What grammar do ESL students really need?

We had an interesting discussion around the proverbial water-cooler at work this week about the grammar that we should expect students to produce correctly before they matriculate to their university degree programs (we teach in a pre-matriculation intensive English program). It’s tricky: our raison d’être (excuse my French) is to prepare students for success in their academic classes, which clearly requires very advanced proficiency in English. But of course it would be impossible, unreasonable, and flat out absurd to demand a level of flawless accuracy attained by few native speakers of the language. Even first-year undergraduate Delawareans, I suspect.

grammarSo, how good is good enough? For example, some of our most advanced students can speak fairly fluently for extended periods of time without a single verb that agrees with its subject (“he go … the research show …” etc.). My syllabus tells me that speaking with level-appropriate accuracy is a required learning outcome. Do I tell the student to use some -s endings? Yes. Do I assign a lower grade? Maybe a little. Do I hold the student back from matriculating? Certainly not!

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Grammar titbits and tidbits

I have a column in this month’s Grammar and Beyond newsletter on one of my favorite topics: noun + noun modification. It’s a nice segue from my recent articles on shifting from everyday to academic registers using nominalization and relative clauses. Suggestions for future topics are especially welcome right now!

I also just discovered that the reason I couldn’t get the title of this post to look right is that we say titbit in British English but tidbit in American English. Apparently, according to my favorite blog on the subject, this isn’t a case of Puritanical prudishness (you may titter all you like, dear reader), but an example of American English using the historically older form while British English goes off on its own tangent.

2015 Conference Presentations

It’s like my blog, but LIVE! Here are some of my upcoming presentations this year:

Consortium on Graduate Communication Colloquium

March 25, 2015: Toronto (registration is closed: we are at capacity)

  • “The State of Graduate Communication Support” with Michelle Cox (keynote presentation)

TESOL (handouts and PowerPoint slides here)

March 26-28: Toronto

  • “From Theory to Practice in SLW: Crossing Borders, Building Bridges” (Discussant after an incredible panel including John Swales, Chris Feak, Dana Ferris, Maria Estella Brisk, and Gena Bennett). Thursday 3/26, 1pm, room 104A
  • “Genres that Work in the Writing Classroom” (with Monica Farling), Thursday 3/26, 4:00, room 707
  • “Transitioning to College Writing: The Essay Language Project” (with Ken Cranker), Friday 9:30am, room 203B
  • “Mastering Genres with Inside Writing“, Friday, 5pm, room 801B
  • “Using Needs Analysis Data to Improve Programs and Curricula” (colloquium I convened, featuring Scott Stevens, Neil Anderson, Carmela Gillette, Kay Stremler, and Adrian Wurr). Saturday, 9:30am, 717B

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From everyday to academic writing

I’m excited about my column in this month’s Cambridge grammar newsletter: it’s about a technique to help students move towards the register of academic writing by changing subordinate clauses into relative clauses. The idea came to me when I was teaching our pre-matriculation ESL undergraduates last session. I had several students who were writing quite accurate sentences with interesting content, but in a style that seemed wordy and prosaic. Fortunately, I had just been reading some research in Systemic Functional Linguistics (Ho, 2009) which found that at the university level, more sophisticated writers tend to choose embedded clauses (i.e. restrictive relative clauses) over clauses with subordinate conjunctions (such as because, even though, etc.). We also know that coordinated clauses (and, or, but) are more frequent in spoken, informal, and less mature English (e.g. Brisk & De Rosa, 2014, in de Oliveira and Idding’s great new volume). Sure enough, I was able to pick out sentences in my students’ papers with lots of coordinating and subordinating conjunctions that would be more academic and effective with relative clauses, especially when reduced. I think some of it even sunk in! Take a look at the article and the worksheet, and let me know what you think. Next month, in part 2 of this thrilling mini-series, I take on another SFL staple, nominalization. Theory into practice: it really works.

Happy Grammar Day, incidentally.

Q: Skills for Success, 2nd edition (2015) is here!

CoverOxford University Press has just released the greatly improved 2nd edition of Q: Skills for Success. (UPDATE: The second edition of all levels in the series is now available for ordering. The first edition will remain available for at least another year, but check all this with your local Oxford representative.)

It’s been nearly 5 years since the first edition came out, and it’s been incredible to see it adopted by so many schools and universities around the world. For this second edition of Q: Reading/Writing 5 (co-authored by Scott Douglas and myself), we’ve updated the content, added some new readings, and responded to two common requests from teachers: more reading comprehension exercises (done!) and more writing models (done!). The models are especially exciting as they show students attainable standards of writing and include exercises that help them analyze why the writing works. The design is more appealing, and there’s a great big “Q” on the cover, so you can’t miss it. There’s also a video built into every unit and much tighter integration with the online practice site, now called iQ. Get it? I … Q … Can’t imagine why we never thought of that before. Oh, and the teacher presentation software, iTools (which I love using in the classroom!) comes on a USB stick, so no more installations from the DVD, which will cheer up our tech crew.

I’ll be sharing ideas for teaching from the new edition at JALT in Shizuoka, Japan, and also at Oxford Japan’s Professional Development Day in Kyoto in November. For samples, please contact your friendly Oxford rep. I hope you like it!

SSLW: Graduate Support, Joint Construction, and more!

Please visit this page for my handouts and slides from the fabulous Symposium on Second Language Writing, November 13-15, 2015, at Arizona State University.

  • The State of L2 Graduate Writing Support (with Michelle Cox): Friday 3:15-3:40pm (Gold Room) — preliminary results from our survey of members of the new Consortium on Graduate Communication.
  • Joint Construction: Collaborative Scaffolding and Cognitive Apprenticeship: Saturday 9:00-10:30am (Arizona Room) — part of the TESOL/SWLIS invited colloquium, “The Benefits of Genre-Based Pedagogy for Second Language Writing Development” starring Silvia Pessoa, Maria-Estella Brisk, and Luciana de Oliveira.

Webinar: Genre-Based Writing Instruction

My webinar on Genre-Based Writing Instruction on Friday, October 24, is now available as an archived recording. The quality is a bit choppy, but you should get the general idea. I am also often available to give live professional development workshops and presentations!

The webinar was hosted by Oxford University Press to introduce the pedagogy behind OUP’s new textbook series, Inside Writing. I explained the stages of the Teaching/Learning Cycle and demonstrated how we use it to teach academic, realistic genres such as product reviews, arguments, summaries, and data commentaries. We even did a successful Joint Construction: collaborative writing with a worldwide audience of over 100 people I couldn’t see interacting via a chat box!

The crux of the genre: Joint Construction

In part 3 of my series of posts on genre-based (ESL) writing pedagogy, we arrive at the heart of the Teaching/Learning Cycle. In the first stage, the teacher guided students to analyze, or deconstruct, the target genre for its organization, purpose, and language. Now, students collaboratively write a new text in that genre. Although there are different ways to do this collaborative writing, the Australian literature in particular focuses on one activity: teacher-led, whole-class Joint Construction. Continue reading

Jumping into Genre

Study Tips

This post is the second in a series of blogs I’m writing with an introduction to genre-based writing instruction to coincide with the launch of Oxford’s new writing textbook series, Inside Writing. Last time, I talked about how to shift your focus from a rhetorical view of writing 5-paragraph essays to a genre-based concern with how language is used in different social contexts, including the context of schooling.

In this post, I’d like to move into classroom practice: how do you help students learn to write in your target genre? The method I use is a well-developed technique that originated in Australian middle schools called the “Teaching-Learning Cycle” (Rothery, 1996)*. Typically, this starts with an activity they call “Deconstruction,” which is basically a teacher-led analysis of several writing models to help students deduce staging (the typical structure of information) and features of the language used (especially for ESL or other linguistic minority populations). I happened to hear a great example of this on NPR recently about a 6th-grade English class in Chicago. One of the merits of the new Common Core State Standards in both English Language Arts and other disciplines is a great deal of interest in genres of writing. Notice that the students already have a pretty sophisticated understanding of genre — they know that argument is different from persuasion. Now, they look at examples of arguments about about banning cell phones in school (I used almost exactly the same topic, except set at a university, for a unit in Inside Writing!)

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Starting out with genre-based writing instruction

overcoming writer's block - crumpled paper on wooden floor - crushed paper

To mark the publication of Inside Writing, a series of genre-based writing textbooks from Oxford University Press, I’m writing a series of blog posts about my understanding of genre-based writing pedagogy. Today’s post is inspired by a conversation I had in the faculty lounge yesterday. A colleague told me he was interested in breaking away from (your friend and mine) the five-paragraph essay, but he wasn’t sure where to start. After the break, I’ll tell you …

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