Archive for December, 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Create a Tall Tale for Practicing the First Conditional

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

Have you ever caught yourself involuntarily remembering lines from a song that you’ve heard many times? Or a movie? Most people have, I suppose. But what about lines from an ESL listening exercise?

About ten years ago, I was using the “New Cambridge English Course” textbooks with most of my students. The series was written by Michael Swan and Catherine Walter, and it was very popular at the time. One of the textbooks contained a unit on First Conditional which included a listening exercise featuring a story about John and Olga. Quite a few lines from that exercise are still embedded in my memory. I always looked forward to playing the exercise recording even though I’d heard the story countless times and should have been bored silly by the tale.

What made that listening task memorable was not only the plot, but the response that the exercise evoked in students. For me, that listening activity, however simple in design, is one model of an effective exercise in First Conditional.


The teacher plays a recording of John and Olga’s story in the usual way, except that occasionally the story is interrupted and a question on the pattern “What will happen if…?” is posed.  Students then attempt to predict a consequence of some action or event that has occurred, writing down their ideas using the First Conditional. Afterward, students read their sentences aloud and discuss their ideas. The teacher then presses the play button again and reveals “the truth” as the activity progresses.

Plot: The Key Ingredients

The key to the success of this exercise is the plot, and the significant ingredients of the plot are suspense and unpredictability. This plot comprises startling events, and a mix of people, places, and objects that we might not expect to see together in a relatively simple story. We experience a spur-of-the-moment date at the zoo and the loss of a purse in a snake pit; we meet a pretty girl and an angry boss; we encounter champagne, a revolver, and a wad of money. The mysterious Olga and the opportunistic John are caught in a web of dynamic circumstances. Oh my!

Students’ Reactions

By the second or third round of “What will happen if…?” students are laughing out loud.  But they are also beginning to realize that the story is so unpredictable that even the craziest or silliest prediction may actually be correct. The humorous atmosphere eases apprehensions about the demands of the new grammar structure. The lesson becomes a matter of fun, and the learning finds a place in students’ memories.

Bonus Learning Opportunities

This exercise, like any modeled on it, can easily be used as a springboard for various post-exercise activities. One that I have used allows students to prepare sketches during which they pose the “What will happen if…?” question at key points.

Also, this exercise, because of its unpredictable content and its openness to creative input, encourages students to use (and often look up) original or precise vocabulary.

Creating a Similar Story

In my experience, it is often possible to take a fairly ordinary story and add a few elements of danger or mystery to create a suspenseful and fairly unpredictable tale. Including characters who have uncanny problems and who are normally associated with other social contexts usually adds color in a hurry.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Ryhthm of English Grammar

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Does this exchange sound familiar to you?

   Student: I can go.
   Listener: You can’t go?
   Student: Yes, I CAN go.

The frustration experienced by students when they believe they are speaking clearly and grammatically correctly, but they are still misunderstood, is palpable in this kind of conversation. However, there are some simple, low-cost ways of helping students avoid this kind of frustrating exchange.

All Words Are Not Created Equal

As I said in a previous blog, English is a stress-timed language. This means that not all syllables in English are said with equal stress. Some words convey important information. These content words are stressed; we say them longer, louder and higher than the other words in the sentence. The function words (I call them garbage grammar words, just to make the students laugh) are unstressed. They are said more quietly and weakly. There is a comprehensive list of these words in Melody Noll’s fantastic book, American Accent Skills: Intonation, Reductions and Word Connections (2007). (If you are not teaching in the USA, don’t be scared off by the word American in the title; her tips work for all kinds of English pronunciation!)

Main verbs are usually stressed because they tend to give essential information. However, auxiliary verbs, including modal verbs, are usually not stressed, unless they are negative. Hence, the conversation above occurs frequently. Students whose first language is syllable-timed want to pronounce each word clearly when they speak English, but native English speakers’ ears are trained to only listen to key words. Conversely, when a native speaker says something like,

     “By 3:00, I will have been studying for more than 6 hours, so I’ll be ready for a break.”

The student hears,

     “… I’lluhbin studying …”,

which sounds unlike any vocabulary word the student has ever studied.

So, What Does This Mean For Grammar Teachers?

It is not enough for us to simply teach the structure of the language. We also need to make sure that students can actually use the language successfully in a conversation. One important part of this is being familiar with the role stress plays at the sentence level. We need to make sure that when we cover target structures in our classes, we also prepare students for the stress or lack of stress they will hear and be expected to use in the world outside the grammar class. 

The Glorious Elastic Band – Part Two

As I mentioned, a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog extolling the virtues of the elastic band, as it is particularly helpful when introducing students to the pronunciation of regular verbs in the simple past tense. However, its usefulness does not end there. In fact, elastic bands can also help students master the pronunciation of the perfect and progressive tenses as well as modal verbs like can. I give an elastic band to each student in the class and then we read sample sentences. We pull hard on the elastic band when we say the stressed words and relax it when we say the unstressed words. This helps students to really feel the difference between the two kinds of words. 

A Round of Applause

Another wonderful strategy for helping students to internalize the rules of sentence stress is clapping. Meyers and Holt (2001) demonstrates this technique clearly in their videos. On the board or using a PowerPoint presentation, I write the key words of a sentence. For example, for a sentence like, “I haven’t been able to wash my hair.” I would write the words haven’t, able, wash, and hair on the board. Then, students and I chant the words and clap in rhythm several times until the students are repeating and clapping in unison. Once the students have the hang of that, I add in the other words, writing them in a small script and crowding them between the main content words. The students then read the entire sentence while clapping, but they should not change the rhythm of their original clapping. In other words, students accelerate through the unstressed words to fit them in between the stressed words and claps. This activity is a lot of fun and efficiently reminds students of the importance of speeding up on the unstressed words and slowing down on the stressed words.

Incorporating pronunciation into grammar lessons needn’t be stressful (pardon the pun) for teachers or students. Some simple strategies for helping students feel the rhythm of English can make all the difference. There is no reason to neglect this important part of the process. After all, most students aren’t studying English just so they can fill in blanks on worksheets. They want to USE English easily to communicate. Not being aware of the norms of sentence stress can hinder them in their goal. However, students most likely won’t master the skill overnight. Applying English stress to their speech will take months or even years of conscious effort. Our job, it seems to me, is to show them the path and help them along.

Meyers, C. & Holt, S. (2001). Pronunciation for success. Weston: Aspen Productions.

Noll, M. (2007). American Accent Skills: Intonation, Reductions and Word Connections. Oakland, CA: The Ameritalk Press.