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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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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!


40 Years of Practical English Usage

The challenges of academic writing in ESLMichael Swan, author of Practical English Usage, joins us on the blog today to review his IATEFL talk this year all about the new, fourth edition of PEU and its new features and organisation. If you were unable to attend this year’s conference, we hope you enjoy this post!

The history

PEU started as a card index with explanations and examples of typical problem points, based on my experience of students’ difficulties. I created this primarily for new teachers at the school where I worked, who often had trouble dealing with their students’ mistakes and questions,  They found (as teachers still do) that systematic grammars are not always the best kind of reference material for clear and adequate explanations of single problems. The ‘one answer to one question’ formula which (up to a point) characterises usage guides is much more user-friendly.

Later I turned the card index, greatly expanded, into a book, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1980. Teachers and advanced students found it helpful, and a second edition followed in due course. This benefited considerably from feedback from users, from advice from British and American grammarians, and from my own continuing research.

By 2005 there had been enough developments in English to justify a third edition. The existence of better and more accessible corpus evidence for usage made possible a number of improvements, and I took the opportunity to add some more general ‘background’ entries on such matters as correctness and language variation.

Why a fourth edition?

English continues to develop and change, and a usage guide needs to keep pace. I had also built up a fair number of revision notes over the intervening ten years, and I was glad of the opportunity to make further clarifications, additions and corrections. (Nobody ever gets everything right the first time, or the second, or the third!) After consultation with users of the previous editions, I also decided it was time to make an important change in the book’s organisation.


In the first three editions, the 600-odd numbered entries were arranged in alphabetical order of title. This dictionary-like formula works well in a native-speaker usage guide, which deal mostly with word problems. It is less satisfactory in a guide dealing with learners’ problems, since these are largely grammatical. Related topics get separated, so that while ‘countable and uncountable nouns’, for example, are listed under C, other noun problems are found under N. More seriously, only the major topics can be found by an alphabetical search; smaller topics (the majority) come inside entries that don’t begin with ‘their’ letter. (So, for instance, the use of singular and plural verbs with decimals and fractions, or the British-American difference in the meaning of ‘first floor’,  are covered in the entry on ‘numbers’, not under D or F.) This means that in practice people using the book generally locate the information they need by going to the very complete index at the back.

In the fourth edition, the entries are still separate, dealing as far as possible with single problems or small groups of problems.


However, the entries are now arranged by topic. The grammatical entries have been brought together into 28 main Sections, which together constitute a complete students’ grammar:


Each Section is introduced by general notes on the topic and a list of typical learners’ problems:


Word-formation and vocabulary are dealt with separately in three more Sections, including an A–Z list of nearly 380 word problems:


Now online

Practical English Usage is now also available online, along with the new edition of the accompanying Diagnostic Tests, which help learners and their teachers to see which parts of PEU need to be studied.



Valentine’s Day Resources for your #EFL classroom

shutterstock_163977566With Valentine’s Day fast-approaching, we here at Oxford University Press thought we’d ‘share the love’ and create some activities and worksheets for your language learning classroom. Once again, our former contributors Vanessa Esteves, Julietta Schoenmann, and Christopher Graham have come up with a range of activities and tasks for young learners and secondary level learners through to adult learners that we hope you’ll enjoy.

Young Learner Resources:

Lesson plan


Secondary Resources: 

Lesson plan


Adult Resources:

Lesson plan