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Teaching Grammar: Classroom Choices Q&A with Charlotte Rance

It was such a pleasure to meet so many teachers from all over the world in my recent webinar ‘Teaching Grammar: Classroom choices’. If you missed the webinar, you can watch the recording here in our webinar library.  

The webinar gave us the opportunity to look at some of the choices we make as teachers when planning and delivering our grammar lessons, and it was very interesting to hear your experiences and ideas.

Of course, along with sharing your experiences and ideas, there were also plenty of interesting questions, many of which
we didn’t have the time to answer. This blog post is here to try and answer some of those.

Is it OK to use L1 to teach grammar?

Firstly, I think it is important to remember that for many teachers this is not an option. Perhaps you don’t speak your students’ first language, or you teach in a multilingual classroom where there isn’t a common first language. Maybe you work in a school where there is an ‘English only’ policy, and you are not allowed to use L1. In these situations, the teacher has no choice but to use English to give instructions, explain language and check new concepts, and this is done successfully, even if it sometimes might take longer than expected.

But for those of you that do have the option to use L1, is it OK to do so? In my opinion, even if you are teaching in a monolingual classroom where you do share a common language with your students, it is best to use English as much as possible. You are the students model for English, and exposing them to as much English as you can will only benefit them. However, this does not mean that using L1 can’t be beneficial for the students.

If I am teaching in a monolingual classroom I do not ban my students from using L1. In fact, it can be a useful teaching tool for checking meaning and understanding, and quickly overcoming confusion. For example, in a monolingual classroom I often encourage my students to discuss pair work activities in their L1. This allows me to monitor and check their understanding of the language point easily. Another way in which L1 can be useful for grammar teaching is through quick translations. Let’s say that we have been teaching ‘used to’. Asking students to quickly translate a sentence can be a very efficient way to check that they have understood my explanations.

When is the best moment to correct new grammar and how can we help students to correct their own grammar mistakes?

When deciding when and how to correct your students’ mistakes it is important to think about the purpose of the activity that the students are completing: are you expecting accuracy or fluency? If the focus is on accuracy, then it is important to address any mistakes at the time, while mistakes that are made during fluency-based activities can be noted down and corrected later, perhaps in the last five minutes of the lesson, or the next time you see the students.

When it comes to self-correction, remember that in order to correct themselves students need to know the correct answer. Self-correction requires a deep awareness of the language point, so before you try to encourage it you need to be sure that they will be able to do so. The best way to encourage self-correction is to highlight that an error has been made, and give your students time to think about it.

Firstly, we need the student to notice the mistake. This can be done in a number of ways, for example gestures, facial expression, or a question such as “I’m sorry?” or “What was that?” If the student is confident with the grammar point, then they may well be able to self-correct immediately. However, most students will need a little more support to self-correct. This can be done by reminding them of the rules, by saying something like: “remember, regular verbs need an ‘–ed’ ending in the past tense”, or “which tense do we use when we are talking about something that happened yesterday?” By prompting our students in this way, we are helping them to remember what they have learned, and giving them the time to think about the answer.

What can we do if our students don’t see a point in learning grammar?

While there are many students who are motivated and interested by learning grammar rules, there are just as many who find spending time on language structures boring and would rather ‘just talk’. Whichever side of this your students fall on, I find that it is better to put the focus on the function of the language that you are teaching.

Thinking about the function of a language structure gives the students a valid reason to learn it. For example, if we tell our students that we are going to learn how to talk about our life experiences, they are likely to be more interested than if we say: “Today we are going to learn the present perfect”. Using too much technical language in the classroom can be scary and boring for our students, but the idea of getting a new ability in English, especially if it is relevant to their needs, should help them to understand the point of learning grammar.

Could you recommend any books for teaching grammar?

If you are looking for a great teacher reference book, then you can’t go wrong with Michael Swan’s ‘Practical English Usage’ (OUP). This was on my CELTA recommended reading list, and since then it has saved me on many occasions! The latest edition is also available online, which I am sure will help with any sticky situation in the classroom.

When it comes to teaching materials, for school-aged learners I really like Grammar for Schools (OUP) because it provides lots of communicative grammar practice. For older students I like ‘Language Practice’ by Michael Vince because I find it works well in the classroom and as a self-study guide.


Charlotte Rance is a freelance teacher trainer and educational consultant based in Brighton, UK. She has been working in the English Language Teaching industry for over a decade, and her key areas of interest are young learners and the use of stories and reading as a tool for language learning. Her main goal as a trainer is to provide practical advice and strategies that teachers can implement in their lessons.

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Teaching Grammar: Classroom choices

A while ago I came across an infographic which claimed that teachers make, on average, 1500 educational decisions a day. Over a six-hour teaching day, that’s around four decisions per minute. My question is: Is that number high enough?

Ahead of my upcoming webinar ‘Teaching Grammar: Classroom Choices’, I have been thinking about the decisions we make when we are teaching grammar. As teachers, we are constantly making decisions, both consciously and subconsciously, about our teaching. But our decision making isn’t just limited to the time we spend in the classroom, what about all the choices we make when we are planning, or reflecting on our lessons over a cup of tea?

Planning Choices

If you are anything like me, there are plenty of decisions to make when planning a grammar lesson. Depending on the grammar point we are teaching, we might ask ourselves:

  • What might my students find difficult about this structure?
  • What examples can I give them?
  • What can I do to make this lesson engaging?
  • How will I present this language point?
  • How will I check they’ve understood?

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and I am sure that you could add plenty more questions of your own. One of the questions I always begin with is “How relevant is this language for my students?” because the answer always impacts on my other planning choices.


How relevant we decide a grammar point is depends on a variety of factors. Let’s take articles as an example. Articles in English are very important, but also quite complex, so how deeply we explore them in class will depend on our students, their needs, and the objectives of the lesson. With a beginner’s class looking at articles for the first time, it is unlikely that we would go beyond the very basics:

  • When should we use ‘A’ or ‘An’?
  • What’s the difference between ‘A/An’ or ‘The’?

However, if we change our context to that of an FCE prep class, articles take on greater relevance. What our students need to know about the language point becomes more complex, and we would have to go into the language further.

The answers to the question “How relevant is this language for my students?” will have an impact on the rest of our lesson planning. If the language point is particularly complex, we might build in extra practice. If the language is high frequency, we might choose an inductive or guided approach to teaching, allowing student’s time to discover the grammar rules for themselves.

Teaching Choices

So, by the time we’ve entered the classroom we’ve already made a number of choices, but the decision making doesn’t stop there. How many times have you walked in with a well-planned activity that just doesn’t work in practice? Or made an assumption about your students that turned out to be wrong? One of the hardest choices a teacher makes is to change the plan halfway through the lesson, but sometimes the language is more complicated, or less engaging than you expected.

When it comes to grammar lessons, I always like to have a back-up plan. Having a few easy-to-implement changes in your back pocket ensures that you and your students can meet the objectives of the lesson. Let’s say that your students are struggling with using ‘will’ to talk about the future.

Taken from English Plus 2, Oxford University Press

Taken from English Plus 2, Oxford University Press

The practice activity above accustoms your student’s to the target language, but what if that’s not enough? What if they aren’t engaged? One of the choices we make is how to change or extend activities from the course book. A favourite activity of mine involves using playing cards to change the activity… You’ll find out how that works in the webinar.

Teaching Grammar: Classroom Choices

Teaching grammar is not a ‘one size fits all’ experience. As teachers, we have the freedom to choose how we present and teach new language, we can change our minds if we find that the approach we originally chose isn’t working. Join me for my upcoming webinar where we will be looking more closely at the choices teachers make, and exploring some ideas and activities that we can use to make grammar lessons interesting and beneficial for our students. I hope to see you all online.

Click here to register for the webinar. 


Charlotte Rance is a freelance teacher trainer and educational consultant based in Brighton, UK. She has been working in the English Language Teaching industry for over a decade, and her key areas of interest are young learners and the use of stories and reading as a tool for language learning. Her main goal as a trainer is to provide practical advice and strategies that teachers can implement in their lessons.





Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Vocabulary learning strategies Q&A

Nick Michelioudakis has been a teacher, examiner and trainer for many years. His most recent webinar ‘Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Vocabulary Learning Strategies’ sparked an interesting dialogue on the ways students learn new words. Here are the answers to some of the questions from the webinar.

I would like to start by thanking everyone for attending the Webinars and for their positive comments at the end. If you would like to read an article based on these ideas that we discussed, here is the link: http://oxelt.gl/2zBMc58

OK, on to the other questions now, which I hope will help me raise one or two interesting points.

Where do students find these collocations in order to record them? Texts?

This is an important question and it is something I forgot to stress during the Webinar. It is useful if students first encounter the words in texts. In this way they can get all kinds of information, including (hopefully) a useful collocation.

If for whatever reason the text does not help much, students can use this amazing tool, SkELL, to look at examples from other authentic texts. As you can see from the screenshot, simply enter a word in a box and you get a number of sentences. This will help students immensely.

What are the rules for dividing sentences into chunks?

This is a hugely important question – and far too large an issue to cover here. As I see it, this is where the teacher’s knowledge of the language comes in. There are all kinds of ‘chunks’ out there and they differ in size, in how ‘fixed’ they are, and in their level of idiomaticity. The teacher must use their judgment to decide where to direct students’ attention, it could be a simple collocation (‘dress a wound’) or a whole phrase (‘let’s cut to the chase’), or something with a ‘movable’ part (‘reported a % increase’). The chunks you focus on will depend on frequency, coverage (whether they can be used in many contexts), students proficiency, and the needs of the syllabus.

What about using opposites to explain words?

There is nothing wrong with using opposites provided students really understand what the word used as an explanation means. For instance, if you want to explain the meaning of the word ‘cowardly’, there is nothing wrong with telling students that it means the opposite of ‘brave’. However, it is generally not a good idea to present two unknown words which happen to be antonyms in the same session (e.g. ‘generous’ – ‘stingy’) if students are unfamiliar with both, in case they mix them up.

What’s the difference between linking and anchoring? And which ones are just for revising?

The two techniques are very similar. However in ‘linking’, students start with a set of words, and then try to discover ways to connect two or more together. When students use ‘anchoring’, they start with a particular word, fix it in their mind, and then try to discover connections with other words themselves. If the starting word is ‘nostalgia’, they may come up with ‘memory’, ‘think back’, ‘miss someone’, ‘nostalgic song’, ‘pensive mood’, ‘sad’, ‘melancholy’ etc. They may even come up with personal associations which will only make sense to them.

How can we avoid the typical students’ question “how do I say …?”, starting from a word in their mother tongue?

Well, personally I am not sure we should be discouraging this. In fact, this is one of the strategies I mentioned in the Webinar (‘expanding’). As I see it, there is nothing wrong with allowing students to use their L1 as a springboard for discovery. It’s natural for students to reflect on their knowledge and say to themselves ‘OK – this is something I can say in the L1; how can I say it in English?’ What we do want to do though is encourage them to think in terms of sentences rather than single words. What I do if a student asks me ‘How do I say ‘άγκυρα’ (anchor) in English?’ is ask them to give me a sentence.

I really hope you found these techniques useful! If you get the chance to try them out, I would be interested to hear how the lesson went. Contact me via my email address: nickmi@ath.forthnet.gr.

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Rigor for beginning English language learners? Absolutely!

Rigor in the languages classroomCarolyn Nason, a recent guest on the Oxford Adult ESL Conversations podcast, discusses the role of rigor in the Adult ESL classroom. 

Recently I signed up for a professional development project focused on infusing rigor into ESL instruction. Knowing the 21st century challenges that my beginning adult English language learners (ELLs) face and their language proficiency level, I was quite skeptical about the idea. However, I was delighted to discover that adding rigor doesn’t have to be difficult for the student or for the teacher. It also doesn’t require a lot of extra work, and the payoffs are spectacular.

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy as modeled by Jessica Loose

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy as modeled by Jessica Loose

What is rigor?

Rigor is all about ensuring that learners are prepared to succeed in academic and workplace settings. Said students are able to handle text complexity, academic language, and demonstrate critical thinking. Higher level thinking skills are essential to their success.  In our classrooms, we spend a lot of time at the lower end of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Remember and Understand) asking students to recall information. But, for them to be prepared, we need to provide students with opportunities to participate at higher levels of cognitive complexity. That’s where rigor comes in.

How do I add rigor to my class?

Once I got used to the overall idea of rigor, I thought, “Okay, it’s certainly for higher levels, but not MY level. For my adult beginners, isn’t learning English challenging enough?” In the course of my training, however, I was given an assignment to incorporate rigor into my classroom. I chose one activity that I thought the learners and I could handle, and tried it with some trepidation. The results astonished me! I couldn’t believe the amount of energy that was generated. Everyone in that classroom felt excitement and a sense of accomplishment.

Categorisation – Carolyn Nason

The activity that I chose was Categorising, and it has since become my favorite way to add rigor to my low-level lessons. This activity had its roots in a lesson on daily routines and chores from the class textbook. Both the student book and the workbook pages provided learners with opportunities to acquire and recall the vocabulary of routines and chores.  By making a simple modification to this activity I was able to add rigor with little effort.

First, we began with brainstorming. In pairs, I asked my learners to write down as many chores as they could think of. Then, distributing a chart with three columns, I asked them to put the chores into three categories of their choice. It was challenging at first, but they caught on quickly.

Here are a few examples of what they came up with for categorising chores. They categorised:

By preference:                        Like       Okay       Hate

By timing:                               Daily      Weekly   Monthly

By who does them:                Me         Wife        Wife and Me

By where they’re done:         Inside    Outside   Inside and Outside

By types:                                 Fix         Clean      Wash

After discussing the various categories, I asked them to flip the paper over and do it again using three new categories. That’s when they got really creative.

Categorisation – Carolyn Nason

But can rigor work in a multilevel classroom?

A great thing about Categorising is you can easily differentiate for the learners in your classroom. If you’re like me, your learners probably have quite a mix of abilities. For higher level learners, you can give them the blank chart and ask them to determine the categories. For an intermediate group, you can provide the categories and have the learners decide where each item fits. For the lowest levels, you can provide the categories and chores, letting the learners fill in some of the letters or providing word or picture cards of the chores and letting them physically place the words in the categories.


How else can I use Categorising?

Categorising works well across all topics and concepts. Here are a few common topics and how rigor can be added simply by having learners categorise:

Topic Category Suggestions
Food ●     Healthy / good in moderation / junk food

●     Tastes good / so-so / tastes bad

Clothing ●     Used by men / used by women / used by both

●     Cold weather / Spring and Fall / Summer

Furniture ●     Items found in a Kitchen / Living Room / Bedroom

●     Items made of Wood / Plastic / Metal

Jobs ●     Jobs filled primarily by men / By women / By either

●     Inside jobs / Outside jobs / Either inside or outside



●     Want to do / need to do / don’t want to do

●     Like / no opinion / don’t like

As learners work to group the various items, this inspires them to collaborate and appreciate each other’s ideas, this spills over into their teamwork on other activities.

Categorising even helps you to teach language conventions. I’ve asked my learners to find nouns/verbs/adjectives/prefixes/roots/suffixes, and various verb endings from readings. The possibilities are endless. This type of activity is also great for learners that finish classwork early.

Incorporating rigor in low level language classrooms is essential for moving adult ELLs closer to their goals. This can be done with minimal effort when we incorporate activities like Categorising. I really do encourage you to give it a try in your classroom. Afterwards, please come back here and share how it worked for you.

To hear more about how Carolyn introduced rigor into her Adult ESL classroom, listen to her conversation with Jayme Adelson Goldstein on the Oxford Adult ESL Conversations podcast.

For further free teaching and professional development resources, click here to check out our Love Adult ESL website. In there, you’ll also find sample materials for the new Step Forward Second Edition.

This series has been developed specifically for Adult ESL teachers in the US and refers to course titles that may not be available in every country. Please check with your local Oxford University Press office about title availability.



Loose, Jessica (ND). Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy Wheel [Online image]. Retrieved January 6, 2017 from: http://morethanenglish.edublogs.org/for-teachers/blooms-revised-taxonomy/

Further Reading

LINCS ESL Pro Module 1: Meeting the Language Needs of Today’s Adult English Language Learner. Retrieved from: https://lincs.ed.gov/

Parrish, B. (2015). Meeting the Language Needs of Today’s Adult English Language Learner: Issue Brief. Retrieved from: https://lincs.ed.gov/

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Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Vocabulary learning strategies

Vocabulary learning strategies

Nick Michelioudakis has worked as a teacher, examiner and trainer for many years. He has given talks in numerous countries and he has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles in which he draws on insights from such disciplines as Marketing, Management and Social Psychology. He is particularly interested in student motivation and humour (he has his own YouTube channel – ‘Comedy for ELT’). You can visit his blog at www.michelioudakis.org.

It’s probably true to say that as teachers, we face the same problems the world over: 

  1. The students’ vocabulary is not what it should be;
  2. most students do note down vocabulary but fail to study it afterwards;
  3. most students record words like this ‘cast = ρίχνω’;
  4. when forced to study vocabulary, most students simply re-read their notes or rely on simple memorisation.

So how will this webinar help? Well, the idea is to offer some principles which will make vocabulary learning more effective. In addition, the talk will demonstrate ten very simple, very practical strategies which should help students practice on their own. Let me explain…

  • Principle 1: ‘Words are like Books’ (H. Puchta). This came as a revelation to me. Think: If you had 10,000 books in a pile on the floor, would you be able to find the one you wanted quickly and easily? The answer is of course, no.  So what do we do? We sort the books out on bookshelves of course – and these shelves are organised thematically.
  • Activity 1 – Grouping: You give your students 50 words (these could be 50 words from the students’ vocabulary notebooks!). You tell them to sort them out into different groups. How would they divide them up? What name would they give to each group? In doing so, students start to organise their vocabulary in mental ‘folders’, helping them to access the vocabulary quickly when they have to talk or write about a topic.
  • Principle 2: ‘Words are like Boats’ (H. Puchta). This is another striking metaphor. The idea is that if you have a boat and you just leave it there, it will just drift away. But of course, the same thing happens with words. Now, if we have a boat and we want it to stay put, we can tie it to a post; and if we have many boats we can just tie them all together. Ten or fifteen boats tied together will not drift away. Similarly, if we have a word and we want it to stay in our mind, we can ‘tie’ it to other words (or even to ideas).
  • Activity 2 – Linking: You give students some jumbled up words (preferably on the same topic) and you ask them to draw lines, literally linking words together. But they will also have to provide a justification (‘Lettuce goes with oil because you can find both of them in a salad’). Notice that in doing so, students also create a connection between these words and a third one (‘salad’).
  • Principle 3: ‘Words like being Married’. Perhaps the worst mistake our students make is that they record words in isolation. For instance they know what ‘test’ means, but when they try to use the word, they come up with things like ‘I wrote a test today’. This is why we need to encourage them to record collocations or whole phrases instead.
  • Activity 3 – Pairing: You give students some words and you ask them to find a partner for each. This is very important for verbs and adjectives. These particular words are desperate to ‘get married’. The reason is that they often do not mean much by themselves. It is crucial that students choose the right partners however; for me this means words which help convey the meaning of the original word. For instance, the right partner for the word ‘cast’ might be ‘a vote’; for the word ‘cunning’ it might be ‘Fox’.

Advantages: Did you notice something about these activities? That’s right. They are student and teacher friendly; i) they are extremely easy;  ii) they require no preparation;  iii) they require no extra materials;  iv) they can be adapted for all levels;  v) students can learn to do them on their own.

Not bad, all things considered… So there you have it: Three down, only seven to go! Hope to see you at the webinar.

For more info about the webinar, and to register, please click here!