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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.


4 common teaching challenges and how to solve them with videos that extend learning

Solving four common teaching challenges with videos that extend learningTamara Jones, co-author of Q: Skills for Success Second Edition, joins us on the blog today to review her TESOL talk about flipping the classroom using content aligned videos.

I think we can all agree that while teaching is rewarding and most of us love what we do, it can also be challenging.  At least it is for me!  While I might be a Q: author, I am also a classroom teacher, and I know how difficult it can be to not only reach all of my students, but to also accomplish everything that the curriculum dictates. That’s why I love anything that provides a solution to some of the many challenges we instructors face on a given day. Content aligned video can be used to overcome many common class challenges while also helping you extend your students’ learning beyond the four walls of your classroom.

Challenge #1:  There is never enough time.

I remember thinking when I first started teaching, “Wait, so you are telling me that I’m supposed to teach a target structure, provide opportunities for controlled and free practice, offer correction, develop students’ higher order cognitive skills, AND assess progress in a few short hours a week?”  It never feels like there is enough time! Even though we know that students need time to practice the target language in class, it often seems that the time we spend teaching it far outweighs the time students actually spend using it.

One way of overcoming this challenge is to flip the classroom using skills or instructional videos, which present the learning points in easy-to-understand ways.  Students can watch a video at home and then come to class ready with questions about the skill, and, even more importantly, prepared to use it to interact.  With the instructional portion of the lesson completed before class, students will have more time to do meaningful practice and generate authentic language in the classroom.

You may be thinking, “This is a great idea, but what about those students who don’t watch the video at home?”  One of my colleagues ran into this very problem when she flipped her classroom, and she came up with an ingenious solution.  By assigning short quizzes that test the students not only on the content of the video but also on facts that only someone who watched the video would know (like what color the bird in the example was, or which mountain the video referred to), she holds her students accountable for doing the work before class.

Challenge #2:  My students are at different levels.

Even under the best circumstances— for example, a multi-level program that carefully pre-tests students to ensure accurate placement— teachers are faced with a range of abilities in a class.  Not all students will understand new concepts at the same pace, and some students will need more help than others.  If you’ve ever found yourself holding up a lesson to answer the questions of one or two students while the rest of the class yawns and looks out the window, you’re familiar with this problem.

So, how can videos help?  I have found it very useful to assign instructional videos to my struggling students as extra homework.  Videos are extra helpful for weaker learners because, unlike a classroom lecture in which the information is delivered according to the teacher’s pace, videos enable students to rewind and re-watch any parts they don’t understand.  They can also watch the material again and again at spaced intervals, which helps with retention.  This gives students control over the information, and how empowering is that?

Challenge #3:  My students aren’t autonomous learners.

You might find that, although your students memorize information really well, they haven’t necessarily become independent learners.  They still expect the instructor to be the conveyor of all new information while they sit and passively receive it.  While this is a very relaxing view of learning, it’s simply not the way language is acquired.  Students have to assume responsibility for their own linguistic development and seek out learning opportunities beyond the walls of the classroom.

This can be a difficult skill to develop in learners, especially if they went to school in cultures where this kind of autonomy is not typically fostered.  Giving students access to videos that align with the course content is one way of scaffolding this process for them.  With some encouragement, they may choose to watch the videos if they don’t understand a concept completely or if they do poorly on an assessment.  They might choose to watch the videos in preparation for upcoming lessons.  They might watch some of the videos, but not all of them.  All of these decisions help students to become more independent learners, and that benefits their linguistic development.

Challenge #4:  Finding the right video content is a headache.

If you’ve spent hours online searching for the perfect video, you know how difficult it can be to find appropriate material to enrich your class. YouTube contains a plethora of videos to comb through, but finding one that matches the content of your class and is also high-quality, easy-to-understand, and engaging can take hours and hours.

When making decisions about new course adoptions, it’s always a good idea to consider whether the supporting materials will enable you to extend your students learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. Textbooks which are accompanied by videos that align with the course content can benefit your students, your lessons, AND save you time.

That’s why I was really excited when I heard that new, free Skills Videos for every unit of Q: Skills for Success were being added to the student and teacher resources available on iQ Online. These videos, as in the example here, were developed specifically to complement the curriculum of Q: Skills for Success and will be an invaluable resource for teachers and students who use Q: in and out of the classroom. Skills Videos save time. The work’s been done for me.  The only question left is to figure out how I am going to spend the extra free time!


Having access to high-quality videos won’t solve all of your teaching problems, but it will go a long way in addressing these four common challenges we all face in our classrooms.  Content aligned videos have been a great resource for me and my students.  Do you use videos in your lessons?  Do you find that they solve any other classroom problems? Please tell us about it in the comments below.

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.


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



Making the Impossible Possible – Q&A session

shutterstock_299889014Last month, we hosted Gareth Davies’ webinar,
‘Making the Impossible Possible: How to get your students writing’. During the webinar and on his previous blog post, we called for questions for Gareth that we could ask him post-webinar, to delve deeper into creative writing in the EFL classroom. Here’s the full transcript of this interview:

What is your opinion on teachers writing a sample text for students to get used to writing?

This is a good question, reading and writing go hand in hand and there is evidence to suggest that the more reading a student does the better their writing will become, so in general having as much exposure to different texts can only help students.  Having or not having a model is often the cited as the major difference between process and product writing. In process writing the students study a sample text and use it as a model and is a good approach for students who are preparing for an exam or who need to write formulaic emails or reports. However, sometimes I think this can impose restrictions on students. So if I am doing a creative writing exercise I might avoid giving students a model at the start of the activity, to allow their creative juices to flow.

Have you ever tried to channel the positive energy of these creative writing tasks and turn them into positive academic writing performance?

How could we use these ideas to writing for exams? I mean, IELTS, Cambridge exams?

Thanks for this question, let me try to give you an analogy. When someone trains to run a marathon, they don’t only run long distances. They do some gym work, some short runs, and perhaps they change their diet. For me it is the same with preparing for an exam. You need to do some exam practice, but you also need to hone your skills and prepare in different ways. Creative writing tasks can allow students to practise their writing in an interesting way, but they are still using the skills they will need for academic purposes. When I was teaching an EAP course in the summer I did several storytelling and writing activities just to free the students up, and they found it very helpful.

How you would evaluate or share the poems?

This is a very interesting point. When I ask my students to do creative writing activities, I try to focus as much as possible on the content rather than the accuracy. I see it as a fluency activity. Therefore, on their first draft, I might comment on how the story or poem made me feel, how I enjoyed it, etc., and only point out errors where the meaning is confused. I might also ask the students to peer correct each other’s work and ask me if they are not sure about something. As for sharing their work I ask the students to decide if they are public or private, they mark the top of the paper. If they are public then I will ask them to read them out or put them on display. If the students have marked it as private then only I will look at it. With creative writing, it is often personal, I don’t think it is fair to share the students’ work if they are not ready.

What do you think of beginning with more concrete descriptive language?

In one of my previous webinars, I talked about the following activity, which looks at descriptive language.

Write a sentence on the board

e.g. The boy walked up the stairs.

Tell the student the boy was scared, ask them where they would put that word in that sentence. e.g. The scared boy walked up the stairs.

Now ask them how he walked up the stairs. Elicit an adverb and ask them where it goes in the sentence.

e.g. The scared boy walked quickly up the stairs.

Next ask them to describe the stairs, (narrow? steep? dark?) and ask them where their adjective goes. e.g. The scared boy walked quickly up the dark stairs.

Finally, ask them to think of a different word for ‘walked’, (ran? climbed? tip-toed?)

e.g. The scared boy tip-toed quickly up the dark stairs.

Now it is time to edit. You’ve gone from a simple sentence to a much too complicated one. Which words leave the best impression on the reader, which are not needed?

 e.g. Perhaps you don’t need scared because ‘tip-toed’ and dark imply this.

Put the students into pairs and ask them to do the same for other adjectives, excited, happy, sad, angry etc.

You can help them with the words by translating or filling in gaps in their knowledge.

Which do you prefer? Poet or Teacher.

Actually, I love both and they are not that different. Both require you to plan and prepare carefully, both make you bring your personality to the work. Both encourage you to be creative. With both, you hope to leave a positive influence on your audience. And finally, with both sometimes things go wrong and you have to reassess and start again.


Digital literacy: the missing piece for Adult ESL learners

shutterstock_373670722According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 77% of jobs within the next decade will require some degree of technology skills. How can these skills be integrated in to English language programs? Kathy Harris explores the role of digital literacy with adult learners. Dr. Harris teaches in the MA TESOL program at Portland State University and also teaches literacy and low-level adult English Language Acquisition.

Think about the variety of your daily tasks that involve technology. Those tasks might include writing an email to a coworker, paying bills online, finding directions to a location, reading the academic calendar on your child’s school website, checking medical tests results in your eHealth portal, or reading an online manual for a new gadget you bought.  The list is long!

The adult learners in our English language programs need to do these things too. They need to be able to get accurate health information, communicate and collaborate using the Internet for school or work, communicate with their children’s schools, apply for jobs, among many other things. Traditionally, digital literacy has not been considered to be part of literacy in adult English language programs, but that is rapidly changing.

In the 21st century, learning English literacy includes literacy in digital contexts, or digital literacy.  Digital literacy includes the ability to use the Internet and other technologies to

  • Find, evaluate and organize information
  • Create and communicate information
  • Generate useful questions to solve problems
  • Share answers and solutions to problems

As we create classes and programs that meet our students’ needs, digital literacy needs to be included. One effective way to do that is to integrate digital literacy tasks right alongside literacy tasks in our classes, ideally doing the same type of task multiple times in different lessons or units.

For example, in a topic unit on health you might create a simple online form for learners to fill out for each lesson.  It is very easy to create online forms. Here is an example of a very simple online form that I made for a low-level ESL class in a unit on going to the doctor:


The form was a follow up to reading the online book called Amir gets sick. Students are learning medical questions and medical vocabulary as well as having face-to-face roleplays with the questions and answers.  Creating the form took less than 5 minutes and was a great way for my students to practice the vocabulary and grammar that we had been learning, while also building digital literacy skills.

Google Forms is one free online survey tool that is easy to use. Here is a list of videos created for teachers to show them how to create and use Google Forms created by Richard Byrne in his blog FreeTech4Teachers.

There are many benefits to integrating digital tasks alongside related lessons.  It uses the same vocabulary and grammar as well as topic, so that only the digital format is new, making for a straight-forward learning situation.  The same type of activity is done multiple times it allows for the development of both task and technology expertise by the teacher and the students as well as the opportunity to work through and get past the inevitable glitches. Most of the activities described here can be done with computers, smartphones, or other digital devices.  If devices are limited, students can work in small groups sharing one device.

There are many digital literacy tasks that easily accompany English language lessons and units, including writing email messages or sending text messages, listening to related podcasts, reading the news online, creating short presentations, writing blog posts, creating digital stories, and many more.

searchFinding and evaluating information is a critical aspect of digital literacy. While many of us English language teachers use the Internet for searching, we don’t always consciously know the strategies that we are using. Henry (2006) provides a nice pneumonic for the strategies used in searching that is really helpful when integrating search activities into our English language instruction.  Like other types of digital literacy tasks, it is useful to have a search activity that is related to a lesson or unit that is alongside the other activities in the unit. That way the Internet search utilizes the same (or related) vocabulary, grammar structures, and topical information and only the actual Internet search task is new. Some examples include finding accurate local weather information, finding job information, locating a business, researching a health condition, comparing features and prices of an object or service, etc. Creating a search activity to accompany the units in a course can be an effective way to bring digital literacy skills into your classroom that creates opportunities to practice the digital skill of online searching while also providing practice using the language in the unit.

For more information on how to integrate digital literacy into English language instruction, there is a free online module for teachers on the topic here. You can equip students with the language they need for success with resources such as the Oxford Picture Dictionary. The brand new Third Edition has been updated with a section dedicated to Digital Literacy, and includes other relevant topics such as Cyber Safety, Information Technology and Internet Research. Find out more here.



Federal Communications Commission. (2010). Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan. Retrieved from http://www.broadband.gov/download-plan/

Henry, L. A. (2006). SEARCHing for an answer: The critical role of new literacies while reading on the Internet. The Reading Teacher, 59(7), 614–627.

Leu, D. J., Kinzer, C. K., Coiro, J., Castek, J., & Henry, L. A. (2013). New literacies: A dual-level theory of the changing nature of literacy, instruction and assessment. In D. E. Alvermann, N. J. Unrau, & R. B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (6th ed.; pp. 1150–1181). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. (2015). Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: Integrating technology. WIOA Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ovae/pi/AdultEd/integrating-technology.pdf