Category: Grammar

#BridgeingtheGapChallenge: The role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction

Guest post by Don Watson

Based on 

de la Fuente, M. J. (2006). Classroom L2 vocabulary acquisition: investigating the role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction. Language Teaching Research 10, 3. pp. 263–295. Retrieved from:

I assume anyone reading this blog has at least heard of Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT). But as with any approach/method etc. the thing we all, as teachers, want to know is: Does it work and how do I use it best? The study Classroom L2 vocabulary acquisition: investigating the role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction attempts to answer this question when using TBLT to teach vocabulary.

Interestingly, this study also addresses another age old ELT question of (when) is it ok to talk about the language. It’s pretty well agreed that classroom interaction should be predominantly communicative in nature i.e. we use the language we are trying to teach in order to communicate, but when is it ok to explicitly discuss things like grammar or vocab. The study calls this a “focus on form” and cites Swain to argue that if learners notice certain aspects of the language they are exposed to and then compare this with their own language production, then language acquisition is more likely.

Ok, great. Let’s focus on form. But, as always, there is a but. This being a journal article, however, there is actually a however (see Lockman & Swales, 2010). And here it is: “Skehan (1998), however, remarks that it is not advisable to intervene during tasks.” He suggests that it is preferable to “intervene” after the task is complete as then it is more likely that “form–meaning relationships and pattern identification are not transitory… but are still available for attention and so more likely to be integrated into a growing interlanguage system”.

So now we have an idea of what to do and when to do it, so how does this study help? The authors describe the study as a “classroom-based, quasi-experimental study,” focusing on, second language “oral productive vocabulary acquisition of word meanings and forms”. As it’s an experiment there is a control and experimental group. In this case the “control group” is a traditional PPP (that’s Presentation, Practice and Production just in case you don’t know) lesson. So I guess in this case the PPP stands for PPPlacebo. No, that’s mean; let’s stick with “control”. So they compare a traditional PPP lesson with two versions of a Task based lesson. The first task was “a one-way, role-play, information-gap task with a planned focus on form and meaning. The task required students to use the target lexical forms while keeping attention to meaning, in order to achieve the goal of ordering food from a restaurant’s menu”. The second Task based lesson had the same first two stages as the first task based lesson, however, instead of a task repetition, “a teacher generated, explicit focus-on-forms stage was incorporated”. The “focus-on-forms” stage was designed “to explicitly clarify morphological, phonological and spelling issues.”

The study then tested the students’ ability to “retrieve” the target vocabulary immediately after the lesson and again one week after the lesson. No statistically significant difference was found for the immediate retrieval of words (although the Task based lessons were better, just not better enough) however after one week, the Task based lessons did produce significantly better results. The authors suggest that this is “due to the fewer opportunities for targeted output production and retrieval that PPP lessons offer, and to its inability to effectively focus students’ attention on targeted forms”.

And as we know, learning vocabulary is much more than simply learning the definition of a word. And this is where the real advantage of this Task+Focus-on-Form idea is because it results in “not only acquisition of the words’ basic meaning, but also of important formal/morphological aspects of words.”

So the take away from all this is: If you’re doing tasks, and I guess most of us are, don’t interrupt the task and be sure to explicitly clarify the target language after the task is complete.


de la Fuente, M. J. (2006). Classroom L2 vocabulary acquisition: investigating the role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction. Language Teaching Research 10, 3. pp. 263–295. Retrieved from:

Lockman & Swales (2010). Sentence Connector Frequencies in Academic Writing (and Academic Speech).  Retrieved from:

Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford University Press.

Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Gass, S. and Madden, C., editors, Input in second language acquisition. Newbury House, 235–53.


My Son the Fanatic – Various Tasks

A lot of teachers like to use fictional texts in their teaching. Sometimes, finding accessible texts for classes is difficult, especially as they are often long, and would take up too much lesson time. One option is to use abridged versions of the texts. Another idea I’d like to advocate is to work with the text over a number of lessons, using it to teach/revise a variety of langauge points and as a basis for all different kinds of activities.

As an example, this post is a treasure chest of tasks and activities you can do with your (B2-C2) learners based on the text “My Son the Fanatic” by Hanif Kureishi. The story centres on Parvez, a Pakistani-born taxi driver living in the UK, who is a tolerant, secular Muslim. The crux of the plot occurs when his son, Ali, converts to fundamentalist Islam, which leads to a family breakdown and social conflict.
The full text can be found here. The version I use is an excerpt  I have adapted from “Cross-Cultural Encounters: 20th Century English Short Stories” published by Reclam (1997). The book can bought from Amazon and my excerpt can be found here: Excerpt My Son the Fanatic. My excerpt from the story only goes up to the point where Parvez first notices his son’s conversion to a radical Muslim. The tasks below are based on this first part of the story; the web boasts a whole host of other activities which make more use of the rest of the plot.
For more background information on the story, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start! The screenplay has also been adapted into a film

Example Tasks

Grammar Focus

General Grammar Analysis

Advanced learners, or trainee teachers, can be asked to explain certain grammar points which appear in the text. This is a task that trainee secondary-school EFL teachers in Germany often face in their exams: Certain words or phrases are underlined, and students are required to explain the verb forms, word order, etc. The task aims to train them to explain grammar points in a concise manner, whilst still ensuring that the explanations distinguish this use of a word/verb form from other uses. The focus of the grammar analysis can be adapted to cover langauge points recently learnt/practised, or to include a variety of langauge points as a akind of revision test or endof-course task. Here is an example worksheet of this type that I have made (with answers):  Gram An My Son the Fanatic with answers

Logical Deductions (with modals)

1) Learners read the first three paragraphs of the excerpt (up to “Where had he gone wrong?”), which gives them a description of the problematic situation Parvez is facing regarding his son, Ali. They are then asked to suggest ideas as to what the problem might be. Learners can be encouraged to brainstorm ideas and then discuss how likely the suggestions are, i.e. how certain they are that this is the most logical explanation, and then formulate sentences to express their logical deductions using various modal verbs to show their level of certainty.
OR … 2) Learners read the first three paragraphs of the excerpt (up to “Where had he gone wrong?”), which gives them a description of the problematic situation Parvez is facing regarding his son, Ali. The next couple of sentences set  out the situation that Parvez is discussing the problem with his work-mates. Learners can be asked to write the dialogue, and/or act out the scene as Parvez’ colleagues suggest possible reasons for Ali’s behaviour. Again, learners should be guided to express the colleague’s logical deductions using various modal verbs to show their level of certainty.

Second Conditionals

1) Learners read the first five paragraphs of the excerpt, and discovering what Parvez’ colleagues think the problem is with his son, they can be asked to provide advice for Parvez, to answer the question ‘What could Parvez do now?’. If the focus is on using the second conditional to give advice, they could be guided to start their sentences with “If I were him/you,…”. Alternatively, groups could make up ‘chains’ of sentences, with each student providing a further sentence to develop the scenario, based on the preceding sentence – this can also involve using various alternatives to ‘would’ in the result clause, e.g. might, could, etc. For example: If I were Parvez, I would ask Ali if he is taking drugs. If Parvez asked Ali whether he was taking drugs, they might have an argument. If they had an argument, …
AND / OR … 2) After reading the whole excerpt, and finding out what exactly the ‘problem’ is with Ali, students can be asked ‘What would you do, if you were Parvez?’ which will lead them toproduce second conditional sentences. This task may also lead to some lively discussions about the role of religious fanaticism, but  – watch out! – it may be a rather sensitive (or even taboo) subject in some settings! 

Vocabulary Focus

Literary Studies Terms

Working with a text in class provides a good opportunity to teach / revise the vocabulary for discussing literature (e.g. narrative perspectives, literary devices, etc.). This may be particularly helpful if students are going to be working with more texts in future, or in settings where they are going on to English study literature, perhaps at university. A procedure I like, is to give the students some of the key literary studies terms, or the ones I think they’re still unsure of, and ask them to research and find their own definitions. They should then find examples from the text excerpt to demonstrate their understanding. As a slightly larger project, different groups of learners can be given different terms to work on, and can produce a way of presenting (teaching) these to the rest of the class, e.g. in poster form. Some terms that may be appropriate to study with regard to My Son the Fanatic: protagonist/antagonist, first-person narrator/omniescent narrator, tension/suspense.

Adjectives – For Feelings

If you read the full text with your class, students  can be asked to create a flow chart / time-line of Parvez’ & Ali’s feelings towards each other. Either individually or in groups, they can be given a certain part of the text to work on. You can use the task to train their dictionary skills: They can brainstorm adjectives they think describe the feelings and relationship (they could also do this in their L1), find synonyms in a thesaurus, and check the meanings and usage in a mono-lingual dictionary (e.g. OALD, aimed at learners), and perhaps a collocations dictionary, before agreeing on the most appropriate and fitting adjectives. Then, people who have worked on different sections of the text can put their adjectives into the whole diagram depicting the devlopment of the whole story.

Adjective vs Adverb – For Feelings vs Behaviour

 Work can be done on distinguishing and using adjectives and adverbs, using any part of the story (or my excerpt). Students are asked to make a time-line to show the development of Parvez’ feelings and behaviour. I like to encourage them to write adjectives above the time-line to show “Parvez is / feels…”, and use adverbs (they can be the adverbs of the adjectives) to show “Parvez acts/behaves…” below the line. The procedure for finding the most appropriate adjectives/adverbs and training dictionary skills can run the same as that described above (Adjectvies For Feelings) 
Within the excerpt, there are very few adjectives and adverbs describing Parvez and his behaviour; students could be asked to add them in to the appropriate places in sentences, to explicitly describe feelings and behaviour in cases where this is only implied by the text.

Freer Production

After reading the whole excerpt, learners can be asked to write or tell an anecdote from their own life, where they thought something was the case but it turned out to be different and had a surprise ending. These can be as long or short as suits your class, and will also depend on whether you set this as a homework task or do it (perhaps orally) within a lesson. For example: My boyfriend was being very distant and quiet, and kept taking phone calls in a different room. I thought he was no longer happy in the relationship and maybe he was cheating on me. But it turned out that he was planning a surprise birthday party for me!
Other creative tasks might be asking students to write a diary entry from Ali’s perspective, so show how he sees things, or to create ‘info boxes’ which could be added into or around the text to give the reader certain information more explicitly which is only implied in the text.
Students on EAP programmes can use this text to write an essay or a literary analysis. This will train them in the skills of citing secondary sources, and interpreting and using examples from a primary text. Below are some example essay topics I’ve come across (Note that some of them are based on the full text, not simply my excerpt).

– Analyse how Hanif Kureishi’s “My Son the Fanatic” represents and explores conflicting notions of modern British identity.

– Analyse the role of religion in the conflict-ridden relationship between Parvez and Ali.

– Compare and contrast Parvez’ and Ali’s philosophies of life.

– Argue that Parvez is more of a ‘fanatic’ than Ali.

– How likely are Parvez and Ali to resolve their differences in the future?

Research / Projects

I feel that the themes in this short story lend themselves to some larger research projects, which students can do in groups. They should be given / choose a format in which to present the information which they find out, for example posters, presentations, booklets, videos, wikis, etc. and other members of the class should be encouraged to engage with the new information in some way, so that the effort of the research project really pays off. One idea would be to divide research topics up among groups, but the make the final product a whole-class effort; this would probably require a format such as a booklet or wiki, which each group can contribute to. Some of the smaller products could also be created individually, such as posters or oral presentations. Below are some topics I have used previously when working with this text, some of them are also appropriate as pre-reading projects, which would provide learners with some more background information to help them understand the themes in the text.

 – Muslims in the UK/your own country (e.g. history of Islam in the UK/your country, links to immigration [in the UK esepcially the British Empire/Commonwealth], status of Islam, realistic view on how Muslims integrate into British society, etc.)

 – The image of Islam in the media (e.g. how are Muslims presented in national/international media, how this has changed over time [maybe post 9/11?], how accurate this image might be, etc.)

 – Islam the religion (e.g. basic tenets, beliefs and customs; holy texts; role of prayer; role of Mosques; comparison to other religions [in the UK e.g. Christianity]; etc.)

 – Drug Addiction (e.g. data about the problem in the UK/your own country, how governments/health services attempt to tackle the problem, ‘symptoms’ of drug abuse, consequences of drug abuse, how to help some you know who is affected, etc.)

 – Immigration & Culture-Clash (e.g. lives/challenges of young people whose parents immigrated, problems of culture clash – maybe examples in the news, generational conflict, etc.)

 – Stereotyping (e.g. stereotypes of Pakistani immigrants in the text, how true are they, what steretypes do you hae of other nations, where do they stem from, how accurate are they, etc.)


If your students read the full text, not only my excerpt, they could also research into topics of prostitution, parenting methods, fanaticism (e.g. Parvez vs Ali)

Online, there are lots of other tasks and activities, as well as interpretation guides for the full story, for example:

– Korff, H. & Ringel-Eichinger, A. (eds), One Language, Many Voices: Inhaltsangaben und Interpretationen, Themen und Wortschatz, Musterklausuren (Cornelsen, 2011). [Written in English, don’t worry!]

Also, please see another of my blog posts for more general ideas on working with fictional texts:

Explicit Grammar Teaching: The what and how

Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)

Introduction – A sense of relief

At the weekend, I attended a talk by Michael Swan entitled “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” at an event hosted by ELTA Rhine in Cologne. The talk was not just interesting and informative, but gave me an enormous sense of relief. Basically because he argued in favour of explicit grammar teaching. I realise that this will not bring a sense of relief to all EFL teachers, and in some it may even incite mild panic! But let me explain. For a long time (for me it seems a long time, in actual terms its been a few decades), the explicit teaching of grammar has (had) been out of fashion, as other aspects of language have come into the focus of ELT writers and teachers. Particularly Task-Based Learning and the Lexical Approach are largely against the presentation of grammar rules. Many teachers also understand Communicative Language Teaching to have little place for the explicit teaching of grammar. In my teaching context (in the English Department at a German university), we actually teach a whole separate module called “Grammar”, more recently called “Advanced Grammar”. Yes, it’s been pretty standard in Germany for the whole time that other ELT fashions have come and gone. For most of the seven years that I’ve been working here, I’d been led to feel almost a sense of shame that we were teaching this class – seeing the horror on colleagues’ faces when I’ve mentioned it at conferences and the like. Most of their responses began with ‘but’: But what about Krashen’s theories? But that’s not very communicative! But lexis is what helps learners to create meaning! But fluency is more important!

At the start of my teaching career, I was, I suppose understandably, rather unsure of myself. Actually, a few times I probably agreed, embarrassed, with the criticisms, and extracted myself from responsibility by blaming this ‘poor’ syllabus decision on the institution; putting myself in the role of dutiful pawn in the great game of ELT. Over the years, though, I’ve grown and developed as a teacher, and my sense of confidence in my teaching decisions and practices has matured. This has occasionally meant having to defend my explicit grammar teaching to a few, what I would call, hard-core TBL, Lexical Approach or extreme Communicative Approach advocates. That’s OK: I can handle it better now than I could in my early twenties when I started teaching. Nonetheless, you can imagine my relief to hear from Michael Swan, and indeed whole host of other researchers in this area, that teaching grammar is OK: Not only OK, but actually rather effective. (See published research evidence below.) Phew! Of course I’m not, and I don’t suppose anyone is, claiming that explicit grammar teaching without any communicative practice is a good idea, nor that teaching grammar rules openly always ‘works’ 100% of the time (but then, honestly, can we really expect that of any method/approach?!). But, I wholeheartedly agree with the quote above from Michael Swan.

So that explains my sense of relief. But ‘teaching grammar’ is still a very broad term that barely brings us any closer to knowing what exactly to do in the classroom. I’m also aware that some teachers, maybe mostly the native English-speakers that have ‘fallen’ into a teaching job, may not be so relieved to hear that grammar is back on the menu. Maybe because they themselves have little formal grasp on English grammar (for this there is a simple cure; read a grammar book! See below for my recommendations), or maybe because they are unsure how to translate ‘teaching grammar’ into practical classroom activities. The rest of this post will therefore deal with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of grammar teaching; in a bid to remove any impending sense of panic from other teachers who are less used to and less comfortable with the explicit teaching of grammar rules in the ELT (or any modern language) classroom.

What? ~ It depends.

Of course, teaching ‘all’ the rules of English grammar would, for a number of reasons beyond the scope of this post, be an impossible task; and anyway a rather ineffective approach. And so we need to select which aspects of English grammar to include in our syllabi. I believe there is no fits-all answer to the question of what to teach; it will unavoidably depend on the learners and their needs and goals. It depends. I actually don’t like this answer to questions, and I’m sure many learners don’t either. Alas all EFL classrooms and learners are different, and so it depends. But what does it depend on? Well Michael Swan suggests the following selection criteria, which do fit to my experience and understanding of our profession:

– comprehensibility

– acceptability

– frequency and scope

– teachability/learnability

Just a brief clarification here, to ensure we all understand the same things when reading these criteria. ‘Comprehensibility’ refers to the question of whether not having mastered this language point could lead to misunderstanding or lack of understanding. For example, the sentence *I start school last week* does not follow standard English grammar patterns, but is clearly comprehensible. In contrast (and I’m borrowing this example from Michael Swan), *John didn’t told about the meeting* is more difficult to de-code, as it could mean either that John WASN’T told about the meeting, or that he didn’t TELL us about it. As this mistake could lead to a lack of comprehension, it would be advisable to teach/revise the points of the passive, or the simple past in negative statements. ‘Acceptability’ looks at other people’s reactions to what a learner says. How negatively will a learner be judged who says *I start school last week*? Phrased more positively, how accepted would this non-standard form be? (Again, the answer I suggest is ‘it depends’ – on your learners’ context, goals, etc; so individual answers all around, I’m afraid!) Note that I’ve used the same example twice here, in order to highlight the discrepancies that may occur between the comprehensibility and acceptability criteria – more on that later.

Moving on, ‘frequency’ and ‘scope’ are rather self-explanatory. The frequency with which a learner is going to encounter or need to use a certain structure should help us judge whether to teach it or not. The ‘scope’ of a grammar rule describes how much of the language it helps to explain. A clear example here, again showing how these two criteria may also be in conflict, is the word ‘children’. ‘Children’ is a rather frequently used word. However, the rule of making irregular plurals with -ren does not cover many items (I can’t actually think of any other right now!), so teaching it as a rule would seem less worthwhile. And finally, teachability and learnability refer simply to how straightforward it is to teach or learn an aspect of English grammar. Again, it depends.

Clearly, if an item impairs comprehension, negatively affects acceptability, and has a high frequency and broad scope, as well as being fairly straightforward to teach, then we should go head an teach it. One thing Michael Swan didn’t touch on in his talk is how to make a decision based on these criteria when the details conflict, so I’d like to discuss that briefly here. We’ve seen that the same sentence may be perfectly comprehensible, but not particularly acceptable. And that the high frequency of an item may not mean that the rule has much scope. In this case, I would advice teachers to weight the criteria based on their knowledge of the learners’ context and goals. This will include considerations of who the learners are likely to interact with in English, what kinds of topics they are likely to speak/talk about, the format of the communication (formal written, informal spoken, etc), and the likely goals of that interaction (purely communicating information, making a high-stakes sale, etc). Teachers may also consider the kinds of input their learners are likely to be exposed to, and potential interference pitfalls caused by the learners’ L1. That said, I would say that comprehensibility has to be criteria numero uno in any case.

If we have, then, agreed that we are going to teach grammar, and have selected points of grammar to be taught, the next step is to think about what we are actually going to do in the classroom in order to teach these points.

How? ~ Just three Exes

Michael Swan said in his talk that he sees grammar teaching as consisting of “three exes”. Not to worry, he’s not talking about broken partnerships, but rather EXplanation, EXamples, and EXercises. Now, you may think this sounds suspiciously like a re-worded recipe for a PPP lesson (Presentation, Practice, Production – which was the standard lesson structure taught on most preparatory TEFL certification courses for a long time), but fear not – his clarification highlights the input of ‘examples’ and ‘explanation’ as less valuable in grammar teaching than the ‘output’ from exercises. Nonetheless, they are not unimportant, and so we should still make them as effective as possible. Note that I think the order of explanations and examples should be seen flexibly – in many cases a more inductive approach (examples first) may be more appropriate, though that is a subject for another post!

Explanations, according to Swan and I’m inclined to agree, should be economical, take one step at a time, be clear to the learner, use visual support, and possibly even the learners’ L1. I suppose only the last point there might cause discussion. To my mind, though, it is logical that a grammar explanation in English may make use of language that is above the learners’ current level and therefore be more confusing than it is helpful. If the teacher is able to speak the L1 of their learners, then this can be a simpler and more efficient way of explaining the rule. Of course, not all teachers have this luxury, but where appropriate I’d be all in favour of brief grammar explanations in the L1 for lower-level students.

There’s nothing really surprising in the characteristics Swan says good examples should have, although I find it good for us teachers to refresh these things in our minds, particularly just before embarking on a new term and a new “Advanced Grammar” course! Good examples should be realistic, memorable (perhaps through humour), in context, and taken from various topic areas/text genres. I don’t know about you, but I find looking for or inventing examples that fit all of these criteria actually rather time-consuming. And I sometimes feel that teachers neglect this part of their preparation, perhaps because of the time it takes, or perhaps other teachers are really able to spontaneously create realistic, memorable examples from various topic areas in context when they reach this point in their lesson. Lucky them! – I know I’m not! There are several potential sources of example sentences, but sometimes the examples they provide just do not fulfil these criteria satisfactorily (for example, corpora/concordances, dictionaries, grammar references or course books). I find the best examples by just going about my every day life attentively. Paying attention to the structures and language my colleagues and I use to talk to each other, to email, to make posters, to recount anecdotes, and so on – that’s realistic language in a context our students are familiar with, with a range of genres and topics, and often rather memorable due to our humour! Or what about news articles or websites you read, radio broadcasts you listen to, TV programmes you watch – all of these can be sources of interesting and effective example sentences. Maybe I can mention just a couple of lessons I’ve recently planned: A lesson on simple present/progressive – I used a blurb from a novel found on Amazon. A lesson on referring to the future – I used an episode of “Tomorrow’s Word” (BBC).

Ok, so once we’ve got our explanation neatly formulated, and our examples duly noted, we need to move on to the most important part of the lesson (I hope no disagreement here?): the output, or exercises. I have to say, Sorry Mr Swan, but I’m not keen on the term ‘exercises’ here – although it fits nicely in the “three exes” category. For me, and I checked with my colleagues that I’m not alone, the word ‘exercises’ is perhaps somewhat misleading, conjuring up images of monotonous gap-fill or sentence transformation worksheets, maybe some text-based or listening tasks if we’re lucky. This is all reminiscent of the second P in a PPP lesson; not particularly exciting, and not really the kind of thing I believe to be the most effective for learners to really make use of the new language. For me, the third P – Production – is more the output we should aim for, as it is most similar to the kinds of things learners will want and need to do in English in the future. Again, though, Michael Swan ‘saves himself’ so to speak, by describing his characteristics of a good ‘exercise’ – and if I understand correctly, he is actually using ‘exercises’ to capture both controlled practice tasks and, even more importantly, freer production and encouraged use of the target structure. His characteristics include the tasks being interesting, empowering, personalised, imaginative, and possibly involving physical activity, visual or audio elements. These tasks should also help learners to connect the grammar point to other aspects of langauge such as vocabulary, skills, pronunciation, and so on. Of course, whether a task is ‘interesting’ etc. will… you guessed it… depend on your learners!

 Conclusion – Is it worth the effort?

My assessment of all of this is that explicit grammar teaching is easier said than done. Doing it badly is probably quite straightforward, but then it’s probably not worth the effort. Bearing in mind all of the points and issues discussed here makes explicit grammar teaching a rather time-consuming and preparation-heavy thing to do. So is it worth the effort? I believe so. And I believe that there are plenty of academic studies which support this view. The way I see it, if we don’t bother with grammar teaching, then it definitely can’t work. If we give it a go, then at least it has a chance of working! As always, Michael Swan has expressed this thought slightly more eloquently than I can, so let’s close his words which I used as an opener to this post: Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)



Swan, M., “Teaching Grammar – Does Grammar Teaching work?”, Modern English Teacher, 15/2, 2006.

Swan, M., “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” Talk given at ELTA Rhine, Cologne, on 19th October 2014.

Recommended grammar references for teachers

Carter, R. et al, English Grammar Today: An A-Z of Spoken & Written Grammar (Cambridge: CUP, 2011)

Leech, G., Grammar and the English Verb (Longmann, 2004)

Swan, M., Practical English Usage. (Oxford: O.U.P., 2005)

Research publications on teaching grammar

Gass, S. & L. Selinker.  2008.  Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition).  New York: Routledge/Taylor.

Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega.  2000.  ‘Effectiveness of L2 instruction:  a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis’.  Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.

Spada, N. & Y. Tomita.  2010.  ‘Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature:  a meta-analysis’.  Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.



This blog post waas featured in “My TESOL Daily”:

Can translation classes improve students’ English skills?




Translation has a tool of teaching foreign languages is undergoing a rejuvenation, after it was out of fashion for many years. Translation is also part of the curriculum within the Department of English Studies at Trier University. We at Uni Trier have always felt that teaching translation to C1-level monolingual learners helps improve their grammar and accuracy in English, helping our students to recognize possible areas of interference from German (their L1). This assumption, however, was never put to the test.

So we decided to test it. A first step in doing so was carried out in winter semester 2013/14. Our test subjects were five translation classes taught by three different instructors. These translation classes are not meant to specifically train translators, but rather the focus is using translation as a method to learn English. To do so, sentences or short paragraphs relating to specific grammatical features in German or English, or longer texts containing multiple such features, are translated from German (L1) into English (L2).

The classes were given a grammar test in the first week of class prior to any translation. A similar test was then administered in the last or second-to-last week of class to the same five groups of students. The results of these two tests form the basis of our study.

The Grammar Test

The areas we chose to cover were articles, tenses, modal constructions, prepositions and false friends. The test exercises were taken from course books with an appropriate level (advanced or C1). The tasks were made as similar as possible across the two tests and with similar numbers of points as well.

An important point was to get as close to ‘real’ production as possible in the artificial test format. We decided against overuse of multiple choice answers, because we did not want our students to recognize and pick the right answer. As our students are fairly high level, they often make mistakes despite knowing the right answer. Thus in multiple choice, they will often recognize and pick the correct answer, although when asked to produce free speech or their own written texts, they may make mistakes in these same areas. We wanted them to create an answer with as little outside help as possible. We were able to especially achieve this in the section on articles, tenses and prepositions, where only the context of the texts or knowing the rules of English grammar or collocation led them to create the correct answer. We were unable to create a version of the false friend section that did not give a selection of words. As students scored high in this section on both the first and second test, this perhaps indicates that they can recognize the correct answer although they may not always produce it.


Our sample size was 94. Once the tests were administered in class, they were corrected and the scores were tabulated. The exams were administered anonymously and students were identified by their student number.

The data were analyzed using a dependent t-test. This test is used when the same participants have provided data in both experimental conditions, as is the case here. With a sample of this size (N=94), the dependent t-test is able to detect even fairly small effects. The t-test aims to compare the average difference between each participant’s scores on the various test exercises before and after the intervention. It was used here to test the following hull hypothesis:

H0 = There will be no difference on average between students’ scores on the grammar test exercises completed before the translation course and after the translation course.

The results of the t-test showed statistically significant improvement in the areas of tenses, prepositions and false friends, and of course in the combined scores of both tests. Articles showed a statistically significant decrease in scores, and the modals were not statistically significant. Of the areas where improvement was shown, our statistics showed a medium effect for prepositions and false friends, and a large effect for tenses.


Our translation class has brought about improvement in the areas of tenses, prepositions and false friends, which is a sign that translation has a place in language teaching, although we advocate it as one of many tools of language teaching. We feel it is best used with advanced students, as translation particularly targets interference mistakes, and at lower levels of teaching, these have not fossilized yet, or mistakes are made because students are attempting to produce structures they have not learned yet. Translation seems to be best geared towards students who have learned most grammatical aspects classically taught in books but need to work on the finer points of applying these rules outside of textbook exercises. We also feel that is it not helpful in a multilingual setting, but rather works best when students have the same native language and the teacher has a high proficiency in both languages and can explain aspects of both languages’ grammar to the students.

Conditionals Compact – The Basics

For students and teachers alike, here is a concise summary of the structures and uses of the various ‘standard’ conditional sentence types in English. I’ve used what I would consider ‘key words’, so that the usage of each type of conditional sentence is clearly different from the others. 

More advanced points about conditionals, as well as mixed conditionals will be dealt with in a later post. 

Zero Conditional

Structure: if + simple present, simple present
Use: Result is always true (“natural law”). No link to specific time
Examples: If you boil water, it becomes steam. If you boil water, it doesn‘t become ice.  Does ice melt if you heat it?
First Conditional

Structure: If + simple present tense, will future
Use: Situation still possible. Situation highly probable. (Often: Warnings based on present evidence.)
Examples: If it doesn‘t rain, I‘ll play tennis. Will you play football, if it snows? If you go to London, where will you stay?
Second Conditional

Structure: If + simple past, would + bare infinitive
Use: Situation still possible. Situation unlikely. (Often: Advice)
Examples: If I found €1000, I would buy a new coat. If they weren‘t so expensive, I‘d buy a new mobile phone. Would he help her if she asked him?
Third Conditional

Structure: If + past perfect,  would + have + past participle
Use: Situation (or changing it) no longer possible. (Often: Regrets)
Examples: She would have helped him, if he had asked her. I would have sent you a postcard, if I hadn‘t forgotten my address book. If your mother had seen you drunk, what would she have said?