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(Reads, reading, has read): 5 smart tips for teaching grammar through extensive reading

extensive reading teenagersNigel 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.


Making the flip – jumping headfirst into Flipped Classroom teaching

Kate Adams teaches ESL to university students at the Illinois Institute of Technology and works with immigrants through the Chinese Mutual Aid Society in Chicago, Illinois. She is the co-author of Trio Reading and Inside Writing. In this article she describes the process of transitioning to a Flipped Learning classroom and how it has benefited her lessons and her students.

Flipped learning

When the university where I teach recently switched to a flipped learning model, I was nervous. I’d had confidence in my lessons which revolved around the narrative of my presentation interspersed with activities to practice skills, but now I would have to adapt them to an entirely new approach. How would flipped teaching and learning affect my classes? I’d like to share some of the insights and tips I gained from making the switch.

What is flipped learning?

Our program’s new approach to flipped learning most closely matched that described by Cynthia Brame (2013) of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University:

In essence, “flipping the classroom” means that students gain first exposure to new material outside of class, usually via reading or lecture videos, and then use class time to do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge, perhaps through problem-solving, discussion, or debates.

This doesn’t contradict the popular perception that the Flipped Classroom is one in which you are assigning videos to students to watch outside of class. Nor does it dictate that this is necessarily what you have to do. The fundamental idea is that students process new information at home on their own so that they can read, watch or listen at their own pace and repeat as needed. Then in class the focus won’t be on you, the teacher, explaining a new concept for the first time, but on working with students to deepen their understanding, correct misunderstandings, practice, and produce.

According to Brame, when we apply this model to Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy we can see that a flipped learning approach has students working on the lower levels of knowledge acquisition at home through autonomous understanding and retention of new material. This foundation prepares students to engage with new language and “do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge” at the higher levels with the teacher during class. In this way flipped learning enables teachers to focus on the areas where their guidance is most beneficial to students’ language acquisition.

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy


What does flipped learning look like?

Different schools and different teachers will have their own unique approach to flipping the classroom. There is not one “right” way to go about it because learning outcomes and learners’ needs vary. The following is what my listening class looks like in our English Language Program since we have adopted a flipped learning approach:

  • All materials are posted before each class. In addition to the learning materials, when I do have presentation slides, I post them for students to look through before class so that they’ve seen my questions and had time to contemplate the answers before the lesson. I also post all audio for students to listen to and take notes on at home.
  • Understanding is checked at the beginning. Class begins with a “bell ringer”—sometimes a quiz completed individually, sometimes a task with a partner, but always an activity based on the work done before class to check comprehension.
  • The whole class uses a shared document. In my class we now use a shared Google Doc which acts as a constantly evolving focal point and allows instant production and collaboration from students and ongoing feedback from me. For example, in class on the Google doc I’ll have students list tips for listening to a lecture, complete a KWL chart on a lecture topic, talk with a partner and then summarize thoughts on the document, etc.
  • Work is “product” oriented. Students are engaged in activities, but they are now producing something too. I’ll have students create a graphic organizer to match notes they took, use a rubric to assess another student’s notes, etc. As they work, I am able to quickly evaluate learning/understanding. Products hold students accountable.

Why flip the classroom?

Transitioning to a flipped learning approach has changed my classes for the better in many observable and measurable ways. A few of the most significant are:

  • Students talk more and present more. A lot more! I still present, but it’s now always targeted and based on students’ work.
  • I see more student work and give more feedback. Because we use a shared Google Doc, I now have more written examples of students’ language use. I can give instant feedback and I gain more insight into students’ thought processes and progress.
  • Students demonstrate more understanding. I see this in the quality of what they produce during class and in their increased output.
  • Students do the work. In fact, I find that my students participate even more now. Quizzes, group work and partner activities in class motivate them to do the pre-work before class.

How to make the flip

So are you interested in making the flip? How can you start using flipped learning in your classroom? Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Identify clear focus points for pre-class work. Expose students to the content at home and supply them with a targeted activity to check for understanding, which they then bring to class.
  • Be consistent. Explain the routine to students and stick to it. Always have a pre-class assignment for the new content you’ll be focusing on.
  • Mix it up. Flipped learning isn’t just about videos. Provide students with different ways to engage with new language and concepts before class. For example, if you are working on reading skills, you can have them not only read a passage before class, but also take notes on it, compare it to a related passage, research the topic and fill out a KWL chart, or work with key vocabulary to build background before class.
  • Ensure accountability. Begin each class with an activity based on students’ pre-class work. I suggest grading the pre-class activities, especially in the beginning of the semester to establish the routine. Quizzes based on the pre-class learning are also a good option as research shows that students retain information better when they take frequent quizzes (Carey, 2013). And you don’t have to just make it an individual assignment— for example, I have students complete a quiz and then debate the answers with a partner. Whatever your approach, make sure to stress to students this is for the benefit of both them and you because it makes it possible for you to identify and address any misunderstandings in class.
  • Integrate technology: I use Google docs, Blackboard (a Learning Management System), and Voice Thread in my classes. Blackboard is great for not only hosting learning materials, but also for having students check understanding by taking quizzes and submitting questions before class. Voice Thread allows collaborative voice recording so you can have class discussions outside of class. I’m sure there are many more ways and platforms that can be used to enhance your Flipped Learning classroom so don’t hesitate to explore and experiment to keep your lessons ever-evolving and relevant.

Is making the flip worth it?

I made the flip and I think my teaching is better for it. And my students? I won’t get evaluations until later this summer, but I recently ran into a student who said, “Excellent. Everything excellent.” He told me he’d been studying English for ten years and hadn’t thought he needed the class, but that it had really, really helped him. If his review is anything to go by, flipping my classroom has been worthwhile for my students as well.

Are you interested in trying the Flipped Classroom approach to teach reading skills? Find out more about Trio Reading and get a free sample chapter, overview, and see the complete syllabus.

Interested in hearing more from Kate about Flipped Classrooms? Join her at the International Convention of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages for a talk and discussion on “Strategies, Activities, and Reflections on Flipping a Language Classroom” this November.



Brame, C., (2013). Flipping the classroom. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved April 10, 2017 from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/flipping-the-classroom/

Carey, B. (2013, November 30). Frequent tests can enhance college learning, study finds. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com


Focusing on vocabulary for academic writing

shutterstock_522965368Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer and lexicographer based in Bristol, UK. Her main interests are in vocabulary teaching and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). She worked on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and Oxford EAP (C1). She was also involved in developing and writing the new
Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books. When she’s not at her desk, she enjoys speaking at ELT events and teacher training.

When it comes to helping students with academic vocabulary, the range of words and phrases they might encounter in the course of their academic studies is huge and can be somewhat daunting. So when we were putting together the new Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books, we decided quite early on that the most useful area to focus on would be productive vocabulary: that is the words and phrases that students are actually likely to use in their own writing.

For all learners, indeed all speakers of a language, their productive vocabulary – the words they actively use regularly – is a subset of their receptive vocabulary – the words they recognize and understand passively. As teachers though, we often forget this distinction and vocabulary lessons can end up a mixed bag of new words and those that are already familiar, words that students are likely to use and those they may only come across occasionally. Concentrating on just the vocabulary that students are most likely to use in their writing can help to tune out some of the ‘noise’ and create more realistic, focused vocabulary-learning goals. In this post, I’ll share just three of the criteria we used to help achieve this aim.

1. Realistic models

It’s often said that the best way to improve your vocabulary is to read as much as possible. For students of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), it’s true that reading and noticing the vocabulary used by academic writers is important in developing their receptive vocabulary, but published academic texts may not always provide the best model for studying productive vocabulary. Published texts written by professional academics, such as textbooks or academic articles, are a different genre from the type of texts typically produced by university students as part of their coursework. So it’s perhaps not surprising that recent research has shown that even good student writers use a much narrower range of academic vocabulary than ‘expert’ academic writers (Durrant, 2016). That’s not to say that they’re somehow substandard, the requirements of the two genres are just different. So studying a published academic text won’t necessarily provide a realistic, or even a useful, model for the student wanting to improve the vocabulary they use in their own writing. Examples of good student writing will display a much more appropriate range of vocabulary that an EAP student might realistically hope to emulate.

2. The receptive to productive shift

We often tend to think of vocabulary teaching as being all about new words, but actually, much of the lexis that will help learners to improve their academic writing is likely to already be part of their receptive lexicon. As language users, we naturally tend to stick to the words we’re most familiar with when we’re speaking or writing, because we feel confident and comfortable with them. For many learners, encouraging them out of that comfort zone just means pushing them to use words and phrases that are already familiar from their reading. Extending a student writer’s productive vocabulary range isn’t always about introducing ‘difficult’ words, it’s often apparently simple words and expressions (on the whole, by far, in terms of, etc.) that will help improve their writing style and make their texts more readable.

3. Activities for production

After we’ve identified what vocabulary items to focus on, the next step is to design practice activities. It’s natural to start by checking comprehension, but if we want learners to start using lexis, we soon need to move onto more productive practice. This is where we run into the distinction between controlled productive vocabulary – words which learners can produce when prompted, say within a gap-fill activity – and free productive vocabulary – which they produce spontaneously in their own writing (see Laufer, 1998). If learners are to expand their free productive range, they need plenty of opportunities to get a feel for how to use words and phrases in context; playing around with phrasing, collocation and different forms of a word in a ‘safe’ environment where it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes, not in that high-stakes, assessed essay. Short writing tasks that encourage experimentation can help bridge that gap between the gap-fill and the essay.

Durrant, P. (2016) To what extent is the Academic Vocabulary List relevant to university student writing? English for Specific Purposes 43
Laufer, B. (1998) The Development of Passive and Active Vocabulary in a Second Language: Same or Different Applied Linguistics 19 (2)

**There are extra practice activities to accompany the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books available online, including a number of short free writing tasks.

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A Framework for Communicative Speaking

shutterstock_297003296Tony Prince is a NILE trainer and has been Programme Manager for Presessional and Insessional courses at the University of East Anglia. Today he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar, A Framework for Communicative Speaking, and discuss clear communicative speaking for ELLs. 

Opening digression – Problems and solutions

Often what we see as a problem in the environment, actually has its roots in ourselves.

‘I keep getting interrupted when I’m trying to work.’

Well maybe that’s because you’re afraid to say no when someone asks you for help, or to challenge an ‘urgent’ email that threatens to take hours out of your planned schedule.

Before you protest – explaining how ‘I really don’t understand your context’ – recognise that the beauty of you being the problem (and by you I mean we, including me), is that you are the solution as well.

You may not have control of your options, but you do have the power to choose. There is always a choice, no matter how limited.

To the point – Taking control

What does this have to do with Speaking?

Frequently when students express frustration with their speaking, they frame it as a problem with the environment.

‘People don’t give me time to think.’

‘My classmates don’t let me speak, they just talk.’

Some re-frame this as a problem with themselves:

‘I can’t think quickly enough.’

‘I don’t feel good interrupting other people.’

But few have the insight to see themselves as the cause and the solution:

‘I need to find ways to give myself extra time to think. I wonder what phrases I could use? Should I use gesture more? Maybe it’s my expression. Perhaps I need to make it more clear that I’m thinking.’

‘What is it about me that finds it so uncomfortable to interrupt others. Are there any methods that I could use which would feel easier for me?’

Most frequently, in conversations with students about issues they’re having with their studies, I have to try and get them to understand themselves better: to take more control over what they do and how they do it.

Me: ‘It seems to me, watching the conversations, that you’re happier listening. You don’t show any signs of frustration. You sit back from what’s being said.’

Student: ‘Really?’

Me: ‘That’s how it seems.’

Student: ‘Oh. So what should I do?’

Me: ‘Well why do you think you do that?’

Student: ‘I don’t know.’

Me: ‘Well I’d say that’s what you need to find out.’

Or with a lower level student

Me: ‘You watch people speak.’

Student: ‘Yes?’

Me: ‘Why?’

Student: ‘I think slow.’

Me: ‘Why no sound?’

Student: ‘Sound?’

Me: ‘Next time, watch other people. Listen! Tell me what sound. Also think. Why no sound you?’

This is a difficult approach – for both teachers and students to take. But one of the ‘Elephants in the room’ when it comes to communicative teaching, is that what we are encouraging is intensely personal. The issues that students have with communication are often rooted in their own character. Yet much though we may know our students as individuals few teachers are willing to ask students to reflect more about what it is about themselves that is preventing them from communicating, and to suggest that such reflection is at the heart of improvement.

The webinar

You may be wondering – finally – what this has to do with the webinar that I’m going to be conducting – ‘A Framework for Communicative Speaking’.

During this webinar I’m not going to be suggesting that teachers become psychologists, or even coaches – that’s for another blog post, and webinar.

The objective here is to set out a framework that can provide students with more choice in how carry out the speaking tasks in class. The framework organizes functional language around Bloom’s taxonomy, allowing students (and teachers) to vary the cognitive demands of the speaking they do.

The intention is to provide a resource that encourages student reflection on their speaking problems by providing them with more choice as to how they (and the teacher) structure a speaking task.

Reflection + choice (on how to respond to reflection) = improvement.

If you’d like to attend this free webinar with Tony, please click on the register button below.



Re-purposing the writing process for beginner ELLs


Trio Writing authors Alice Savage and Colin Ward offer 6 practical activities to help your beginner level students write successfully in English.

For native speakers, a writing process that starts with a plan and ends with sentence-level editing makes sense.  However, non-native writers have different challenges, especially at the introductory level.  Fortunately, process writing is not set in stone.  We can adapt it to suit our students’ needs.

The first step is to identify those needs. Lower level ELLs need language, lots of it, and early on.  They may also need extra support in meeting the expectations of target language readers.

The following classroom activities offer options for tweaking the standard writing process.  They are meant to be flexible, working tools that can be used individually or together depending on the unique characteristics of a class and its goals.

1. Front-load with language

Students who sign up for a low level English writing class bring very little language with them, so it makes sense to start with vocabulary and grammar, but which vocabulary and grammar?  Fortunately, the prompt itself points the way.

For example, in a beginning writing class, the prompt What does your country look like? suggests the target language.  The vocabulary elements might include mountains, beaches, rivers, a desert, and other place nouns.  Adjectives such as green, tropical, tall, beautiful would also be helpful. The grammar lesson might include the plural –s and There is/ there are.

Pulling all these elements together can already feel like an uphill climb; however, the lesson can be made more efficient if the language is taught in chunks. Consider using images to teach beautiful mountains, tropical beaches, or a large desert.  Then set up activities that allow students to mix and match to create new patterns such as the following:

Use the words to make phrases about your country.  Add a for singular, and –s for plural. Then fill in the chart below.


In the example above, students practice vocabulary and grammar to produce accurate sentences that are ready to go when it is time to write a paragraph about their country.

The activity can also be extended by eliciting additional adjectives and nouns related to the students’ own contexts.

2. Conference at the point of need

One on one conferencing is generally helpful for all writers, but it can be adapted to suit the particular needs of ELLs.  Multi-lingual writers may need more direct guidance if they are to meet the expectations of L1 readers. A simple checklist can provide both focus and flexibility for this task.  In the example below, developed for a two-paragraph assignment, the teacher may comment on all items, but targets only one for the conference.  This focus keeps the revision manageable for the low level English learner.

Conferencing Checklist


  • The assignment indicates the student has gone off topic, and the conference will focus on planning for a new draft.
  • Paragraphing might include options for rearranging content to develop ideas and shape them into paragraphs.
  • Language focuses on vocabulary, grammar, mechanics and/or other syntax issues.
  • Ideas discusses ways that a strong student might stretch their skills by elaborating or even adding an additional paragraph.

3. Share the revision process

Peer interaction helps English learners develop both language and writing skills.  The following activities can be implemented during conferencing or any stage of development where students need review or practice. The first partner activity below practices grammar and vocabulary, while the second focuses on paragraph awareness.

Grammar Puzzles


Collaborative Writing


4. Repurpose peer review

Students can sometimes treat peer review as an error hunt, but peer readers can play other roles as well.  For example, why not make the reader more of an active listener by asking questions to help the writer clarify ideas?


Teachers can also set a quick and motivating publishing stage by having writers exchange final drafts and directing them to simply enjoy and respond to one another’s ideas. This gives beginning writers the chance to have their final draft read without being evaluated.


Even beginners can write a paragraph or two when the process is tweaked to meet their needs. By going a little lower, a little slower, and rethinking the writing process from the perspective of language learners, it’s possible to help students succeed from the very beginning.

All materials adapted from Trio Writing by Alice Savage and Colin Ward, Oxford University Press

An earlier version of this article first appeared on englishendeavors.org.  If you’d like to read more ideas for the English language classroom, click here.