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.
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?