Category Archives: ESL Grammar

Grammar point: “Before going to sleep, I always check under my bed for monsters.”  What is “going”?


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

One of the most common grammar questions I’ve been asked by students or tutors whom I’ve trained or new teachers whom I’ve mentored concerns sentences like:

“While eating our dinner, we enjoyed the sunset.” [Subordinator (While) + Verb-ing (eating).]

Question: Grammatically speaking, what is “eating”?

It’s called a reduced form.  The writer is reducing an adverb clause to a phrase.
Original sentence: While we were eating our dinner, we enjoyed the sunset.
      Reduced form: While eating our dinner, we enjoyed the sunset.

We can use these with subordinators like before, after, while and since.

This phrase can come at the beginning of a sentence as in the example above and in the title of this post or in the middle of a sentence:
     She bumped into a chair while she was looking at her smartphone.
      She bumped into a chair while looking at her smartphone.

Two points that students need to know

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LINCS Discussion about Grammar (Handout Exercises)

LINCS logo

You don’t have to be a grammar expert to help your students with the grammar in their writing.

During the week of Jan. 15-19, each day, I was interviewed online at LINCS about teaching grammar.  You can read the discussion at this link:  LINCS grammar discussion ,

The topics were:
Jan. 15: Inductive teaching
Jan. 16: Importance of grammar terminology
Jan. 17: Ear-learners
Jan. 18: Leading students to finding grammar mistakes
Jan. 19: The connection between reading and learning grammar

Each day, I mentioned handout exercises related to that days topic, and I made these available in this posting below.

To see the handouts and read more information about the topics, please read below.
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A True Story to Motivate Students to Read More


Reading while eating

Reading every chance you get.

An international student, Emily, was really struggling with the grammar in her writing assignments.  Even though she worked with a tutor, she was continuously making basic mistakes.  In the fall, the program reluctantly promoted her to my higher-level Writing course.  I found her to be the third lowest of 17 students in the class in being able to apply grammatical accuracy to written work.  Ten weeks later, she was the second best.  I was totally amazed!

At the end of the Fall term, she passed my class and then took English Comp (English 101) during the Winter term.  She got an A.

I had a chance to talk to her about her remarkable turn-around.  What she did is not beyond what other students can do.  After that opportunity that I had to talk to her, every term, I share with all my students her story.  Here is the PowerPoint that I use to do this in case you’d like to tell your students about how a peer of theirs was able to improve the grammar in her writing in a relatively short time.  True story about improving grammar in writing thru reading

I’ll summarize what she had done below.

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Is the Hokey Pokey Really What It’s All About?  No, Subordination Is. (Part 1)


Dependent and Independent Clause

My students are always quite surprised when I tell them this true story about subordination*.  Several years ago, I taught Academic ESL at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP).  I had discussions with the chair of the English Dept. about how they determine which students (American and International) are qualified to take English 101 Composition.  Not surprisingly, he said all new students write a placement essay.  But this is the surprising part: the readers/evaluators do NOT consider the idea-development, nor the paragraph organization, nor the grammar.   Instead they looked for only one aspect: whether or not the writer could use subordination (dependent and independent clauses) correctly.   Their research found that that one aspect was the most reliable predictor about which students would be successful in English Comp.

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Playing Computer Games until 2 a.m. or Lack of Awareness (Subordination Part 2)

Computer games

My students at 2 a. m.?

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

“I like summer because it’s hot.”  Pretty simplistic, right?   The assignment was to write six sentences using subordinators as part of a review of them in my advanced class.  That sentence was the type that I got from some of my students.

My first impulse was to attribute this to a lack of motivation, or to staying up until 2 a.m. playing video games, or to immaturity.  I found out that I was wrong (or at least partial wrong).

A few of my “better” students would write more sophisticated sentences like, Because of the recent refugee crisis in Europe, some Europeans are starting to question their immigration policies.”   When I shared some of these advanced sentences with the “simple-style” students, they seemed quite surprised that they should have been trying to write like that.  They thought that just using a subordinator in sentence was enough to fulfill the assignment.  I realized that I hadn’t presented the challenge clearly enough.  Here is my remedy which completely turned these students around.

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Yes! Fun Learning Subordintion Inductively (Subordination Part 3)


It’s actually fun.

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

“Now, I finally think I get it,” an adult ESL student told me.  After years of trying to understand the terms of dependent clauses, independent clause and conjunctions and how they work (and don’t work) in a sentence, she seemed greatly relieved.

Instead of using a traditional approach of having students look at the rule and then trying to apply it, an inductive approach to grammar seems much more effective (and even fun) for students.  (This approach is especially affective with ear-learners.  See a previous posting Approaching Grammar with Generation 1.5 Students and Other Ear-Learners  )

To avoid overwhelming them, I have found that starting with just two subordinators “because” and “since” is easily manageable for even the most insecure student.  Once they understand how these work in sentences, it’s amazing how quickly they can apply the concept to other subordinators.

I’m attaching here a handout worksheet that I’ve used with lower-level students, and you are welcome to use too.  Intro to Subordinators Pt 3 Ex

Please see Subordination Part 1 (Part 1) and Part 2 (Part 2)for more about this most important concept.

I’d enjoy continuing this conversation with you about grammar, subordination and inductive lessons and hearing your perspectives and experiences.  Feel free to click on “Reply” at the top of this posting, and we can continue this discussion.

David Kehe

Approaching Grammar with Generation 1.5 Students and Other Ear-Learners

Gen 1.5

Generation 1.5

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

In our college, there was a category of ESL students who stymied the instructors.  They were fluent speakers but continually struggled with basic the grammar on writing tasks.  Any ESL program that has immigrant students will probably have these types of students described as “ear-learners” or Generation 1.5.

Gen 1.5 students are sort of between first generation and second generation immigrant.  They immigrated with their family when they were elementary or high school age.

A growing number of these students indicate a goal of obtaining a college degree.  However, unfortunately, many of them struggle to make the transition from studying basic English skills in ESL courses to taking academic ESL and mainstream academic courses.

Among those who do apply to colleges, a considerable number do not meet the minimum standards for writing and are thus not accepted.

I, along with two colleagues, were able to get a grant a few years ago to study these students and to develop an approach to helping them learn grammar for writing by taking into consideration their special learning styles.

In this posting, I’ll describe these students and their learning styles.  I’ll also explain the type of materials and include examples that we used with them.  And finally, I’ll summarize the very positive results that we got from the study.

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