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

Posted May 16, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

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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: Uncategorized

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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

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



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

Hitting the Books: Learning Idioms about Books and Reading

Posted April 24, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Vocabulary

Tags: , , , , ,

"Books" by Chris (shutterhacks)It’s been a while since I’ve posted materials on idioms. The interest in conversational expressions remains strong among online learners, however, so I recently decided to pick up the camera and talk about idioms and sayings related to books.

This time around, I changed my approach in teaching this kind of vocabulary. In the past I limited my video lessons to three expression to allow time for adequate practice. Now I plan to take advantage of other platforms and formats, so additional practice can be found on my website in the form of an interactive exercise. Also, for those in the classroom, a reading-based activity will allow review and expansion. Please see my Hitting the Books_handout. With these additional opportunities for study, I felt it was possible to increase the number of target expressions to seven. I hope both students and teachers will enjoy hitting the books with these materials!


Photo credit:

“Books” by Chris (shutterhacks). Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

TESOL 2014 Highlights: Using Twitter

Posted April 15, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Tech Tips

Tags: , , , , , , ,

On the final day of the convention, I sought to learn even more about the uses of technology. I wasn’t disappointed. I found several sessions offered by the CALLIS and VDMIS groups. The one on using Twitter was well attended.

Abby Porter of University of Illinois and Nathan Soelberg of University of Oregon correctly assumed that most teachers know of Twitter, and they also correctly assumed that although we know about tweeting, we may not know how to do it or how it can be used in language learning.

The presenters started with a discussion of the benefits. Among them is the fact that Twitter makes text retrievable. Students and teachers can easily go back and read earlier tweets. Also, people can become connected by topic. Connections can occur in and out of the classroom. Finally, through a humorous anecdote of his own language learning experience in Korea, Nathan explained how subtle things in speech, such as a small word or structure, might be missed in conversation, but through the process of reading text those small differences are more easily perceived.

A dozen or more possible uses of Twitter were generously shared. Here were some of my favorites:

  • Classroom management. Students can be asked to tweet individual answers to questions. The teacher, sitting at his or her desk, can then provide individual feedback as the tweets are received.
  • Peer feedback. Twitter handles can remain anonymous, which might make students feel more comfortable when giving feedback to peers.
  • Dictations. Students can tweet their dictations to the teacher and hopefully through the process realize the importance of accuracy (over speed).
  • Screencasts of lessons. Teachers can tweet screencasts for students to review parts of lessons.
  • Important documents. Teachers can take photos of worksheets or other important lesson materials and make necessary notes for students directly on the images. Abby and Nathan mentioned apps like ShowMe, which is free.

The presenters recommended getting Twitter started early with new groups of students and having experienced users tutor a partner and explain the basics.

Thank you very much to Abby and Nathan for a useful session and for kindly allowing me to repost some of their ideas here! Please note that Abby will make the full presentation available on her website.

TESOL 2014 HIGHLIGHTS: Vocabulary Learning and Instruction

Posted April 8, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Vocabulary

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For me, a TESOL convention wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Electronic Village. Sometimes you have to search for the EV down a long hallway or two, but once I found the EV folk in Portland, I also discovered new ideas for vocabulary instruction.

Jill Ballard, Laurie Frazier, and Shalle Leeming of Academy of Art University, San Francisco shared recommendations for developing learner independence. Two familiar online resources, the University of Hong Kong’s Vocabulary Profiler and Brigham Young University’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) were presented for student use. Teachers and materials writers have, of course, turned to these and similar resources often, but this team of teachers explained how students can be guided to use knowledge of high frequency words and collocations.

Using an academic text on visual literacy, Ballard, Frazier, and Leeming demonstrated how the Vocabulary Profiler identifies and sorts high frequency words, AWL words, UWL words, and off-list words. The highly visual separation of the words can help students determine which vocabulary in a text is worth learning when reading independently. Taking one of the color-coded AWL words, “approaches,” the presenters then moved into COCA and explained how the listed collocations could be scanned to determine which part of speech is more frequent and which collocation(s), e.g., approach to, is common. COCA does offer quite a lot of information, and the many search features could overwhelm new users; however, by limiting student use (at least initially) to finding, scanning, and studying the collocations for a given word, COCA becomes an effective learning tool.

Students could record their findings and study the new vocabulary with the help of Quizlet. From flashcards to drag-and-drop exercises, Quizlet can help learners review and interact with the information they pull together, making vocabulary learning engaging and meaningful. The presenters suggested that example sentences could be pulled from COCA or a learner’s dictionary.

Moving over to another computer station, I found Rosario Giraldez of Alianza Cultural Uruguay Estados Unidos offering her ideas on the uses of another vocabulary profiler, Lextutor. A similar demonstration with a text was given, but Rosario focused on uses for both teachers and learners. The two I liked best were for reading and writing. First, the suggestion was made that if a text was determined to be too difficult for a given group of students in terms of vocabulary, Lextutor could quickly identify for the teacher those words that needed to be substituted with higher frequency words. Second, students could be taught limited uses of this vocabulary profiler to help them see their own word variety and progress in vocabulary learning. Rosario suggested that a student could submit a composition at the beginning of the term and then submit another at the end of the term. By comparing the range and density of vocabulary, the student could self-assess his or her own writing.

Luckily, there was time to sit in at one more mini-session at the Technology Fair. I joined Anne Hernandez of Arkansas State University, who summarized the workshop she co-moderated for the Electronic Village Online (EVO) earlier this year. Anne worked with fellow EV folk Brenda Brinkley and Jennie Farnell and led teachers through an exploration and discussion of online vocabulary resources over the course of five weeks. (Click here for session info.) Anne noted how much sharing took place among teachers and stated that it was so successful that they just might run a similar session again for the EVO in 2015 (so look out for that annual event that offers free professional development!). Anne shared a list of websites and kindly indicated some of the favorites: Quizlet (no surprise there), Glogster, and Learning Chocolate. That last site was particularly fun for me to check out. It’s appropriate for beginners and sets up exercises to practice meaning, pronunciation, and spelling.

My sincere thanks to all the presenters for allowing me to repost their ideas here.

TESOL 2014 Highlights: Stop Animation

Posted April 3, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Tech Tips

The hunger for more uses of technology in language instruction has certainly not decreased since Dallas. If anything, we teachers seemed to be even more eager in 2014. There were a good number of sessions focusing on technology every day of the convention, and the number of teachers in attendance was always high. Only on the final day when people were not heading to airports (or out in the sun that finally shone after several days of downpours) did I attend a CALL or VDMIS session where participants were not standing along the walls or sitting on the floor.

Scott Duarte and Julie Lopez of the English Language Institute at the University of Delaware attracted many teachers who were curious to learn about stop animation. The presenters started out by talking about equipment and software. From experience, Scott and Julie know that the iPad is an option, but the picture is not as sharp compared to images taken with an iPhone. For those on a budget, a tripod could be substituted with stationary furniture. If you do own a tripod, know that two rubber bands could be used to secure your phone in place if you don’t want to go out and purchase a special phone holder that attaches to the tripod. They noted different apps on the market, both free and for purchase. Free apps include iMotion HD, Lego Movie Maker, and Stop Motion Studio. Apps like Stop Motion Studio Pro and Osnap! Time will run you $3-5, but you get additional features, such as sound effects.

As for what you can film with, if students are not able or willing to appear in front of the camera, a variety of common, inexpensive objects can be used. Scott demonstrated one film he made using his children’s toys and voices. Julie, who can only borrow items from a niece, headed to a local toy store and purchased a small set of magnets. She also proved to be resourceful, using ripped up tissues for clouds.  Scott later explained how even markers and paper can be used for simple drawings.

What have Scott and Julie done with stop animation? Their students have created short stories or demonstrations contextualizing target vocabulary. They’ve also used stop animation videos to illustrate or elicit grammar. Julie’s clever video with recently purchased and found items around town showed a simple set of actions that would prompt students to describe each event with irregular past verbs: fell, drove, hit, rode, etc. The wonderful thing about all of these videos is that they can be saved, repurposed, and recycled. Finished works are saved as mp4s. Scott has his videos archived on his website and YouTube channel.

Participants were interested in logistics and tech details. The presenters explained how storyboarding can take place in class, but filming should be done outside of class. A short clip of 30 seconds can require 1,000+ images, and the key is to move objects only a little between shots. Scott recommends filming first and then adding audio. Also, a standard video has 24 frames per second, but the stop animation clips have 10. Scott noted that 3 frames per second results in a choppy playback. If you happen to have editing software on your computer, additional editing is possible once you have the mp4 file.

Kind thanks to Julie and Scott for sharing their creative approaches and allowing me to repost their ideas here! Incidentally, I have already started playing around with the free apps (much to my children’s delight).



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