Archive for the ‘Grammar’ category

How-to Lists: Understanding and Using Parallel Structure

November 20, 2014

Certain instances of parallel structure are easy to understand. Compound subjects or objects, for example, are often the first types students put into use. A beginner can say, “Soup and pasta are my favorite foods.” or “I like TV and books.” Lists, either within a sentence or in bulleted form, tend to pose more challenges. I’ve often seen an incorrect mix of gerunds and base forms of verbs in a list of skills on resumes, for instance. Then come the correlative conjunctions, such as either…or. These structures are put into use at the intermediate level and above, and key to using them is understanding parallel structure.

Recognizing the need for exposure to and practice with parallel structure, I’ve created my How To_handout. It’s a writing activity that is designed for classroom use, but could easily be adapted for private lessons. I hope your upper level students will find it enjoyable to use.

Commenting on Halloween Costumes: Activities for Beginners

October 15, 2014

Halloween TreeSome of you who’ve been visiting my blog over the years may recall that I love Halloween. It’s one of my favorite U.S. holidays. I’ve already shared many activities with this holiday theme. However, looking over my past posts, I see that I should bring some balance into the offerings by creating at least one or two more activities that can be done with beginners.

Costumes are a very fun part of this holiday celebration, so that’s what we can focus on this year. Here are two activities you could try:

 1. Shop for costumes. This is more like window shopping from the comfort of the classroom. Select images of about a dozen costumes in advance (men’s, women’s, and unisex) and post the images for the class to view. I’d suggest a few popular choices (e.g., vampire, witch, ghost) to familiarize students with some vocabulary frequently used in conjunction with the holiday. However, I’d also recommend using some so-called career costumes. Students will already know doctor and basketball player. Introduce them to some new occupations: police officer, construction worker, scientist, pilot, astronaut, or sailor. You can throw in king and queen. After identifying the costumes, follow these steps:

Step 1 – Questions to practice with a partner: You can scramble the sentences and then have students unscramble them in pairs before taking turns with the Q&A.

  • What’s this costume?
  • Is there a (nurse) costume?
  • How much is it?
  • Is it expensive?
  • Do they have my size?
  • What sizes are there?
  • What size are you?
  • Do you like this costume?

Step 2 – Discussion. You have $50. You need a costume for a Halloween party. Which costume do you want? Why?

This activity could lead into a larger lesson on counting money, a vocabulary lesson related to shopping or jobs, or a grammar lesson on question formation. (Note: Many of the women’s…ahem…skimpy costumes sold online may not be appropriate, so choose carefully. You can always find images of homemade costumes and put sizes and price tags on them yourself.)

2. Describe costumes. This activity is like a Halloween version of the Fashion Police who patrol red carpet events. You can choose amazing, funny, cheap, and otherwise notable costumes. Sites like Pinterest might help your search. The idea is to see what language students already have and then build on that. Focus on adjectives. Help students use both attributive and predicative adjectives:

  • That’s a (silly) costume.
  • That costume is (silly).
  • I like that costume. It’s (clever).
  • I don’t like that costume. It looks (cheap).
  • What a (beautiful) costume!

You can lead into a deeper look at intensifiers: very, really, so. You can also introduce comparative adjectives if the students are ready.

For all levels, please consider ideas shared in previous posts:

Also, in the past, I discussed reasons for ELLs to be exposed to Halloween traditions. Click here to read.

Photo credit: “Halloween Tree” by Heather Franks. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Lots to Wonder about: Working with Prepositions

September 26, 2014

In my next video lesson on prepositions, I plan to tackle about and of. I’m going to limit the number of possible combinations to give learners a chance to retain them. I hope that through exposure in different contexts, some of the collocations with these two prepositions will stick in the learner’s mind. To that end, I’ve already created a classroom activity (see my Lots to Wonder about_handout) and an interactive exercise. Perhaps you can make use of these materials with your students. Enjoy!

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!


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