An e-based environment for teaching and learning English for the social services

Adriana Teresa Damascelli, Università degli Studi di Torino


The present paper presents the reader with a project which is being developed at the University of Torino for enabling students of the degree course in “Social Services” to learn English with special reference to their profession. The project consists of the development of an e-based teaching and learning environment. The project is motivated by the lack of English language teaching and learning materials related to the profession of the social worker, at least, on the Italian market, where attention is more drawn to English for other purposes (e.g.: business, law, and medicine). The aim is to provide language learners with resources which can be used beside those which are currently available. These consist of two manuals which have been prepared specifically: one is addressed to beginners and learners with basic notions of English grammar and lexis, whereas the other manual is used with students whose level of English is pre-intermediate.

For the realisation of the present project, corpus linguistics methodology has been applied. A corpus of about three million words has been built. The texts included in the corpus deal with topics connected to the profession of social worker. Some have been selected for reading comprehension activities and provide the learners with links to the concordances of some highlighted terms which are considered as relevant to the language of the profession. The availability of a key term list has been useful for the building of a glossary of reference.

1. Introduction

An ongoing process of development in society and technology has been taking place since the improvement of sophisticated machines and the spread of communication via the World Wide Web. It is affecting everyday lives and activities in various ways. Much of what is being done is mediated by technological means. This is also true in educational settings: traditional teaching and learning is no longer, at least in many western countries, the exclusive method. Teaching is now complemented by multimedia support, Internet resources, and e-learning platforms which address many requirements (distance, autonomy, collaborative attitude and programmed tutoring) and provide sources for the creation of additional and possibly ad-hoc materials.

In particular, this is true of language teaching and learning settings, where both teachers and learners are benefiting from technological advances. In language courses, teachers and learners can carry out a wider range of activities which are adaptable to different contexts and purposes. Although there are an increasing number of materials available on the ELT market, many of these do not always meet the expectations of teachers, who are often led to adapt pre-packaged materials which do not effectively respond to their needs.

Since 2005 the Language Centre for Humanities of Turin University has been in charge of the English language programme for the degree course in “Social Services”. The degree course is organised by the Faculties of Educational Sciences, Psychology and Medicine. In the degree programme, future social workers are expected to achieve the B1 level of language competence (following the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) which corresponds, in more general terms, to an independent use of language. The lack of language teaching and learning materials for social workers has led to the publication of two manuals. The first, English for the Social Services: an elementary course (Damascelli 2009), is designed for beginners and learners with basic notions of English grammar and lexis. The aim is to provide learners with some grammar revision, general vocabulary and terminology related to this field. The second, English for the Social Services (Damascelli & Spencer 2006), is designed for learners whose level has previously been tested and been found to be A2 (according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), i.e. pre-intermediate. The course book covers a wide range of topics which are inherent to the field of social work (e.g.: child and family support, mental illness, drug abuse, poverty and social exclusion) and it provides learners with many activities aimed at reinforcing grammar, knowledge of specific terminology and reading comprehension skills.

In this paper, we will present the reader with a project that is under development. This aims at providing an e-based environment for Italian learners of English for the social services. Through the compilation of a corpus of 3 million words (gathering vocabulary from specialised texts in this field) learners will be provided with specialized materials in their field of study. In particular, electronic journals, magazines, essays and books found on the Internet are included in the corpus and constitute the source for the study of topics and their terminology.

The idea of creating an English language environment for the social services is motivated by the fact that social work is a practice which benefits from several domains, such as psychology, law, education and social sciences. All these disciplines interact and convey, through their subject matter, the knowledge necessary to social workers. At the same time, specialised knowledge requires the use of specific language skills related to terminology and to its appropriate use in context. No less challenging is the lack of learning materials adopting an interdisciplinary approach; those usually available develop topics regarding a single discipline.

A web-based interface has been created which will enable learners to carry out different kinds of activities. From the home page they will be able to access different topics, look up key terms, learn their meanings and their translations into Italian. A list of examples, previously selected from the collected corpus, will be available in order to show terms in context and the most frequently recurring patterns. However, learners who wish to observe all the available occurrences in detail will be able to consult the corpus. Links to texts adapted from newspapers, magazine articles, and web documents (and their original versions) will be available to show the use of key terms in larger contexts. Some of these texts have been adapted to build a series of exercises, such as gap-filling, vocabulary matching and comprehension activities.

2. Using technology for teaching and learning purposes. A background

The increasing availability of technology and the integration of different tools has changed the approach to language learning and teaching. For example, multimedia platforms (e.g. online language courses) and web sites enable the teacher to create interactive activities and upload learning materials according to learners’ needs. E-learning environments (e.g. MOODLE) also constitute tools which enable teachers to provide learners with several kinds of resources, such as exercises, texts, tests, videos, images, forums and chat channels. Unfortunately, not all educational institutions can afford such software packages because of their cost and so they turn to less sophisticated tools or other resources. Probably among these, the cheapest and most immediate is the Internet, which enables teachers to download supporting teaching materials and make them available on their web sites. In fact, be they simple or complex, web sites are repositories of information and references for the learners and provide a response to the new educational methods which consider flexibility, interactivity, and usability as important ingredients for successful support to complex learning contexts (Jochems et al. 2004).

Although not specifically tailor-made, there is a wide range of tools which can be used for teaching and learning purposes. This is the case with computer tools used in corpus linguistics, for example, which enable users to investigate corpora at different levels and in different ways in order to retrieve different kinds of information. The exploitation of such tools helps the teachers create teaching materials which can be subsequently made available on the Internet. Moreover, as has been noted by several authors (Biber et al. 1994, Mindt 1997), language teaching materials currently available appear similar even though they are compiled by different authors and publishing companies. One reason for this can be due to the fact that stress is put on certain areas, such as modals and tenses, which have proved difficult in language learning. Another reason may be that given examples are based on intuition rather than on authentic examples which show how native speakers use the language in the real world.

Interest in corpus linguistics methodology is also motivated by the numerous experiments which have been carried out in the last decade. These have shown how language teachers and learners benefit from the availability of materials, both according to the purposes of usability of the contents in several different teaching/learning contexts and also according to the learners’ needs. No less important is the wide range of corpus analysis tools which are now available and affordable. Some are even free and can be downloaded from the Internet.

The most widespread application of corpora in teaching is the investigation of language through concordances (cf. Biber et al 1994, Tognini-Bonelli 2001, Römer & Schulze, 2009). In particular, teachers use concordances for the description of words and their meanings. Information about words can be found in dictionaries, but dictionaries usually provide a set of meanings which are “… evoked, activated or materialised, foregrounded or backgrounded, in different ways in the different types of contexts …” (Norén & Linell 2007), and which do not necessarily include those that are less frequently used by native-speakers. Using concordances, therefore, sheds light on further aspects of language usage. Concordances can also be used in more specific contexts, for example to investigate specialised corpora. As has been shown by several authors (Pearson 1998, Upton & Connor 2001, Bowker & Pearson 2002) and more recently by Römer (2010), corpus-based activities can have a strong impact on LSP (Language for Specific Purposes) teaching practice. On the one hand, concordances extracted from specialised sources can help teachers in syllabus design by giving them the opportunity to focus on the terms which appear to be more problematic to language learners. On the other hand, concordances provide learners with data to work on. In this way, the exploitation of specialised corpora solve the problems often linked to the lack of resources tailored on language learners’ needs, or of specialised resources related to certain fields.

The availability of different tools and equipment enables universities to offer students and teachers a wide range of solutions which facilitate, enhance and promote interactivity at a distance. At the same time, such tools represent innovative ways of favouring exchanges in the classroom through group work. This does not mean that paper books and journals are no longer useful, but that electronic resources can complement them and offer a wider range of materials.

3. The ELNeSS (English Language Network for the Social Services) environment

In order to create the ELNeSS learning environment, we compiled a corpus of three million words referring to topics related to social services. Several sources were consulted but those already in electronic format and available on the Internet were chosen in order to avoid time-consuming tasks, such as the use of scanners, and the subsequent checking of texts converted into the electronic format. In fact, the Internet enables users to retrieve various kinds of documents such as electronic journals (available from digital libraries), electronic documents (available from government, social and educational institutions) and from private and public organizations. For the present purposes the following were consulted and used to retrieve material: [1] The British Journal of Social Workers;; Social Service Research Group; International Social Service and Health and Social Care; Institute for Public Policy Research Resources.

Figure 1. The ELNeSS: a screenshot showing the introductory screen.

Figure 1. The ELNeSS: a screenshot showing the introductory screen.

Wordsmith Tools 5.0 (Scott 2009) was used to investigate the corpus and produce a word list. Subsequently, the corpus word list produced was compared to the BNC word list (Scott 2009) in order to produce a list of key words. On the basis of the topics developed in the handbooks currently used by learners (Damascelli & Spencer 2006) and the frequency of the words appearing in the key word list, the most meaningful words were selected for inclusion in the ELNeSS learning environment. In particular, ten topics have been considered (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The ELNeSS e-learning environment.

Figure 2. The ELNeSS e-learning environment.

3.1 Step 3: Topic development: from introductory to more specific texts

Learners are offered a number of reading activities for each topic. There are introductory texts which provide the reader with general ideas and information about the topic chosen. For these texts only a few terminological items are shown. In Figure 3 the introductory session on adoption is shown. The text was found on the Internet and adapted to a simplified version. The aim is to have an overview of the topic through a simple foundation text. However, learners can also connect to the original document by clicking on the reference link at the end of the text.

In the following sections, more specific texts are presented, in order to provide a more balanced compromise between content and terminology. In Figure 4 a text entitled “Children’s homes” is shown. The topic relates to adoption but it deals with an aspect concerning residential facilities for needy children.

Here again the text was taken from an Internet source and, after a few changes, imported in the ELNeSS e-learning environment. As shown in Figure 4, some key terms are highlighted and constitute hyperlinks to corpus concordances where the node words, i.e. “community care” in the example, are highlighted as well as their collocations on the left and on the right. In this way, the learner is provided with an overview of the use of the term in contexts (e.g. community care arrangements). If learners prefer to get information about the term’s meaning and translation into Italian, they can click on the book-like icon following each term.

Developing and improving vocabulary skills is also important. In particular, learners could be trained to identify and isolate the terms which are used to connote actions, techniques, methods, and activities related to the field. Next, as previously mentioned, learners could acquire awareness of the use of terms in context. Another step could be related to translating terms. The aim is to highlight the shared features and differences in the British and Italian social service systems by providing a cultural perspective.

3.2 Step 4: Helping learners to add the terms

The availability of special software which enables users to collect terminology by providing different kinds of information (e.g.: grammatical status; definition; context of usage) facilitates the design of glossaries that can subsequently be compiled by learners. This is the case with software packages such as SDL MultiTerm/TRADOS. [2] Our Language Centre has several workstations and some are equipped with this software, but at the moment the use of Microsoft Word is more practical and does not entail the need of extra time for student training. In fact, students’ level of technical expertise should not be overestimated, especially if teachers want to assign tasks that the students have to carry out on their own. Learners are not usually experts and can perform only a few tasks, often related to the use of e-mail programs, chat lines, and social networks, rather than for other purposes. Therefore the use of Microsoft Word has been adopted in order to prepare the template of a record sheet which students can work on in order to collect information about each term. The template can be used at home and during classroom activities. Moreover, it enables the student to duplicate a record sheet as many times as needed. When a certain number of record sheets have been compiled, learners will have their specialised glossary which can always be updated by the addition of other terms. Such a format enables the user to build an electronic glossary by inserting hyperlinks which connect record sheets together and to an index page where all the terms included in the glossary are listed.

Figure 5. Microsoft-Word record sheet, for home use.

Figure 5. Microsoft-Word record sheet, for home use.

As can be seen in Figure 5, the layout of the Record Sheet is divided into two main sections: one for English and the other for Italian as the glossary is bilingual. For each language, and for each term, the following information is needed: domain; sub-domain; term; grammar; pronunciation; definition; acronym; synonym; corpus collocations; usage notes – see Table 1 below.

Table 1.


In this field students indicate the domain they are investigating.


This field indicates the subsequent hierarchical relationship with the domain, e.g. the domain “medicine” is very wide and includes other different domains such as “preventive medicine” or “emergency medicine”.


The term used in the domain to refer to a specific concept.


The part of speech of the term. Students have to provide this information in order to understand the syntactic function of the term.


The phonetic transcription. [3]


The description of the concept referred to by the term. The definition should be taken from reliable and specialised sources


Abbreviated forms of the term, if applicable.


Terms which have common features with the term which is being described.

Corpus collocations

One or more context fragments which show how a term is used.

Usage notes

This field can be completed when there are remarks about the term usage. For example if the term has geographical varieties (e.g.: sedan [AmE] and saloon car [BrE]) or if it is used in the singular or plural form.

As shown above, several kinds of information can be included on each record sheet. In this way, learners can perform some search activities which will help them with their work (e.g.: adoption or social exclusion) and on the terms they choose. For such search activities students are also encouraged to consult paper sources, for example the books they use in the courses they attend.

3.3 Future steps: Building concept maps and a reference glossary

The ELNeSS e-learning environment is still in its initial stages. The next step will focus on the creation of a concept map for each topic. This will enable learners to look at the key terms which belong to each topic and then analyse conceptual and terminological connections. Figure 6 provides an example of a provisional concept map. As shown earlier, “poverty” is the topic and it is connected to some key terms which are linked to some reading activities and exercises. In this way, students can look at the key terms in selected contexts, observe how these are used in context and try to use them in sentences needing completion. Again, if students wish to look at all the occurrences of the terms, they can connect to a complete list of concordance lines. Moreover, if the term is accompanied by a book-like icon, learners will be able to connect to the glossary.

Figure 6. The concept map of poverty in the ELNeSS e-learning environment.

Figure 6. The concept map of poverty in the ELNeSS e-learning environment.

A further improvement to the ELNeSS e-learning environment is the inclusion of a reference glossary. At the moment, the glossary is only available for some topics and terms. The terms can be consulted in different ways. The learner can open the glossary as if it were an electronic dictionary, and observe the terms in alphabetical order (see Figure 7). Alternatively, the learner can start from the reading texts provided in each key entry (see Figure 2) and refer to the terms through the book-like icon. Another approach being developed at the time of writing is the consultation of the glossary through concept maps, where students will find terms related to each topic.

As can be seen in Figure 7, the glossary is divided into two parts. The one on the left displays an alphabetically-sorted list of the terms included in the glossary and, below, a list of related terms. The part on the right displays information about each term. For example, in Figure 7 adoption is the term searched and is displayed at the top. For the definition of the term, which appears below, several different resources were consulted: e.g. specialised journals and specific documentation. In the example displayed, the definition is preceded by the label “legal”, accompanied by the label which denotes the grammatical status of the term: in the case of adoption ‘n.’ stands for noun. It is worth noting that words like adoption have very general meanings which have not been discarded, so they may provide further resources for classroom discussions. Such meanings are displayed in the field “context” where all the occurrences of the searched term are shown. The concluding field is “translation” where corresponding translations of the terms are available.

At the moment, however, learners can only consult the glossary passively. No searches can be made, although future changes are already planned. These changes will modify the mask hosting the glossary by adding an input field and a button for the search. Changes will also include the addition of further material for contrasting analysis between Italian and English, such as examples of the most recurrent patterns for each translated term in order to highlight similarities and differences.

4. Conclusions

In recent years, a wide range of language learning materials have been produced and made available commercially. Textbooks, course books, and other materials are available to respond to teachers’ needs. Learners need different kinds of language competence and skills according to their study curriculum. A broad range of specializations are offered by European universities and schools, with the aim of providing the job market with new professionally qualified specialists. However, the proliferation of courses related to many different fields does not always correspond to the availability of tailored resources for specific needs. The lack of resources for certain specific teaching/learning contexts and the availability of some that only partially cover them should encourage the design of new materials.

The social services are an example of a specialised field which, at least in Italy, has not yet developed linguistic resources. Probably one reason is due to its interdisciplinary character. In fact, the degree course is organised by the Faculties of Educational Sciences, Psychology and Medicine and requires students to possess interdisciplinary knowledge. This implies the ability to deal with several different concepts which can be shared by different disciplines, but which can be dealt with differently (adoption for example is both a legal act and a practice which implies the supply of shelter for needy children). At the moment, students who attend this degree course are provided with two specific manuals which constitute a starting point for the development of further material. Such material would be valuable and innovative if it were available online or in electronic format.

Opportunities for expert teachers are provided by programmes for the design and realization of Internet sites, e-learning platforms or even stand-alone applications in multimedia laboratories. Once a platform has been designed, teaching materials can be made available for the investigation and study of the materials chosen for teaching and learning purposes. In subsequent steps, further changes can be brought about by including different kinds of exercises, a glossary for the consultation of terminology, and corpus concordances to provide examples of term use in contexts.

The realisation of an exhaustive electronic learning resource is complex. Different stages are necessary in order to test the system, make changes and improve the functionality and the interface. The final version of the resource will be a multimedia object which can be made available on CD-ROM or on a university network for consultation from all workstations. This will constitute the final step of the ELNeSS e-learning environment here proposed and described.

This is an example of what has been done for the students of the social services at the University of Torino. Of course, collecting the resources and making them available by exploiting technologies is not easy. Cooperation between people with different competences would be desirable. The idea, in any case, is to help teachers reflect on the very different tools and possibilities which are now available through technology. On the other hand, it is worth focusing on the learners’ needs and on the fact that sometimes teachers have to prepare specific materials responding to contextual needs.


[1] At this stage the collected materials are not publicly available and are used strictly by a limited number of people working on the realization of the present project.

[2] SDL MultiTerm/TRADOS, MULTITRANS, and Déjà-Vu are defined as computer-aided translation packages and are used for the translation of specialised texts. The advantage of these packages is the availability of several tools, including those for the compilation of bi-/multilingual glossaries, the comparison of bilingual texts, as well as the extraction of terminology. However, such packages are complex and the effective use of them can be achieved only through thorough training.

[3] For this, students have to use the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Some packages are free and can be downloaded from the Internet (e.g.: and integrated with Microsoft Word.

Electronic references

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR). The Council of Europe.



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