How-to Lists: Understanding and Using Parallel Structure

Posted November 20, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar, Writing

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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.

More than Just Going with the Flow: An ESL Story

Posted November 12, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Interviews

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Every so often I look at a particular teacher’s professional experience and see a lesson or two that can be learned. That’s mostly why I choose to do interviews here. I hope you share my interest in hearing about other paths teachers take and events that guided their decisions.

In my last post  I mentioned a project that has me collaborating with a colleague from the UK. The interesting thing is that Vicki Hollett now resides in the US, and this has allowed her to become very familiar with differences between British and American English, from pronunciation to pragmatics. It wasn’t her original intention to live in America long-term, but since events turned out as they did, she has embraced the opportunity and turned it to her advantage. So much of Vicki’s past and present work reflects her positive attitude, which strengthens her ability to identify how she can further her reach as a teacher of English.

Vicki Hollett: ESL teacher, author, videomaker

Vicki Hollett: ESL teacher, author, videomaker

Enjoy Vicki’s responses to my questions.

1.     When did you start teaching and how did you get involved in materials writing?

It was before the Internet was born, when there were very few materials around for business English students. I was teaching a class of businessmen in Tokyo with a book that talked about washing up and vacuuming the house. I had to start writing stuff that was more suited to their needs. It led to a book for Pearson and then lots more books for other publishers. 

2.     How did you end up in the US? Do you find it challenging in any way to be an ESL teacher in the US since you’re British?

I came to the US for 6 months in order to learn a little more about the other major English variety. And then I met an American guy who basically kidnapped me. 6 months has turned into 16 years. And no, being British in the US is interesting, but not a challenge. I generally work with people who need English for business and technical purposes. They need to communicate in international contexts, so I think having a British and US perspective has worked to my advantage.

3.     Why does videomaking appeal to you? How much of the technology side did you know before you got started on YouTube?

Video appeals to me because it’s so pedagogically sound. Meaning and context are intertwined and with video we can present language in context. That’s something we couldn’t do well with just audio.

I had learnt a bit about videomaking because I’d made three video courses for a publisher. (You can find a couple here.) I was teamed up with a guy called Bob Baker, who has since won a couple of BAFTAs and an Oscar. How lucky was I? Bob taught me a lot about script writing.

But technology-wise I didn’t know much and I had to turn to other sources. I used YouTube ‘how to’ videos to learn how to edit, and I got my ‘merican husband (who has worked in film, television, and video for many years) to help with shoots. 

    4. Yes, that was good fortune. (But you also have skill and talent!) What about other teachers interested in video production? What     possible path could they take? Could you offer some advice?

Just do it. Get yourself and a camera, press the record button and the rest will follow. Videomaking is one of those things that’s best learnt by doing, and you can have a lot of fun along the way.

5.     You also offer live instruction. What are some challenges and joys of being an online teacher?

There’s lots to enjoy: personal contact – meeting new people – independence – being able to teach in my pajamas sometimes – the world gets smaller and more connected and I just love that.

6.     Do you have any predictions for our field? What do you see happening for learners and teachers in the future?

I think learners and teachers will employ video more and more. It’s getting easier to shoot and distribute all the time, and like I said, it’s so pedagogically sound.

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

Exposing Students to Different Varieties of English

Posted November 7, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Methodology

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I genuinely appreciate opportunities to collaborate professionally. Working with a peer always becomes a learning experience for me. I’m sure many of you feel the same way about collaborative projects.

In recent weeks, an online project with my colleague, Vicki Hollett of the UK, has focused my attention on differences between American and British English. I’ve also been thinking about how valuable exposure to different varieties is. Back in 2009, I argued for a balance between exposure and consistency in a post about what pronunciation should be taught in the ESL or EFL classroom. My basic position hasn’t changed. I think I’m only more convinced that students need some exposure to variations in spoken and written English. With our increased use of the Internet, we all are using English within international communities. English is our medium, but there are variations in the standards. This happens quite naturally because we all come from different backgrounds.

How well are our students dealing with those variations? Are they able to function as global communicators? I think that’s really the goal today. A student can learn and practice one standard form of English, but he or she must be able to comprehend variations from that standard. Do you agree?

So how can we provide exposure to different varieties of English? Thanks to the wealth of online resources, there are many options. Here are just a few suggestions.

  • Read and listen to news from at least two different sources. At the upper levels, reading tasks can challenge students to draw from two different sources before engaging in discussion. For example, the BBC News site just posted an article on Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. CNN also has an article about the election in 2016. Could students form an opinion on Clinton’s chances of winning a nomination and the general election based on these two sources? The articles include video, which would also expose students to two different accents.
  • Use short film clips with actors from different countries. I always enjoyed the scene between Anna, a famous American actress, and Benny, an English stockbroker in Notting Hill (Jump to 0:52. Click here.) The scene brings up possible cultural differences, too. What kinds of questions can you ask someone you just met? What responses can you give to show general approval. Benny uses “Splendid!” Would an American do the same?
  • Use different dictionaries. Looking at entries for the same word in different dictionaries, UK- and US-published, can familiarize students with different pronunciations and spellings. I really appreciate how the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English always notes differences in spelling, meaning, and use based on the country.
  • Post a vocabulary or spelling chart. There are many colorful posters that would be interesting for students to study during some downtime in a classroom or school hallway. See the one shared by EnglishIsSoFun.
  • Encourage edutainment through online videos. There are many how-to videos online. I read in The Daily Telegraph that Australian vloggers have really claimed significant space on YouTube. Following one of the links, I began to watch make-up specialist Lauren Curtis. Female English language learners might enjoy learning Lauren’s tips and being exposed to the Australian English.

Got your own ideas? Please feel free to share them.


Chicken-related Idioms and Proverbs

Posted October 31, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Vocabulary

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chicken in yardI had more fun this week with chicken-inspired ideas. My office window looks out on the front yard, and I keep seeing a chicken wandering around, so it’s no wonder the bird has found its way into my writing. If you’re looking for a fun lesson on idioms and proverbs, please consider using the eight that I selected in my video lesson. I also created an interactive exercise that emphasizes context. My Flew the Coop_handout explores context further by asking students to create dialogs based on suggested situations.

Same Verb Forms, Other Uses

Posted October 24, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Uncategorized

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Learning English would be simpler if we only had to teach one use for each verb form, right? But when we get into tense and aspect, there are multiple uses we have to cover. Of course, we can start with the most common meanings of each form. We tell beginners, for instance, that the present progressive is for actions happening right now, and will is used for future actions and events. Then either through our lessons or through exposure outside of class they eventually discover that a verb form can express more than one meaning, and more than one verb form can be used in the same context. How confusing!

Recently I heard a native speaker give an interview, and he used the present progressive to describe a scenario in the present.  I know we can use the present tense to make a narrative seem more vivid, but this scenario was about habitual actions. I had to pause and think, “Do we do that often?”  Well, I can’t confirm the frequency, but I believe we do use the present progressive this way. Imagine a police officer telling parents, “If you’re children are riding to school every day, they need helmets and a lesson on road traffic safety.” The officer could also have used the simple present “ride,” but his statement is also fine as is.

How familiar are your students with all the uses of a single verb form? Do they know:

  • future time clauses with before, after, if, etc. require a verb in the present?
  • Did you ever…? is a common alternative to Have you ever…? in everyday conversation?
  • narratives (especially in fiction) are often told in the present to make the description more vivid?
  • the present progressive functions just like be going to for planned events or actions in the future?
  • the present progressive can be used to emphasize a habitual action in the present, especially with the adverb always?

If you’d like to give some exposure to these kinds of uses, please check out my Same Verb Forms, Other Uses_handout. There’s discovery, reflection, and practice in this short activity.



Commenting on Halloween Costumes: Activities for Beginners

Posted October 15, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Conversation, Grammar

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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.

Mailman or Mail Carrier: Gender in the English Language

Posted October 10, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Methodology, Vocabulary

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A YouTube viewer asked about my use of she to refer to one of my dolls. Confusion arose over the fact that I was referring to an inanimate object. Why didn’t I use it? The learner wanted to understand my word choice. This is a fun point to discuss with students. Point of view can heavily influence one’s grammar and vocabulary. I explained how we also use he or she to refer to animals, especially pets, if the gender is known. You hear this practice in wildlife documentaries all the time. A lioness might even take offense if the narrator used it to refer to her! In the case of my doll, a special and familiar object to me, I want to recognize her identity. I prefer she to it.

If any of you have ever watched the TV show True Blood, you might recall that one character uses the exclamation “Oh my goddess!” instead of the more common expression of surprise “Oh my god!” Again, it’s all about point of view. The discussion of gendered nouns and gender-neutral nouns in English is even more interesting than our flexibility with pronouns.

What I feel is most beneficial and practical in the context of a language lesson is an objective presentation of the trends. There are concepts that have remained masculine and feminine, and our stable vocabulary reflects this. King, queen, brother, and sister are just a few examples. However, gender-neutral words for occupations have really become more frequent in English. Students must be prepared to understand flight attendant, server, salesperson, and other job titles in day-to-day communication.

If you would like to address the issue of gender in the English language, please consider using some of my resources:

  • Language Notes_13_classroom slides Images of family and occupations will prompt students to speak. This pre-lesson activity can reveal the language students presently have to identify people.
  • Lesson 13 in my Language Notes series will present gendered nouns and gender-neutral nouns. You can use the video to supplement your own presentation or to help you plan your own examples.
  • Interactive exercises on gendered nouns and gender-neutral nouns can be used for independent review.


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