Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


8 Comments

(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.


7 Comments

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.

Reorganisation

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.

michaels1

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:

michaels2

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

michaels3

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

michaels4

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.

 


6 Comments

Bringing Grammar to Life

Word grammar spelt in scrabble lettersBriony Beaven is an ELT consultant, teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher. She is a NILE Associate Teacher Trainer and teaches Classroom Language to trainee teachers at the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich. Today, she joins us to discuss bringing grammar to life in the EFL classroom ahead of her upcoming webinar, Bringing Grammar to Life.

The big problem with teaching grammar

The big problem with grammar, familiar to all English teachers, is that many ways of teaching grammar produce learners who KNOW ABOUT grammar; for example, they can tell you the rules for using the present perfect. But they often don’t KNOW HOW because when they speak or write these supposedly ‘known’ rules do not seem to be operating. In other words, the learners fail to make use of the rule they know so well in the language they actually produce. What can we do about this?

Approaches to grammar teaching

Three main ways of introducing new grammar are the deductive, the inductive and the guided discovery approaches. They all have their advantages and disadvantages and in the webinar we will consider how these might play out in your context.

In deductive grammar teaching the teacher explains or gives the rules for the target language items and then provides practice for the learners. In inductive grammar teaching the teacher provides some examples of the target language in a realistic context and lets the learners ‘notice’ the rules. The third approach, guided discovery, is a modified version of inductive teaching. In this approach the teacher provides some examples of the target language in context and supports the learners in ‘noticing’ the rules.

grammar1

Support, scaffolding, mediation

To say that you are going to ‘support’ the learners is easy. To provide genuinely useful support needs a bit more thought. In the webinar we will consider the relationship of ‘support’ to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the related concepts of ‘scaffolding’ and ‘mediation’.

In guided discovery grammar teaching we can support, for example, by ensuring that learners meet the new grammar item in a lively, engaging and lifelike context. We can also support them by questioning and monitoring while learners try to ‘notice’ the target rules. What kinds of questions are helpful to ensure learners internalise and can use grammar rules? Good concept questions and focused questions about timelines can work a kind of magic. Finally, in our efforts to support our learners, we need to take care that the rules are summarised by the teacher so that learners know if their suppositions were right or not. That is, we offer feedback, another key component of ‘support’.

grammar2

Use of the learners’ first language

For a long time we neglected a wonderful resource in the teaching of grammar in a foreign language, namely the learners’ mother tongue.

grammar3

In their L1 learners have learnt to think, to communicate, to speak and use their voice. They have acquired an intuitive understanding of grammar, become aware of some finer points of language and have acquired the skills of reading and writing. These days a number of experts suggest that if a class is monolingual we can beneficially make use of their first language. What do you think about this?

Practice

Learners can produce new grammar items only after plenty of practice. This practice needs to be engaging and lively, but also challenging and likely to lead to long-term learning. ‘Three times practice’ (Scrivener 2014) is one way to do this.

Well, all in all it seems we need to do more than ‘cover material’ if most of our learners are to ‘know how’ to use the grammar we teach them, not just ‘know about’ it. No one approach will succeed with all of the learners all of the time because different learners understand in different ways. We will need to make use of different approaches and techniques both for introducing new grammar and for practising it effectively.

Join me for my webinar where I will suggest some engaging ways to help students learn ‘how’ to use grammar to communicate successfully.

webinar_register3

References:

Butzkamm, W. 2003. We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL classrooms: death of a dogma. Language Learning Journal, 28, 29-39.

Scrivener, J. 2014. Demand-high teaching. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 3(2), 47-58.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. and Ross, G. 1976. The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. Journal of Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 17, 89–100.


3 Comments

A way to make demonstrative determiners teachable

PAL-00071415-001

Ken Paterson is grateful for a piece of advice given to him soon after he started teaching English for Academic Purposes many years ago.

This, these, that and those

Over the years, I’ve had a complex relationship with the demonstrative determiners.

Before I started teaching English, I can’t remember giving them a moment’s thought.

Then, after a few years of saying to students (with appropriate hand gestures), ‘This is for things that are near to us, and that is for things that are far away’, I started to get interested in ‘text analysis’ and ‘cohesive devices’, and went a bit over-the-top, getting students to highlight determiners, and the words or phrases they referred to, in a complex code of colours and arrows that made their handouts look like early abstract art.

By the time I met my first English for Academic Purposes class, however, I’d calmed down a little.

‘The appropriate use of demonstrative determiners’ was helpfully listed as a ‘teaching outcome’ on our EAP course pro forma and, although I got into the habit of projecting short texts onto the OHP screen in order to discuss the function of a this or that, or reformulating sentences on the whiteboard to include an appropriate determiner, I never seemed to get that satisfying look in students’ eyes that here was something they could easily take away and use themselves.

And then a colleague introduced me to the concept of summary nouns.

This/these + a summary noun

‘Abstract nouns with demonstrative determiners’, she informed me, ‘improve the flow of the text by summarizing old information and introducing it to a new clause or sentence.’ And then she gave me an example or two, such as the following:

An alternative to the guided interview is the focus group, in which respondents are asked to discuss their views collectively. This method, where participants engage with each other, has the advantage of lowering the risk of interviewer bias.

I must have been aware at some level of this feature of academic English, but I hadn’t actually had it explained to me as an entity in itself that was potentially teachable.

‘Oh, there are lots of things you can do with it in the classroom’, she added, such as:

– asking students to identify some of the many typical summary nouns (area, conclusion, development, example, idea, phenomenon, situation, trend etc.) and organizing them into sub-groups (claim, comment, remark etc.);

– gapping texts after the demonstrative determiner and eliciting the most appropriate summary noun;

– applying the feature to disconnected or ‘untidy’ texts;

– inviting students to bring in for discussion their own examples;

– looking at the occasions where a writer has paired that or those, or such instead of this or these with a summary noun.

And what I found in class was not only the sense among students that this was a feature they could take away for immediate use, but also, it seemed to me, a greater awareness of the function of demonstrative determiners in other contexts (on their own or with non-summary nouns), almost as if the ‘graspable’ nature of ‘this/these + a summary noun’ had acted as a kind of bridging device.

So thank you, Sue, wherever you are!

Ken’s talk, ‘Organising academic grammar’, takes place at IATEFL Birmingham on Friday 15th April from 12:30-13.00.


9 Comments

It’s different, spoken grammar

Word grammar spelt in scrabble lettersJon Hird teaches English at the University of Oxford, writes ELT materials and gives teacher-training talks and workshops both in the UK and overseas.  He has written and contributed to a number of ELT publications including Oxford Learner’s Pocket Verbs and Tenses. 

In terms of basic syntax, much of the grammar that we teach tends to be based on subject-verb-object word order. While more formal English tends to adhere to this conventional word order, the grammar of more informal and conversational spoken English can be in a number of ways quite different. For example, by putting the object, complement or adverbial at the beginning of the sentence or clause (fronting) or by putting the subject at the end (tailing), we can shift the focus and emphasis in an utterance. This also occurs in conversational written English in online social media. In this blog, we look at some common patterns of this spoken and ‘online’ grammar and, as much of it is relatively straightforward in terms of form and use, we will also consider simple awareness-raising and practice activities that can be incorporated into our teaching.

Fronting in its simplest form is when we put what conventionally comes at or towards the end of the clause (e.g. object, complement, adverbial, question-word clause) in front of it. We do this to put focus and emphasis on the object, complement etc. It can also enhance cohesion. This kind of fronting is relatively straightforward in that there are no other changes apart from the change in word order. For example, in the following extract, taken from a biography of the British band The Kinks, the song ‘See My Friends’ is fronted.

grammarday1

God Save the Kinks, Aurum Press, 2013

Here are some more examples of simple fronting, some of them from written online conversations.

Fifty pounds that cost me!         This one I’ve had for ages.         What it’s based on, I don’t know.             

grammarday2grammarday4

 

 

grammarday3

Another pattern of fronting (also sometimes known as using a head or header) is when we move the object to before the main clause and use a pronoun for the object as well, e.g. my keys and them in the first example below. We use fronting in this way as an orienting device to put the ‘topic’ at the beginning of the sentence.

My keys, I can’t find them anywhere.                     The tickets, how much were they?

That bag over there, is it yours?             That book I lent you, have you read it yet?          

Tailing (or using a tail) is when we put the subject after the main clause and use a pronoun for this subject at the beginning of it, e.g. He …this man in the example below. Restating the full subject after the clause puts extra focus on it and emphasizes, amplifies or clarifies it.

grammarday5

God Save the Kinks, Aurum Press, 2013

Here are some more examples.

It’s always pretty good, the food here.            He’s a great drummer, Brian Downey.

It’s a great place, Sheffield, don’t you think?                       She’s American, isn’t she, Suzy?

Another common pattern is It … that or this.

It’s a great film, that.         It was fun, that.          It’s a nice place, this.

The various patterns described above are often used in conjunction with ellipsis, where unstressed words such as the pronoun, the verb be and/or the article are omitted. The examples below are all from online conversations and some are quite typical of this genre in that there is possibly a higher degree of ellipsis than would occur in spoken conversation. For example, in speaking, we are perhaps more likely to hear the ‘near ellipsis’ s’great song, that and s’lovely little town, that.

grammarday6  grammarday8 grammarday11

grammarday7  grammarday9

 

In class, one way we can look at fronting and tailing is by presenting the students with examples such as those above and asking them to notice and identify the difference in syntax compared to the more conventional word order. Such activities can focus on just one of the grammar patterns described above or a combination. Once the patterns have been established, the learners can also do simple exercises in which they rephrase sentences with more conventional word order using fronting and tailing. This could include sentences in isolation or in more contextualized short exchanges or dialogues, which can then be practised in pairs. The slide below, from a recent presentation on spoken grammar, shows an example of a simple awareness-raising/practice exercise (answers at the end of the blog).

grammarday10

This syntactic aspect of spoken grammar is something that learners of English are very likely to come across outside the classroom. And it seems to be a feature that some tend to pick up on and use with relative ease. So, whether we actively teach this aspect of spoken grammar or maybe just deal with it if and when it crops up, it is useful to have some straightforward explanations at the ready and a few simple examples and activities that can help illustrate, explain and practise the language.

 

Answers:

(It was a) Really good lecture, that. / (It was) Really good, that lecture.

Four As! (It’s) Pretty good going, that.

(He) Always reminds me of Alex, that guy.

(It) Takes me right back, that album.

(It) Made my day, that.

That, I can do.

That laptop, is it yours?  / Is it yours, that laptop?