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#qskills – How can I teach reading skills to beginner students without focusing on grammar?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How can I teach reading skills to beginner students without spending all my time on grammar issues?

Debra Daise responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


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Helping students to use good grammar when they speak

Word grammar spelt in scrabble lettersHow can we help students speak and learn grammar at the same time? Susan Earle-Carlin, author of Q: Skills for Success Listening and Speaking 5, provides tips for helping students use good grammar in their speaking.

Speaking, like writing, requires good grammar in order to communicate a message clearly. I sometimes use an analogy with my students to compare readers and listeners with passengers on a tour bus. Too many grammar mistakes, like too many bumps and detours in the road, will turn their attention away from what’s important towards how uncomfortable they feel and whether they will ever reach the end. So the question is, how can we help students use good grammar while not inhibiting them while they are speaking?

Control the grammar output

  • Make activities appropriate for the grammar level of the students. Ask beginners to describe the food in their home country, but have advanced students compare their class in English with one in another field.
  • Direct the students to target a certain grammar point in speaking. For example, ask students to talk about the objects in the classroom (singular/plural nouns and determiners), explain what is going on in their school at the moment (present progressive), or describe a scene using three adjectives and three adverbs (word form). Review the grammar first to optimize success and follow-up with some global comments on that grammar point, not singling out any particular student.

Provide practice

  • Give students lots of opportunities to speak in small groups without teacher intervention. However, remind listeners to ask questions if they don’t understand something the speaker says.
  • Allow students to practice a presentation with peers to help reduce the stress most ELLs have about speaking in front of the class. Less nervousness usually results in better grammar.
  • Encourage students to record and listen to their presentations for practice. Tell them to write down a sentence they have grammar questions on and give them the opportunity to ask you or the class for advice before presentation day.

Provide feedback

  • Interrupting students who are speaking to provide feedback is too negative. Instead, record their small group discussions or presentations. Listen to the recordings in conferences with individual students to discuss problems and suggest ways to improve grammar.
  • If students can have access to the recordings, assign a transcript for homework and tell students to circle and correct their grammar errors. Check them over and make suggestions on grammar areas to review.


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The Sounds of Silence – silent letters in English words

Silence sign

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the presence of silent letters in English words and the problems they cause for spelling.

Learning to speak another language is hard enough, but students of English have to deal with further issues when they come to the written form of the language, and they soon find that English words do not always look exactly how they sound. In a previous post I looked at the presence of double letters in some words as one of the causes of spelling difficulty. In this post I will look at another: the presence of ‘silent’ letters in some words.

Why should knot be spelt with a ‘k’ when it is pronounced the same as not? And when we come to words such as knight and yacht we might begin to suspect that some letters are being entered for no other reason than to make it more difficult for non-native speakers to write the language.

Just as we found when looked at double letters, the explanation for these silent letters usually lies in the history of a word. In words such as answer and walk, the silent letters were sounded in early forms of English, but as the language developed over many centuries it became easier to pronounce the word without sounding a particular letter. The sound changed but the silent letters remained as a ghostly (note the silent ‘h’) reminder of the original sound.

Other words were borrowed from languages that use sound patterns that seem unnatural to English speakers, and so the sound of the word was changed to something they found easier to say. This is why we don’t pronounce the first letter of pneumonia (which was borrowed from Greek) or the last letter of sheikh (which was borrowed from Arabic).

Silent letters can certainly be awkward, but I can offer a few tips for dealing with them.

Firstly, note that some silent letters are actually not silent in related words. So it will help learners to remember the silent ‘g’ in sign if they can relate it to signature or the silent ‘n’ in condemn if they know condemnation. Secondly, some silent letters reveal themselves when you break down a word into its basic parts. The silent ‘p’ in cupboard (and the entire spelling of the word) can be seen if you think that this piece of furniture was originally a ‘cup board’. Similar cases include extraordinary (extra + ordinary) and shepherd (she(e)p + herd).

Thirdly, note that if one word contains a silent letter, related words will have the same silent letter. So the silent ‘c’ that appears in ascend is also found in the related words ascent, descend, and descent.

As a last resort, for words that learners find especially difficult, you can make up a memory aid or mnemonic (note the silent opening letter!) to spell out the word. One of my favourites is that you spell rhythm from the initial letters of the sentence ‘rhythm helps you to hear music’.

Know any more?


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Grammar Foundations with Headway

Tamas Lorincz will be presenting a webinar on Thursday 27th February at 11AM and at 2PM GMT. Here he talks about what he’ll be covering in the webinar. You can sign up now.

Many teachers and students believe that a strong grammar syllabus and a well-constructed step-by-step approach to recognising, practising and using a grammar point is the best way to become proficient users of English. Headway is the tried and tested course that follows this recipe.

In this webinar we are going to examine how grammar is presented in Headway, how teachers can help students to familiarise themselves with new grammar points and what we can do to make the grammar useful and relevant to our students.

We are going to look at activities that introduce and demonstrate new grammar in meaningful and interesting contexts, then share ideas and activities that help students practise and use the new grammar. The activities will concentrate on ways in which we can exploit the materials in the coursebook to engage students and support their learning.

In the first part of the webinar we will look at the way grammar is presented in the coursebook. We will discuss ways in which we can demonstrate grammar in meaningful and engaging contexts by incorporating new techniques and the resources presented in the course.

The second part of the session will focus on meaningful practice. We will look at platforms and activities that encourage students to use the new grammar points.

In the final part of the webinar we will share ideas about encouraging independent authentic usage.

We will look at a whole unit in the course and see how the presentation and practice of a grammar point is incorporated into the unit and we’ll discuss ways in which we can enhance the learning opportunities the materials represent.

Headway is proud to follow a grammar-based syllabus which we believe helps students understand and use English effectively in a variety of settings.

During the webinar, participants will be encouraged to share best practices and discuss areas of special interest and/or difficulty. We will also look at ways in which we can adapt the activities to offer a variety of learning and practice opportunities for classes where students are at different levels and for students with different learning needs and abilities.

We will also introduce some ways in which technology can support our students’ learning and independent practice.

If you are already an active user of Headway you will find new ways in which you can approach the material and we would love you to share your experiences, ideas and teaching tips.

For those who are new to Headway, this webinar will offer a unique window on the course and some tips, ideas and tools you can use to make the most of this popular coursebook.

Do you use Headway? Do you have a favourite grammar activity? Share it with us by leaving a comment in the ‘Leave a reply’ box at the bottom of this page. We would love to hear how you used it and why you liked it!

We hope to see you see you at the webinar on 27th February at 11AM and at 2PM GMT. Sign up now.


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Webinar: Which English?

Which Engliah word cloudStacey Hughes introduces her upcoming webinar on 25th and 27th February entitled ‘Which English?‘.

Why is English spelling so crazy? Why are there so many ways to say the same thing in English? Why is there not one ‘standard’ English? Which English should I teach?

Stacey Hughes from OUP’s Professional Development Services will try to respond to some of these questions in her upcoming webinar, Which English?

English history and the English language can hardly be separated. If we look to our past, we can see how English has been shaped by invaders, writers and even its own colonial surges. These influences have led to the way English looks and sounds today.

Many English words are notoriously difficult to spell. Irregularities in the spelling conventions for common words can flummox students trying to learn the basics. And then there’s the fact that words don’t sound like they look. What were they thinking when they came up with the spelling system?

English also has a lot of words – and a lot of words for the same thing. Yet, even if they are similar, they aren’t necessarily interchangeable. Context and collocation play their part in making vocabulary difficult to use.

English continues to evolve as new words are added and old grammar rules fall out of fashion. It is also a growing language with speakers using it as a common language even when it is a foreign language for both speakers. English also evolves as speakers adapt it to fit local language needs.

With so many ‘Englishes’ around, which English should we teach?  How can we best prepare our students for the English they will encounter outside of the classroom?

Join the webinar, Which English? on 25th and 27th February to find out more.

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