How spell: Using StringNet to fill in gaps

The data structure of StringNet (SN) makes it useful in ways we didn’t have in mind when we designed it. One of those ways is letting SN provide accurate fuller versions of expressions that we remember only partially or imperfectly. For example, submitting just two words of a longer multiword expression can yield the fleshed out expression with details filled in. So, a learner who recalls being corrected for saying, “Excuse me, how to spell?” but not the corrected version of it can submit a query of just the two words she feels sure of: ‘how spell’. The first pattern listed in the query results is ‘how do you spell [noun sg]’. Ah, there it is. And the [noun sg] complement in the pattern hints too that we don’t drop the complement when using the expression. Clicking on the example sentences of any of the patterns containing ‘how do you spell’ confirms the need for a complement.

We could stop there. The learner may have now discovered the need to use the inflected ‘how do you spell’ rather than the infinitive and subject-less ‘how to spell’ and to include a complement (how do you spell that?).

Or we could go on to explore some more. Sniff around the query results for whatever else we might dig up. Looking further down the same list of patterns yielded by the query of ‘how spell’, we find the original ‘error’ that led the learner here in the first place, ‘how to spell’. But if it’s an error, what’s it doing on the list of patterns attested in BNC? Because, come to think of it, the string ‘how to spell’ isn’t an error in and of itself. ‘How to spell’ can be used in English, but not conventionally in the context where the learner was corrected for it. Not, say, as a stand-alone interrogative. But switch the frame and there are plenty of acceptable contexts for how to spell–basically in complement positions: Could you tell me___; I wonder___; I don’t know___.  So it is less a matter of correct vs incorrect and more a matter of distinct distributions for the two expressions. The distribution of ‘how to spell’ is different from that of ‘how do you spell’.

We know this. But how is a learner to come to know it? And what is it specifically they need to come to know?

Here is where linking to example sentences can be worth the click. Examples of each of these two closely related patterns in context, compared side by side, can set into relief the different usage/distribution of ‘how do you spell’ and ‘how to spell’. Teachers can design discovery activities that guide precisely this sort of comparative inquiry. What SN provides here is the yielding up of patterns, the teasing apart of slight variations between and among closely related ones and listing them as separate patterns, and then the linking of these distinct but related patterns to the distinct sets of sentences that exemplify them distinctly. It is worth emphasizing that StringNet, by discovering and distinguishing the two patterns and listing them separately, also indirectly separates out the example sentences of the two patterns from each other. Linking to example sentences from ‘how do you spell [noun sg]’ will list sentences with exactly that pattern, and linking to example sentences from ‘how to spell’ renders a list of sentences with exactly that pattern. This in turn makes it possible to examine the two sets side by side and reckon the differences and similarities in the distribution of the two patterns, differences in the contexts of their use.

This all of course needs the deft touch of the seasoned teacher in contributing that all important dimension of language pedagogy: task design.

–D. Wible

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