Archive for Tag: grammar

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Survey Review: Grammar Faux Pas or Language Change?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I want to thank all of you who took the time and put in the effort to respond to my little survey. I really appreciate the help you gave me and the insights that I received from looking over your acceptances or rejections of certain items and your comments on things. By adding them to responses I’d gotten from others, some very interesting observations and conclusions emerged.

Let’s review the 15 items listed in the survey. I hope it’ll be interesting for you to compare what you decided to change or let stand as is and see what my thinking is about each item on the list. I’m sure you noticed that I deliberately placed the same kind of discrete point in different environments to see if you’d perceive a difference in accepting or rejecting it depending on where you came across it. That was very telling. In what follows, you’ll see that I’ve highlighted “grammatical issues” in red and put any changes I felt necessary in blue within brackets.

1. You never know what psychopaths look like. They can look like you or I [me].

It’s a standard rule of grammar that a noun phrase or personal pronoun following a preposition or verb is considered the object of that preposition

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Food isn’t Just for Eating

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

If you’re like I was in the classroom, you’re always looking for fun ways to teach something about English that your students need to recognize, understand, and internalize if they’re to master the language one of these fine days. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching elementary school kids or adults; everybody wants to have fun while learning, just as we teachers want to have fun while teaching.

So let’s take a look at one of the most daunting items of English, the prepositions. “Oh, no! Not those!” you say with a shudder. “Anything but prepositions!” Yes, I know how confusing they can be and how exacting they can be.

Well, I’m here to tell you that there are indeed fun ways to introduce, demonstrate, and successfully teach English prepositions. The way I used to enjoy the most was teaching those little bugaboos with hands-on activities, one of which was preparing food. Sounds weird, eh? Well, not so weird. For the following lesson, the prepositions that I’m going to target are at, down, in, into, off, on top of, over, to, under, and up.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

I always felt cheated as a child because my mother would never follow the advice of that lovely nanny, Mary Poppins. (She also refused to fly, too, to my great irritation.) In the movie, Mary Poppins has asked her charges to clean their room. The boys don’t want to, but she convinces them that a little fun can make a dull task palatable by singing that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Well, I am no flying nanny, but I can certainly appreciate Ms. Poppins’ message now that I am teaching young learners.

Grammar?!? Again?!?
After years of teaching adults who masochistically yearn for the pain of English verb tenses and the passive voice, I assumed that everyone cared as deeply about grammar. Not so! Have you ever tried to convince tired tweens and teens that the answer to their prayers lay in memorizing the simple past form of irregular verbs? Let me tell you, it is easier said than done. I tried everything from practice worksheets to tests to flashcards and more. Nothing could make these students learn their lists of irregular verbs. Nothing, that is, until I broke out the dice and the markers. Apparently the nanny was right all along; turning grammar into a game makes learning easier. The trick is to make the games as easy on the teacher as possible; no one wants to be cutting flashcards at 3:00 in the morning, that’s for sure! Following are some of the easiest games I know that have tricked my students into learning grammar again and again.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Joys of YouTube

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

After many years of teaching without access to the internet, I am overjoyed to finally be able to take advantage of some of the great teaching resources on the great ole World Wide Web, particularly those on YouTube. Because of my late start with this resource, I understand that I am behind the curve, so forgive me if some of my enthusiasm seems a bit out of date. There is just so much great stuff out there, if you look hard enough! In addition, the clips are generally bite-sized, so they are perfect for a bit of English practice.

I teach young learners, and I can personally vouch for the sedative quality that video clips seem to have. Nothing quiets my students down faster than the promise of a video activity. The key is to make the video more than just the video. There always has to be a purpose, even if the kids are too busy watching the clip to notice.

Kramer and the Past Tense
I was having a hard time coming up with fun activities for my students to practice the simple past tense. They need so much review to help them remember the irregular forms, but that repetition can get boring fast. So, I showed them a clip from Seinfeld available on YouTube. In it, Jerry is going out for the day and Kramer is in his apartment. The next 1 ½ minutes shows Kramer doing crazy things like riding a bike, putting out a fire, starting a fight, and hosting a party. You get the idea. At the end of the day, Kramer is asleep on the sofa when Jerry comes home and gets irritated because Kramer had not used a coaster.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

The Of-Genitive and Other Genitives: More Complexity

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In my last piece for Teacher Talk (“The -S Genitive: A World of Complexity”), I outlined most of the complexities in meaning behind the use of that English grammatical form. I did so to help ELT professionals become more aware of why that form of the genitive is used in certain circumstances and how to explain any of those uses should the need arise if students raise questions. Now I’d like to focus on the of-genitive and on some other forms of the genitive as well.

Let’s begin by talking a little about each use of the of-genitive so we’ll have good explanations and examples for our students. Here are eight examples to show the varied uses for the of-genitive. Before you read further on after looking over the list, see if you can explain the meaning behind the use for of in each example. I hope you don’t find any head scratchers!

  1. the glow of moonlight
  2. the height of her fame
  3. the children of the man I hired to paint my house
  4. a pair of pants
  5. the leaves of a tree
  6. a bit of kindness
  7. a quart of milk
  8. the bulls of Pamplona

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The -S Genitive: A World of Complexity

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Wouldn’t it be nice if every aspect of a language had a simple explanation? Yeah, right. Dream on! Well, sometimes what seems simple really isn’t, and the English –s genitive certainly fits that description. For instance, does the ’s in This is Archie’s car have the same meaning as the ’s in This is Archie’s chair at the dinner table? And what about Carmen’s salary vs. Carmen’s resignation? Does the ’s in each one of those phrases mean the same thing? What’s so important, I believe, is that if we ESOL teachers don’t clearly understand the uses of and meanings behind the –s genitive, how can we impart that knowledge to our students? Food for thought, eh?

Let’s talk a little about each use of the –s genitive (’s and s’ ) so that we can always come up with good explanations and examples for our students. Here are 14 examples to show the varied uses of the –s genitive. Before you read further on after looking over the list, see if you can explain the meaning behind the use of that ’s in each example. I hope you have fun with these!

1. Archie’s car

2. Carmen’s salary

3. Archie’s chair at the dinner table

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Questions! Questions! Questions! A New Twist on a Standard Exercise

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

One of the toughest things about learning English grammar is mastering the question-making system, which is more complex in English than in many other languages. For that reason, teachers need to spend a good deal of time teaching the various ways to make questions in English as each different way comes up in their curriculum and then reinforcing those ways to give students enough opportunity to internalize this difficult part of the language.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Not To Be or To Not Be, That is the Question

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Back in July 2010 I wrote a piece for Teacher Talk called “Go with the Flow: Yes or No?” about some changes in what is considered acceptable, basic English. Such changes have been making the job of teaching ESOL more and more frustrating as time goes by, because lesson plans based on currently used textbooks probably aren’t keeping pace with what average educated as well as uneducated native English speakers really say these days. Well, I’ve gathered a few more of those changes, some of which are quite odd in my estimation, which have been taken from what people really say or from signs, ads, and headlines.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

So, Who’s Lying, Inspector? The “Perfect” Activity for Practicing the Past Perfect

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

newjgea@aol.com

In my last blog I discussed an alternative way of introducing the Past Perfect. I proposed that teachers kick off their set of lessons on this “unruly” bit of grammar by presenting contexts in which the use of the Past Perfect is essential to the intended meaning of a message, and only afterward moving on to sentences in which the Past Perfect can be substituted for the Simple Past.  This, I suggested, would allow students to get a feel for the Past Perfect’s semantic impact, for its force.

I also promised there to share my favorite Past Perfect activity.  The idea for this activity came when I happened on an exercise entitled “The Perfect Detective,” which is included in The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book by Nick Hall and John Shepheard.  Though based on the concept of that exercise, my activity differs in several ways; I introduced some changes in order to allow students to be involved at all stages of the task.

The activity not only encourages learners to identify the real differences in the meanings of various messages, but it tends to engage students quite naturally.

What does it ask students to do?

Solve a crime.

STAGE 1

The teacher presents the crime scene, but not by simply telling students what happened.  Instead, the teacher makes this stage interactive and suggestive by offering no more than the list of key words and phrases below, from which students must attempt to deduce the series of events.

John Flitz    9 p.m.    country house    dinner    six guests   midnight   shots heard    Flitz’s body    discover

STAGE 2

Students are informed that the guests who attended that infamous dinner party are being interrogated by two inspectors.  In pairs, students compose testimonies for the guests by completing a worksheet provided.  Each student of each pair will complete one version (A or B) of the worksheet in order to create his or her set of testimonies.

STAGE 3

Once the two versions of the worksheet are filled in, students are told that four of the six guests had plotted the murder, and that those guests gave testimonies which contradict one another.  Students who completed version A of the worksheet then compare their testimonies with students who completed version B of the worksheet.  By paying close attention to the meaning changes caused by the alternating uses of the Past Perfect and the Simple Past in their sets of testimonies, students will be able to determine which guests are telling the truth, and which guests are lying and may well have plotted the murder of Flitz.

STAGE 4

After students have decided, in pairs, who the four suspects must be, one student from each pair reads out the suspects’ names.  The teacher writes on the board the names read out for each pair.  Students are then asked to justify their decisions, highlighting the meanings conveyed by the use of the Past Perfect in some testimonial statements and the use of the Simple Past in others.

It seems to me that the force of the Past Perfect is illustrated quite vividly in this activity.

OK, so students won’t be thinking that they’ll necessarily be incarcerated for using the wrong construction, but they may well come to realize that getting a handle on that unruly old Past Perfect is worth their time.

Hall, N., and J. Shepheard. The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book. Essex: Longman, 1991. 131-132. Print.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Struggling with the Past Perfect

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

newjgea@aol.com

As an EFL learner I appreciate grammar rules.  They provide me a kind of comfort.  They satisfy my curiosity.  They help me achieve accuracy.  They even encourage me to experiment.  Still, there was a time when one set of rules both puzzled and disheartened me – the rules for the Past Perfect.  Those rules I shunned.  They got the cold shoulder from me.  I avoided them like the plague.

I could deal with the use of the Past Perfect in Reported Speech, Conditionals, and constructions beginning with “I wish...” or “If only….”  However, getting my mind around using the Simple Past in place of the Past Perfect in “certain” stylistic contexts was too much for me, and my sense of grammar security became rickety.

On top of that, even after I began to find some comfort in perhaps the most definitive purpose for the use of Past Perfect, namely “to show that one action or state happened before another one in the past,” I’d regularly come up with sentences that sounded unnatural.  Here’s one example: “I had brushed my teeth and I washed my face.”  To my mind, this indicated that the brushing came before the washing, and so the use of the Past Perfect in this context was appropriate and necessary.  I questioned my teacher one day, asking “Isn’t that right?  Isn’t that what the rule says?” She responded, “Yes, that’s what the rule says, but there’s another rule which says that the Simple Past is typically used to list events that occurred in a sequence.”  At that, I sighed.

Clearly, I had a mental block when it came to comprehending the use of the Past Perfect, and even though my teacher would, in an attempt to help us students picture the tense, explain that it referred to a “pre-past” or a “past of the past,” I felt I was just not getting it.

Some time later, I encountered the consoling but unencouraging words of R. A. Owen who states that “the Past Perfect tense is an easy one to become acquainted with, but a difficult one to master,” and further that because in many cases the Past Perfect is used interchangeably with the Simple Past, “the foreigner is left wondering whether the choice of tense in a given context is one of taste, emphasis, meaning, or grammar” (54).

In the end, I got my mind around the nasty Past Perfect.

Realizing now the complexity of it, and remembering my own struggle with it, I’m asking myself the question: What did I need to know as a learner to master that nasty bit of grammar?

  • Before I could deal with the whole Past Perfect-Simple Past interchangeability issue, I needed to know  what roles the Simple Past played that the Simple Past did not.
  • I needed to know from the beginning when I must use the Past Perfect, rather than  when I may use the Past Perfect.

If I was typical in this, it may make good sense for us to begin teaching the use of the Past Perfect by focusing on contexts in which its use modifies the meaning of a message. In some contexts, the use of the Past Perfect in place of the Simple Past genuinely alters the meaning of the message.  Here students can feel a greater impact of the Past Perfect.

We arrived and she had left.

(Compare: We arrived and she left.)

His friends called with his alibi, but the police had hauled him away.

(Compare: His friends called with his alibi, but the police hauled him away.)

Although I had lived in China, I spoke very little Chinese.

(Compare: Although I lived in China, I spoke very little Chinese.)

I have the impression that once students get a feel for the semantic influence of the Past Perfect, they find it much easier to accept the interchangeability of the Past Perfect and the Simple Past (as in sentences containing subordinate clauses beginning with “before” or “after”).  It seems to me that it’s crucial that students get a feel for the “weight” of the Past Perfect.  Introducing students to the Past Perfect by way of contexts in which it modifies the meanings of messages seems a reasonable way to foster in them a feel for that influence.

I’m planning to share my favorite activity for teaching the Past Perfect in my next blog.  I would love to hear about activities you’ve used to teach this tense.

Owen, R.A. (1967). Past Perfect and Simple Past. ELT Journal, 22/1, 54-59.