TESOL Thoughts

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Archive for the tag “Grammar”

Reflections on a Sessions at TESOL 15 (Pt. 1): Grammar and Writing

This will be the first of three blog posts on sessions I attended at the TESOL convention in Toronto last month. While this first session focuses on grammar and writing, the next two will talk about linguistic heritage and the use of story telling in language learning.

Each time I attend TESOL or other ELT conferences, I like to go to a session addressing a specific issue I may be dealing with in class. I have been teaching beginners since last September. Hoping to get some guidance in writing at this level, I attended a session titled, “The Grammar You Need for Academic Writing”. While I believe it is a bit of a stretch to think of beginning English writing as academic writing, the session promised to demonstrate how ELLs could learn fundamental grammar structures applied to writing through the use of a grammar card created (and sold) by the presenters. I often shy away from exhibitor sessions, but seeing that there were no major publishers behind the grammar card mentioned before, I decided to attend and learn what it was about.

Screenshot 2015-04-06 08.19.37

I often find myself looking for simple ways to teach sentence structure, but being uncertain about how much is too much meta language or how explicit the grammar instruction should be. While I believe in following a more inductive approach to grammar (and providing lots of meaningful language), I know many learners like to have charts or visual aids with rules or tips.

The presenters of this session, Eileen Cotter and Henry Caballero, started out by giving us a free foldable laminated card titled “Building Sentences”. The chart comes with a free workbook that anyone can download at www.grammaryouneed.com, and I encourage you all to check it out and see if your students could benefit from doing some of those exercises. The chart itself is quite affordable compared to many ELT materials out there, and I would say that it’s design should make it durable.

The “Building Sentences” card includes explanations on parts of speech with examples for each category, an illustration on sentence formation highlighting those parts of speech, some explanations related to the mechanics of writing, and examples related to clauses and question formation. There is a lot being referenced in the foldable chart, but I found the color coding and visuals to be helpful in making it easier to follow. Of course, the ultimate test would be to see if my students found the illustrations easy to reference.

Something that caught my attention earlier on during this session was that the presenters described themselves as faculty at a community college who simply needed more resources aside from their textbooks. I know many of us can relate there. However, a teacher next to the presenters also said that he had stopped using their grammar book and was relying on using the “Building Sentences” as his main resource in class. Now, while I often wish I could follow a content-based class and rely less on sometimes disjoined topics presented by three different textbooks, I am not sure how I would approach a writing class at the beginner level by using exclusively a reference sheet. I imagine we would need lots of personal examples and set topics to explore through reading and listening. But if I were to teach just a writing class, how to do so without a textbook? While this was not something brought forward by the presenters, I did wish the chart or the workbook included topics that conduce themselves well for writing production at the beginners level. Setting an appealing and appropriate topic for my students to write about is a common challenge for me when I design writing assignments.

Some of the suggested uses of the “Building Sentences” card were as a self-check for students after writing an assignments. I can envision students using it to better understand teacher feedback, e.g., “What does the teacher mean by clause?”. The workbook is also a nice addition for explicit practice on grammar issues, but I would like to see some research as to how (or if) this type of practice does transfer to less controlled writing assignments.

If you were to have a grammatical reference chart for writing, how would you use it with your students? What is your approach to learning grammar as it applies to writing?


Learning about Fluency and Accuracy

Last month, I took a course on “Fluency and Accuracy” through iTDi. It’s not every day that you get the chance to be enrolled in a class taught by Penny Ur and Scott Thornbury; confident that there would also be some inspiring classmates in the group, I enrolled without thinking twice about it. One big advantage of online courses like this one is that sessions are recorded, so if you can’t attend a webinar (iTDi courses do one a week), you can always watch it at a later time. After listening to Penny Ur’s session at the TESOL Convention earlier this year and realizing that I could benefit from revisiting my strategies in teaching vocabulary, I jumped at the opportunity of learning more tips directly from her (and Scott!). The course has ended now, and I have walked a way with a fresh perspective on vocabulary, e.g., I might want to think about implementing the three steps to increase accuracy described by Penny. This was, no doubt about it, a great experience, and I highly recommend anyone to consider taking a class through iTDi if a topic that interests you comes up.

As part of the course requirements, I wrote a summary of some of the issues discussed. I did not add my opinion on some of the points presented, but I thought I’d share this summary here in case anyone would like to get a quick review of the course.


Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @IanJames, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @IanJames, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

Penny Ur and Scott Thornbury both began their sessions by working through a definition of these two concepts before exploring some of the issues around fluency and accuracy. One of the reasons why these definitions are challenging is that English speakers around the world have different standards of accuracy. According to Scott, context, audience, and purpose are key elements to take into account when defining the concept of accuracy in language use. Fluency, on the other hand, was defined by Penny as “the ability to understand and convey meaning successfully, smoothly, and rapidly.” Interestingly, Scott brought up a distinction between productive and perceptive fluency. The former deals with the type of language and strategies used to keep the flow of communication (fillers, chunks, pauses), whereas the latter involves non-verbal communication, accent, and even the use of idioms or more complex language. These working definitions of accuracy and fluency were key to conceptualize the issues brought up during the course since we examined ways in which learners can improve their accuracy and fluency depending on their context.

During her first session, Penny explained that sometimes being accurate comes at the expense of being fluent (and vice versa). She then focused on ways in which we can help learners increase accuracy when teaching vocabulary, describing three fundamental steps: 1) mapping form onto meaning, 2) reviewing lexis, and 3) enriching language learned.

In the first step, she explained that it is important to teach vocabulary in a way that is impact-full, i.e., the meaning of new lexis is clear to students and memorable. Most importantly, she argues that asking students to guess words when we are not sure they can guess their meaning accurately is actually detrimental to learning. Instead, Penny suggests translating into L1 if needed or associating words with an image or something in L1 rather than asking learners to guess from context. To support this claim she cites Bensoussan and Laufer’s (1984) study (conducted with proficient English speakers) in which they found that context was only helpful in guessing meaning 24% of the time. If this is the first time students have been introduced to new lexis, Penny recommends ending the lesson by setting up scenarios in which students need to recall words learned.

When it comes to her advice on reviewing lexis, Penny points out that learners need to review a word at least 10 times and learn connotations, collocations, and context. Time efficiency is important, and games like hangman or word searches are not very efficient to review vocabulary. Finding phrases that include the word, odd one out (without an obvious answer), completing sentences. After new lexis has been introduced and reviewed, Penny suggests engaging in a third step, i.e., identifying the known lexis and learning more complex aspects about it, such as synonyms, pragmatics, etc.

Some tips on teaching were given, such as not teaching words together that might be confused (opposites or synonyms, sound similar, mean the same). An example given by Penny was teaching “blue” with “sky” instead of “blue” with “red”.

During the second half of the course, Scott cited Gatbonton, E. and Segalowitz, N. (1988) to explain that practice activities for fluency should be “communicative, authentic, focused, formulaic, and inherently repetitive”. Role-play, guessing games, surveys were mentioned by class participants and highlighted by Scott as sample activities meeting the previously mentioned criteria.

On the other hand, the point was made that when it comes to improving accuracy, feedback and correction, along with giving enough time for learners to review their language, are essential. During the last session, Penny claimed (and demonstrated) that in order to communicate, vocabulary is more important than grammar. In my opinion, this last point has ramifications into our every day teaching that we must take into account, since, as Penny notes, many textbooks do not give vocabulary the place it deserves in language learning.

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