English verbs.

Students discovered that the tagset for all English verbs include only a 5 category system as follows: be marked as VB, have marked as VH, do marked as VD, modals marked as VM and lexical verbs marked as VV. To annotate all verb tenses the system adds only a letter to the previous symbols as shown by tense annotations related to the verb be: VBBase form,VBD past form,VBG ing form,VBI infinitive, VBN past participle, VBZ –s form;

3. POS analysis:  based on cooperative data-driven learning through pair and group-work. In this phase, students were initially asked to POS tag the descriptive texts collected from wikimapia using CLAWS. Then they had to notice and collect tags related to verb forms and categorize them as follows: a. location verbs that explain position (it is located– it is surrounded); give suggestion of movement (the road leads up to…); give suggestion of action (the statue stands; the city covers); b. verbs that give info about time. (It was built in…). Eventually, students were invited to notice the collocation of past participle/ –ing form in the sentence and compare results;

4. Production: students were engaged in writing their own tags in wikimapia on the places where they live. In this phase, students collaborated in groups to carry out the activity;

5. Comparison and evaluation:  data collected from the same 3 tests administered in the pre- and post-experimentation stages were compared and treated as evidence of both language proficiency and of grammar competence in the use of location verbs.  Semi-structured interviews on the learning experience, which were run at the end of the experimentation, were also evaluated.


Findings                                                                                                                                              Comparative findings of pre- and post-tests showed an improvement of learners’ language proficiency level (87.5%). This outcome was the direct result of their involvement in a deep analysis of the tagging process and semantic associations. Significant results from the interview showed that learners perceived the benefits of working with web 2.0 and POS tagging in terms of becoming active discoverers of language worlds in their own minds, while enjoying learning.

Conclusion                                                                                                                                             Classroom experimentation with web tools can be conducted in simple, but effective ways to motivate learner-centered discovery learning. The wealth of web resources available can be exploited for a number of pedagogical purposes in the ESL classroom. In the present case, a mix of recreational folksonomy and language taxonomy offered students the opportunity to observe and discover two categorization processes that deal with key aspects of the semantic and grammatical organization of language and of web resources. Guiding learners to perform simple web and POS tagging through data-driven learning activities supports bimodal processing, stimulating analytical and holistic cognitive skills. These lifelong skills are important to pursue further language awareness, and also to gain a deeper understanding of the new perspectives of web 3.0 and its semantic processes. 


[1] Flickr is an online photo sharing managing system:

Delicious is a social bookmarking service

[2] Wikimapia is a web 2.0 collaborative digital environment that combines google maps with a wiki system. It works as an online editable map allowing everyone to add information to any location on the globe.

[3] CLAWS web trial service is available online :



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