Push to Dispense: Understanding the grammar of consumer labels

Posted June 12, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , ,

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

Posted June 5, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , ,

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.

How to Learn Collocations: Independence from Teachers and Dependence on Resources

Posted May 28, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Vocabulary

Tags: , , , , , ,

Another teacher recently asked about ways to teach collocations to upper level students. The inquiry reminded me of what I took away from a TESOL session in Portland this past March. A team from  Academy of Art University, San Francisco focused on building learner independence. They recommended showing students how to work with COCA and Vocabulary Profiler when reading academic texts. I agree with this idea of putting tools in the hands of our students. They will not always be taking our lessons, but they will have the information given and the skills practiced in our lessons.

While learners are studying with us, I believe in using a very valuable resource: one another. Whether it’s a group lesson or private lesson, I see value in practicing vocabulary through conversation and student-generated texts. Vocabulary is mastered through multiple encounters, but repetition must be meaningful. That’s why context is so important. But how can we be certain  that content will be engaging and target language will be retained? That’s where using students’ own ideas comes in. This personalizes the lesson and can increase learner engagement and retention of material.

I’ve shared classroom activities in the past to practice collocations:

These kinds of activities teach students best practices for learning vocabulary now and in the future:

  1. Don’t try to learn too much at one time.
  2. Don’t just learn the meaning of the word. Learn how it’s used. Learn the collocations.
  3. Pay attention to context.
  4. Don’t just look at the information. Practice using it. Try using collocations in your own speech.
  5. Listen to others and pay attention to their use of collocations. When in doubt about what you hear, check a learner’s dictionary.

As for the future, we can allow students to get ready for independent learning by practicing different approaches under our guidance. If they are wondering which words to learn, they could be told about high frequency word lists, like the AWL. You can visit the site together and explain how the sublists identify the most common words. Also, students could select a text and focus on high frequency words identified by Vocabulary Profiler. TESOLers Jill Ballard, Laurie Frazier, and Shalle Leeming of Academy of Art University suggested this and the use of COCA to discover collocations. COCA can be intimidating, though, so I’d offer a list of questions to help make sense of the results displayed on COCA:

  • What kind language are you looking at — spoken, fiction, academic, etc?
  • Do you see repeated phrases (e.g., adjective + noun “statistical analysis”) or repeated structures (e.g., noun + preposition “analysis of”)?
  • Can you confirm collocations with a learner’s dictionary?



The Different Paths We Walk: An ESL Story

Posted May 20, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Interviews, Professional Development

James Heywood of Adelaide, Australia

James Heywood of Adelaide, Australia

Today there are many professional paths for us ESL teachers to take. Some of us walk more than one path at the same time. People have asked about the reasons for the choices I have made, the nature of my online work, and the challenges I face in my different roles. When I meet other educators and content creators in our field, I am just as curious about them.

Because teaching experiences can be so diverse and because hearing different viewpoints is always a healthy experience, I have invited a new colleague of mine from Adelaide, Australia to share his ESL story. James Heywood is a teacher and the co-founder of TurksLearnEnglish and Off2Class. After years of working in language institutes and private schools, he made the move to online teaching. He has taught students of all ages in one-on-one and group settings. Enjoy reading his responses to my questions.

[The thoughts and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pearson.]


  1. When did you first start teaching English?

I first commenced teaching English full-time in late 2005. Prior to that I had been working in the corporate sector, though I had tutored students in French, Spanish and English essay composition over a number of years. Essentially, it was time for a career change and teaching offered the possibility to use my increasingly dormant language and linguistic skills learnt at University.

  1. When and why did you start teaching online?

I took the leap in January 2013, left my full-time position at a middle school in Istanbul and was soon teaching approximately 35 online lessons weekly via videoconferencing to students aged between 6 and 55. Students I had been teaching privately were mostly computer literate, so the move to online lessons was not onerous.  The majority of my present students attend one-to-one lessons, though I still teach several lessons with multiple students. For younger students the lessons serve primarily as reinforcement of their school curriculum and an opportunity to improve grammar, while older students focus on developing fluency, naturalness and vocabulary.

  1. What skills were you able to transfer to online teaching? What other skills did you have to acquire or develop?

Most skills required in the traditional classroom are easily transferable to the online education environment. It is just as easy to elicit information, demonstrate and check concepts, drill, provide correction and maintain motivation and discipline when the student views you via a laptop or tablet, as it is when you collaborate in the same physical space. My strong time management skills have been a valuable asset to online teaching.

Naturally, my computer literacy has progressed immensely over the last year as I have become familiar with more websites, programs and apps to use in the online classroom. In the past twelve months I have taught almost 1,000 hours via videoconferencing software so I now consider myself a highly experienced user of certain programs! However, I am not constantly learning about new programs and apps. I discovered a handful that worked for me and my students and I have stuck with them, preferring to master a few rather than trawl the Internet for the latest-in-everything. Well, at least for now…

Finally, teaching online means managing all of your admin duties. This has been the biggest learning experience for me! You become your own Student Services, Payroll and Human Resource Department.

  1. You create and share teaching materials on Off2Class.com. Those are for private online lessons. How do you find lesson planning for online classes different from lesson planning for the traditional classroom?

The reality is that lesson preparation for online lessons is significantly different from the traditional classroom. In the traditional classroom, teachers must plan for differentiated learning and for delivery to a large number of students. Peer-to-peer activities, group projects and standardized tests are all in vogue. Planning can be immensely enjoyable for such lessons; however, I feel it is rare that a teacher can ever deliver the same lesson more than once a year. Many times, a lesson plan is never reused. And to me, that always felt like a waste of effort.

For online teaching, my goal has been to create solid, enjoyable and rewarding lessons that could be utilized again and again. Make it once and make it correctly. Lesson content should contain all the vibrant color and imagery that a 21st century student demands; however, there must be a clear format and consistent approach that runs throughout all my online lessons. Consistency aids an online teacher to convey a strong sense of professionalism and can set them apart. There is myriad of content available on the web for teachers, yet the quality varies so greatly that the time spent searching can outweigh the time required to create the lesson from scratch.

Naturally, lesson planning still takes up a large portion of my time. In spite of that, I am pleased that over the year I have been able to use some of my lessons more than 20 times. Naturally, I adapt how I use the content with every student, but the content itself has remained the same.

  1. You also work with Turks through your other site. Do you speak Turkish? What is your position on using the students’ L1 in your instruction and your interaction with learners?

I understand Turkish well and I speak the language enough to communicate on all subjects, though my grammar is far from perfect.

I believe strongly in using L1 in the ESL environment, especially so with young learners. My teaching style means I attempt to incorporate humor and maintain a relaxed learning environment. Shared culture, such as expressions, geographical places, names of people and even food are simply the best way to personalize the learning experience and maintain a student’s interest and motivation.

I avoid direct translations. However, L1 can serve as a way to maintain the flow of a lesson. After teaching in a Turkish school, it has become a trademark of my teaching to use expressions that children and teachers used throughout the school. It makes a young student feel at ease and L1 is without a doubt my only way to deal with the rare occurrences of bad behavior in an online environment. It’s much easier to inject humour by using L1 to deflate any frustration or boredom during the lesson.

  1. You wrote on your LinkedIn profile: “The education sector is undergoing wild, frenetic and necessary disruption.” Can you elaborate on that?

I think most educators would agree that education delivery has changed dramatically in the last decade. Chalk boards are disappearing as Smartboards fill classrooms. Students may have a laptop or iPad. I have a feeling that handwriting may disappear altogether as it becomes more valid for students to learn touch-typing. School libraries have fewer shelves and greater numbers of e-books. Good teachers are now computer literate and avidly use technology in the classroom. For ESL, this is especially true because of the sheer number of people involved in the industry. The ABC’s of learning have remained the same, but its delivery to the student has changed irrevocably.

This disruption to education is a wonderful event. Just about every industry you can imagine has undergone disruption because of the Internet. Travel agencies have but disappeared and publishing is an unrecognizable industry. How we access music and film is still undergoing a painful metamorphosis. Education will change as well.





The Trick to Telling a Good Tale: Simple Past or Simple Present?

Posted May 16, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , , , ,

ST001: Figure 2.1One of my recent online exchanges centered around the choice of verb tenses for telling a story. Do we narrate an event in the present or the past? The learner who raised this question had just learned about the use of the simple present to make a narrative seem more exciting and real, as if the action were unfolding right before the listener’s eyes. It took several exchanges to strengthen this learner’s grasp on when this shift in verb tenses is appropriate.

This kind of question certainly requires a look at grammar beyond the sentence level. I offered some models, such as clips from performances by comedian Bill Cosby, who skillfully recalls moments from his past with humor to entertain all ages. As I gave the matter more thought, I began to compile a list of other possible models. For you and for me, I will keep this list handy for the next time I need to illustrate this grammar point. The range of contexts should enable us to choose the one model that best suits the given learner’s age and interests.

  •  The story of Swan Lake in the film Billy Elliot. The simple present is used to tell a familiar tale, the plot of the famous ballet.
  • Bill Cosby on Understanding Children. The simple present is used for facts, general habits, and humorous past acts.
  • A man goes into a seafood restaurant…” joke posted on Smilezilla. The simple present is used to tell a humorous story.
  • The First Case, a joke posted on Reader’s Digest (joke page). The simple present is used to tell a humorous story.
  • Marty McFly recalling Doc’s accident in Back to the Future. The simple past is used to tell the sequence of events that led to Doc’s idea for time travel. This scene nicely contrasts with any of the previous models.


Photo Credit:

“ST001: Fig. 2.1″

by Rosenfeld Media

Retrieved from Flickr, Creative Commons.

Student Stumper 41: Would you want to be (a/the/Ø) king for a day? Which article is correct?

Posted May 7, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar, Student Stumpers

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

"Crown" by Jason TrainIn my last post, I mentioned two recent grammar points that learners prompted me to reflect on. Here’s my discussion of the second along with a classroom activity.

QUESTION: Does a singular noun always need an article?

ANSWER: No. In fact, I could ask, “Do you want to be a king?” or “Do you want to be the king?” or “Do you want to be king?” All three could be correct. Why?

Why indeed! A learner questioned my wording when I asked, “Would you want to be president for a day?”  Hmm. Why didn’t I use an article before president? It came out rather naturally, and I didn’t pause to think why I had no article. As I reflected, I knew that “be a president” referred to the chance to be any president of any country in the world. That wasn’t what I meant. I could have used “be the president” to clarify that it was an opportunity to lead one’s own country, a specific position within a specific country. So why is a zero article also possible in this second case?

Biber and his co-writers discuss the use of the zero article with institutions, from public places to meals For example, I could write, “After church, the family had breakfast.”  My use of articles is appropriate because I’m using church and breakfast as institutions. “What is important to note is that  these structures involve nouns which in other contexts behave as ordinary countable nouns” (261).

The dictionary solves this dual nature by listing words like dinner as a countable and uncountable noun. That’s fine for meals and places, such as college and jail, but what about positions, like president? “President” is listed only as a countable noun in the LDCE, so we can’t say it has an abstract use. Biber explains that predicate nouns naming a unique role or position can appear with either the zero article or the definite article (262).

To help upper level students grasp this finer point of article usage, I offer a short activity. Please see my King or Queen_handout.



Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.


Photo credit:

“Crown” by Jason Train.

Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Student Stumper 40: Can I use “will” in a clause with “when”?

Posted April 30, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar, Student Stumpers

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Often answers to grammar questions are easy to give, but occasionally a question really gives me pause. Even if I believe I know the answer, I find myself asking, ‘”Why is that correct?” The first rules that come to mind somehow don’t apply.

Some choose to downplay the importance of studying grammar. I agree that language learning goes beyond studying the rules, but we can’t just chuck those rules out the window. Those so-called rules guide us toward accurate use of language. We know that apostrophes are used to show possession and not form plural nouns. We know that subjects and verbs must agree. We know that “will” is not used in future time clauses, and a singular noun appears with an article. But within the past week, I had to reflect on those last two patterns. How standard are they? I’ll share my thoughts on “will” in this post.

QUESTION: Can I use “will” in a clause with “when”?

ANSWER: If it’s an adverb clause of time referring to the future, then use the simple present: When the weather gets warmer, the flowers will start to bloom. This pattern holds true for other adverbs, such as if: If the weather gets warmer, we’ll start gardening this weekend. “The simple present accompanied by an adverbial of time [...] is used particularly where a future event is felt to be fixed and certain at the time of speech” (Biber et al. 455).

However, “when” has other functions. We can use “when” in a noun clause, or what Biber et al refer to as nominal clauses (193). Using a nominal clause as a direct object, I offer this example: I don’t know when the weather will get warmer, but hopefully it won’t stay this cold for much longer. I believe this use of “will” to mark the future is acceptable. Also, “will” could appear in relative clauses. Using “when” as a relative adverb, I could say, “There will come a time when more administrators will embrace the importance of foreign languages in elementary schools.” Do you agree? Could we drop the “will” and use the simple present with “embrace”?

Searching online for common patterns, I see that “when” as a relative adverb, especially with the head noun “time,”  leads to the greatest amount of variation.  Writers make different choices with their verbs in that relative clause. Some use the simple present, and others mark the future with “will.” Consider this popular quote by Sarah Caldwell, the late opera conductor: “Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can — there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did” (Retrieved from brainyquote.com).

I would argue that use of “will” is generally avoided in future time clauses, but this modal can mark the future in nominal and relative clauses. If you agree, you might teach this pattern indirectly by engaging your students in one of two activities:

  • “There Will Come a Time.” Read the poem and discuss this question: According to the writer, why are so many poems written about love?
  • Quotes can show the variation in verb forms. The above quote by Sarah Caldwell uses “will.” The following quote by American author Louis L’Amour uses the simple present. You can present both quotes and have students discuss their meanings, relating personal anecdotes when possible. Louis L’Amour: “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning” (Retrieved from brainyquote.com).



Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.


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