Archives for posts with tag: Grammar

My university is on a quarter system, and since the start of the new quarter three weeks ago I have had one goal: to get them off my back to foster learner independence.

I’ve had some successes and some failures (as you can imagine). In the first week, I did a mock-up sheet of how to use COCA. It was step-by-step and included screen grabs and arrows on the sheet. Then we marched down to the computer lab and I turned them loose.

And you know what? Students are impossible to predict, because they followed that sheet and used COCA flawlessly, but nearly every single one of them needed one-on-one help logging in to the computer (username: student/ password: student).

I asked the students to rate the usefulness of this tool, and out of fifty students only two said they didn’t see the use. The other 48 gave responses along the lines of that this would help them study by themselves.

This leads me to believe that although they can be intensely needy, these students actually want to study on their own. Now that I think about it, maybe it’s more about developing trust than an actual need for hand-holding.

What I’ve been doing these days is preparing sheets at the beginning of each lesson that walk them step-by-step through the pages they should look at in their book and the information they should note (open your book to page 61. Look at number 2, part b. Find the word “remember”. What does it say?)

These lessons seem to be a general success. By the time I come in to explain, they don’t really need much explaining. So far, activities like this really seem to till the soil of their minds and help things stick–something I can see reflected quite strongly in their actual use of the grammar points this quarter versus last quarter. In my class, we are required to give speaking and writing grades in addition to quizzes. So far, quiz grades have been steady, remarkable only in that the quizzes I give are much more detailed than they were last quarter.

To me, however, the real sign that whatever I’m doing is making an impact lies in their actual use of the grammar points. Last quarter my poor students (bless their hearts) couldn’t actually use the grammar, no matter how hard they tried. This year, when students speak to me, a lot of them are putting “didn’t” in the right place and tense. This is something they don’t notice–but I do. Their writing, too, is inspiring to me. Last week we did past simple versus past continuous, and I got an overwhelming majority of writing that was done in class and used those tenses correctly. This week it was used to, and the same thing. Whether or not they know it, these girls are actually teaching themselves how to use these tenses.

There are more than a few articles that touch on this concept–teaching students to teach themselves. Sometimes, as Maryellen Weimer wrote in Faculty Focus, students respond quite negatively–they don’t realize that there is a method to our madness.

Because of this, I try to keep the lines of communication clear with my students. “I’m doing this for the same reason I don’t let you tell me your name if I forget–because if I figure it out for myself, I’ll remember. If you tell me, I’ll forget immediately again.”

They seem to understand this, and most of them seem to like this style of working. (I can tell because mobiles are away and the conversation really is about grammar!). I explain to them that there is a hierarchy of figuring this stuff out for themselves in my classroom: first, read the directions. Second, think about it. Ask yourself does it sound right? You know enough English for this! Third, ask your friend. Fourth, check your book and notes (usually included in the first step of read the directions!). Fifth, ask me. But if you ask me, I’m going to just point to where it is in the book.

I’m not doing this to be lazy, I tell them. I’m doing this because I can’t take the exam for them, so they have to know that they know the material.

Still, most of my students seem to view me as the be-all, end-all source of knowledge in my grammar classroom. To that end, TESOL Connections has a few recommendations for building learner trust and autonomy that I think I might use before my next quiz.

First, I think I will have students make a yes-no chart, where they can write down and see the things they know well and don’t know well. Then they can compare it to their friends so they can better assess each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

Next, I really think I could adapt the jigsaw activity to the upcoming unit. In this activity, I give students a piece of the knowledge, and they put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. This is kind of perfect for future and future time clauses, because these units contain multiple components. If everyone focuses on one part of the big whole, though, I think they could put it together.

These activities could improve my classroom collaboration, foster trust among learners, and increase learner autonomy. That would be a win win win for me!




So a couple of weeks ago, I happened across an article in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes talking about concordancing in L2 writing classes.

(Well, what actually happened is that my school has a Journal Committee where they read and review academic journals and I attended, pretty ostensibly so that I would have something to blog about use to improve my teaching)

In any case, they had this discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of getting students to conduct corpora-based research in the classroom, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Basically, the article states that corpora are (of course) powerful research tools, but when overused students can get bored with them (which definitely corroborates my own experience as a student).

However, I was surprised and excited to learn that with the right amount of training, students themselves see corpora work as quite useful and some even preferred it to reference and grammar books (Yoon, 2011).

According to the article, corpora work has been shown to foster learner autonomy, which is something that I am interested in incorporating in my classroom. So far, my experience in this region is that these community college students are a lot like baby birds–they want the knowledge chewed up for them and spat directly into their mouths.

With the right motivation, however, this is a tool that I could incorporate into my teaching arsenal to foster a more autonomous and independent working environment.

The article named several ways to apply corpora-based study in the classroom. One use was that it allowed writing students to compare their work with that of experts in the field, thus allowing them develop their own measure of the appropriate voice and style for whatever genre they’re studying at the time. It is also a great tool to get students to notice their mistakes, and can be used to build vocabulary (Yoon, 2011). The study even suggested that students could compile their own corpora of their writing work, which I also thought could be a tool learners could use to measure their progress as well as a source of pride in what they have accomplished up to that point.

Of course it also helps students to begin recognizing collocations and chunks–those tricky little things for which I as a teacher have no better explanation for them than “memorization” and “it comes with more exposure to English.”

I am big on having students look at outside, natural uses of English to make connections with what we’re learning, but I teach grammar. Last quarter, I had students find and present examples of whatever grammar point we were learning that week via sources like Instagram and Twitter–fun and fresh for them, getting them to connect grammar outside of the classroom for me.

I’m not sure I want to lose that element–it was a fun way for me to see what the students were into, and it was a sneaky way of getting students to think about English would it being super painful. However, I know that incorporating corpora work in the grammar classroom–especially for students at my level–could be an exciting way to get students to recognize patterns for some of the grammar points they struggle with (third person s, “dummy do” and present perfect all come to mind).

I think I will incorporate mild corpora-based research into the upcoming semester’s classwork, and then compare this batch of students’ mistakes on quizzes to the last batch. I’m excited to see what I find!


Concordancing in L2 writing class: An overview of research and issues. Choongil Yoon. Journal of English for Academic Purposes. Vol. 10, 2011 (130-139)

A couple days ago, EdWeek published a blog entry about students’ mistakes–how they make them, and how the way teachers handle them can be helpful or harmful to the student. Although it seems the writer was drawing from his experience with younger, first language students, I still drew a lot of parallels to my experiences teaching English as a Second Language.

The gist of the article is that when we as educators rush to fill the gap of empty space where a student is struggling to find the correct answer, we leave him/her with several negative impressions:

  1. that if you’re quiet long enough, someone will swoop in and provide you with the right answer
  2. it’s not OK to struggle to find the answer
  3. you don’t have to take an active role in your own learning–it’s voluntary
  4. you don’t have any responsibility in this situation; just shut down and I’ll save the day.

I was immediately transported to my MA Tesol days, where we spent at least a couple of weeks discussing the pros and cons of various forms of error correction. Of course, recast was the lowest of the low–lock it in the closet for its ineffectiveness. We also have explicit feedback, which can sometimes fail to produce modified output; clarification requests (which I’ve actually had a lot of success with in getting students to “fix” their errors); metalinguistic feedback; elicitation; prompts; repetition; and translation (Rezaei, S.; Mozaffri, F; Hatef. A, 2011).

As a teacher, I often weigh in my mind the best ways to point out and correct errors to my students. I tend to have a lot of success with the “just pausing” level of elicitation, where I leave a gap of silence and let them work it out on their own. I teach Level 3, which translates to intermediate(ish) in a lot of cases, and at that level they have the ears to hear when things don’t quite sound right, even if they don’t always have the skills to form the perfect output–yet. In the same vein, I have found that repetition (combined with a bit of strategically placed inflection) also helps students to hear that what they said “sounds funny” and actually does result in uptake.

Still, in the classroom, as the Ed Weekly article said, we can’t help but to “feel” for our students, right? They’re kind of on the spot and they’re searching for the right word or answer…the clock is ticking..everyone’s eyes are on that ONE girl…and it almost becomes more merciful to just go ahead and supply the answer instead of letting them slog through the mental quagmire.

In my classroom, I often find students racing each other to supply the missing words and broken links, no matter how many times I remind them that I’m the teacher. I’m teaching in Qatar right now, and I think it could be related to the culture–here, it’s very big for students to “help” their friends (as opposed to it being some sort of competition between students, I mean).

In any case, we can all pretty much agree that when we race to provide the answers for students it doesn’t do them any favors–those answers don’t even stick as well as the ones students reached all the way back into their minds and dragged to the front do.

I know that going forward, I will definitely keep the Ed Weekly article in mind when I’m handing students’ answers, and I will try to foster a classroom culture where I encourage students to allow space for mistakes and for thinking. It is, after all, simply a part of the learning process.


Rezaei, S.; Mozaffri, F; Hatef. A; Corrective Feedback in SLA: Classroom Practice and Future Directions. International Journal of English Linguistics. Vol. 1 No. 1.; March, 2011

At times, the academic process seems like just a whole lot of jumping through hoops as someone with more power and prestige than you dangles that carrot. Or brass ring. Whatever.

This was one of those nights.

As a part of my practicum, my practicum coordinator has to observe me teaching, and while I do understand it, and she is also very nice…at the same time I can never quite put out of my mind that she is the person with the power to say “No, you don’t get your degree.”

So with that in mind, I taught my advanced II grammar class, nervous as all h-e-double-hockeysticks.


I chose for her to observe this class, because I like the vibe of this class. The class is mostly made up of Saudis, and they are very congenial. They are also pretty forgiving; they help me help them.

But this is the same class that I got that “lose credibility” feedback with from before, and it is the same class that for some reason I just have this crazy-difficult time remembering their names.

I knew them last session, and the crazy thing is the class is pretty much the same, but I get their names mixed up and I have called students by the wrong name before.

This confusion of course only intensified because I was nervous, and I ended up getting confused on students whose names I know I knew.

One guy got so frustrated that he ended up muttering under his breath “he has a name” the next time I called on a student without using his name. I know dude. But I’m under a lot of pressure right now.

This does not bode well for Orals.

Then, of course because I was being observed, one student absolutely grilled me about the difference between adverb clauses and noun clauses. Like, this guy took me to task for every teacher who ever gave him an unsatisfactory explanation on the subject and he would not stop until he was un-confounded.

I think I helped, but it was a rough road.

Now I wait for my feedback.


So this week I got a bit of feedback from my mentor that has me wondering, once again, if I’m even in the right field. I have pretty much been asking myself whether Linguistics is for me since my very first class, but I’ve trucked on through it. Now, at the end, as I’m doing my practicum, I’m back to square one in wondering whether this is for me. And kind of thinking it’s not.

Here’s the feedback though:

“Really study your charts before class.  Same goes for the exercises you choose for the day.  Pencil the answers in the book to avoid confusion in the moment.  Some of the students have studied this information before- don’t let [name of student who showed me up in class] (for ex) show you up when another student has a question.  That’s a really easy way to lose credibility with them.  They know you’re still learning, but it’s best that they aren’t reminded of it- ultimately, they need to be able to count on you for solid knowledge and you need to be able to do your job without them trying to take advantage of your newness. (for ex, we don’t want them saying well I got all these questions wrong on the test because I was confused about that point and when I asked you, you weren’t sure either)”

It’s so frustrating. Is it supposed to be this hard? I’m “teaching” upper-level proficiency students, and I’m teaching writing and grammar. I’m trying to think of these things as a blessing, but they really just make me feel inadequate because they expose how much I don’t know. And I feel like I just can’t predict what they are going to ask.

Teaching is hard. Teaching is truly, truly hard. I had no idea how difficult it is. And it is something that I feel like I have to literally take day-by-day, except that one bad day erases like 4 good days.

Is it supposed to be this hard? If I were meant to be a teacher…if teaching were something that I were meant to truly enjoy….would it be this hard? Wouldn’t I be good at it? Have a “knack” for it? Am I trying to force my square peg self into the round hole of teaching? I’m starting to feel like it’s truly not a good fit…



so it goes. I guess in my line of work, things are hard to predict.

Today I taught two classes, one writing and one grammar. These are a part of my practicum, so they are not my classes, but my mentor lets me plan them and execute them and pretty much only jumps in if I’m drowning.


Tonight was my first night teaching again after a two-week hiatus due to both a family emergency and break between sessions, and I was mostly excited but also a bit nervous.

I was excited because I was teaching conjunctions and I felt like I planned this lesson to a T. I studied it and I had this nifty train car metaphor and I had conjunction junction and this lesson was gonna be IT, how I bounced back after a somewhat shaky first session (in my eyes).

I was nervous because I was also teaching a writing class and I had spent so much time and energy on the conjunction junction that I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do for the writing class.


As the saying goes, you can never be too rich or too thin. Or predict which classes are going to go well and which will have you looking/feeling/sounding lost.

In the writing class, I introduced the Objective Report by examining (deconstructing, I’d like to think ^^) an article on the New York Sugary Drink ban.

And that did have some issues, but they weren’t due to my teaching (mostly). They were just normal issues of, like, vocabulary and some students still finding their sea legs after moving up a level.

As opposed to my beautiful, well-studied conjunction junction which got stopped in its tracks. At one point, I literally said “OK I can see this is not working. Ignore what I just said and let’s just do this.” And then I proceeded to have them do some exercises out of their blue Azar book.

It seems that in my preparation for the lesson, I got too meta. I was too far above the material–I lost that balance of how to present it in their terms.

And I understood it so well that I didn’t know how not to understand it, so I was having a hard time even understanding their questions.

Which prompted my mentor to remark that she understood, and that it comes with working more with the class and getting a feel for them,

and that “you can’t understand the material TO them.”


The article that I chose to review is called “Designing and developing a language environment for second language writers.” APA citation:

Knuttson, O., Pargman, T. P., Elundh, K. S., & Westlund, S. (2007). Designing and developing a language environment for second language writers.Computers & Education49(4), 1122-1146

When beginning their discussion, the authors state that it is essential to provide second-language learners with tools that will facilitate their developing an enjoyment and understanding of writing in the target language. They argue that this can be done by developing computer-language tools, specifically, saying that computational linguistics can be expanded. Grammar checkers, verb conjugators, “set-expression translators,” bilingual dictionaries, online grammars, etc. are some examples of computer-based language tools.

The authors make their first point by answering the question of why they chose to focus on errors. To do that, they explained the taxonomy of errors made by language-learners, categorizing them as slips, mistakes, errors and solipsisms. They then address the role of written feedback, ultimately arguing that it can in some cases be largely effective at improving students’ second drafts and that students appear to want the feedback, ultimately tying this back to why the focus on errors in writing instruction.

Next they move to detailing the study itself: they chose participants who are learning Swedish as a second language and focus on the Granska grammar checker. This grammar checker is genre-based but overall more accurate than Microsoft Word. The learners were preparing to take a Swedish TOEFL-equivalent test that would allow them to study in Swedish universities. Ultimately the study is measured through the number of grammatical judgements that the participants made while using Granska.  The results were that users found this tool difficult to use. The authors concluded that the teacher is an important part of the feedback process. The study appeared to reinforce the importance of feedback in second-language writing instruction. They found that students want explanations to accompany their feedback and that both students and instructors had a difficult time trusting Granska.

The authors then took what they learned from the Granska study and applied it in a program titled Grim, where they were able to apply the focus on form approach and add tools that made grammatical categories explicit, as well as focusing on authentic language use. However, they concluded that Grim is not a “pedagogically neutral tool” because teachers must invent their own settings when and if they decide to use the program.

In my brief experience in a second-language writing class, I have seen the importance of human connection in writing instruction. As Downs & Wardle show, the writing student’s feelings about writing in general can influence their performance. I think that a caring instructor who will provide personalized feedback is an integral part of creating a learning environment that is comfortable for students so that they will be receptive to instruction. Having said that, I would recommend this article because I think it is important to have explicit and empirical explanations available for the sake of credibility. As technology expands, it is important to understand when and how its use is appropriate in the classroom, and this article contributes to that larger conversation.