Archive for the ‘Grammar’ category

Finding the Right Tools to Build an Understanding of Prepositions

September 12, 2014

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.

September 5, 2014

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)

August 28, 2014

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.

 

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

August 6, 2014

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!

Frequent Flyer: An activity to practice adverbs of frequency

June 20, 2014

“AW9FYG” by Sam ChurchillIt has been a long time since I worked with my friend and student Natasha, with whom I made my playlist for beginners. We are both in new towns and very far from each other, but because there has been a demand for more video lessons, I found the time to drive out to her new home recently. (Video to come!)

We reviewed, and then I decided to test her familiarity with adverbs of frequency. Natasha did well, but if given the chance to practice more with her, I would like to reinforce word order. Students generally pick up on the meanings quickly, but variation in word order can be the main challenge. With that in mind, I created my Frequent Flyer_handout. If you have basic level students, you may find this simple activity to be a good way to reinforce the patterns in word order. For this lesson, I limited the focus to always, usually, often, sometimes, rarely, and never.

 

Photo credit:

“AW9FYG” by Sam Churchill

Retrieved from Flickr, Creative Commons.

Push to Dispense: Understanding the grammar of consumer labels

June 12, 2014

DSC00127 Test Shot Cleaning Product 10-01-2014A few years back, I posted suggestions for using authentic weather reports in a language lesson. Those ideas came under the heading of “Survival English.” Recently, a student’s question highlighted another source of authentic language that will inevitably be encountered and that also poses a challenge for the learner: consumer labels. You know what I mean — the information on the back of a box or bottle that supplies instructions, warnings, and other pertinent information for the consumer.

Once your eyes adjust to the small text, you encounter a very specific writing style that is not unlike news headlines. Consumer labels use abbreviated language. The absence of articles as well as the occasional auxilary verb or object confused the one student until I explained the need for brevity. It was then I hit upon the challenge of asking learners to put the abbreviated language into standard spoken English. “Turn nozzle and push to dispense foam” really means “turn the nozzle and push it to dispense the foam.” We could explain to another user, “You have to turn the nozzle and then push it down to make the foam come out.”

Want a practical and original warm-up for upper level students? I call it Consumer Demos:

  1. Bring in a mix of personal care products and household cleaners, one for each student.
  2. Give them a minute to read the consumer information. Ask them to scan and find the uses and the instructions. They must be able to explain in more conversational English but using standard grammar what the product is for and how it should be used. Dictionaries may be used. Possible products: facial lotion, mouthwash, make-up remover, aftershave, all purpose cleaner, tub and tile cleanser, jewelry cleaner, car wax.
  3. In small groups, each student will take a turn presenting their product. After each student speaks, group members can comment on whether they have used the product or a similar one.

You can easily move into a grammar or vocabulary lesson by selecting language from the labels.

  • Definite article and other modifiers. Present a line from the instructions and ask students to change it from abbreviated language to standard language. Example: “Squeeze small amount into palm of hand.” > “Squeeze a small amount into the palm of your hand.” Discuss the reasons why articles or other modifiers are needed.
  • Vocabulary. From “nozzle” to “dispense,” most consumer labels tend to use the same word choices. Are your students familiar with these words? See my Push to Dispense_handout for more practice.

 

Photo credit:

“DSC00127 Test Shot Cleaning Product 10-01-2014″ by rodtuk

Retrieved from Flickr, Creative Commons

Fun, Useful Ideas for Working with Adjectives

June 5, 2014

My next grammar video will target the order of adjectives. I find it’s one of those topics that can put me a loss for answers. Why do we put size before color? Why do we put shape after size? Well…because. It sounds like a lame answer, but that’s just what we do. Language users develop standards, and it’s best to observe those standards for clear communication. If you talk about a brown big couch, you might be putting a pothole in the road to comprehension. In contrast, the phrase a big brown couch is easily digested in the flow of conversation.

I’ve posted some ideas for practice in the past. Now I’d like to offer a way to help learners discover the patterns before moving into production. Please consider my reading-based activity: The Empty White Room_handout.


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