Asking Artificial Intelligence the right questions and how this can help English language learners

What do ancient Greek philosophers, the “Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have in common? They all use questions to seek the answers. Speaking of questions when referring to Teaching English as a Foreign Language, a prominent one is:  Can English language teachers exploit the strategies used in prompt engineering (the art of asking questions) to facilitate language learning?

By Dimitris Primalis ELT Teacher, and coordinator of pre-primary and elementary school at Doukas Schools

The importance of asking the right questions

Humans have always sought to acquire knowledge and find answers to their questions. In 1978, Douglas Adams on his BBC radio broadcast and later in his book, presents in a humorous way the mishaps of the above quest when humans ask a supercomputer the existential question of life, the universe, and everything. After seven and a half million years, the computer leaves them speechless when it utters the answer that makes no sense: 42. The implication is that the users did not ask the right question, therefore, they could not find the answers they’d been looking for.  You can watch this part of the film on the link below:

If nearly half a century ago, this sounded like science fiction, today there are supercomputers that can answer our questions provided that we ask the right question, or as IT people call it, engineer thoughtful prompts.

Search Engines and Generative Artificial Intelligence, part of which is ChatGPT that has recently seen its popularity sky-rocketing among students and teachers globally, is based on a set of algorithms that allow the users to create text, image, voice or video based on data that computers have. Admirable though this may sound, there is a problem: the more general the prompts are, the more likely they are to fail to meet our expectations for specific answers.

What are the ingredients for effective prompts?

The first question that comes to mind is “How do I manipulate the wording of a prompt to have better results?” You can deal with that by giving details regarding:

  • content
  • context
  • tone
  • aesthetics

For instance, if you ask ChatGPT to write a text, you should define the reader, what the text is about, and the tone. When it comes to creating artwork like images, then aesthetics like “create a picture in Japanese anime style” can make a big difference to the outcome.

Is it easy to achieve right away? For most of us, it isn’t so experts advise users to hone their skills and keep redefining the prompts – a practice familiar to most English teachers who encourage their students to adopt process writing.

What strategies can be adopted for thoughtful searching?

The user needs to:

  • be specific
  • provide context with example(s)
  • break things down (into easily understood messages)
  • use clear language with proper grammar and vocabulary (AI can understand jargon and colloquial language but the results will not be the best possible)

Reading the above strategies one cannot help thinking that these are the strategies we urge our learners to adopt when they want to express their ideas when they need to plan their writing and support their ideas with examples (the Achille’s heel of most students I have taught).

If you thought that similarities stop there, the best part is the following:

How can prompt engineering be expanded?

The experts recommend the following scenarios to achieve this goal. While reading, think if any of them applies to teaching English as a foreign or second language.

Role-play scenarios

Give the reasoning engine (AI tools like ChatGPT) a scenario: “Imagine you are the manager of a company and you want to set up a new factory in an area where residents react fearing that the plant will pollute the area with waste. Write a speech for the meeting with the residents and explain the benefits of having a factory in there are. Address their fear of pollution by explaining how new technology minimizes such risks.”

Analogy 

For example: “Explain photosynthesis using a sports analogy” (Try it, it’s fun!)        

Debate style questions

For example, you can ask AI to “present arguments for and against adopting exclusively alternative sources of energy” 

Creative exercises

Ask the model to brainstorm, ideate, or write fictional scenarios related to your query. For instance, “I am writing a story about space travellers. Help me brainstorm some restrictions and laws of space travelling to other planets “

Can EFL teachers exploit these strategies with their classes?

Apparently, since Language Learning Models are used by AI, many strategies and activities are very close to language teaching. Teaching students how to “manipulate” the phrasing of the prompts - in fact, it is a writing exercise- and in some cases using AI as an assistant to help them improve their skills. For instance, we can train them to write more specific prompts by asking them to work in groups and produce prompts. Then, use AI to produce text, image or video and ask the class to evaluate the outcomes and give the prize to the best prompt engineers.

We can encourage learners to explore role-play scenarios at their own time and pace at home and then use their knowledge from this experience to work on a project. For instance, they can have a chat with a historic figure from the past and then create a video with an interview with this person (there are AI tools that can animate pictures of portraits and learners can lend their voice to the famous person that is animated)

Some more thoughts

Whether we like it or not, our students will almost certainly use AI. The question raised is: “Are going to pretend it does not exist and let them use it in the wrong way or guide them through ways that can help them improve their language skills with the help of Artificial Intelligence?

Writing this article, I realized that we often “compartmentalize” education by reducing our scope and looking at education not as the broad picture but often focusing excessively on specific parts of the jigsaw puzzle.  

Have a great academic year with your students and lots of fun working with Artificial Intelligence to develop their language skills!

Sources

“Generative AI: the evolution of thoughtful online search”, Ashley Kennedy, LinkedIn online course

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