Archive for Tag: grammar

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!

    Sunday, September 27, 2009

    Putting Grammar into Context: A Response to Program Director’s Dilemma

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

    Okay, you’ve shown your students how to form the present perfect aspect. You’ve explained to them how since and for are used with this form. You’ve had them practice affirmative forms in statements, negative forms in statements, interrogative forms in questions. You’ve gone over long answers and short answers. You’ve had them use verbs in parentheses to change them into the present perfect and fill in the blanks of sentences.

    You’re bored. You’re eyes are getting heavy. Your students are bored and feeling a bit numbed by it all. Congratulations! You’ve succeeded in treating that grammar point like it’s a fish out of water. You’ve made that grammar point into something like a formula in a chemistry class. But this isn’t chemistry. It’s language! It’s got vitality! It’s a living thing, for Pete’s sake! So let’s treat it like that!

    Any grammar element you want to deal with will only be meaningful if it’s put into context, into something real and relevant and motivating to you and your students. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching fourth graders or college students. What matters is that they get to see how a point of grammar works in context, not just in disconnected sentences. The students need to claim it as their own and run with it. And the best way to accomplish this is by figuring out which context will be optimum for dealing with that specific grammar point.

    Since the example cited here is the present perfect, let’s stick with that. Our objective today is to get the students to understand basic uses of this form, that it means something began in the past and continues up into the present or that something happened in the past and may happen again in the future. Now what kind of context will lend itself to using lots of verbs in the present perfect?

    If you’ve got those fourth graders, how about introducing a discussion on how they have or haven’t helped their mothers at home from some point in the past that you decide on till now? “Clarita, how many times have you made your bed since the beginning of the week? Have you made your bed every day? What about you, Pepito? Have you taken out the garbage for your mom? You haven’t? Why not?”

    If you’ve got college students, how about a discussion on movies? “Does anybody know how long movies have entertained the public? Do you know which Hollywood movie studio has made the most pictures? How many movies have you seen this month? Has your country produced lots of movies?”

    Any and all of the questions above can get a good discussion going amongst your fourth graders or your college students. And backup material can be at the ready: teacher-made reading passages based on the topic at hand; written exercises full of context; hands-on activities for your students to do in class or out of class, such as conducting short interviews on the topic and reporting back to the class, or writing a short, personal narrative on the topic and reading it to classmates.

    As long as your students keep using the present perfect appropriately in the discussions and in the activities you’ve devised for them to do, you’re doing your job and doing it well. You’re using the grammar point as a tool to accomplish clear communication with the focus on that overall use of language rather than just that element of grammar. And there’s a bonus to this way of elegantly working a specific grammar point into context. Your students will be forced to use other grammar points they’ve learned as well and build on their previous knowledge of grammar. It doesn’t get much better than that.

    So make it real, make it meaningful, and make it live! Lift that grammar point out of isolation and put it into context. You’ll see how dynamic your grammar classes will become!

    Saturday, September 19, 2009

    Skill Integration and Alignment: A Response to Program Director’s Dilemma

    By Maria Spelleri
    Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
    Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

    An IEP director in Kuwait wrote with a dilemma: She feels the IEP curriculum is grammar-heavy and that the emphasis is impeding student progress.

    First, some background. Students come into the IEP after having been exposed to English grammar instruction in their regular schools. The IEP instructors also put a lot of emphasis on grammar, but this work doesn’t seem to have a significant effect on reading and writing scores. The director feels that the amount of grammar in the program, and more specifically, the way it is largely being addressed (“300 plus pages of fill-in-the-blank practices”) is not the most effective way to teach English.

    Do Course Outcomes Support One Another?

    One of the challenges of discrete skill programs (a class for reading, a class for writing, for speaking, for grammar, etc.) is that we instructors sometimes get territorial and forget the bigger picture–how all these elements need to fit together in a “complete communication” package. I wonder if the instructors at the IEP ever look at their program curriculum across a level, rather than up and down a skill? In other words, how do the outcomes or standards for Reading 4, Writing 4, Speaking/Listening 4, and Grammar 4 complement each other and reinforce each other? Or is each skill truly in isolation within the level?

    When instructors in the program where I teach started to discuss this, we found ways we could support each other’s curriculum. The first thing we did was exchange our course outcomes. We then spent time brainstorming ways we could support another instructor’s outcome in our class. We did this informally; however we recognized the benefit of mutual curricular support. We each started by just trying to approach a single objective of another course from the perspective our own skill class.

    For example, one of our Reading 4 outcomes states “Student will understand sentence connectors and signal words that aid in their comprehension of a text.” As a Grammar 4 instructor, I saw a way I could complement that outcome. Instead of teaching coordinating and subordinating conjunctions at a sentence level (i.e. sticking with the book exercises alone), I searched for an interesting paragraph that students would not only enjoy reading and discussing, but that also contained the target grammar. We then studied the grammar with the context of the reading.

    It’s even easier to go the other way, meaning the writing and speaking instructors can easily support the outcomes of the grammar course. When our level 4 Speaking instructor uses a rubric that includes accuracy, she pays particular attention to errors in the grammar structures being taught in Grammar 4 and also to structures students should have learned in Grammar 3.

    Holding the students to a level of cross-skill competency emphasizes the importance of learning grammar for actual use as opposed to learning it for book completion or test success. (Have you ever had a student complain “But why did you mark me down for spelling in my answers? This isn’t writing class–this is reading class!” Viva cross-skill competency! )

    In addition to skill integration, formal or informal, I would suggest to the IEP Director that she examine how well the program’s textbooks support the course objectives. (“The reading and writing courses use a grammar correction text and the listening and speaking use either the black, red, or blue Azar.”)Work backwards from the course objectives. Does the exit test for the course directly test those objectives? Does the course textbook or other learning material directly address both the test and the course objectives? For example, if a program were grammar-heavy, would Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Azar work best as the speaking/listening text or as the grammar text?

    Do Texts Support the Course Objectives?

    Also, are the course objectives independent of the textbooks? Or is the curriculum simply “what is in the book”? The latter would certainly lead to instructors feeling like they had to cover every exercise in the text book. (“Some of the instructors hold fast to the notion they must complete every grammar exercise in the book in order for the students to acquire and learn English language.”) Our program also uses the Azar series, but our grammar curriculum at each level is not an exact match to the content of the Azar books. There are some chapters or charts we omit and some grammar we include that is not in the book. However, our course objectives are our guiding light, not our textbook.

    It’s hard to get objectives, exits, curriculum and textbooks aligned. It’s a multi-semester, multi-person project, but it is oh-so-wonderful when these elements click into place. Teacher frustration lessens, there are fewer student complaints all around, and best of all, there’s a general improvement in exit results.

    While I agree with the IEP director’s wish not to micro-manage, I would suggest that curriculum development and alignment of course objectives, tests, and textbooks isn’t micro-management at all, but basic program structure and development, which rightly comes top-down. But as Barbara Matthies said, getting faculty ownership of changes is the key to making it happen (and may I add–without a revolt.)

    Friday, September 4, 2009

    A Program Director’s Dilemma: Too Much Grammar? Part 1

    By Betty Azar
    Author, Azar Grammar Series

    I’ve been contacted by an IEP program director outside the U.S. with an all-too-familiar dilemma: how to change entrenched ideas about the role of grammar in the curriculum. She is looking for guidance on how to help her faculty members find the right balance of direct grammar instruction and experiential teaching to meet students’ needs. She writes:

    Dear Ms. Azar,

    I am currently the Director of an IEP program, but I was an ESL instructor for many years. I have a dilemma and request guidance.

    Our IEP is located outside the United States; therefore, most of the students are exposed to English within the classroom and not in the community. All of the students in our program have had English grammar in the public government or private schools. On the initial placement exam prior to admission and in the diagnostics test administered the first week of class, the students fare better in the grammar skills test than in writing, reading, or listening skills tests, substantially better. For example, a typical grammar skills test score for the lowest level course on placement is 65% and in the diagnostic test is 68-70%. On the writing skills test, the students will score 48% on the placement test and 25% on the diagnostic tests. The students have the same placement and diagnostic results in reading and listening as in the writing. The results of the testing appear to indicate the students are aware of grammar rules and patterns but cannot apply the rules and patterns to their productions in writing.

    Students attend 20 hours a week, four hours a day, of classroom instruction in reading, writing, listening, speaking, vocabulary and grammar. Additionally, the students are required to attend one hour of lab daily. The lab is equipped with interactive online grammar program and vocabulary builder software. The reading and writing courses use a grammar correction text and the listening and speaking use either the black, red, or blue Azar.

    All of the faculty have at minimum a masters in TESOL or a related discipline. I attended the 2008 TESOL convention in New York and I attended the panel discussion with Azar, Swan, and Folse. I shared the panel’s comments on grammar teaching in relation to communicative teaching and grammar teaching in general (the communicative approach is only one of several methodologies used in our classrooms). Some of the instructors hold fast to the notion they must complete every grammar exercise in the book in order for the students to acquire and learn English language. While I recognize the need for grammar instruction to enhance student learning of English through the use of structure and patterns, I have not been able to convince some of the faculty that 300 plus pages of fill-in-the-blank practices does not result in student learning how to apply the grammar to speaking or writing. What I have been unable to instill in the instructors is the need to prioritize the grammar skills needed within their classroom for their student population and disregard exercises that are not essential. I have not been able to persuade some of the instructors that grammar terminology is not an outcome of the course; therefore, terminology is not a tested skill.

    As the director, I can mandate what is to be covered or not covered in the classroom but I do not want to micromanage the classroom instruction nor control the curriculum delivered by the instructor who is better able to judge the needs of the students within their classroom. I do need the students to meet the learning outcomes of the course and the program. Grammar terminology is not an outcome but a working ability of standard American English in essays and presentations is. Many of our students do not meet the learning outcomes in speaking, reading, and writing because of the amount of grammar taught. We use another version of the placement exam as the exit exam, and find once again the grammar skills benchmarks increase more than reading, speaking, or writing. What are your suggestions?

    Thank you in advance for your attention.

    Margaret Combs
    Director, Intensive English Program
    American University of Kuwait

    I’ve consulted with a friend and longtime colleague whose areas of expertise are well suited to addressing Margaret’s quandary. I’ll post her response next week. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your thoughts. How would you advise Margaret?

    Please leave a comment or email me at if you’d like to publish your response as a blog article.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009

    Students in the Land of Grammar: The Use of Discovery Techniques

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

    “No, no, definitely no comma here,” insisted my student Tania, who immediately followed her confident statement with an enthusiastic, “We do need that information to know which tourists we’re talking about!” Her group mates nodded in wholehearted agreement. “Yes, Yes! It’s not extra information. It’s necessary information,” added Claudia, who, out of sheer excitement, almost sprang out of her chair.

    Who would have thought that working on rules governing the punctuation of defining and non-defining relative clauses could generate such excitement in nineteen-year-olds? All right so we’re not talking El Dorado, but such rules can be quite valuable discoveries to most students.

    For me, allowing students to become “grammar explorers” brings several benefits:

    1. Because of their “mystery-solving” quality, discovery-based activities can capture and hold students’ attention as effectively as most interactive presentations can, and they demonstrate to students that working with grammar does not have to be dull;

    2. Because of students’ personal involvement in exploratory tasks, discovery techniques help them remember rules more easily;

    3. Because of their analytical character,these techniques actually show students ways to approach other, unfamiliar grammatical structures;

    4. And, perhaps most importantly, because of the independent work requirements integral to discovery tasks, these activities prove to students that they can recognize a rule by themselves, and that they can be active “explorers” of the language even outside the classroom.

    I recently came across a very informative article by Pavel V. Sosoyev entitled Integrative L2 Grammar Teaching: Exploration, Explanation and Expression in which he not only discusses the benefits of discovery techniques, but also shares a sample lesson as well as a questionnaire which he created to explore his students’ views on inductive learning.

    And here are four of my own discovery-based lessons:

    It seems to me that discovery techniques have various merits, but they are rather time-consuming and I ordinarily manage to use them only intermittently in a course.

    Which grammar structures or concepts do you think might be taught naturally by way of discovery techniques? Do you use exploratory techniques in your classroom? If so, have you found them to be effective usually?

    Thursday, August 6, 2009

    Why I Teach the Parts of Speech

    By Dorothy Zemach
    ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
    Eugene, Oregon
    Email: zemach at comcast dot net

    Actually, I wanted to write about phrases and clauses and about teaching them as adjectives and adverbs. However, that reminded me how many teachers I’ve run into over the years who disagree that the names of parts of speech should be taught to students. I argued with a publisher over this for at least three years, actually, before being “allowed” to teach the parts of speech in a textbook for lower-level students. So let me take a brief diversion to defend this position.

    The arguments against teaching the names of the parts of speech are mainly that the terms are too difficult for students to learn, and further, that they aren’t helpful. I disagree with both of these arguments.

    Minimally, I think students should know noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, and article. With advanced students I might add in determiner. OK, that’s seven words. Is that too high a vocabulary load, especially when most of those concepts exist in the learner’s native language? I think if they can learn seven objects in the classroom, or seven modes of transportation, or seven irregular verbs, then seven parts of speech isn’t going to short out the brain.

    A larger issue is whether they’re helpful. This depends, of course, on whether the teacher uses the labels. I use them all the time. I use them to talk about

    • different word forms (accept is a verb, acceptance is the noun form of that verb);
    • the placement of different parts of speech (Your sentence “Is late again,” is missing a noun or a pronoun as the subject); and
    • the functions of subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases and so on.

    And now I’m back to where I wanted to be . . .

    It seems to me that one of the challenges of forming correct and elegant sentences in English is in knowing where to put the different elements. Where does the subject go? Where does the verb go? How about the direct object? And those are the easier things to teach.

    Where my more advanced students trip up is in knowing where to put longer elements, such as

    • in the morning,
    • running for the bus,
    • while on his way to the bakery, or
    • on the corner.

    The problem is that students don’t know what these elements are—that is, how they function. Therefore, they can’t place them correctly in a sentence.

    Pretty much, they’re adjectives and adverbs—more correctly called adjectivals and adverbials, but I use adjective phrase and adverb phrase with my students at first, and then just adjective and adverb, once we’re all on the same page.

    Suppose we have a simple sentence:

    • He fell.

    Even lower-level students have probably seen the structure subject + verb + adverb, and might be able to write a sentence such as

    • He fell slowly.

    However, the most common adverbs are actually NOT the one-word ones that end with ~ly, even though those are the easiest ones to identify. An adverb tells us where, when, why, or how. If students know that phrases can be used to talk about when, where, why, or how, then they can write

    • He fell to the ground.
    • He fell when he tripped.
    • He fell as soon as he tried to stand up.
    • He fell with a strange choking sound.

    The trick is in knowing that to the ground (where?) functions as an adverb, as do when he tripped (when?) and as soon as he tried to stand up (both when? and why?) and with a strange choking sound (how?). English allows (and even encourages!) one to combine adverb phrases and clauses, as in

    • He fell to the ground with a strange choking sound as soon as he tried to stand up.

    Getting this concept down is huge. It doesn’t bother me terribly much if a student writes

    • *He fell at the ground.


    • *He fell as soon as tried to stand up.

    Those sentences contain errors, of course, but the basic pattern of subject + verb + adverb is still there.

    Adverbs are movable elements, more so than most others. But students need to know that adverb clauses and phrases move as units, and where they move to—for instance, to the beginning of a sentence:

    • As soon as he tried to stand up, he fell.

    To take another example: A student who is writing short, careful, simple sentences and wishes to expand them might wish to add some adjectives. Students are usually taught simple one-word adjectives (that answer the question What kind of? or Which?) that come before a noun.

    • She went to the bakery.
    • She went to the new bakery.

    But how much more interesting if we can describe the
    bakery with some prepositional phrases; note that these come after the noun:

    • She went to the bakery on the corner.
    • She went to the bakery with the jumbo strawberry creampuffs.

    Again, an error in choosing the correct preposition doesn’t bother me if the student is able to modify the noun with a phrase.

    This is the way I like to address syntax, especially in reading and writing, with at least intermediate and advanced students—and some beginners as well. And that is why my very lowest level students learn the names of the parts of speech—so that we can talk about what the parts of speech are and how they function.

    Thursday, July 30, 2009

    It Just Sounds Right

    By Tamara Jones
    ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

    “This is so hard.”

    I am sure all L2 instructors are familiar with the frustration students feel when studying another language. I feel particular sympathy for ESL and EFL students (and their teachers) because English grammar is especially aggravating. English grammar is often illogical and native speaker use of it is fickle.

    It must be so annoying for students to spend hours mastering a new grammar skill only to hear a native speaker using it incorrectly. For years, I diligently taught students that we did not use “love” in the progressive. Inevitably, the next day a student would point out that he or she heard “I’m loving it” on a Burger King commercial. Thank goodness many grammar books have since caught up with that one (I hated looking like a liar), but there are thousands of examples of grammatical choices that native speakers make that violate the “rules” in our texts.

    Although the line that English as a “living” language that is always changing is comfortable for teachers to give, it doesn’t ease the burden our students carry. The bottom line is that English grammar is hard, and it just keeps getting harder as students learn more.

    It just sounds right.

    As a teacher, I often feel a bit helpless when I am faced with a student’s crinkled forehead and bewildered question, “But, why?” Even to my ears, the answer, “it just sounds right,” sounds like a bit of a cop out. However, often, we just say things in a certain way just because it sounds better. A word just collocates better with one word than another, although there is no real “rule” for students to learn. One verb tense is just a little more appropriate than another, although both are technically correct.

    A (wonderful, inspirational) teacher I worked with in the US begins each semester with a lecture about how English grammar isn’t like math. Students can’t necessarily memorize grammatical “formulas” and expect them to work even most of the time. This is true, but don’t you wish it weren’t so?

    Transition from learner to fine-tuner

    When I reflect on my own experience as an English teacher, I find that students in the High Intermediate level tend to struggle with this frustration more than any others. Recently, one of my students from Poland admitted that she was finding the High Intermediate class frustrating because she felt as though she wasn’t learning anything. I have been her teacher for several semesters, so I knew that she wasn’t criticizing me. I understood that she just missed that learner’s rush that comes with “getting” a new grammatical concept.

    Beginners and Low Intermediate students are usually happily caught up in a frenzy of learning new things; however, in my experience, the High Intermediate level is all about a move toward fine-tuning. This transition can be very wearisome for students, as it is time-consuming and lacks those “light bulb” moments. It seems, too, that High Intermediate is a hurdle some never get over; they have good enough English to be understood and that is enough for many of our students.

    Familiarity breeds a good TOEFL score?

    It seems to me that the students who do succeed and move on to an Advanced level tend to be the ones that can get beyond an obsession with memorizing grammar rules. They tend to have a more well-rounded approach to language learning that includes reading and listening to authentic input. They are the ones that have become so comfortable with English that they just know which words go best together and which tense to choose.

    I used to teach a TOEFL Prep class in the US, and I help prepare students for the Cambridge Proficiency Exam here in Belgium. At that level, students need to have internalized most of the grammar “rules” (although explicit instruction and more fine-tuning is always helpful) and they should be choosing correct answers more by instinct. Unfortunately, it’s something I have not figured out how to “teach” in a few months of class, but for the students who get to that point, English grammar doesn’t seem so hard, after all.

    Sunday, May 31, 2009

    Tenses: They Work Well in Groups

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

    When I heard that by the end of the EFL class in which I was enrolled I would have learned sixteen tenses, I had ambivalent feelings. The number sounded discouragingly huge, but comfortingly specific. At the time I imagined that the challenge of mastering them all would lie in remembering their various forms and meanings. A few tenses later, I realized that the difficulty lay rather in deciding which tense to use on a given occasion.

    Timelines and lists of time adverbials commonly used with specific tenses definitely cleared up some of my confusion. Still, differentiating between the two Present Perfect tenses, for example, was a Herculean task. Can I blame my puzzlement on, as Ralph Walker points out, “the nature of these two tenses, which are neither wholly present nor wholly past, but paradoxically both present and past”? ( )

    Do your students struggle to understand the use of Present Perfect tenses as well? What truly helped me sort out my “tense confusion” were activities which combined the use of various tenses.

    Going Beyond Tense Pairs

    Teachers often use activities which contrast two related tenses, but it seems that tasks requiring students to use three, four, or even five tenses can do the trick more effectively. Students not only practice the forms and demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of each tense, but, by having to switch tenses, they learn when each is appropriately used.

    Five Tenses: Sample Activity

    One of my favorite “tense-decision” exercises is based on an information gap activity created by Nick Hall and John Shepheard more than fifteen years ago. In this activity, called “Ups and Downs,” students work with four tenses. In my slightly modified version of the task, students practice five tenses: Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous, Present Continuous, Simple Past, and Future Perfect.

    Students work in pairs and are given two versions of a line graph presenting one trend, such as a trend in DVD sales, inflation rates, road accidents, crime rate, or online shopping, but each version is missing some information. (Here is an example: tenses.chart.pdf) The students’ task is to complete both versions of the graph so that each is identical to the other and so that it is clear what trend the chart represents. While working on the task, students need to decide which tense they should use when asking their partner questions about the missing information. Here are a few sample questions and answers.

    Q: What happened to the crime rate between 2007 and 2008?
    A: It rose dramatically.
    Q: What has happened to it since 2008?
    A: It has changed since 2008. It has been falling steadily.
    Q: What is happening this year?
    A: It is continuing to fall.
    Q. What will have happened to it by 2010?
    A. They predict it will have decreased slightly by 2010.

    Do you think we could include more tenses in this exercise? Do you know of other activities which combine more than, let’s say, three tenses?