Tag: Grammar teaching

#BridgingtheGapChallenge Hand-Written vs Emailed Corrective Feedback on Writing

As part of the #BridgingtheGapChallenge, here is a summary of:

Farshi, S.S. & S.K. Safa, ‘The Effect of Two Types of Corrective Feedback on EFL Learners’ Writing Skill’, Advances in Language and Literary Studies, Vol 6/1, February 2015.

This study aimed to compare the effectiveness of giving hand-written or electronic (via email) feedback on EFL learners’ written work.

Participants & Procedure

Thirty-five adult participants were involved in the stud; Azeri-Turkish speakers, who were learning English at a language institute in Iran. They were divided into three separate class groups, which met twice a week for 7 weeks and taught by the same teacher. All groups covered the same material in class and were given a writing task each week based on the lesson’s focus. Depending on which group participants they were in, they received feedback on their work in a different format: Group A: Submitted paper-versions of their work and received hand-written feedback. Group B: Submit their work by email and received their feedback electronically. Group C: Submitted their work either on paper or by email, but received no feedback from the teacher. Groups A and B revised their paragraphs using the feedback they received. Before the study, students completed pre-test writing tasks (writing two separate paragraphs), graded by three teachers, and the KET proficiency test and were found to have comparable levels of proficiency in English. They post-test score was also based on two written paragraphs, graded by three teachers. The pre-test and post-test scores were given in numerical format, on a scale from 0-20 (where 20 is good).


A paired-samples T-test (test of significant difference) was used to compare participants’ pre-test and post-test scores. On the pre-test scores, there was no significant difference between the three groups. On the post-test scores (i.e. the grades students achieved on the assessment after having received the various feedbacks on their work for 7 weeks), both Group A’s and Group B’s scores were significantly higher than those of Group C, who had received no corrective feedback on their writing. The researchers conclude that both hand-written and electronic feedback therefore have a positive impact on students’ writing skill. The key finding, though, is the significant difference between the improvements shown by participants in Groups A and B; where Group B (who had received electronic feedback) scored significantly higher than Group A (hand-written feedback), which would seem to show that feedback received electronically is more effective at improving students’ writing than hand-written feedback is.

My Own Thoughts

I can postulate various explanations for the benefit of giving feedback electronically: it feels more personal to the students, the teacher can perhaps include more detailed feedback, it is motivating for students to use their electronic devices for the English learning, etc. It would have been interesting to see what the researchers thought were the explanations for their findings.

It would also be good to know what kind of level their learners were at in their English proficiency – perhaps the effectiveness of certain feedback formats depends on level?

And also, what kind of feedback exactly was given – actual corrections? simply underlining? Comments to start a dialogue? Use of a correction code? I wonder whether these differences might have an even more significant effect on students’ improvement than simply the mode of delivery of the feedback?

Things I would tell my newly qualified self

There’ve been a host a posts recently responding to Joanna Malefaki’s #Youngerteacherself challenge. And here’s mine.

My career as an English teacher began with an initial training course; Trinity College’s TESOL Certificate. But I’m (now, at least) under no illusion that such an initial training course can teach new teachers everything they will need to know about the profession. In fact, I tend to view such training as similar to learning to drive. In your lessons, you are shown the basics of how to move a car safely along a road, and you (have to) faithfully follow these instructions in order to pass your test and get a driving licence to be able to drive all on your own! There’s no way that your driving lessons will expose you to every possible situation that can occur in traffic (even if, like me, you learn to drive in London!). And so once you’ve got your licence, you go off and drive on your own, and the driving experience you gain over the years becomes much more valuable than your driving lessons. You also come to understand  which of the basic instructions are ‘golden rules’ and which you can adapt to your own driving situation (who really puts the hand brake on at every red light in London?!). This is just like teaching. Having completed an initial training course, you’re “licensed” to drive a class safely along the textbook road. But years of experience will teach you much more than the initial training ever could.

It’s been ten years since I completed my Trinity Cert. TESOL, in which time I’ve taught in an array of settings: one-to-one, exam preparation, secondary schools, private langauge schools, summer schools, business colleges, and university. So what have I learnt? Well, that I love teaching! And that the best way to go about teaching many of the classes I have faced has only very little to how I was taught to teach 10 years ago. Here’s my sprinkling of wisdom; I hope that newly qualified teachers will find inspiration in this post, and that more experience teachers may find comfort in knowing they are not alone in having further developed their teaching from their CELTA (or similar) ‘driving’ lessons!

1) Explicit Grammar Teaching is OK

For a long time, the explicit teaching of grammar has (had) been out of fashion, as other aspects of language have come into the focus, and my own training was focussed on Communicative Language Teaching, which has little place for the explicit teaching of grammar. Over the years, though, I’ve come to realise it’s what a lot of learners want, and actually benefit from (especially adults). And I admit, I’ve basically been doing it all along! A  little while ago, I attended an event hosted by ELTA Rhine where Michael Swan  and Catherine Walters held talks on explicit grammar teaching. Their conclusion? Why not?! (Phew!) Swan has published widely on this, but you can find my summary of Michael Swan’s talk here.

2) L1 Use and Translation are OK

Although I was trained that using students’ L1 was inappropriate for the ELT classroom, this standpoint has undergone something of a revival recently. And thank goodness, I say – what a relief to know that it is not a deadly sin to utter a word in a language other than English during our teaching!! I’ve been to several conference talks by people advocating, for example, quick translation of a vocabulary item into students’ L1 where this avoids distraction from the actual task and aids the flow of the lesson – and I have the impression that most teachers agree with this rationale. Teaching through translation has also had its reputation retrieved from the gutter – again a relief for me, since most universities in Germany include translation in their curricula. Indeed, a colleague and I worked on an action research project which she presented as “Can Translation Classes Improve Students’ English Skills?” at the 2014 IATEFL Annual Conference, where we found that using translation to target specific interference errors can actually be an effective strategy! This is also argued by by Guy Cook in his book “Translation in Language Teaching” (2010). Of course, there are a number of caveats and conditions here, the most obvious being that translation can only be used if all learners speak the same L1 and the teacher can speak it too! Still, for me, this is a welcome deviation from the strict L2-only policy I was trained to employ!

3) Always plan the aims (of a course, lesson, activity)

ELT trainees are often required to include in their plans copious detail on aims, objectives, materials, activities, steps, predicted problems, background on the students and almost everything else that could possibly be relevant to the class and the lesson! In an article in The Teacher Trainer Journal (vol 28/2) from last year, I argue that considering the objectives of a course, lesson or activity in detail is not without reason trained so thoroughly on teacher training courses, as the skill is essential: the most important thing is for teachers to consider aims and objectives in lesson planning, even if we do not have the luxury of time to produce formally typed-up, step-by-step plans for each lesson. Having clear aims of our lesson and course provides the guiding map that leads us effectively through to the end of term – otherwise, we could end up teaching unconnected individual lessons that don’t move our students particularly far forward in their learning. By the way, note that I’m saying definitely plan the Aims. Be flexible with the rest of the lesson – sticking slavishly to lesson plans full of minutely timed activities will probably not be satisfying for anyone!

I’ve also learnt, through my own teaching and professional development, how useful it can be to inform our learners about the aims of lessons and activities. This increases motivation and receptivity to the material, class and teacher – discussed in more detail in my article in TTTJ. For some of my ideas and research on how to communicate the aims to your learners, please read another article I’ve recently published in ELTED (vol 17).

4) Learners are normal people, too

This sounds very simple, but is easily forgotten when you’re busy writing lesson plans for a group of learners who are (apparently) at a certain level, have certain aims, and require a certain number of credit points etc. for a course. But all of your students have a life outside of your classroom, where they are experiencing life’s ups and downs just like everyone else. A student is not only a body in your class; they may be a parent, carer, full- or part-time worker, a student of another subject, a husband/wife, and the list goes on…!

I was recently having a bit of a moan to my to a graduate tutor about how my classes are always so full, when colleagues still have spots free. What she said warmed my little heart, and made me regard my over-subscribed classes in a new light: apparently, students value that random chats I have with them about their own lives, their backgrounds, and basically anything they do when they’re not in my classroom. And I know all their names! This comes naturally to me, but until recently I didn’t realise how much students appreciated it! (In fact, I’d worried that they found it frustrating that I sometimes lose track of time [and the lesson!] whilst talking to them!) So my tip is: Don’t lose sight of the trees (individual students) for the woods!

And this also extends to other areas of teaching, such as accepting that some students simply don’t have time for homework, or can’t study for exams. Who’da thunk?! They have stuff going on in their private lives, too! (By the way, I’ve also noticed that treating each student as an individual with a real life beyond the classroom means they do the same for me, and are much more forgiving if I don’t manage to turn their assignments around as quickly as I’d like! Bonus! 🙂 )

5) You don’t have to correct every single mistake

I don’t think I need to write as much on this one – especially as there would be no way to concisely express all of the debates and publications in the area! (You can read it all for yourself – some references are below!) Suffice to say, you can be selective in targeting errors and devise an approach to correction that suits your teaching style and the different groups of learners that you face. For me, the most important thing is that you have made an informed judgement and decision about the best way to go about error correction. That doesn’t mean that you choose one method and stick to it forever – be open to professional development, even if it takes the basic form of chatting to colleagues! Then you can modify your error correction behaviour based on sound justifications, and not beat yourself up about having ‘missed’ certain errors your learners make.

6)You are a materials writer

Do you write your own worksheets and exercises for your classes? Then you are a materials writer! And the materials you produce are no less valuable than published materials! Especially as you have targeted your materials specifically to your students, their aims and abilities – something that published textbooks can never hope to do. Of course, it’s not a bad idea to use published materials, textbooks etc. for inspiration (especially to save you re-inventing the wheel!), but adapting these for your lessons or developing your own activities inspired by published works probably means your materials will be more beneficial for your learners. However, don’t get stuck on pretty formatting – I used to do this when I first qualified, which meant I was teaching from very professional-looking worksheets that distracted learners from the actual langauge learning aspect of the work! Another common mistake is spending hours making a worksheet activity that will only take students 5 minutes to complete and then not lead to any further practise/production. For some more tips on making worksheets, please see Adam Simpson’s blog post “6 Things that can go wrong when making a worksheet and how to avoid them.”


  • Cook, G., Translation in Language Teaching (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2010)
  • Ebbert, C. “Can Translation Classes Improve Students’ English Skills?” Presentation at IATEFL Annual Conference, Harrogate, 2-5 April 2014.
  • Ferris, D.R. (2004). The “Grammar Correction” Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime . . .?). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 49–62
  • Fielder, C., “Are detailed objectives really necessary in lesson planning?”, The Teacher Trainer Journal, Vol 28/2, May 2014, pp. 18-20.
  • Fielder, C., “(How) Should we inform learners of lesson and activity aims? An action research project conducted with young adults studying for an English Studies degree in a German university”, ELTED, vol 17 (2014), pp. 1-4. [available here: http://www.elted.net/issues/volume_17/index.htm ]
  • Simpson, A., “6 Things that can go wrong when making a worksheet and how to avoid them”, www.teachthemenglish.com, posted 22 Feb 2014. [http://www.teachthemenglish.com/2014/02/6-things-that-can-go-wrong-when-making-a-worksheet-and-how-to-avoid-them/]
  • Swan, M., “Teaching Grammar – Does Grammar Teaching work?”, Modern English Teacher, 15/2, 2006.

Further Reading

  • My other blog posts 🙂
  • Johanna Malefaki’s original #Youngerteacherself post also provides links to other bloggers’ response to the challenge.

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”: http://paper.li/Stephen_Hofstee/1327126879