Archive for Tag: grammar

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.

Read more »

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

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.


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


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.


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.


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

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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That’s Not Really Hard, So Why Don’t They Get it?

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

Have you ever taken a course in another language? If you have, then you entered the realm of comparative linguistics without even realizing it. That’s because you would be subconsciously comparing how something is said in your native language to how it’s said in the language you were learning. So, for example, if you learned some Spanish or French, you quickly realized that the typical place to put an adjective is after the noun in those languages rather than before the noun, as we do in English. And you realized that the English phrase of the or of a closely resembles the way a genitive phrase is expressed in Spanish or French, but that there’s no equivalent of the –’s in those languages. Voilà! Comparative linguistics!

So why, then, do many ESOL teachers end up pulling the hair out of their heads when trying to teach something so seemingly easy as the use of that –’s? Why do their students often drop that inflected form and say things like the neighbor dog? The reason may not be that the students are just poor language learners; it may be due to language interference. There are languages in which the proper way to form a genitive phrase like the neighbor’s dog is to say “the neighbor dog.” This is something that would be useful for ESOL teachers to know so that they could anticipate the problem and hopefully nip it in the bud before the problem becomes fossilized.

To pursue this item a bit more as a case in point, let’s take a look at how this genitive phrase is produced in a few unrelated languages:

  • In Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia, you’d say the neighbor dog.
  • In Haitian Creole, you’d say the dog the neighbor.
  • In Arabic, you’d say dog the neighbor.
  • In Cantonese, a form of Chinese, you’d say neighbor the dog.

Aha! So it may very well be that it isn’t the fact that your students just don’t have the smarts to get it; it’s probably language interference with the structure of their native languages getting in the way that’s created this problem.

If you’re an EFL teacher, getting into comparative linguistics to make teaching certain grammatical points go more smoothly is relatively easy since just about all the students you have in any class speak the same language, the native language of the country you’re working in.

If you’re an ESOL teacher working in an English-speaking country with students from lots of other countries, the task of delving into comparative linguistics is more daunting, but definitely doable. You don’t need to become fluent in any of the languages spoken by your students. If you see that some or all of your students are struggling with a certain point of grammar, all you need to do is a bit of research into how that form is structured in their languages to see whether or not it may be creating a bigger problem to teach than you might have thought. And in those cases when a certain form is a big problem for certain students, you may find it useful to give them some comparative phrases in their languages and in English to show them how to switch from one way of communicating this to the other.

I guarantee that your students will be very impressed that you’ve familiarized yourself with something in their languages and can demonstrate how it crosses over from their languages to English. You’ll definitely win brownie points with them and, in addition, you’ll become a more effective teacher!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Move Over Learning Curve! Bring on the Learning Square!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

In the middle of a lesson about the second conditional, I was calling on students to check a routine grammar exercise from the text that they had just completed in pairs. One student, Guy, shared the correct answer and I praised him, “Well done!” At this, he assumed a slightly philosophical air and said, “Well, yes, it is correct. But this is difficult when it is not in the book.” In other words, Guy was making the complaint I have heard many time from students; filling in the gaps is (sometimes) easy, but remembering grammar rules when one is in the middle of a spontaneous conversation is an entirely different matter. Guy and all the other students who have similarly grumbled are absolutely right. This is usually the point in the semester when I dust off my handy Learning Square.

The Learning Square?

I learned about this depiction of the learning process from Linda Grant (2008) in her talk about how to teach pronunciation. However, she said the chart was not her own invention. Rather, it came from somewhere completely unrelated to English Language Teaching, and is applicable to mastering any new skill in general. Once I get up on my little Learning Square soapbox, I remind students that if they are learning any new skill, it takes time. For instance, if they decided to take up fencing out of the blue, they would go through a similar learning process as they are with learning another language.

The Goal: Unconscious Competence!

The Learning Square looks like this:

Stage Consciousness Competence
4 - +
3 + +
2 + -
1 - -

My explanation (which I must caution might be a distortion of what Linda Grant said two years ago) goes like this:

  • When a student is just beginning to learn new target language (for instance the second conditional), he/she doesn’t know the rules and can’t correctly use the target language. This is stage 1.
  • After a while, the student learns the rules, but still has trouble using the target language accurately in either written exercises and/or conversations (stage 2). This is the stage Guy is at, in my opinion. He knows how to form the second conditional (if + simple past + , + would + base), but he still has questions when he does his homework and he has trouble remembering the form in the less controlled conversation activities I assign in class. (For example, If your house was on fire, what one item would you save?)
  • The third stage is reached when the student is consistently accurate whenever he/she is thinking consciously about the grammar rule.
  • The fourth, final and most coveted stage is when the student uses the target language correctly without thinking about it, or unconscious competence.

Quality Input

Progressing up the ranks from level 1 to level 4 depends on continuous quality input. In terms of language learning, this could mean continuing to take ESL classes or it could mean listening to the radio or making English-speaking friends. Of course, this square does not describe the learning process of ALL students. Moreover, a student might be at a level 3 when it comes to the present progressive, but a 1 when it comes to the passive voice. Also, a progression up the chart is never assured. Even when they receive quality English input, we have all seen fossilized students who never progress past the second level; and there is no “schedule” by which the Learning Square operates. One student may jump from 1 to 4 quickly, while another student might be stuck at a 2 for years. However, the Learning Square helps students to see that even if they can’t master a skill completely within 2 or 3 lessons, there is still hope for them. If they continue to receive quality input, at some point, they may find themselves unconsciously competently using the second conditional.

Grant, L. (2008) Teaching Pronunciation: Meeting Individual Needs, paper presented at TESOL 2008, New York.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Go with the Flow: Yes or No?

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

I taught ESOL for over 35 years before I retired, and over all those years I learned to enjoy the challenges of teaching grammar the most. There were rules. I taught the rules, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly by example. There were right ways to say things and wrong ways. I figured I was teaching the right ways. I mean, I followed what was stated in textbooks and sometimes consulted what the “experts” had to say. I considered myself a teacher in the know, and did my best to pass on that knowledge to my students. Nothing was fuzzy back then. Now lots of things seem fuzzy.

Let me ask you something. As ESOL teachers, at what point do we decide to teach what a great many people really say rather than what textbooks tell us we should say? Since we have no arbitrators for English the way the French do with their Académie Française, when do we determine that we should teach our students a form or a term that isn’t found in our textbooks?

Here are some examples of the kinds of utterances I often hear made by quite a cross section of native English speakers, both educated as well as uneducated. Oh, and by the way, when you look over the following utterances, don’t think that just because one may sound more “hillbilly-like” than another that it hasn’t been said by an educated speaker:

  • On December twenty-two, did you deliver the shipment as scheduled?
  • It was a moment where I found myself wondering if I was seeing things.
  • The kids threw a surprise anniversary party for Frank and I.
  • Me and him just couldn’t agree on anything.
  • They gave copies of the invoices to both Bob and myself.
  • We couldn’t figure out where he was at.
  • Two coffees, please.
  • A: Would you mind if I asked you a personal question? B: Sure. Go ahead.
  • If I knew he was injured, I would’ve taken him to the emergency room.
  • Your child just bit mine. Look at the teeth marks on my kid’s arm!
  • Because of his obesity, his heart is having to work harder than it should.
  • I’ll try and* get help.

Not the way you’d teach those elements in bold face to your students, you say? I guess you’d go with the following instead or at least most of the following:

  • December twenty-second
  • when
  • me
  • He and I
  • me
  • n/a
  • cups of coffee
  • No. or Not at all.
  • had known
  • tooth marks
  • has
  • to*

Am I right? Yet day in and day out, I hear native speakers say such utterances the way I’ve listed them above. Are we to consider so many people wrong? After all, isn’t it a rule of thumb in English that if enough people consistently say something a certain way, it becomes an acceptable alternative? And if it is an acceptable alternative, shouldn’t it be actively taught? There isn’t one thing I’ve listed that isn’t constantly said by a very large number of native speakers on a daily basis.

And then there are some cultural issues that influence the way we speak. For example, when I was a kid, I was taught that in business or polite conversation, I should address a person with the appropriate title (e.g., Mr.) and that person’s last name. At a certain point, that person might tell me to call him or her by the first name instead, or I might ask if I could do so. Nowadays, mostly with salespeople, it seems they immediately go for using my first name, and I really find that objectionable. In a business situation especially, I feel the distance created by using the title and last name is appropriate, and I also feel it shows more respect to me if I’m addressed as Mr. Firsten rather than Richard. Is it just me? Am I that much of a throwback to an earlier era?

On top of that, at least in my part of the country (Florida), I’ll often be addressed in a similar situation as Mr. Richard instead of Mr. Firsten. That drives me nuts, and I immediately counter by telling the person I’m Mr. Firsten. Does that ever happen to you? And if it does, do you accept it? Do you like it?

The point is, so many people use those alternative grammatical forms or ways of addressing people in business situations that I wonder if we have an obligation to address those alternatives in our lesson planning.

What’s your opinion on these subjects? You tell me. I’m sure everybody who reads this piece will have an opinion, and I’m sure everybody who reads this piece will be interested in learning what everybody else has to say. Okay, folks, go for it! Click on the word “Comments” and tell us what you think. I myself am really anxious to hear what you’ve got to say on this very perturbing issue.

*Yes, I know that you may think there’s nothing “wrong” with saying I’ll try and get help instead of I’ll try to get help, but put try in any other form and and doesn’t work. For example, would you accept I’m trying and getting help or I’ve tried and gotten help? Hmm . . . So if it’s not right in those forms, why would you consider it right in that one form?

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Phantom “But”: A Strategy for Sorting out the Time References of Mixed Conditionals

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

I was almost feverishly exited when I learned that my high school English class had progressed to the point where we were just a few textbook pages away from the unit on the Third Conditional, the most difficult conditional of all! You may be thinking something like “So, how weird is she?”, but I’m telling you, it brought a “hurray” to my mind!

At the time, I was an energetic college prep student who had just resolved to pursue English language studies after graduation, and one who relished the challenges presented by such difficult grammar structures. My enthusiasm may seem somewhat abstract, but it did have a concrete purpose. The better my English was, the better my chances of passing an entrance exam and winning a place in a university English program would be. I felt that it was within my grasp to become a university student, and I was focused on the struggle to realize that dream. The competition on the exam day that I was targeting, however, would be intimidating, to say the least. Only the top 10% of the hundreds of examinees who would be present at that university’s English exam would be admitted.

So, the long-awaited practice of the Third Conditional came at last. As I had suspected, it was “wonderfully tough.”

When we were completing that unit, I learned, to my joy, that there was more, that there were so-called “mixed conditionals.” However, I also learned at that moment, to my dismay, that those conditionals were not part of the school curriculum. If I wanted to be taught about mixed conditionals, I would have to teach myself.

A Conditional Pickle

I found a book that discussed them, and I opened it. Soon enough, it became clear that the structures of the mixed conditionals were a composite, or mixture, of structures already familiar to me. The patterns of the clauses seemed logical. Still, a proper recognition of time references eluded me for quite a while. Sorting out the differences between the present condition-past result and the past condition-present result was contorting my mind and zapping my gumption.

“But” to the Rescue

Somewhere in the middle of that self-study storm, an idea came to me. It was an idea about what could follow mixed conditional structures, and it led me to devising a kind of tool for checking my answers. I would write out a sentence based on a mixed conditional structure, and then in my head add a phantom “but” and finish the thought. This little strategy allowed me to register those big, nasty time references.


→ If Robin weren’t shy about approaching strangers, she would have asked Mark out on a date.
BUT she IS shy about approaching strangers, so she DIDN’T ask Mark out on a date. (present condition) (past result)

→ If Sophie had saved the recipe for the chocolate babka, she would not have to look for it now.
BUT she DIDN’T save the recipe, so she HAS to look for it now. (past condition) (present result)

In the end, I passed an entrance exam, became a student, passed an exit exam, and became a teacher. Since then, I have used this easy method many times to teach mixed conditionals to my students. Actually, I have found that students can sometimes sort out the tense-time references more quickly if they also employ other phantom words such as “now” and “then.”


→ … BUT she IS shy about approaching strangers (NOW), so she DIDN’T ask Mark out on a date (THEN).

→ … BUT she DIDN’T save the recipe (THEN), so she HAS to look for it (NOW).

Do you teach mixed conditionals to any of your students? If so, at what level or point do you introduce them?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Focus on Phrasal Verbs

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Don’t Put it off! Covering Phrasal Verbs, that is.

Phrasal verbs are, at best, an irritation to many English students. They are arbitrary in that the verb and preposition combinations often have nothing to do with the actually meaning of the phrasal verb. However, they are also ubiquitous. Once thought to belong solely to the realm of spoken or casual English, phrasal verbs are now acknowledged as being a part of almost every type of English, from news broadcasts to novels to college lectures to thesis papers. They are everywhere. Students have no choice but to learn them, no matter how frustrating the chore may be.

Quite often, phrasal verbs will appear in the later chapters of a grammar text. While I strongly support any exposure to phrasal verbs students can get, I wonder if this is the best place for them. In my opinion, phrasal verbs are more like discrete vocabulary items than grammatical patterns that can be learned and applied in a variety of situations.

Ideally, in my experience, phrasal verbs are best learned in a Listening / Speaking class. (However, because phrasal verbs show up in all kinds of written English as well, they could be certainly addressed in a Reading / Writing context as well.) I think that a Conversation class is a good fit for a phrasal verb lesson because, not only do students need exposure to this target language to be fully effective communicators, but it also gives teachers something concrete to teach in the class, in addition to doing “conversation practice” which can be a bit more difficult to measure. Learning phrasal verbs gives Conversation students the feeling that they are learning something tangible in a subject area which is not.

Getting on with the Business of Teaching Phrasal Verbs

First, I usually begin with a warm up of some sort that reviews the phrasal verbs from the previous lesson. I sometimes give students one index card each with either the phrasal verb or a gapped sentence and instruct the students to walk around the class until they find their match. Or, I might divide the class into groups of three or four students and have one student from each group turn with their back to the board. I write a phrasal verb from the previous lesson on the board, and the group has to give their partner clues until he / she shouts out the phrasal verb. The goal is to re-activate the vocabulary from the previous day and get students ready to think about English.

Then, we check the homework as a class. I strongly believe in assigning written practice with phrasal verbs. Keith Folse, in his wonderful text, The Art of Teaching Speaking, argues for the need for students to have time to prepare to speak. In my own experience as a French student, I know that I am better able to use vocabulary I have had written practice with. In addition, as a lazy student, I tend not to learn that which I am not forced to learn, and the pressure of homework is a great motivator. If the homework assignment was to use the phrasal verbs in sentences or a story, I collect them and check them myself. However, if the homework was a gap-fill or matching activity, we usually go around the class and check the answers aloud. This is a great opportunity for me to correct any pronunciation errors (especially associated with the stress that belongs to the preposition in this unique case) on an individual level.

Then, students have time in groups to continue with some controlled practice. If we are tackling new phrasal verbs, I often give them a dialogue or sentences which give the phrasal verbs context. Students work in pairs to “guess” what the meanings are. If students are recycling previously learned phrasal verbs, they would work in pairs to complete some kind of written activity which elicits the target language. At this point, we are focusing on the meaning of the phrasal verbs and whether or not they are separable (the object can go between the verb and the preposition) or inseparable (the object can only go after the phrasal verb) or intransitive (the phrasal verb does not take an object) in this particular meaning. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with phrasal verbs is that these rules change when the meaning of the phrasal verbs changes.

Once I feel comfortable that the majority of students have grasped the ins and outs of the target language, we move on to a less controlled, more conversational practice. I either present the students with conversation questions containing the phrasal verbs we have studied or I assign them some kind of performance task (for example: plan a news report using five of the phrasal verbs or plan a family argument using five of the phrasal verbs, etc.), or I ask them to reach a group consensus about a subject that prompts use of certain phrasal verbs. This less-controlled task gives students freedom to experiment and make mistakes they can learn from.

Getting Students Caught up in their Own Learning
This process is, admittedly, a little slow for some students. It can take hours just to get a handle on 10 or 15 phrasal verbs. For more motivated students, a phrasal verb journal might be useful. When students hear or see a phrasal verb, they write it down and refer back to it often in order to commit it to memory. Students wanting a little more self study also might like Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell’s English Phrasal Verbs in Use. I like this text a lot because it divided the phrasal verbs into manageable subject areas.

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.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Grammar and Lexis: A Response to Program Director’s Dilemma

By Patty Heiser
TA Coordinator and Lecturer
International and English Language Programs
University of Washington Educational Outreach

Dear Director:

You are not alone in this dilemma of situating grammar within your IEP! I commend you for placing your students and their needs first while maintaining full confidence in your well-trained instructors.

My suggestion is to gently guide the instructors along a path they may find to be not so different from what they know and are already used to, that is, teaching grammar and lexis. I imagine that you have instructors who are strong proponents of teaching vocabulary. If you can show them the logical connection between teaching grammar along with lexis, then you have half the battle won.

How might you do this? One way would be to use an in-service to show this connection of teaching grammar along with lexis in writing. Many words and phrases in writing have their own grammatical patterns. Depending on the level of the class, you could focus on the words and phrases that help organize ideas at either the sentence or paragraph level.

For example, if the students were writing about the causes and/or effects of changes in the global economy, the instructors could focus on cause/effect lexical items such as due to or as a result of, both of which are followed by noun phrases. In organizing ideas at the paragraph level, the students would look at the grammar used with transitional expressions like in addition to, which help combine and organize ideas in a paragraph and work as important signals to the reader: “In addition to the down turn in the economy, the rise in oil prices has impacted the economy at the macro level.”

Your instructors will feel comfortable using grammar terminology to help organize ideas in writing. At the same time, the students will be able to leverage their strong understanding of grammar to improve their writing skills.

Some texts which might be valuable resources for your instructors, along with the Azar texts you already use, include: 

             This text is wonderful for working with the genres, or patterns of
             writing, and has excellent activities for instructors and their

    I have included ideas here for the road to teaching writing through grammar. Once down this road, my guess is that your instructors will be open to applying grammar in teaching the other skill areas. In fact, I think they will see such positive advances in their students’ skills that we just may see your instructors themselves presenting at upcoming TESOL conferences on using grammar as a springboard for communicative language teaching!