Archive for Tag: written grammar

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!

    Thursday, August 27, 2009

    “yo yo sup dude did u get my homwork?”

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

    Writing used to be one of the hardest skills for learners to practice on their own outside of class, back in the Dark Days before email and the Internet. Options were basically limited to keeping a written journal or exchanging letters and postcards with a pen pal and the occasional “letter to the newspaper” classroom assignment.

    Now, however, opportunities to freely practice writing abound: keypals, social networking sites, bulletin boards, chat rooms, Web sites where customers leave reviews and comments, blogs, and so on.

    So . . . writing skills must have vastly improved, right? Well, perhaps a certain degree of fluency has. However, what we also have is a host of new problems. You’re teaching a class the difference between two, too, and to, and then they come in wanting to spell all of them 2.

    I think there are two basic problems: the models students see and the attitudes they can pick up towards writing.

    Poor Writing Models Abound Online

    Certainly the level of writing they could encounter from native speakers out there in Internetland is something of a concern. Masses of writers seem unaware of (or unconcerned about) differences between your and you’re, or loose and lose, or (a pet peeve of mine) our and are. Misspellings are rampant, even in these days when most Internet browsers have a built-in spellcheck feature. Posters, even of longer blogs, may eschew punctuation and even capitalization. If students then are answering with the same language they see, we can expect similar mistakes, or at least a lot of confusion.

    Texting Shorthand Easier for Whom?

    A bigger problem though is writers (native English speaker or otherwise) who simply don’t care. “It’s only an Internet message board,” a perpetrator might say, “not an English class.” Writers who use texting shorthand point out that it’s faster. Faster to write, yes, if one is used to that. But faster to read? I don’t think so, especially not when sloppy writing and no punctuation between sentences obscures meaning. If you didn’t communicate what you intended, then your message failed, even if you got it out there in cyberspace extra fast.

    The choice then that the writer makes is whether to make things easier on him or herself or easier on his or her reader. Unless the message being written is truly a personal journal (in which case, why is it online?), there’s usually some reason to communicate to readers—to express an opinion, ask a question, give information, ask for help. It’s even likely that there will be multiple readers of messages, in which case I tell students that, as Mr. Spock would put it, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” At first, students are surprised to hear that writing sloppily is selfish; but give them some time to consider the idea, and you’d be surprised how many would agree.

    It may not be an English class, but aren’t online writers in some sense being graded? They’re certainly being judged. I can take a certain amount of informality online, but when spelling and typing errors get to a certain level, I just skip over the messages without even trying to read them. It’s even more important to me that emails sent directly to me be clear and careful. A student who’s getting a grade from me in an English class isn’t going to look good by sending “yo yo sup dude did u get my homwork im pretty sur i sent it b4”. If you think teachers don’t get emails like this, check in with a high school teacher (of any subject) sometime. However, students can’t know what level of formality you expect if you don’t tell them directly. Merely copying what native speaker classmates are doing isn’t necessarily going to steer them in the right direction.

    Appropriate Use of Informal Writing Needs to be Taught

    I don’t see many teaching materials that address informal writing except to say not to use it. That’s also a mistake, though. Any community has its own discourse, of course, and being overly formal in a chat room isn’t going to be successful either. There’s a world of difference between kthnxbai and Please accept my sincere thanks for all of your assistance.

    Students need explicit instruction to know what levels of language exist and when to use them. If you don’t have examples and materials, don’t worry—ask your students to bring you examples of written English from different Internet sites that they visit. Ask them to find English that they believe is the most correct and appropriate, as well as the least correct and appropriate, and then share and discuss the examples in class. Collect similar examples when you’re online and keep them in a file. Ask students what impressions they have of the writers and to what extent those impressions are formed by the language and the place in which it appears. Compile a class glossary of the common abbreviations and expressions they encounter online and code each one as appropriate for class or not.

    And don’t forget to point out that they will never be disadvantaged by being better able to switch between informal and formal English than their native speaker friends.

    Friday, April 17, 2009

    Too Much Red Ink? Providing Feedback on Students’ Written Work

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

    Fairly recently, William Ancker conducted a research survey of students’ and teachers’ attitudes to error correction. The survey was administered in 15 countries and the results reveal that 24% of teachers, but 78% of students, feel that all written errors (or mistakes) should be corrected.

    I’d say his findings confirm many teachers’ assumptions about their students’ views on error correction. When it comes to written work, students tend to expect that most, if not all, of their mistakes will be pointed out. They want to know what they need to work on, and they expect us, the teachers, to give them detailed comments on their work.

    Many teachers I’ve known have argued that a page strewn with corrections or comments may not only impact students’ motivation negatively, but may also cause students to be confused about the structure and content of their writing.

    Meeting expectations without hindering learning

    Is there a way to satisfy students’ expectations without hindering their learning? In my experience, two strategies can help achieve a balance here: establishing a healthy attitude towards mistakes (that is, one which views mistakes as learning opportunities), and using an effective method of pointing out mistakes.

    This is the method I use:

    1. I give my students a copy of a chart listing grammar problems which are common at their level. To familiarize them with the tool, I provide them with a short paragraph containing various errors, assign them to identify and correct those, and ask them to expand the chart by adding examples of grammar problems found in the paragraph.

    The columns of the chart are labeled in the following way:


    2. While correcting students’ written work, I underline problematic structures in the text and write symbols representing them in the margins. This is a fairly typical approach today. However, I also circle certain symbols. The purpose here is to indicate grammatical details that have been emphasized or specifically taught in previous lessons–those which students should be able to correct easily. In other words, I circle what I hope are mistakes (one-time slips), not actually errors (problems caused by students’ not knowing particular grammar structures yet).

    Uncircled symbols suggest gaps or other issues. Students can learn the names of most of these by looking to the error chart, and then, if they wish, consult a grammar reference book to learn more about the issues. Students can also choose simply to wait for future lessons which address those grammatical issues.

    3. As I discuss grammar points in class, I ask students to add new information to columns of the error chart, such as chapter and page numbers indicating the places in the textbook where certain points are covered.

    Win-Win: Students get the feedback they want and the tools to self-correct

    This method has worked well for me and my students on a few levels.

    • First, it allows me to give students the thorough feedback they generally expect.
    • Second, it alerts students to the mistakes they should be able to correct themselves. (Self-correction, it seems to me, is crucial to progress.)
    • Third, it affords students opportunities to investigate problem areas on their own. This encourages them to be independent in their studies and to go beyond what we do in the classroom.

    I suppose we all feel awkward when we make a mistake and someone points it out, but if correction is done in a friendly, supportive and constructive way, I think we usually value it and appreciate the chance to remedy the problem, however small, and to increase our facility in writing. Sometimes progress lies on the other side of a blush (!).

    Have you ever asked your students about their views on error correction? If so, what were their responses?

    Saturday, March 22, 2008

    What is Grammar?

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

    Before I get into this week’s topic, I’d love to respond to the request that Rachel made in her wonderful observations and comments on my last piece, “It’s Just a Formality.” Rachel mentioned that perhaps I could guide her “… in the right direction about getting doctors to do the right thing” as far as how they address her as their patient. (And, by the way, Rachel, thank you for your terrific comments and observations!)

    I’ve been in similar situations, and I’ve only found one tactful way to get my message across about not caring to be addressed by my first name when the person doing so is in a position that I feel could adversely affect my well being in one way or another. I just use that person’s first name, too. So if my doctor were to call me Richard, and I didn’t feel comfortable about him doing so, I’d simply start calling him by his first name, too, and avoid calling him “Doctor.” If my medical practitioner reacted negatively to that, I hope he’d get the message, subtle though it may be. But if he didn’t seem to mind, well, so be it. We’d both just keep addressing each other as if we were old pals. That would be fine with me ― as long as it were mutual.

    I once had a principal who always called me “Firsten,” just “Firsten.” It used to drive me nuts. One day, out of total irritation, after he again addressed me as “Firsten,” I called him “Leyva” (his last name). He was quite taken aback and actually came right out and said to me, “You mean Mr. Leyva, don’t you?” I retorted, “Then you mean Mr. Firsten, right?” He got the message, although with somebody like him subtlety didn’t work. But from then on, he called me “Mr. Firsten” and I called him “Mr. Leyva.” So that’s my suggestion, Rachel.

    Betty Azar posed a great question in her comments on my last piece. Betty wrote, “I have a question for you. People talk about there being a spoken grammar and a written grammar. When they say that, aren’t they really talking about register and style being different? Isn’t the underlying grammar the same no matter what the register or speaking/writing style?”

    This question couldn’t have come at a better time. One of our wonderful members in the Azar Grammar Exchange, an EFL teacher in Saudi Arabia by the name of Ismael, posed a question to me that I told him would best be answered here on my blog. His question ties in perfectly with Betty’s. Ismael asked, “Is pronunciation a part of grammar?”

    I smiled both when I read Ismael’s question and when I found Betty’s waiting for me, and here’s why. To begin, I’d like to quote a linguist’s definition of “grammar” to help answer these questions: The sounds and sound patterns, the basic units of meaning, such as words, and the rules to combine them to form new sentences constitute the grammar of a language. The grammar, then, is what we know; it represents our linguistic competence. To understand the nature of language we must understand the nature of this internalized, unconscious set of rules, which is part of every grammar of every language.*

    We can tell immediately from this linguistic definition of grammar that pronunciation is indeed one of the integral parts of all the internalized rules that govern a language, and we certainly have “rules” that tell us which sounds are or are not acceptable in any given language. In fact, that’s what’s meant when we say that somebody has “an accent” in another language. It means that the speaker is imposing certain sounds of his native language onto the sound system of the other language he’s speaking. So, for example, if I use my rounded English /r/ when I speak Spanish, which has a trilled /r/, Spanish speakers will say to each other right away that I have “an accent,” an “English accent,” in their language. So that would be one part of the “grammar” of Spanish that I haven’t mastered. I hope that answers your question, Ismael.

    As to what Betty has asked, I think the answer can get quite complicated. First, we probably don’t need to define what we mean by “spoken language,” but perhaps we need to do so for “written language.” I would venture to say that “written language” or “written grammar” refers to the standard, educated language and its rules used in writing and understood by all educated people who use the language in question in one specific country.

    With that said, if we use the linguistic definition of a grammar, I imagine that we can say there’s a spoken grammar and a written grammar, since the standard ― and I stress “standard” ― written language doesn’t need to take pronunciation, intonation, or dialectal variation into account. Here’s one case in point: In certain parts of New England, it’s perfectly correct for Person B to utter the following response in this mini-dialogue:

    A: I like nothing better than watching football on Thanksgiving Day.
    B: So don’t I.

    Now the standard way of responding to that comment would be to say, “So do I,” and I daresay that in the written language, that would be the only acceptable sentence. But “So do I” certainly isn’t the only acceptable sentence in the spoken grammar in that part of the US. So can we say unequivocally that Person B’s response is ungrammatical? I don’t think so, not in the spoken grammar.

    So I don’t thin
    k those who claim there’s a spoken grammar and a written grammar are just talking about register and style. There seem to be some real differences that we can find if we look closely enough without even accounting for the areas of spoken grammar that don’t need to be dealt with in the written grammar. At least that’s my take on this topic.

    I’d love to hear what others think about this issue. Have an opinion? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment. What you have to say is always most welcome!

    *Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman. An Introduction to Language. 4th ed. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 1988