Corpora and Collocations

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At the last BCTEAL Conference in May, a colleague of mine gave an interesting talk on collocations and made mention of the use of some websites to help students understand what words normally go together. After the session, I was talking with another teacher about the lack of really easy to use corpus tools for students. It appears to me that most corpora are designed for researchers and are way too complex for the average teacher or student to use. There are a few tools that are not too bad, but for the most part, they are a mess visually and in their usage. Maybe corpus designers feel they need to add as many options as possible to satisfy the academic community who typically use it.

I did a little research after the fact and was either directed to or managed to find a few tools that may be useful for students and teachers who are interested in locating collocates of English words. In case you are not sure what any of this means, I thought a little primer on corpora might be in order. For those who understand them better than I do, my apologies for possibly oversimplifying what they are and how they work. My goal here is to provide a simple overview.

What is a corpus?

Simply put, a corpus is a text database. There is no size limit on a corpus, but the larger the corpus, the chances of a more accurate result increases. Large corpora (plural for corpus) usually have millions of words which have been added from hundreds of thousands of documents and transcripts. For example, the British National Corpus (BNC) is made of a incredible amount of documents resulting in a 100 million word database.

What kind of corpora are there?

There are corpora based on spoken speech taken from things such as television, interviews, radio, and other recordings. There are also academic, news, and literature databases just to name a few. It is also possible to create your own using texts, although the sample size is fairly small.

How are they used?

The original corpora were used by publishers and researchers to determine common language usage in publications and language studies. Dictionaries, textbooks, and other coursebooks make heavy use of corpora to determine their content. Researchers have used corpora for cross-cultural language use studies such as comparing essays written by students in one country versus another. This helps in understanding language usage in various contexts to assist others such as teachers in the classroom.

Currently, corpora usage has been extended to the average person such as the teacher in the classroom or even the language student directly. Tools like those listed below help students and teachers to better understand how English is put together in various genres and situations, such as word collocates (words that normally go together) and position in the sentence.

Collocation Tools


COCA

COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English): This is an excellent corpus, but not the easiest to navigate for collocations. Being that it uses current American English, this database sets it apart from most of the others listed here. Here is a simple way to get collocations:

  • Go to Coca and type your word in ‘Word(s)’ box.

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  • Click on the ‘Collocates’ link just below the ‘Word(s)’ box.
  • Click on the ‘Search’ button.
  • A list will appear on the right in order of collocation frequency (the number of collocates with your keyword is listed to the right under ‘Freq’). Click on any of the words and a list of sentences will appear below.

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Lextutor

Lextutor Concordance: This is not one of the prettiest sites you will ever find, nor is it that easy to navigate, but it is pretty powerful. The collocation function is somewhat limited, but still useful. Here is a simply way to get a list of collocations:

  • Go to Lextutor Concordances and type your word in the box next to ‘Keywords’ and ‘equals’.

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  • Click on ‘Get concordance’.

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  • You will get a short list of sentences listed in alphabetical order of the words directly to the left of your keyword. You can change that at the top of the page in the ‘sort’ drop-down menus.

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  • Scroll to the bottom of the page to get your short list of collocates.

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JTW

Just the Word (JTW): This is a popular tool with language teachers and students and for good reason. Out of the most used collocation tools, this is one of the easiest to navigate, although it is a bit limiting. It is based on the BNC, so the results are decidedly British (i.e. the collocations may be different than in North American English). Here is how it works:

  • Go to JTW and type your word in the ‘Enter a word or short phrase’ box and click on ‘Combinations’.

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  • You will get a list of collocations divided by ‘clusters’. These clusters are related to the meaning of the word and the word type. You will also see a green line showing how often these word combinations are found together.

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  • Click on any of the word combinations and you will get a list of the sentences with that combination.

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Collection

Corpora Collection: This is a collection of some of the open corpora including the BNC, Brown, and Reuters. You can change which corpus you use and can get a list of words that collocate with your keyword in that database. Here is a simple use of this site:

  • Go to the Corpora Collection site and type your keyword into the box at the top of the page.

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  • Click on the button next to ‘Collocations’ about halfway down the page.

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  • Click on ‘Submit’ at the top of the page.

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  • You will get a list of collocations in order by score from most to least.

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Word

Word and Phrase: This site has a number of tools, but I just wanted to focus on collocation tools for students and teachers. This site is another of those that has lots of functions, but the tools are complex or not necessary for students. Here is how you can create a simple collocations list:

  • Go to Word and Phrase and click on ‘Frequency list’.

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  • Type your word in the ‘Word’ box and click on ‘Search’

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  • You will get a list on the right-hand side listed by parts of speech (PoS). Click on the PoS that you would like to see and a list of sentences will be displayed below.

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  • The collocations are listed alphabetically by those to the right of the word.

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Skell

SkELL: This site is based on the Sketch Engine which is used by a number of other sites. It uses a cross-section of texts. It is also very simple to use and offers something a little different. Here is how it works:

  • Go to SkELL and type your word in the box at the top of the page.

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  • Click on ‘Word Sketch’ and a list of words under word type categories appears below. Click on one of the words listed below to get a list of sentences using that word combination.

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Flax

Flax Learning Collocation: This is easily one of the simplest and also nicest of all of the collocation sites. Thanks to Mura Nava who kindly pointed me in the direction of this site during one of my corpus rants on Twitter, I now have a site I can comfortably send my students to knowing they won’t need a lot of hand holding through the process. Here is how it works:

  • Go to Flax Learning Collocations and type your word into the box at the top of the page and click on ‘go  (you can also choose a different corpus from the drop-down menu to the left of ‘go’ for clicking on it).

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  • You find a nice list of collocation broken down by usage and a number beside each collocation. This is how often it is found in the database.

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  • Click on any of the collocation and you will get a new list showing the variations of that collocation. Click on any of those and you will get a list of sample sentences using that combination.

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Let me know what you think. Do you have any to add? How do you use corpora in your classroom? Share you ideas, thoughts, and comments below. Thank you!

Frequency Level Checker: Easily check the lexical level of a text

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As an English language instructor, I am always on the hunt for reading and listening material that I can use in my classroom. As simple as that sounds, it is always a tricky endeavor simply because most of the material created is meant for someone fluent in the language and makes use of a larger lexicon than language learners have.

While there are a number of tools that provide reading level scores such as Gunning-Fog and Flesch-Kincaid, these are designed for native speakers and are connected to student grade levels. They take into account sentence complexity and paragraph length along with vocabulary density, but don’t give an indication of what words, phrases, or idioms that increase the difficulty.

A few years ago, I came across a rather simplistic looking tool that has really helped me out over the years to find and edit text for my students that fits within their vocabulary level. Here is how it works:

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  • Find a text you would like to check and paste it into the box at the top of the page.

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  • You will find five options below the text box.
    • Level 1 = the main 1000 words we use in general English.
    • Level 2 = the next 1000 words we use in general English.
    • Level 3 = the 800 most used words in academic English.
    • Outside Levels = words not in the above three levels. Proper names fall under this category since they are not in the vocabulary lists.
    • Symbols = anything that is not a letter (eg. punctuation, numbers).
  • There are a few options on using the colour coding system:
    • Select the colour of the text for each of the levels by clicking on appropriate radio button. I tend to leave everything black that is not what I want to find and make the one or two levels in colour that I want to highlight. For example, if I am trying to find words for my intermediate level class that may be difficult for them, I select black for Level 1 and for Symbols, but make Level 2 red, Level 3 green, and Outside Levels blue.
    • If you want to only see words from a specific level or levels, you can hide everything else by choosing ‘Invisible’ for those levels you want to hide. This is helpful when you are building a glossary or are looking for lower level synonyms for simplifying/altering the text.
  • Once you have chosen your colour options, click on ‘Enter’ and a new window or tab opens up with three areas.
    • The main area in the top-left has the text in the colours you have chosen.
    • Along the bottom, you have the totals and percentages for each category, including word families. This is helpful for seeing what percentage of the text your students should know. Keep in mind you want the percentage to be pretty high (~95%) for fluency and for figuring out words from context.

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I hope that helps. Let me know what you think!

Divii: A searchable video dictionary

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A really useful tool for students to see vocabulary in context is the corpus. One of the difficulties of corpus results as well as dictionaries is explaining something that is very visual in nature such as movement. Also, since it is text based, you are unable to hear the pronunciation as well as any nuances to the language such as stress. An interesting online tool that searches transcripts from videos in a semi-corpus way is Divii. It is free and doesn’t require registration to use. One caveat is that it uses a number of video sources, so it may not always be appropriate for younger students. It should be fine for older students who probably will appreciate the various contexts instead of everything being so academic. Here is how it is works:

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  • Go to divii.org and type a search term in the ‘Search words here for video examples’ box. You can type in a single word or a phrase. Click on the search button or hit the ‘Enter’ key.

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  • You will be taken to your search results with a thumbnail of the video on the left and the text from a section of that video with the word or phrase in it. Click on the video you would like to watch and it will start to play, showing the transcript with the counter time.

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  • It will continue to move through the transcript in sections as it plays. Click on a section of the transcript to play that section or click on the video to pause it. Click anywhere outside of the video to get back to the search results.

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As you can see, it is fairly easy to use. Once again, it is something I would only use with adult learners based on some of the content I encountered along the way. There isn’t anything there that would persuade me away from using it altogether, but it is something to consider before using in class.

TogetherTube: Watch videos or listen to audio together with others online

togethertube1One of the amazing things that webtools can do is to bring students together no matter where they are. TogetherTube is another great free tool that doesn’t require registration. It allows groups of people to watch videos or listen to audio files together in realtime, even if they are in other parts of the world. The files are synchronized so they all see it as if they were in the same room together.

This could be a really great tool for the language classroom where students could be assigned a video or audio file to watch or listen to with their classmates or in a group. Instead of doing it as a class, they could use their own devices or even be in different places and watch or listen to together and comment in the chat box.

Here how to use it:

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  • You now will be taken to the viewing room.

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  • Now to add your audio or video files. You can either search for a YouTube, Vimeo, or Dailymotion video or SoundCloud audio file, or you can paste in a web address (URL) from any of those sites. Click on ‘Search Videos’, type in your search description, and choose the site you would like to search.

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  • You will now see the video or audio files found using your search criteria, or the file using the URL.

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  • Once you have located the audio or video file you would like to watch or listen to with others, click on the green ‘thumbs-up’ button. The video will now appear in the player window area.

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  • The video will start playing immediately. You can pause it if you are planning on watching or listening with others. You can also adjust the video quality by clicking on the arrow in the bottom-right corner.

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  • To invite others to watch or listen with you, click on the ‘Invite Friends’ button along the top bar.

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  • A dialogue box will appear with a link you can copy and share with others. Be careful, this is a room anyone can enter without a password, so don’t share it on a public site such as Twitter or Facebook.

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  • To avoid others from finding your room on TogetherTube, click on the ‘Room Settings’ button along the top and a new page will open.

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  •  Uncheck the ‘Public Room’ option and click on ‘Save’. You can also change the room name if you would like and even add a description. There are a number of other options on the left side menu, but most of those are for registered users. Close this window to return to your room.
  • In you room, you also have a text chat option on the right-hand side. Just type your message and hit enter to send it to all users in the room.

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  • Any user that enters the room will see the video or hear the audio being played at the same time as all other participants in the room. Anyone can pause the file and even add other videos or audio files to the playlist  by searching or pasting in a URL and clicking on the ‘thumbs up’ button. Files with the most votes get bumped up the playlist.

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 Here is a printable guide for teachers and students

Create an online resource library with students using Send Ape

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One of the workshop sessions I have given over the past few years in on the creation of a resource library with students, a place for them to find reading or listening material that they can use outside of the classroom. Getting students engaged in extensive reading and listening is critical in their language learning process. The more they are exposed to the language in use, the more they are able to comprehend and make important connections.

I am also an advocate of students taking control of their own learning. They are only with me for a short time each week in comparison to time outside of the classroom. They need to learn how to learn on their own, a skill that many students have not yet been exposed to in a more traditional learning environment. Allowing students to choose their own reading and listening material is important since they will become more engaged in the process and also will learn the vocabulary necessary within the environment they plan on using English (ex. their major in university, their work environment, travel).

A large part of them taking control of their learning is in finding and creating content that appeals to them and then sharing that with others who may also find it helpful. This is simplified through the use of social sharing online, a cloud-based approach to the traditional library. This allows students to create audio or video content for listening, and also the creation of text-based material for reading. Even photos can used to share signs, newspaper articles, and anything else students find throughout their day that can be useful in learning language in context.

There are a number of ways of doing this, but there are certain obstacles that need to be overcome. One such hurdle is the use of online sites that require registration. If it at all possible, I try to use online tools that don’t require that students give up their personal information. Also, the site needs to be accessible from multiple devices, not just laptops or desktops.

One such site that works very well for this purpose is Send Ape. Send Ape is a file sharing site that allows for video and audio playback, document and image viewing, and multiple users without having to sign up or deal with advertisements. Here is how it works and how it may be used as a resource library:

  • Go to Send Ape and click on ‘Create new page’.

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  • Send Ape will give you a page with a unique name. From what I can see, there is no way to change this. In the middle of the page, you will see a dotted box that says, “Drop your files here”. You can either drag and drop your files into the box, or you can click on the box and you will be prompted with a file manager where you can choose your file.

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  • Once your file is loaded, depending on the file type, you will see it appear in a box on the righthand side.
  • Video files can be played in a window or fullscreen by clicking on the ‘Preview’ button. You can also click on the ‘Share’ button to get a direct link to the video in a new window. This is a great way for students to upload video they have taken on their mobile devices without having to sign up for YouTube. Lastly, students can also archive the video by clicking on the ‘Download’ button and adding it to their own device for offline viewing.

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Video pop-up window

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Direct link shared video file window

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  • You can listen to the audio files by clicking on the ‘Play’ button. You can also click on the ‘Share’ button to get a direct link to the audio file in a new window. This is a great way for students to upload audio they have recorded on their mobile devices without having to sign up for any site. Lastly, students can also archive the audio file by clicking on the ‘Download’ button and adding it to their own device for offline listening.

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  • Most documents, including PDFs and Microsoft Office documents, can be viewed directly in File Ape. Click on the ‘Preview’ button and a pop-up window will appear with the document.
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Document pop-up viewer

  • Click on the box icon with an arrow in it in the pop-up window and File Ape will open the document in a Google Document viewer that you can share with others.
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Google document viewer

  • All items are shared in a “page” that can be shared with others. You can create as many pages as you would like, although there is a 4GB limit if you use the unregistered option. Sign up and you will be given 10GB of storage and a login ID. Unfortunately, you will need to use a Google or Facebook account to register. There is not email option available.
  • To create a new page, click on the ‘+Add page’ button on the left side of the screen.

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  • There are a number of options available for each page.

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  • The far left button pops out the share options. The best choice is the link available at the bottom of the box. You can share this page with anyone using this link. It is also useful for when users switch computers without an account. More on that in a minute.

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  • The second button changes the view from ‘Blog’ view to ‘Thumb’ or ‘List’.
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Thumb view

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List view

  • The third button along the top is the sort button. Click to change it from most recent to alphabetical.

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  • The fourth button is the security button. Students can choose to add a password to the page before sharing.

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  • The fifth button along the top is the availability option. Users can set a date when to make it available and when to stop making it available.

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  • The last button is an important one. You can choose if visitors can add files to the page (great for students to have others give their input), can allow others to view their page (ie. make it private), or if visitors can delete items from the page (probably best kept off). Students can also delete pages here.

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So how would this work as a resource library with students? Have students create their own pages and then share them with the rest of the class with the option available for others to add content. Maybe one student is interested in computers. That student could make a list of reading and listening material that they have found or created and then share it with their classmates. Other students can then add files they find related to that topic to the page. This can be collected on a class website or a shared document. This becomes the reading and listening resource library for the class.

There are a lot of other great uses for Send Ape such as sharing videos with students, having students share their presentations on a page so the teacher can get them all lined up and ready when students are ready to present to the class. Teachers can share listening files with the class for those who missed class. Teachers and students could give feedback on writing assignments.

Here is a printable guide to creating a page as a resource library.

Here is a sample page you can add to. Please keep it clean! :)

Let me know what you think about Send Ape!

Notepad: A collaborative text editor with text and audio chat

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 4.11.08 PMOne tool I use in my language classroom quite a bit is a collaborative text editor / word processor. For years, I have even using TitanPad as my main text editor since students don’t have to register and yet I can password protect it. One thing that is missing from TitanPad and other collaborative writing platforms is the ability to audio chat as well as text chat. Also, with the advent of mobile devices, Adobe Flash sites have become an issue for me, so I am always on the lookout for sites that use HTML5 so mobile users can us it.

One such site is Notepad. It doesn’t require any registration and doesn’t have any ads. Users can invite others to join in and collaborate on a document using a unique URL. Users on a browser such as FireFox, Chrome, or Opera can also give permission to use the microphone to audio chat. It is super simple to use and could be an effective tool in the language classroom. Here is how it works:

  • Go to Notepad and a new note will appear on the screen.

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  • At this point, users can start typing a message on the notepad. It doesn’t allow for any formatting, but that can also be an advantage as students won’t be tempted to fiddle with the settings.
  • On the right hand side is a set of blue buttons:

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  • Clicking on the top button allows users to change their name (‘Update your name’), add a profile picture (‘Change avatar’), and pick a colour to use so others viewing will know who is where on the screen (‘Pick a profile color’). You can also get help, give feedback to the website owner, or end the notepad (creator only).

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  • Clicking on the second button will give you a unique URL that you can share with others. Remember, anyone with the link can see and edit the document. Be careful where you share it.

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  • Clicking on the third button from the top will prompt the browser to ask you for access to your microphone. This starts the audio chat. Make sure to click on the appropriate button on your browser to give it access.

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  • Clicking on the bottom button will open the text chat window.

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  • When others are online, you will see where their mouse cursor is with a small hand and their profile name and colour. If you click anywhere, a circle will appear in your profile colour that everyone can see.

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I have added it to my ‘Webtools: No Registration Needed for Students‘ page under the ‘Documents‘ section.

 

Record and host audio online with SpeakPipe Voice Recorder

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 7.09.30 PMOne tool I use quote often in my English language classroom is a voice recorder. For years, I used Vocaroo as my online recorder, but I have stopped that completely due to the awful ads that are shared with the listener of the shared audio file. Instead, I am using SpeakPipe Voice Recorder. It is a simple, online voice recorder that doesn’t need registration. Files are downloaded or shared online using a unique URL. Listeners can also download the file or listen online. Best of all, there are no ads anywhere on the site. It evens works with mobile devices. Here is how it works:

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  • For laptop and desktop users, you will be asked to give permission to Adobe Flash to have access to the microphone. Click on ‘Allow’.

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  • SpeakPipe will immediately start recording. If you would like to restart, simply click on ‘Reset’. When you are done, click on ‘Stop’.

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  • If you audio is quiet, you may get this message. You can click on ‘Replay’ to listen to the audio. If you are then happy with it, click on ‘Save on server’, otherwise click on ‘Reset’ to start again.

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  • You may give your recording a title or simply leave it blank. Click on ‘Save’ to upload to the server. Notice, the file will be saved there for three months from the last playback.

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  • You will then be given a playback window with an embed code shown along the bottom. You can embed this file in your website using the code. Click on ‘Link to this recording’ to get the unique URL that you can share with others.

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  • This is the final step. Simply copy the URL from the top of the page and share it with the person or people you would like. You can also click on the ‘download’ text to download the file to your computer.

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