Finding the Right Tools to Build an Understanding of Prepositions

Posted September 12, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , ,

3269784239_4254e1cc22_qIt never fails. Every time I start a new grammar topic on YouTube, I am surprised by how much I don’t know. I think it’s the idea of committing to an explanation and sending it out to thousands of learners that makes me dig and dig until I arrive at a feeling of certainty. I also start asking my own questions and consider the possible answers. I almost never give brief explanations. They tend to be very thorough. I know there will be learners with just as many questions, and I try to anticipate them. For example, it’s simply not enough to teach that prepositions come before nouns or pronouns. Since my introduction is intended for upper level students, I found myself explaining that objects can be nouns, noun phrases, noun clauses, gerunds, gerund phrases, and a few different kinds of pronouns.

I also began to discuss the various positions prepositional phrases can appear in and the other parts of speech these phrases can modify. I’ll need to address this more in subsequent lessons, but I see it as a work in progress. Slowly I hope to build a more solid understanding of how and why we use prepositions. With this end in mind, I created a reading-based activity to increase students’ awareness of what prepositional phrases look like, where we can find them in a sentence, and what kind of questions they can answer. Please see my About Prepositions_handout.


Photo credit:

“Tools” by zzpza. Retreived from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Fronting: Learn from a master we can.

Posted September 5, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

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Some of you (who know the powers of the Force) may get the clue in my title right away.  I admit that I was inspired by the most famous Jedi master, Yoda — probably the most beloved character from George Lucas’s Star Wars. Master Yoda has a singular way of using fronting and inversion. I found that many others are just as amused by and interested in the grammar of “Yoda speak.” If you do a Google search on Yoda, you’ll come to the same discovery.

Of course, we don’t want our students to speak like a Jedi master, for that language is only appropriate in a galaxy far, far away. However, I’d like to suggest a way Yoda could liven up an otherwise bland grammar point.

I’ve been asked about fronting and inversion lately, so I decided it would be timely to provide some practice that can increase students’ awareness of fronting. Please see my Fronting_handout. The objective is to help students recognize fronting and strengthen their understanding of when and why it’s used.  The final exercise would be a nice lead-in to an activity with “Yoda speak.” You could prepare a few simple sentences (S-V-O) in advance and then type them into a “Yoda speak” generator.

Share a “Yoda-speak” sentence with your students and ask them to translate it into standard English. Another alternative is to use real quotes from the Star Wars films and have students restate the ideas using standard grammar and/or more common word order in spoken English.

  1. The Force Within is a free app. You can browse a number of quotes and save the ones from Yoda and other Jedi. They tend to sound very formal and literary, creating the right kind of challenge. See if students can paraphrase the ideas using more relaxed language, but correct grammar.
  2. YouTube has many clips featuring Yoda. Here is just one: “Judge me by my size do you?” (Yoda, Empire Strikes Back)


Related posts on syntax:

Practice with Prepositions (Part Three)

Posted August 28, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: ,

Using prepositions in English is a challenge for most learners. How can we help them gain accuracy with these words? We seem to tackle them with relative ease in the context of location and direction. Students quickly learn how to describe the position of objects in a room and the direction people are heading in. I’ve shared activities to practice these uses before. (Set 1 and Set 2)

The next step is making students aware of grammatical units with prepositions. We can explain, for example, that there are many collocations with a verb + preposition structure. However, since the list of examples is quite long, it then becomes a matter of learning vocabulary. How much vocabulary should students learn? A limited amount to allow for practice and review.  Also, I like texts and activities that keep the collocations in context.

Lately I’ve given thought to the value of studying prepositions in isolation. While I think phrases like mad at, proud of, and beg for can be taught as a lexical unit, I feel a good number of upper level students appreciate attention to the prepositions all alone. Shouldn’t we take the time to explain that “at” helps us express where our actions or feelings are directed, as in mad at someone? “Of” can express belonging (e.g., a part of your body) or it can identify the object of your feelings (e.g., afraid of the dark). “For” helps us express intention or purpose (e.g., I’d do anything for you.) If students have a sense of these meanings, they’ll have an easier time picking up new collocations with prepositions, such as suspicious of and qualified for.

Please take a look at my Think about it_handout. The first two exercises are much like a simple worksheet. They serve the purpose of determining accuracy and awareness. Once students have given some attention to the meanings of prepositions, you can then move into more meaningful use via the final short speaking activity. You’ll note that I included a few prepositions of time because I feel they usually raise a few doubts as well.


First-day Ideas: Icebreakers and More

Posted August 21, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Classroom Tips

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In a group setting, building a sense of community is key from the get-go. Whether you start working with a new group of students next week or six months from now, I hope you will take the time to consider some of the following activities. They are designed to help students become acquainted with one another.

A to Z Teacher Stuff allows you to easily make a word search. Why not make one using the first names of a high beginner group? Include your name as well. Bring copies of the puzzle to your first class and distribute them. Have students walk around introducing themselves. As they learn a new name, they must find it in the puzzle. Put a review of the basics on the board: What is your name? My name is… How do you spell that? Model a self-introduction and help students find your name first. Tip: When you make the word search, keep it simple by selecting options such as forward words only and no diagonal words.

Puzzle Maker can help you build a crossword on the spot. If you have the capability of projecting your screen, this could be a fun way to get intermediate students to introduce themselves and interact.

  1. Ask each student to state their name, their home country, and one or two facts about themselves. You can model: My name is Jennifer. I’m from the U.S. I like to play the piano.
  2. As each student speaks, you need to enter their first name as an answer and the other personal information as the clue in the proper format to create the crossword. (Jennifer/ From the U.S. Likes to play the piano.)
  3. Once you press “Create the Puzzle,” your crossword will be formatted in seconds. You can even customize your background design. Now you’re ready to share your screen. Have students recall who is who by completing the puzzle as a class.
  4. VARIATION: Use the crossword on Day 2. Find out personal information on Day 1. Don’t tell them what you have in store. Just take notes and create the puzzle after class. Bring printed copies to the next class and have them remember who is who by working in small groups. Groups can break up and form new groups until each student has completed the crossword.

Looking for more ideas to get new groups of students interacting?

Friday Fun with Apps 2

Posted August 14, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Tech Tips

Tags: , , , , , ,

I’m sure that many of you have also seen the possibilities of repurposing entertainment apps for language learning. This is my second “Friday Fun with Apps” post. Let me share two apps with free versions for you to check out.

Recently rap has crept its way into my household. I admit that it’s not my favorite genre of music, but using AutoRap by Smule on my iPhone or iPad has been very entertaining. My children and I have used the Talk Mode to create solo and group raps. There’s no need for the rhyme-and-rhythm challenged to event attempt a legitimate rap. The app does it all for you. You simply record a sentence or two, and the app morphs your voice and puts it to a rap tune. In seconds you sound like you should have your hit playing on a radio station!

There is a Rap Mode for those who really need only a beat and an audience, but most learners are going to be shy about performing, so I’d stick with the Talk Mode in a group setting. Give a demo to show how easy it is. Possible topics and formats:

  • How was your weekend? Have students pair up and ask each other about how they spent their weekends. They can decide on 1-2 lines per person and record their statements one after the other. (Finding a quiet corner or stepping out in the hall for a few seconds would be a good idea to reduce background noise.) The raps can be played for the class — not necessarily in their entirety since there is much repetition. Follow-up questions can be given after each listening.
  • Hello my name is… Demo your self-intro in class. Ask students to do their own 2-3 line introduction and email it to you.
  • The Bottom Line. If students engage in discussion, they can summarize their personal viewpoint, make a recommendation, or ask a rhetorical question. Next step: Email it to a partner and then email a response to the partner’s rap.
  • Vocabulary Lists. As a warm-up you can name a category and ask students to call out words. The resulting list is your rap. Alternatively, you can use a set of words you’re studying that given week. Each student can email you a pre-assigned definition via a rap. Taking turns, students will be asked to identify the key word as they listen to the rap. As soon as the word is correctly guessed, move on to the next rap.

Looking for a fun warm-up just to get students talking? Consider Optical Illusions by Tick Tock Apps. There are images of people, animals, rooms, places, and activities. Filter by either “Illustrative Art” or “Photographic.” Just asking students to describe what they see will get them talking. With a little forethought, you can choose an image that ties into the theme of your lesson plan. If you don’t have a projector, you could email the selected image for students to view on their own phones.



Nothing but the Truth: Using “but” as a Preposition

Posted August 6, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A learner recently asked me to confirm that we use the base form of the verb after “nothing but” and only infinitives after a phrase like “no choice but.” Hmm.  I could have created greater complexity by throwing out the fact that gerunds could also appear after nothing but. After all, if but functions as a preposition, then we know that gerunds could also be indirect objects. Consider this example: “There is nothing but whining and arguing at those committee meetings.” (See comment below about dummy subjects.)

However, I felt it best to limit discussion to the two constructions [nothing but + base verb] and [no choice but + infinitive]. The latter phrase has a noun, and nouns can have infinitive complements: the right to remain silent, the need to express oneself, the choice to be free. The infinitives help us define those nouns, those ideas. It doesn’t matter if the phrase is affirmative or negative: no rights to exercise, no needs to speak of, no choice but to fight. Agreed?

As for nothing but, dictionaries prefer to use examples with noun and pronoun objects. We could start with such examples to help students discover the meaning of this phrase: They serve nothing but healthy food. = They serve only healthy food. We can then start offering more examples to show the range of objects: They serve nothing but the best. = They only serve the best. / The food critic did nothing but complain.= The food critic only complained. (He did nothing else.)

I think it’s easier to see nothing but as an equivalent of only, as noted in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Comparing it to except creates confusion for learners because we also have except for and constructions like except do something and except to do something. I also think it’s helpful to show the patterns that are most frequent. We usually see [nothing but + base verb] after a form of do: He did nothing but complain. She plans to do nothing but sleep. We‘ve done nothing but work, work, work. Sometimes the most helpful explanation to a question is not about targeting the why aspect, but rather targeting what the standard is.

If you’d like to help your students learn some standard patterns with but as a preposition, please check out my Nothing but the Truth_handout.

If you’d like to help me gain greater clarity on this topic, please post a comment. Thank you!

Facing the Topic of Aging and Making It Fun

Posted July 30, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Vocabulary

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In my Language Notes series, I like to highlight sets of vocabulary that facilitate understanding and communication on a given topic. In my newest video, I’ve decided to face one particular topic head on — before someone else with observant eyes brings it up: aging. The truth is that we’re all aging, but for those of us who make instructional videos, we’re aging on camera. So why not admit I’m no spring chicken? (That’s one of the expressions I teach in the video!)

The experience of aging and the inevitable signs of growing older can be a topic discussed with sensitivity and respect for all, and if done this way the lesson will be a meaningful and memorable one for adult learners. Shared laughter can be a great way to kick off such a lesson. I found a two-minute video by comedian John Fraser on YouTube. His speech is fast, but students can focus on two tasks in order to take away key points. (1) First, ask students to complete this statement with any adverb: I want to age ___. Then as they listen ( around :20), they can catch some of the adverbs John Fraser uses, like gracefully and joyously. (2) Second, ask students to pay attention to the final joke about hearing loss. See who is able to explain the punch line. (Hint: It’s about not pointing fingers and having more self-awareness about growing older.)

I’ve put together a small set of classroom slides to further engage students and find out what vocabulary they already have to talk about growing older. Please see my Language Notes_12_classroom slides. You may choose to present the vocabulary I teach in my video, from laugh lines to elderly vs. old, and then have students watch the entire video after class to reinforce your own presentation. I also offer an interactive exercise on my website for review and practice. In class, you may invite students to put some of the vocabulary into use with my  Getting Up There_handout.

To generate more conversation and writing on this topic you may use my suggestions from the previous post, in which I linked to video on living longer. Also, you could turn to online quotes on aging. (I like BrainyQuote.)

  • Have students choose a quote that most closely reflects their own viewpoint. They can explain their understanding of the quote and then provide at least one illustration through a personal example — a relative, a friend, or even themselves.
  • Assign quotes to students and have them prepare a short talk for the class. How do they interpret the words and do they agree or disagree with the main idea?


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