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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.


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.


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’.


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.


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?


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.



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.


A way to make demonstrative determiners teachable


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.


Using Video and ICT to Present Grammar

video helps grammarIn this post, David Mearns, a teacher in Turkey, discusses the benefit of using video to show grammar in an authentic context and gives a few tips on how to teach grammar using video.

I have been working in Turkey as an ELT practitioner for seventeen years.  I became very interested in ICT-ELT two years ago, and began explicitly including it in my syllabus, as a way to further engage Turkish teenage students. At the tail-end of 2010, after having presented on the subject at many conferences, I realised that many of my colleagues were also very interested in the paradigm shift happening in ELT. So, I started to put the ICT-ELT message out to the Turkish provinces.  Now after a year of observing teachers, and receiving a great deal of feedback on ICT-ELT, I can see an extraordinary change in people’s attitudes to the exciting possibilities of using technology in (and out of) the classroom.

Since grammar is now having a much welcomed resurgence in popularity with teachers (oh how I despised those, for the most part, years of ‘language acquisition is the only way’ in ELT), I feel it only right to concur with the new focus on grammar, and share a great way for teachers to help make it much more affective for both teachers to present, and for students to enjoy learning the structures they generally find tedious to work at.

I propose that by using video to show how grammar is used in an authentic context, and by having it in the syllabus as both a scaffolding and consolidation stage of understanding structure, students will (and do) engage much more across each form being learned.

I appreciate that the use of video is not new, but I reckon that with it being included under the umbrella of ICT-ELT it has even more effective and affective outcomes.


Tildee logoThe website I started using last year, and have continued to do so, is www.tildee.com.  This amazing website is a free platform that allows you to upload tutorials with consummate ease.  It acts just like a Word document when you are typing and putting pictures, video or links to enhance your grammar point.  Here is a Tildee Video Feed-Forward that I made to show how easy it is to access and use.

Now that you have seen how easy it is to sign up and use (you don’t have to sign up, but it is better to do so, as you then have your own account where your video tutorials are stored), it is time to see which videos I have used to help students further engage with the process of learning grammar structures.

Note, although I condone video as a means of teaching grammar, I still believe there has to be a balanced mix of traditional and ICT methods if it is to be successful.  Yet, even so, it is the ICT-video springboard paradigm that makes it so appealing to students.  With this method of presentation and practice, students can re-watch or watch the whole experience at home, or even on their smart phone.  It has 24/7 accessibility; thus e-learning, m-learning and total-learning is what we can achieve with this marvellous tool.

Examples of My Tildee Tutorials for Teaching (TTT?) grammar through video:

An Ode to CAN      Used to/ Didn’t Use to         Star Wars: It’s Present & Simple

Now that you have seen examples of my Tildee tutorials, I’d like to share another video feed-forward to show you how easy it is to add grammar content and videos from YouTube (only YouTube btw for now) to the website:

Video Feed-Forward: How to add vids, text and pics on Tildee

I hope you find the tutorials useful for your students.  If you like the style, please contact me and ask for some more.  I will email you the links.  However, I reckon, once you get the hang of it, you will want to make your own from your own favourite films.

Read David’s own blog at www.davidmearns.blogspot.com.

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