Friday, December 26, 2008

My Last Blog Entry

I’ve never been good at good-byes. I end up trying to hold back emotions and risk coming off cold and distant, or I end up letting it all hang out and risk looking like a sentimental slob. I’ll try to maintain the middle ground here.

This has been a wonderful experience for me. First, I was flattered by being invited to write a blog on and by being told that I could write on whatever topic came to mind and say whatever I felt. There aren’t too many people that would give somebody free reign like that, and I’ve appreciated that confidence in me very much.

I hope that, over the past year, I have given you food for thought that kept you interested and wanting to come back to read some more. I hope I’ve entertained and even amused you at times. I know that I thoroughly enjoyed working on each and every blog entry, and I hope that that came through as you read my pieces.

I would like to thank Betty Azar and Sue Van Etten for their invitation to write this blog, for their guidance, and for their moral support during the year. They’re both marvelous professionals and an absolute joy to work with. Thank you, Betty! Thank you, Sue! And thank you for all the kind things you’ve said about me, Sue. I’m blushing!

I’m very glad that the blog will go on and morph into something with such exciting possibilities. I think this is a wonderful chance for all of you who have important, interesting, enlightening things to contribute to have your thoughts published in cyberspace. What a great opportunity to share your thoughts with thousands of your colleagues worldwide. Wow! So please do take advantage of the invitation that Sue has made. Let’s hear from you. I may even pop up once in a while to add a thought or two to what one of you has posted.

So I’ll take my leave now with one last thank-you, and this one’s for all of you who have stopped by over this past year and visited with me in my cyberspace living room. It’s been a great experience for me, and I feel confident that the blog will continue to be a great experience for all of you who roll your sleeves up, pitch in, and post your thoughts on this site. I can’t wait to read what you guys have to say!

Richard Firsten

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Be Our Guest (Blogger)!

Changes are afoot at the Grammar Guy blog. Much to our dismay, our beloved Grammar Guy, Richard Firsten, is retiring from the blogosphere at the end of 2008. We hope he will continue to post an entry from time to time as the muse speaks to him, but he will no longer be writing regular weekly blog pieces.

So . . . we’ve been brainstorming -- dare I say agonizing? -- about what to do with the Grammar Guy blog. When in doubt, it’s always good to revisit the website’s mission statement:

Our Mission and Vision:

This website’s mission is to support teachers who incorporate a grammar component in their ESL/EFL teaching.

Our vision is a global community of ESL/EFL teachers who share resources, learn from one another, and support one another in their work.

With that guidance in mind, we asked ourselves: How can we best use the blog to support our mission and vision for

The answer was obvious. Instead of replacing Richard (who is irreplaceable!), we need to turn the microphone and the spotlight over to teachers. We need to know what's on your mind. We need to hear from many voices with diverse perspectives. We need to let teachers create the conversation.

So we’re turning the blog over to you. If you’d like to be a guest blogger on, let’s talk. E-mail me at for details.

Richard leaves some big shoes to fill. The depth and breadth of his knowledge of grammar and English Language Teaching is stunning. He’s also a talented writer. That’s a formidable skill set. No one makes grammar more fun and accessible.

We wanted fun, friendly, substantive content for teachers who incorporate grammar in their teaching. Richard delivered all that and more with the irrepressible Firsten flair. Thank you, Richard, for helping us get off to a great start.

Best wishes to all for a peaceful and prosperous new year.

Sue Van Etten

Website Manager

Azar Associates

Friday, December 12, 2008

Why I Like Incomplete Dialogues

I’ve recently discussed cloze procedures and why I like them so much. Well, if there’s anything I like better than cloze procedures, it’s incomplete dialogues*, which work best when students are paired up so you can put into practice that old saying “Two heads are better than one.” These exercises really get students thinking. Here’s a very simple example of what I’m talking about:

A: _______________________?
B: Fine, thanks. Hey, I’m going to the cafeteria for lunch. ________________?
A: No, thanks. I’ve already had lunch.

Students should first read the entire dialogue at least twice before attempting to fill in the missing parts. You, as the teacher, should stress this helpful hint: The line that follows the blank area they’re about to work on probably contains information that will help them figure out what may work logically in the blank.

So why am I gung-ho about incomplete dialogues? There are some really compelling reasons that make them such effective exercises. They serve as marvelous activities for reading comprehension, for sensitivity to language components, and for critical thinking. Students can stretch their language ability and, because they’re working in pairs, help their classmates learn, too. Incomplete dialogues also allow students the special freedom found in manipulative and communicative activities.

To show you more about what I mean, here are the two major areas in which the skills I’ve just noted come into play through the use of incomplete dialogues:

Reading Comprehension: Students are forced to read thoroughly and find clues within the dialogue to identify where the situation takes place and enhance their understanding of what’s going on. Attention to punctuation is also very important as meaning can change, depending on what punctuation has been used and where it’s been placed. Here’s an example:

A: Riccardo’s Pizza. Carla _________________. __________________?
B: Yes, please. ______________________________________________.
A: I’m afraid that job’s been taken.

Let’s just see how much there is for the students to deal with in the excerpt above which I took out of a longer exercise I used to use with my intermediate students. To begin with, the readers have to determine what the situation is (Are the speakers face to face? Are they on the phone?) Because of the way Speaker A (Carla) starts the conversation, the readers should deduce that the speakers are on the phone.

Now, from what’s referred to in reading pedagogy as “knowledge of the world,” the readers must decide what Carla could possibly say in the short blank following her name. Thinking back to similar situations they’ve experienced on the phone when calling a company or restaurant, the readers should understand that Carla is saying something to identify herself (“Carla speaking” or “Carla here” or maybe even her last name).

Next, we have a long blank ending in a question mark. The readers must see the question mark (and it’s surprising how many students fail to note punctuation as a clue at first glance), realize there must be a question in that blank, and determine what would be appropriate for Carla to ask the caller at that moment. From their “knowledge of the world,” the readers should be able to figure out that Carla is probably saying something like, “May I help you?” or “What can I do for you?” But wait a minute! The following line begins with Speaker B saying, “Yes, please.” That means we have to eliminate “What can I do for you?” as a possible question for Carla to ask because “Yes, please” wouldn’t be an appropriate response to “What can I do for you?” We’ve got to conclude that Carla has said, “May I help you?” and then Speaker B’s response works just fine.

Finally, how can we figure out what Speaker B says next? We need to look at Carla’s reply; that’s where we’ll get the hint that we need to fill in the next blank. Carla says, “I’m afraid that job’s been taken.” Her answer gives us quite a bit of information to work with. Since she's mentioned “that job,” Speaker B must have asked about a specific job, so we know that we’ve got to think of a specific job to put in the blank. In addition, Carla says she’s “afraid that job’s been taken,” and this information leads us to the conclusion that Speaker B was attempting to apply for that job ― otherwise, Carla would have no reason to make that statement. So we have these two pieces of information: (1) Speaker B wants to apply for a job, and (2) it’s for a specific job that he/she knows about, not just any job. (Everything we’ve been going over here demonstrates clearly how important critical thinking is to reading and language learning in general.)

So what can we put in that final blank? Possibilities are “I’m calling about the ad I saw in the paper for a waiter” or “I’d like to know if you’re still looking for a busboy” or “A friend of mine told me he saw your ad for a cashier.” Notice how the situation we’ve been working with is deliberately left quite open; that to allow the students to come up with different ideas.

While your students are paired up and working on these dialogues, you can walk around the room and offer assistance when they seem stuck. When they’re finished and you’ve checked over their work, have the best of the completed dialogues presented to the class in the final versions. I guarantee that your students will find it interesting to compare what they’ve come up with to what their classmates have created.

Sensitivity to Language Components: The readers must search out clues within the dialogue that can establish the correct verb tense or aspect, and those words that students typically rush over, like prepositions, take on an importance which the students don’t often realize they have. Just look at the following examples:

A: Who are you sending that fax ______?
B: Our main office.

A: Who are you sending that fax ______?
B: My boss. She asked me to get it out right away.

The students are invited to become more sensitive to language by having to figure out which prepositions will work in these blanks in order to elicit the responses provided. This is another use of critical thinking.

Here are two more short examples of incomplete dialogues. You can make them as easy or as difficult as you choose to. You know what your students can handle, so try to create incomplete dialogues that are progressively more of a challenge to your students as they get more and more comfortable with working on this kind of activity. And, by the way, if you create them with a word processing program, use 1½ or 2 spaces between lines so that your students have enough room to fill in the blanks comfortably.

A: That’s not your jacket. It’s my jacket! ______________________?
B: Aw, can’t I _______________________________ for this evening?
A: No, you can’t! You should have ________________________ first.

Ken: ______________________________________________________.
Hal: Really? When?
Ken: ______________________________________________________.
Hal: Well, that’s wonderful! Let me be the first to congratulate you!

A: Oh! I just dropped my glove. Would you mind_________________?
B: Why don’t you ____________________________________________?
A: Can’t you see that _________________________________________?
B: Oh, I didn’t notice. All right. Here you are.

If you haven’t already incorporated incomplete dialogues into your repertoire of effective classroom activities, give them a try. I think you’ll be very pleased with how marvelous a language-learning tool they can be.

*Richard Firsten with Patricia Killian. The ELT Grammar Book: A Teacher-Friendly Reference Guide. Alta Book Center Publishers. 2002

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Conversation with Amir

For quite awhile, I had an ongoing conversation via e-mail with a young EFL teacher from the Middle East who’d come across my blog and determined to start a dialogue with me. He’s a very bright young man who teaches English at a technological university, and the following “conversation” is based on some of that ongoing correspondence we had. I’ve copied Amir’s sections just as they were sent to me.

I’d love to hear your reactions to this conversation and receive any extra observations you can make on this subject.

Amir: Why don't the Americans follow exactly the English way of using grammar, words, pronunciation, etc? Since I think there are two versions of one language. At the word level, for example, tap is British English and faucet is American. At grammar level, for example, the British past participle of get is got, but in American English gotten. At pronunciation level, water in British English is pronounced very different from the American one. You see that I didn't say the opposite, that is, why don't the British follow exactly the American … since I think English is originally English not American and so it must be better. What do you think?

Me: I think that's a marvelous question, Amir. The easiest way for me to answer it is to turn the question around and ask you the same about Arabic. The homeland of Arabic is the Arabian peninsula, but the language spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Do you speak the same Arabic in your country that’s spoken, say, in Morocco?

Amir: Of course not.

Me: The reason for that is that languages keep evolving. In any region, the causes can include geography, the natural environment, other languages that have an influence, the arrival of immigrants, and the history of the region.

Amir: Since your answer is wonderful, it deserves a good reply, and I will do my best. Firstly, I expected you turning the question around.

Secondly, let me explain what I was talking about is the “standard English” accepted in Britain and America.

Thirdly, I'm going to talk about the Classic Arabic or standard Arabic compared with standard English.

Fourthly, I agree with you that we speakers of Arabic do not speak the same in term of pronunciation since everyone has their regional accent, but we use exactly the same words. For example, the word window has many names according to the country one lives in, and that is so-called “dialects”. But when it comes to speaking Classic Arabic, one should use the very word which is understood from the north to the south and from the east to the west.

Fifthly, at the level of grammar, it is completely the same.

Sixthly, there are dictionaries designed for British English and others for the American one. This drives me to presume that they are different. If not, why to have different dictionaries as long as the same? Likewise, in Arabic we have different dictionaries but they differ in the way words are presented but not in the content, that is, a dictionary may start with a word that another may not start with. Yet the meaning and the understanding of word is still the same.

Seventhly, and the most strong factor, is that Arabic is a sacred language. It is used in religious texts, especially the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions.

Me: Your original question had to do with why American English doesn't follow British English exactly. I answered that by explaining that American English has been influenced by American Indian vocabulary and by vocabulary from every immigrant group that joined us to create the country we now have. Immigrant languages also had some influence on certain grammatical patterns, although not a strong influence.

Pronunciation in American English was first influenced by various pronunciations in the UK. Then American pronunciation was influenced by the way immigrants pronounced certain words.

I hope you get a general picture now of why American English hasn't strictly followed British English.

As for “standard” English, this is a very tricky area. We don't have a sacred language like Classical Arabic, so we have nothing to turn to as a reference. Nor do we have a national academy like in France and Spain that makes decrees on what is “correct” and what is “incorrect.” So what do we have?

Well, first, “standard” American pronunciation is based on how television and radio reporters, especially in the 1950s, pronounced English. One of the greatest influences on this aspect of American English was a TV news reporter named Walter Cronkite. His Midwestern pronunciation was so clear and easy to understand that it became the norm for broadcasters all around the country, and that led to its being adopted more or less by all educated speakers who made a conscious choice to speak with a “standard” pronunciation. In the UK, it was how broadcasters on the BBC sounded that became the accepted “standard” British pronunciation except for another version called RP, “received pronunciation.”

As for vocabulary, that becomes a much more difficult area to discuss. My guess is that the majority of English words are what we can consider “standard” vocabulary, and the test for that is that they're understood by most educated American English speakers. So it doesn't matter really if you call it a faucet, a tap, a spigot, or a spicket ― most of us will still understand what you're talking about.

Of course we have words in one region that may not be understood by people in other regions. Those words are classified as “nonstandard.” They may have a standard counterpart, but they're still considered nonstandard.

Here's one example: If I say frying pan to native English speakers, they’ll understand what I'm talking about. But then there are regionalisms such as fry pan, skillet, spider.

Here's something interesting about faucet and tap. I'm mentioning these again because I want to show you how words can become integrated so well into the standard language even though they may originally have been nonstandard. I'm from New York, and I grew up calling that device on the kitchen sink a faucet. People in some other regions call it a tap. But if I’m thirsty and I don't want bottled water, I'll say I'd like a glass of tap water even though for me it comes out of a faucet. So I get tap water from the faucet!

The main point is that one variety of English isn't necessarily better or worse than any other variety. Yes, there’s something we gingerly call “standard American” or “standard British English,” but nobody’s 100% sure what that means except to say it's the common language used by most educated people in the country.

Okay, Amir, maybe I've given you more information than you wanted to know.

Amir: No, I understand, and I think I know much better why you have many differences and why you don’t copy British English. Thank you, Richard.

So what’s your take on this topic? Anything to add? If something comes to mind, let me know.