Top tools for learning 2016

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I recently responded to an online poll of educators’ tools for learning and saved my responses to kick off a class on learning technologies for language teachers.

These are my picks; here’s why. (They are all free.)

Getting started


LastPass is a password manager that saves your passwords online and lets you access them from one master password (the *last pass*word you’ll need from now on). It can generate secure passwords, but I don’t risk this (if you have connectivity problems you can’t retrieve these from memory). Instead I create my own passwords with a keyword system and save them to LastPass.

I suggest this as my first tool for learning because it’s the obvious first hurdle to using almost any platform, tool, or application and I find until students or trainees are confident logging in and out of multiple sites it’s difficult to build up confidence or expertise.

An associated tool is Xmarks, which lets you synchronise bookmarks across browsers and devices, which I also find useful for moving between machines, though if you share computers it might not be so relevant.

Google apps

Once you have your password manager set up, my next recommendation is Google Drive, where you have e-mail (Gmail), online storage (Google Drive), online wordprocessing (Google Docs) and spreadsheets (Google Sheets), as well as Calendar, Slides, and Forms (for online surveys, questionnaires, and tests). Also worth a look are Sites for building your own websites or getting learners to do so, and Communities for working with groups.

I find these work well for planning my teaching, administration (attendance, grades), giving feedback on student writing (Docs), or collecting links to sound files, for example (Forms). We have run telecollaborative projects on G-Drive, using a private folder to save student-teacher video selfies, with sub-folders for class tandems to share their learners’ productions and prepare collaborative papers and presentations.

If you have multiple Google accounts it’s worth associating one account with one browser (work gmail on Firefox, home gmail on Chrome, for example) to avoid problems signing in and out. I have never found the offline functionality anything close to effective, so only for use with good internet connectivity.

Writing and feedback

Google Docs

As noted, Google docs is useful for your own writing, but also for use with learners. They can edit their own documents, prepare translations in groups, or submit work for evaluation and you can set access to private (sign-in), public (no sign-in) or an intermediate option with files accessible via link (no sign-in).

I find the Docs interface (there is also one for Sheets, etc) less easily navigable than Drive. Also be aware that you need a computer for full functionality – on smartphones and tablets comments are not accessible, for example.


Evernote is very useful for taking notes offline and saving all sorts of bits and pieces which you can tag and sort into Notebooks or leave unorganised to search. The search function is great and it works offline. There’s an app for your phone but the free version limits the number of devices you can connect.

Collaboration and sharing


After Google apps perhaps the single most useful tool, Dropbox lets you save files and synchronise across devices. I use it to save teaching materials (slides, handouts) but also for collaborative research writing with colleagues in other countries. Accessible offline, syncs in the background, usable like a drive or folder on your own computer.

One thing to be careful about: the default drag and drop which copies a file from one drive to another in other circumstances moves the file on Dropbox. So if you download a file from a shared folder you delete that file for others. Doesn’t work well on an external drive; you must save your local version on your local hard drive.


This free website platform lets you make your own website with images, media, and other links very easily and intuitively. It has the advantages over Google sites of a) letting you create classes with your students’ names and e-mails, and b) making comments on pages easy to see.

Audio and video


For language teachers, you need the digital audio player VLC, which plays any format you can imagine.


This open platform is a good place to share audio files, which you or your learners can upload and save privately, share to a select audience, or open to the world. With adult learners you can outsource the recording (smartphones), uploading (SoundCloud), and sharing (Google Forms) so you can focus on the feedback.

Social media


I use the microblogging site to find and communicate useful resources for teaching (educator blogs, tools, pedagogical resources) and research (conference and journal calls for papers, new publications).

I save the references in my tweets to curated sites to help keep track, though the service for the free version of has fallen off and it may not be worth starting there now.

Low-tech classroom teaching

Finally, special mention for technology you can use in class without technology: with Plickers, learners hold up paper cards to answer pre-set or spontaneous multiple choice quizzes, and the teacher records them via smartphone.

Thinking in two languages

What language do you think in?


Folk views regarding the relationship between language and thought show interesting contrasts. Some feel they are practically synonymous, two sides of the same coin, or that language is a tool for thinking.

I see this quote attributed to Chomsky, but haven’t been able to track it down so far:

Language etches the grooves through which your thoughts must flow.

Einstein, on the other hand, felt that his thoughts preceded language:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.

(Read more here.)

Psycholinguistic research tends to side with Einstein in separating thought and language using models of speech processing the most widely accepted of which comes from Levelt.

According to Levelt’s speech processing model (1993, 1995, 1999), language is generated in a series of stages from conceptualisation, through formulation, to articulation, as shown below:

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Levelt (1995)

Levelt (1999) identifies these stages thus, ending with a monitoring process used both for our own speech and that of others:

Conceptual preparation
Alone, or interactively with the interlocutor, the speaker
generates a message, whose expression may affect the interlocutor as intended.
Grammatical encoding
The lexical concepts in the message will activate the corres-
ponding syntactic words (‘lemmas’) in the mental lexicon.
Morpho-phonological encoding
As soon as a lemma is selected, its form code
becomes activated. The speaker gets access to the item’s morphological and phono-
logical composition.
Phonetic encoding
Each of the syllables in the phonological score must trigger an
articulatory gesture.
The execution of the articulatory score by the laryngeal and supra-
laryngeal apparatus ultimately produces the end product: overt speech.
When we speak we monitor our own output, both our overt speech
and our internal speech.

Levelt, 1999: 87-8

There is empirical support for these models, as Levelt and colleagues have demonstrated.

What of bilingual speech processing? The explosion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the whole notion of linguistic relativity gave this area of research something of a bad name, but recently interest has revived and interesting work is being conducted on how events are encoded in different languages (Pavlenko, 2011; Schmiedtová and colleagues). I leave you with this short reference list and an intention to return to this topic.


Bock, K., & Levelt, W. (2002). Language production. Psycholinguistics: Critical concepts in psychology, 5, 405. PDF

Cook, V. (?). Thinking in a mind with two languages.

Dipper, L. T., Black, M., & Bryan, K. L. (2005). Thinking for speaking and thinking for listening: The interaction of thought and language in typical and non-fluent comprehension and production. Language and Cognitive Processes, 20(3), 417-441.

Levelt, W. J. (1999). Producing spoken language: A blueprint of the speaker. In The neurocognition of language (pp. 83-122). Oxford University Press. PDF.

Levelt, W. J. (1995). The ability to speak: From intentions to spoken words. European Review, 3(01), 13-23. PDF.

Levelt, W. J. (1993). Speaking: From intention to articulation. MIT press.

Pavlenko, A. (2011). Thinking and Speaking in Two Languages. Multilingual Matters. Google books.

Popova, A. (2016). What is creativity? Brainpickings

Schmiedtová, B. (2011). Do L2 speakers think in the L1 when speaking in the L2. Vigo international journal of applied linguistics, 8(2), 138-179. PDF

Schmiedtová, B., von Stutterheim, C., & Carroll, M. (2011). Language-specific patterns in event construal of advanced second language speakers. Thinking and speaking in two languages, 66-107.