Teachers: Using MICASE to Strengthen Your Lessons
Using MICASE, you can strengthen your lesson by making sure that the examples and exercises you give your students reflect the language that they will actually hear when they venture out into the English-speaking world.
For example, if you were teaching a lesson on how to form polite questions in English, and the textbook had a lesson on the difference between "can” (for ability) and “may” (for permission or possibility), you might want to know if English speakers actually follow these rules:
Rule 1: Use ‘can’ to ask whether or not something is physically able to happen
A: Can I lift this piano?
B: No, I don’t think you’ll be able to lift something that heavy.
Rule 2: Use ‘may’ to ask someone for permission or to see if something is a possibility
A: May I lift this piano and move it upstairs for you?
B: Sure. Go right ahead.
Now, you can use MICASE to see if and when English speakers are actually following these rules. The following three sections will walk you through the process.
1. To start, go to the
MICASE Online website.
2. Type the word or phrase you are looking for, may I, into
the search box and click on ‘submit search’.
NOTE: your searches aren’t case sensitive so you don’t need
to capitalize anything, but it won’t hurt if you do.
3. On the results page, you will see the number of “matches” in the top left corner of the screen. This number represents the total number of times that the phrase may I was said by someone in our recordings (ignore the number of transcripts for now).
NUMBER OF MATCHES=19
4. The simplest way to compare can i and may i, is to now go back to the original search page, and type can i into the search bar.
5. Click ‘submit search’.
6. Again, the number of “matches” will appear in the top left corner.
NUMBER OF MATCHES=297
7. COMPARING RESULTS: What do the numbers mean? Well, first it means that in our academic community, people are saying can i (267 times) much more frequently than may i (19 times). This also means that if your students enter an academic setting, they would probably be expected to comprehend and even use the first form more than the second.
So you may want to stop here and decide that you may not want to spend as much time on the formal differences of can vs. may, because most people in academia are asking questions in the form “Can I…?”. If you want to go a step further and investigate the examples to see if speakers are following the rules for can I and may I, see the next section.
Since you already have the results page open for can I (see above), let’s look at those examples. On this page, you will see a table with 5 columns. Every row is a separate instance of someone in our recordings saying “can I…”. In the middle column, the “MATCH” column, you will see the word or phrase you searched for (circled in red below)
On the table, there are alternating rows of white and yellow (the colors have no meaning; it just makes the table easier to read). Each row is a separate and isolated example, pulled from a larger text, so you need to treat each line as a separate text. This means you should read one row from left to right and then stop. Do NOT keep reading onto the row below it, as you would with a book. The two lines do not go together.
Also, this format shows you only the sentences or words directly surrounding the phrase you searched for. However, sometimes the example will be too long, and may start in the middle of a sentence, or may get cut off in mid-sentence, as shown in the example in the first row in white.
In the column LEFT CONTEXT you will see the words spoken directly before can I, and in the RIGHT CONTEXT are the words spoken directly after.
Look at the first example. When read from left to right, you will get the question that the speaker asked. “hi, um can I have a PC please?”
NOTE: The punctuation and capitalization does not correspond to English grammar, so it might be hard to read at first. In this corpus most punctuation indicates that the speaker paused. (For more infomation on the spelling and punctuation, see MICASE Transcription and Markup Conventions.
Also, because the conversations are written as one continuous text, and don’t indicate a change in speaker, you might get multiple speakers in one example. In this example, one speaker asked the question “Can I have a PC please?” and someone responded, “Yes you can”.
If you want to see the speakers separated, like in the script of a play, then click on the TRANSCRIPT ID link to the left of the example you want to see.
The whole conversation will pop up, and the phrase you are searching for can I will appear in red.
And notice that this example demonstrates an English speaker using ‘can’ to ask about possibility or permission. In other words, this person is most likely asking for permission to use the PC computer, and not asking whether he is physically capable of using the computer. This breaks the rule in the textbook!
Now, let’s see how many of the examples of can i on your screen follow the rule at the beginning of this document. Below, I have marked red boxes around the lines where it is most likely that can i is being used to ask for permission to do something (which would be incorrect according to the grammar book):
You can continue to look through all the examples, opening the full transcripts if you need to. You can even use the texts as authentic role-play dialogue for your students.
It is possible to make your search more specific by selecting from the menus on the main search page. If you want to find out how native speakers of English use may I, then you can search only for instances when a native English speaker said may I.
1. On the main search page, type the word or phrase you are looking for, in this case may I, into the search box.
2. On the right you will see a series of menus, one column for “Speaker Attributes” and another for “Transcript Attributes”. Because we want to specify something about the speaker, look in the first column, “Speaker Attributes”. The fourth menu from the top is “Native Speaker Status”.
3. Using the scroll arrows, find and click on “Native Speaker, American English” (To select more than one category, hold CONTROL as you click on all the options (or COMMAND on a Mac). You may want to select “Native Speaker, Other English” as well).
4. Click “Submit Search”
5. READING RESULTS: This time, you will get 8 results. However, in the MATCH column, may I only appears in 3 of the 8 rows.
These are the examples that best fit your search. All the other examples are not exact matches, meaning the speaker paused in between the words may and I, which means it might have been the end of one sentence and the start of another. Those examples are probably not going to give you what you are looking for, so don’t pay too much attention to them.
If you look at the examples, notice that the first and third are examples of a classic polite request: “may I help you?”. And the second example is actually not a question, but part of a formal introduction of a speaker: “so with no further ado, may i introduce a woman…”. Therefore, we start to see that may I is used much less in academic speech when asking for permission. Perhaps this information will help structure the lesson you teach on forming polite questions, or at least give you a better idea of how English speakers are really talking.
6. FURTHERING YOUR SEARCHES: You can go back to the main search page, and make your search as specific as you want. You may want to select a certain age for the speakers, or gender. And you should now have the tools to search for any basic word or phrase in MICASE that might come up in your English lessons.
If you would like more help with MICASE Online, try watching the MICASE Video Demo in which Ute Römer and Stefanie Wulff will explain the basic MICASE Online functions to you.
Please send questions about this lesson to Miranda Kozman: email@example.com.
Learn how to use MICASE online from the experts
Download the slides seen in the MICASE video demonstration.
Helpful hints for using MICASE Online.
This is developed for teachers of English, but it is a nice short introduction to searching MICASE for anyone who wants to learn the basics.
Learn how to use MICASE Online to supplement dictionary definitions when learning new words and phrases.
A tutorial designed to help newcomers to corpus linguistics and to the MICASE corpus get started on their own research.
This section walks you through the process of using MICASE to search for a concept, instead of just a word.