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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.

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What Learners Can Do with Texts

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachersNigel Caplan, assistant professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute, holds degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Pennsylvania, and is finishing his PhD in Education. His research focuses on genre theory and collaborative writing. He has presented at TESOL as an invited speaker, the European Association of Teachers of Academic Writing, and the Symposium on Second Language Writing. He is the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing (OUP).

As a teacher and writer, I believe that two of the main questions we face in the classroom can be summarized as: How do our students learn, and how do our lesson plans and materials promote learning?

I’m especially interested in how this applies to our use of texts. And I say texts not readings to emphasize my belief that the articles, reviews, websites, essays, and textbooks that we assign can be used for more than teaching reading.

Here are four of the ways I use texts in my teaching:

  • To challenge students to reconsider the world. For example, in the second edition of Q: Skills for Success Reading/Writing 5, we have a fascinating new reading about how graphs can lie: what appear to be hard numbers may turn out to be visual distortions!
  • To encourage critical thinking by presenting multiple viewpoints. When we were writing Q: Skills, we were always looking for two different ways to answer the unit question, often from very different academic fields. So, for instance, how do we define a private space after reading articles about shared spaces such as roads and public buildings?
  • To model written genres. We all learn to write by reading other texts in the target genre. That’s how we know what a wedding invitation, or a conference proposal, or a blog post should look like. In Inside Writing, we present one or more models for every genre we ask students to write and invite them to discover how and why it is written.
  • To focus on language. Reading widely is certainly important for language acquisition, but research has shown that it’s not enough. Learners also need to focus on the structure of the new language. After reading a text for meaning, I like to dig into the language and help students discover useful vocabulary and grammar structures that they can use in their own speaking and writing. For example, why does a summary of a research article begin with “The author claims that poor exercise routines can be dangerous” rather than “The author presents the dangers of poor exercise routines”?

At the JALT 2015 conference in Shizuoka, Japan (November 20-23), I’ll be talking about these ideas in more detail, including a language-based approach to teaching critical thinking, and a genre-based approach to teaching writing through the Teaching/Learning Cycle.

The Teaching/Learning Cycle

The Teaching/Learning Cycle (Rothery, 1996)* is a well-developed method for helping students to write in target genres. The Teaching/Learning cycle starts with an activity called “Deconstruction,” which is basically a teacher-led analysis of several writing models to help students deduce the staging (the typical structure of information) and language used (especially for ESL or other linguistic minority populations). For example, we teach the online product review as a genre that requires students to describe an item in detail and evaluate it, giving specific reasons. So, first we have students read several reviews, adapted for the level, and then together we figure out that reviews typically follow a predictable pattern: establishing the writer’s expertise, describing the product, giving opinions with specific support, and then closing with a recommendation. You can find this assignment in Inside Writing 2.

The trick with deconstruction is to avoid structural labels and focus on functions. For example, if I ask my students what the structure of any genre is, they will invariably reply “introduction, body, conclusion” because that’s what they’ve been taught. But pretty much every piece of writing has a beginning, middle, and end, so it’s just not very helpful to students learning how to write. In the case of argument writing, for instance, “claims” and “evidence” are much more useful than “introduction” and “body.”

At this point, we also need to focus on language. How are adjectives used to strengthen a description? What shifts in tense do you see? What verbs do the authors use to introduce evidence? What tenses do they use? Do you see certain types of grammar in the claims and opinions but not the evidence and support (e.g. modals)? How do the writers use relative (adjective) clauses? Once you start asking these questions, you’ll be amazed what you and your students notice about your genres!

Join me at JALT to practice the other stages of the Teaching/Learning cycle, Joint Construction and Independent Construction. I’m also going to discuss teaching critical thinking by using thought-provoking texts as prompts for discussion and writing.

Nigel will present at JALT on Saturday, November 21st and Sunday, November 22nd. Click here for more details.


* Joan Rothery’s chapter, “Making Changes: Developing an Educational Linguistics” is in the book Literacy in Society (Hasan & Williams, 1996). The pedagogy is also summarized in my essay, “From Generic Writing to Genre-Based Writing,” available from the OUP website.


#qskills – When should L1 be used in class?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: When should L1 be used in class?

Nigel Caplan responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.