Nigel A. Caplan, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute in the United States and the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing. In this post he provides some useful tips for teaching grammar skills through your reading program.
We often encourage language learners to read for pleasure, read for comprehension, and read for vocabulary. But reading is also an excellent way to learn and practice grammar. It is important for teachers and learners to recognise that grammar is not a separate skill divided into discrete chunks (or textbook chapters!), but rather the resources which make meaning in a language. In other words, grammar is everywhere, and everything a learner does with the language is an opportunity to improve their grammar.
Here are some activities you can suggest to your students to help them discover the grammar of their reading beyond the classroom walls.
1. Read for meaning first and grammar next
We have limited attentional resources as we read, so it is natural to read first and foremost for meaning. However, language learners benefit from multiple readings of the same text. So, once they have understood the text and checked the meaning of any important new vocabulary, encourage your students to read all or part of the same text again and pay attention to the language use.
2. Start with verb tenses
One of the most interesting questions readers can ask is which tenses are used in the text. This will tell you a lot about the type of text you are reading. For example, we would expect to find a lot of present tenses in scientific texts because they describe facts and phenomena, but a sudden shift to the past tense might indicate a discussion of the history of an idea or a particular scientist. Meanwhile, historical texts unsurprisingly use mostly past tenses, but they may nonetheless contain present tense verbs to discuss the current significance of past events.
Also encourage your students to look for less frequent verb tenses; if there’s a present perfect progressive verb, why is it used? Could the writer have chosen a different tense?
3. Learn the grammar of new vocabulary
We want learners to notice new and useful vocabulary when they read, but the context of the text is an opportunity to learn more about the word than its meaning. When encountering a word, in particular a word that the student understands but doesn’t yet use, ask questions about its use in the sentence. For a noun, is it countable or uncountable? What verb goes with it? For a verb, is it transitive or intransitive? What prepositions go with it? What kinds of nouns are its subject? This approach will encourage learners to see words in collocations and phrases, which will expand both their receptive and productive vocabularies.
4. Play with the Grammar
Grammar is a system of choices, and for every choice a writer makes, there are others which could be made. These choices are worth exploring.
We can encourage learners to rewrite texts using alternative grammar patterns. For example:
- If the writer repeats the same nouns a lot, could pronouns be used instead?
- If there are many short sentences, how could they be combined?
- If an advanced text uses a lot of reduced clauses, what would the full (finite) clause be?
- If the text is academic, how could you rewrite it for a different audience, such as magazine readers?
- If it’s written in a less formal register, what changes would you make for formal, academic writing?
The last example exercise benefits both reading comprehension and writing development. Readers of sophisticated and academic texts, such as those in Q: Skills for Success, may need to “unpack” long noun phrases and reduced relative clauses in order to understand the structure and ideas.
Meanwhile, when writing for academic purposes, students can draw on the techniques they see in their reading, such as nominalisation, demonstrative pronouns (this, those), and reductions.
5. Keep a Grammar (B)Log
In order to develop their grammar, students need to notice the language they are reading and internalize it, not just move on to the next page, show, or app. A great way to develop independent study skills is to have students keep a grammar log, journal, or blog to complement their extensive reading.
In my classes, I ask students to post an entry on the discussion board in our learning management system in which they write about an interesting phrase or sentence that they’ve read. They have to either explain the grammar or ask a question about it (I don’t allow them to focus only on word meanings: there are dictionaries for that!). I then encourage students to answer their peers’ questions before I provide an answer. Students might wonder why a verb has a third-person ending, why an uncountable noun has been unexpectedly used in the plural, what a new clause connector means, or what a pronoun refers to. This works at all proficiency levels! Most importantly, the grammar log helps students develop the habit of looking for new and interesting structures while reading, and the discussions allow for the kinds of negotiations over language that can promote acquisition.
These simple techniques can be used for homework or self-study to turn any reading activity into a grammar lesson! If you try these with your students, let me know in the comments how they worked.
Get a sneak peek at the exciting free resources being made available for Q: Skills for Success from August, including new Skills Videos and a new Extensive Reading program in which every unit has been matched with a free, downloadable chapter from Oxford Graded Readers.