Category Archives: *ESL Grammar

• Memorizing: Not the Optimal Approach to Learning ESL

Cover surprised shot

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)*

This posting is an update of a post from September 2019: Mistake: He surprised to see it snowing. (Adjectives that look like verbs)

Back in my high school days, learning my first foreign language, French, I remember often hearing the teacher say, “You’ll just need to memorize this.”

Fortunately, the art of teaching foreign languages, including ESL, has come a long way from those “just memorizing” days. We understand the importance of comprehensible input and the effectiveness of engaging with new concepts and vocabulary in multiple contexts.

To illustrate this, I’d like to refer to a posting from 2019, in which I discussed a common mistake that ESL students make with adjectives that look like verbs. Instead of telling students that they need to memorize these words, we lead them to internalizing these though a series of four exercises. By the end of these, students tend to remember because the words“sound” right rather than wracking their brains searching for what they had been told.

When students see an –ed at the end of a word, they tend to automatically assume it’s a verb, and this assumption can lead them to grammar mistakes.

(* mistakes—These sentences are missing a verb.)
*Kai embarrassed during his speech.
* Rumi interested in horses.

To help students in the most efficient manner, I will sometimes paint with a broad brush.  So I simply tell my students that these words are adjectives: surprised, embarrassed, confused, interested and shocked. They need a verb with them.

(correct): Kai was (v) embarrassed (adj) during his speech.

Avoiding unnecessarily complicated information

It’s true that those words can be can be used as verbs, for example:
– It embarrassed (v)  Kai that he forgot some of his speech.

But in all my years of teaching writing, I rarely see students use them that way. They almost always use them as adjectives, so I don’t waste their time/mental energy talking to them about using these as verbs. Instead, I just generalize and tell them that they are adjectives.

Four-step exercises to teach these to students (Handout included.)

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• The Power of Listening Input for Language Learners

Cover pt lover revised

(True story.) It’s the September of 1985, the year that Stevie Wonder released an international hit song. I’m on campus in Japan and happen to run into a couple of my students from spring term, Yuki and Hana.

“How was your summer?” I ask.

“Wonderful! I went to Europe with my family,” Yuki says.

“That’s great! How about you Hana?”

“Interesting. I had a part-time lover,” Hana answers.

Both Yuki and I look astonished and laughingly ask simultaneously, “You had a what?!!”

“I had a part-time lover. … Oh, no, I mean I had a part-time job!” Hana replies with some embarrassment when she realizes what she had said.

She then explains how she had often heard Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover” during the summer.

Hana’s automatic response to my question demonstrated the power of listening input. Since then, I’ve found ways to tap into it’s potential in helping student internalize grammar concepts and new vocabulary, and even how to write paragraphs and essays.

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• Standardized (In-House) ESL Proficiency Tests Can Be Effective and Liberating

thumbs up woman success

I had always sworn that I would quit teaching before ever taking a position in a program that used standardized test results as the criteria for promoting students.

However, about half way through my teaching career, I found myself in just such a situation. Reflecting back on those three years in that program, I came to see that much of the anxiety caused by my assumptions to be baseless; in fact, I found that standardized proficiency tests* can have a liberating effect on teachers and can carry several positive aspects for programs and staff members.

(*In this discussion, I will be referring to standardized proficiency tests used to determine whether students have the skills necessary to be promoted to the next Reading-level class, Listening-level class, and Grammar-level class, but NOT Speaking or Writing classes. The tests can be commercially-made or in-house-made. Also here, I’m referring to discrete-skills programs as opposed to integrated ones. (See • Integrated vs Discrete Skills ESL Courses: Advantages of Discrete Skills

My assumptions about standardized proficiency tests. I had always assumed that using standardized tests would interfere with the creativity of teaching and restrict how and what teachers taught. I had imagined students refusing to engage in any activity that did not appear to be directly related to their need to pass the test. And I visualized having to “teach for the test.”

Advantages of standardized proficiency tests.

  • The teachers at the next level can feel confident that all their students have met the same standard and have the same general ability. The conflicts that can arise when some teachers are seen as “easy graders” and others as “hard graders” can be eliminated.
  • The focus is on developing proficiency, not on the amount of homework papers a student submits or how much effort they seem to be making.
  • The teachers need to seriously evaluate now effective each lesson is in developing the skill.
  • There is no issue concerning cheating on homework or quizzes during the term as these have no impact on students’ promotion.
  • Teachers don’t have to keep detailed records of scores on homework and quizzes in order to justify passing/failing a student.
  • The personality factor is eliminated. We don’t have to deal with situations in which students complain that they failed because the teacher didn’t like them.
  • Teacher do not have to involved in the emotional situations of students begging for a passing grade or arguing about a grade given.
  • Students tend to take an active role in their education as they are doing work for their own benefit, not to impress the teacher.
  • After passing the test, students have expressed a sense of accomplishment in that they have met a standard.

Making it work: four ways.

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• An Effective Technique for Analyzing Students’ Grammar Skills in a Writing Context

Cover counting subordinators

Here is typical exchange that I’ve often heard between teachers who were evaluating a student’s writing together.

Dialog revised shot

It’s relatively easy to evaluate the content in students’ writing. We can usually agree about how well it is organized, how clear the ideas are presented and how deep the support is. The challenge comes when trying to gage the students’ level of grammar in a writing context. It involves more than just counting grammar mistakes. We need to consider a couple of aspects, and one of them is the seriousness of the errors. For example, look at these two sentences:

(Student A) One day, a young bride 1 name Jane packed her stuff and tried to leave her hotel.

(Student B) One day, a young bride packed her stuff, 1 she tried to leave her hotel.

They both have one error, but it would be a mistake to assume that they are at the same level. Student A’s mistake could easily be just an editing error. On the other hand, Student B’s is a run-on and could indicate that the student is still struggling with sentence boundaries.

When analyzing grammar mistakes, we also need to consider the complexity of the students’ sentence style.

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