Category Archives: *ESL Grammar

• Missing WHO and WHICH/THAT: Common ESL Problem and Solution

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Sometimes I get the feeling that some of my ESL students (including advanced ones) believe that there are a limited number of “who” and “which” out there, and they are afraid of using them all up before they die.

The problem happens when students are trying to write more advanced styles with a dependent and independent clause in a sentence.

Some examples:

Mistake: The people are walking their dogs should keep them on a leash.
Correction: The people WHO are walking their dogs should keep them on a leash.

Mistake: I try to give money to charities help homeless people.
Correction: I try to give money to charities WHICH help homeless people. *

I’ve also notice that this mistake often happens when students start a sentence with there”.

Mistake: There was an accident happened near my house.
Correction: There was an accident WHICH happened near my house.

* We could substitute the word THAT for WHICH in these sentences.

Solution: Helping students with this. (Handout included.)

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• Taking On Phrasal Verbs

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

YouTube This posting is discussed on my YouTube video Big Mistake ESL Teachers Make With Phrasal Verbs:

Ernesto was looking unusually pale when he walked into my class. I asked him if he was feeling all right, and he said that his stomach was hurting. Then I asked him:

“Do you feel like you are going to throw up?”

He just kind of looked at me, not knowing what to say. I realized that he didn’t understand the phrasal verb, “throw up,” and I was sure that he wouldn’t understand “vomit,” so my only recourse was to pantomime someone throwing up.  Then he got it.

According to The Grammar Book by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, outside Germanic languages (English, German, Dutch and the Scandiavian languages), few languages have phrasal verbs. “Thus most ESL/EFL students will find such verbs strange and difficult. Yet they are such an important part of colloquial English that no one can … understand conversational English easily without a knowledge” of them.

About once a term at my college, we invited a guest speaker to give a talk to all the international students, from beginning-skill levels to advance. For example, a policeman talked about how to stay safe on and off campus; a counselor discussed common misunderstandings students have with plagiarism; a student leader provided information about campus clubs and activities.  Even though the speakers were making an effort to make their talks comprehensible to non-native speakers, they couldn’t help but continually peppered their speech with phrasal verbs. Some examples:

Policeman: If you drink and drive, you could end up at the police station.

Counselor: One reason students copy from a classmate is because they’ve taken on too many courses.

Student leader: We hope you’ll help us put forward some ideas for improving our clubs.

Imagine substituting these phrasal verbs with phrase blah-blah.  This is kind of what many of the students heard:

     “… you could blah-blah at the police station”
     “…they’ve blah-blah too many courses.”
     “…help us blah-blah some ideas.”

No wonder so many of students had blank looks on their faces.

Working on phrasal verbs. Where to start, knowing that there are over 10,000 of them.

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• The Grammar Aspect with Most Mistakes by Language Learners: Prepositions

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

According to Brain Briefs by Bob Duke and cognitive scientist Art Markman, “… adults who learn a new language make more mistakes with prepositions than with just about any other aspect of speech.”

Most ESL teachers have probably been asked questions like this one that I had from one of my students, Camila, from Mexico: “Why do we say ‘I’m confused about’ rather than ‘I’m confused at’?”

It seems futile to try to explain the reasons or give rules for when to use certain prepositions. And even if we could formulate some, it seems unimaginable that students will stop while speaking or writing and ask themselves, “Now what was the rule for the preposition here?” Just the preposition “on” has 10 definitions.

How to learn prepositions

Markman and Duke summarize what many professionals (e.g. Krashen) in the teaching ESL field  have said about how to learn prepositions: “… the best way … is to hear them, use them, and allow your brain to recognize which ones are appropriate in different circumstances by taking into account both the meaning and the statistics of when they are used.  This kind of implicit learning requires a lot of exposure to the language …” (p. 127).

This doesn’t mean that the only role that a teacher plays in this is to just provide meaningful input through reading and listening.

Three ways teachers can facilitate students’ learning of prepositions

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• Myth 1 About Teaching Grammar: Focusing on Grammar will Stifle Students’ Ability to Write.

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A former ESL Writing student of mine was quite surprised by her English Comp class.  She told me that her instructor isn’t concerned about the grammar in his students’ essays. At the same time, a common complaint by academic instructors heard around the campus at that college was that their (American) students had many grammar mistakes in their academic papers. In fact, the grammar skills of the students coming out of the English Comp classes were so weak that the Business Department decided to offer business writing courses that would deal with these grammar issues.

I decided to pursue this further by interviewing several English Comp instructors. In response to my question, “Why don’t you work with grammar in your courses,” I heard this,Focusing on grammar will stifle students’ ability to write.”  In a college newspaper, an instructor explained, “An exaggerated focus on grammar stops the development of engaging and complex ideas.”

That sounds like a straw man argument. Yes, if an instructor assigns a paper and tells students that they would write one draft and that their grade would be based on the quality of grammar in their paper, then students might overly focus on that rather than their ideas.  But what professional instructor would do that?

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