Welcome, David Kehe! Discussion on Teaching Grammar

Welcome, David Kehe!

We are pleased to have you with us this week to discuss teaching grammar to English learners. I've been familiar with your work for a long time, and I've learned a great deal from you -- as well as from your partner and collaborator, your wife Peggy Dustin Kehe. I was excited to discover your blog not long ago, and it was through your blog that we made contact. I know you'll be sharing the link to your blog and to a number of practical teaching resources archived there. I'm delighted that you are willing to join us for a week-long discussion on this relevant topic. I know our members are eager to hear from you and will have many questions, too.

I have a few questions to get us started.

1. David, you use the word “inductive” to describe your approach to grammar teaching. Can you explain what you mean by that and give us some examples from your practice? How does this approach compare to what we might call a traditional approach?

2. When working with immigrants and refugees, adult ESL teachers are well aware that individuals have varied educational backgrounds. Many come to us with limited formal schooling and may not be familiar with grammar terminology, e.g., noun, verb, adjective, in the primary language let alone in English. It’s important for all of us to be aware of the educational background of the learners we are working with. Learners at the literacy level who are still learning the basics are probably not ready for the kind of grammar instruction we are discussing this week. Our focus this week will be on learners who have a basic foundation in English, even if their educational experiences may be limited.

  • What are your thoughts about the importance of grammar terminology in teaching grammar?
  • If grammar terms are important, what are some ways to teach this terminology in meaningful and learner-centered ways?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

David Kehe's Bio:

David Kehe has been teaching adult English learners and coordinating programs, doing teacher training and mentoring for over 35 years at colleges and universities in four countries including in Africa with the Peace Corps. He has co-authored nine textbooks, including the award-winning Conversation Strategies. He has an MAT from The School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont.  Currently, he is a Coordinator and Academic ESL Instructor at Whatcom Community College, in Bellingham, Washington.

David has taught many international students but has also worked with many learners who are immigrants and refugees attending ESL classes at the community college.


Thank you, Susan, for inviting me to exchange ideas with the LINCS members about what has become one of my favorite areas of teaching: grammar.  I'll start here with your questions about using an inductive approach.  Then, tomorrow, I'll try to answer your questions about the importance of grammar terminology and meaningful ways to teach it.

Many ESL grammar books approach instruction in a deductive manner.  That is to say, a rule is given and students apply it to exercises and other types of writing.   In an inductive approach, the students are given examples and then work with exercises which culminate in providing them with the opportunity to formulate the rules themselves.  This approach is based on the beliefs (1) that students will internalize a rule more efficiently if they have intuited (or formed) it themselves; and (2) that students who have established their own understanding of a rule are more apt to later apply it to what they write.

Probably the first time I realized that I needed a non-traditional approach happened several years ago.  I was working with a student named Sergey, a 25-year-old Russian immigrant who was totally fluent orally but struggled with the grammar in his writing.  He had had limited exposure to formal grammar instruction.   On a paper for my class, he had written: “Last week, I attend a party.” 

To help him correct the mistake in the verb tense, I said, “Look at your verb.”

He asked, “Can you remind me what ‘verb’ means?”

Giving a “traditional” explanation, I said, “A verb shows action.”

He responded, “I think my verb is ‘party.’

Since that wasn’t what I had expected, I asked him why he thought so.

 He explained, “There is action at a party.”

I realized that before he could correct his verb tense, he needed to learn what a verb is.  So that night, I put together some inductive exercises.  Below are samples of the type of exercises that I gave him.

Exercise 1: Look at the underlined words in boxes and answer the questions below.

   1. They ran to the park.

   2. She cooked some spaghetti for dinner.

   3. Ken speaks three languages.

Question 1: What do all the underlined words have in common?

   a) They show action.

   b) They are things that people can see and touch.

   c) They are types of feeling.

Question 2: What do we call the underlined words?

   a) nouns                      b) pronouns                 c) verbs

Exercise 3: Look at the sentences and answer the questions.

1. Sara drove for 8 hours during her trip.

   a) What is the subject of the sentence? Sara   

   b) What action did the subject do?  She drove    

2. The child threw his toy in the bathtub.

   a) What is the subject of the sentence?  _____                                             

   b) What action did the subject do? _____                                          

3. I finished my project on time.

   a) What is the subject of the sentence? _____                                              

   b) What action did the subject do? _____                                          

Question 3: What do we call the actions words in Exercise 3?

   a) subjects                   b) verbs

After working on these types of exercises for about 20 minutes, Sergey said that he understood “verbs” for the first time.  As the course progressed, we were able to build on his knowledge of what a verb is.  This allowed us to expand on his understanding of structures like clauses and even fragments and run-ons.

If you would like to see two complete units that incorporate an inductive approach to teaching verbs and auxiliary verbs and a small-group activity, you can click on this link https://commonsense-esl.com/2018/01/14/lincs-discussion-about-grammar-handout-exercises/ to my website CommonSense-ESL.com  https://commonsense-esl.com/ .  Feel free to print them and try them out with your students.

I’m looking forward to hearing from any of you about your approaches to teaching grammar and would be happy to address any questions you might have (preferably easy ones). 

Onward and upward!

David Kehe

Hello David

I'm a teacher educator and really like your inductive approach to teaching grammar. I plan to visit and explore your website to learn more.

The example you provide about the Russian speaker got me thinking about how we approach grammar. We might think about 'prescriptive' grammar - rules such as punctuation and spelling (among others) that we must learn and use in writing - and we might think about 'descriptive' grammar - the systematic workings of syntax, morphology, phonology, etc. of a language that we acquire. In your example, the Russian speaker had intuitive knowledge that a subject and verb are necessary, even if he didn't know how to name them. I see the inductive approach as drawing on both kinds of grammar: the intuitive knowledge about language, and the need to learn a rule.  I personally believe it is important for second language / ESOL teachers to think broadly about grammar, language, and learning. Do you think there is value for the student in doing the same? You mention that the inductive approach allows the student to intuit the rule; do you ever have them compare and contrast grammars of the first and second language systems as a way to draw attention to this intuitive knowledge about language? 

Thanks and I look forward to the discussion this week!

Hi Susan,

I agree with you that it’s interesting to think about prescriptive and descriptive grammar in the language learning context. 

About comparing and contrasting first and second language, I’ll give you an example of how I did this with some Japanese students.  They would often write sentences like, “I want to have a foreign country roommate.”  They were basically translating directly from Japanese.  The inductive exercise I gave them was something like this.

Directions: Choose the sentence that uses more natural English.

1.  a) It’s a good idea to marry a foreign countries person.

     b) It’s a good idea to marry a person from a foreign country.

2. a)  People with strong accents are sometimes hard to understand.

    b) Strong accent people are sometimes hard to understand.

Later this week, I’m planning to share more activities like these.

I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion.


I join Susan in welcoming you to the LINCS Community & feel excited with my colleagues to share teaching strategies and gain new knowledge from your expertise. Over the past 8+ months, I’ve been out of touch due to multiple responsibilities, but am looking forward to joining in the upcoming discussions about grammar in the ESL classroom.

I very much enjoyed reading your first comment and want to add another approach that I use. I teach ESL to adult immigrants and I have determined through administering the Learning Styles Inventory that the majority of my students score highest in the visual skills area. For this reason, I go one step further than the exercise samples you showed us, which I admit has been my style of teaching for the past 14 years. To reinforce the subject/verb inductive approach, I draw simple sentence diagrams so that their brains absorb another aspect of grammar visually. Ever since my Catholic elementary school days in the 60s, I maintain the value of showing the subject – verb – (& often object) construction as:


     subject                    verb                 object

I welcome any feedback that you and my colleagues wish to offer.

Greetings All,

I have found sentence diagrams to be an integral tool for teaching writing with the inductive approach, as they standardize the visual image of language presented to the learner. I use them with both my ESL and ABE students, including those enrolled in community college developmental courses. I am a linguist by training, so using them is second nature for me. However, this means I also have to be cognizant of what vocabulary I use when describing what's going on in "the picture."

I first designed the diagram (here) several years ago while working with a group of Elementary level learners who were Arabic and Spanish speakers with varying levels of formal education. Having studied both, I was well aware of the differences and the challenge of explaining them in very simple terms. To that end, I decided to explain the English sentence as a house with 3 important rooms, each with its own specific furniture. This partnered well with the intense focus on everyday vocabulary that is a core aspect of instruction at this level. 

I continued to use the same diagram with groups of High Intermediate and Advanced learners. These classes usually had at least 10 different languages (a third of which were not strictly SVO). They also came with more terminology under their belts, as well as different conceptions about what those words really meant. So, the sentence diagrams became crucial in creating a space for learners to create a common understanding. Because these learners had mature handwriting, I was able to use a smaller version and adapt it for lessons on complex and compound sentences, adding additional structures for conjunctions and punctuation.

In the fall of 2016, I began teaching Academic Skills English at Camden County College to learners who could be categorized as CCR Levels B, C, and D, many of whom were ELLs. Here, the diagram was used to illustrate terminology and as tool for editing and self-correction. The use of visual aids to instruct grammar seemed even more necessary with these students, as they did not share the same expectation for learning or knowing grammar as my ESL students. In contrast, my international students would include grammar as a primary learning goal.



Hi Victoria,

Your approach makes complete sense.  Visually being able to see the components and their many functions would be helpful in facilitating students’ ability to internalize all these concepts like subjects, verbs and objects, etc.

Long live the 60s!


David, thanks for sharing details about how you approach instruction on parts of speech. I believe that inductive reasoning helps students assume more responsibility for their own learning and encourages greater and greater confidence in the process. Of course, the choice between deductive and inductive reasoning can relate strongly to cultural patterns among adults as well. The fragmentized, in my view, deductive instruction the dominates public school instruction is largely responsible for huge numbers of dropouts among Native American students in the Four Corners region. With more integrated inductive instruction, I think more students would finish school.   When helping students grasp how parts of speech play an interactive role with each other, I often succeed in asking students to observe the timeframe for a number of sentences, as follow:   For students interested in health careers:
  • Our patients eat nutritional meals every day.
  • Our hospital chefs use only organic ingredients.
  • Patients choose dishes from a menu.
  • Mrs. Martinez always drinks milk with her lunch.
  • Nurses record what patients eat three times a day.
When do these sentences happen? Always? Everyday? Usually?   OK. Let's say that the hospital is being evaluated for its performance last month. How would the sentences change to show what happened last month?   Great. Now lets go to the future. How would the sentences change to predict what will happen next month?   When students change the time frames, it is the verb that changes. That often helps them grasp action, which is often not recognized in linking verbs. From grasping how to identify verbs, students can then move to identify how other parts relate to those verbs.    Leecy

Hi Leecy,

It sounds like we both agree on the value of an inductive approach.

I too have found that students benefit effectively from arriving at their own awareness.

Here is another way that you could approach your activity:

Exercise 1: Read the sentences.  Choose the correct grammar explanation for each.

1. Our hospital chefs use only organic ingredients.

    a) The verb tense is grammatically correct because it happens everyday.

    b) The verb tense is grammatically incorrect because it happened in the past.  The verb should be “used.”

2. Last month, patients choose dishes from a menu.

   a) The verb tense is grammatically correct because it happens everyday.

    b) The verb tense is grammatically incorrect because it happened in the past.  The verb should be “chose.”

As I mentioned above to Susan W., later this week, I’m planning to share more activities like these.

All for now.


Hi David,

I am really excited about the topic this week.  Thank you so much for sharing your great ideas and resources with us.  Like you, I have long held that by first showing learners how/when language is used in context, and then leading them to the rules and patterns does, indeed, lead to greater understanding and engagement. Your story of Sergey reminded me of the years I taught in France where I saw how the approach allowed learners who had studied grammar for years to finally see how the grammar was used for real-world, functional purposes.  I love starting with some high-interest content to generate natural use of a grammar point. I work in teacher education like Susan, but I often teach the ESL classes during our practicum. I recently started a lesson on comparative forms (comparing nouns) using a pie chart from the US Census Bureau on average expenses in the US (so an informational text). Students worked in teams to generate examples of their own expenses in each category on the chart (housing, leisure, food, transportation) and then I led them to questions like this:

Do people in the US spend more on housing or transportation?

We generated a list of sample sentences on the board and then I asked:

What do you notice in all these sentences?  Right away a student pointed to the  "more on____ than ____" construction (I had the student underline that with a different color). 

What does this show us? (a difference between the two things).

(We could have gone on to show similarities with “People spend as much on ____ as ____.”) We also generated a list of qualifiers (a lot, a little, considerably more on… or less on….) The lesson moved through interview activities that had them talking about and comparing their own expenses, ending with a comparison of the class’s expenses and the information from the pie chart. Staying with the general theme, later lessons could look at housing costs, or transportation costs and work on comparative adjectives (the cost of housing is higher in ___ than in ___; housing is more expensive in ___ than in _____) 

Leecy notes the importance of recognizing different cultural patterns among adults with regard to deductive/inductive teaching.  I think a more inductive approach meets the needs of learners with limited prior formal schooling or formal study of English, who may not know (or need) the metalanguage of grammar.  I want to suggest a good video of the inductive approach in action.  In the New American Horizons series-Teaching Grammar in Real-Life Contexts, Suzanne McCurdy conducts a lesson on simple past vs present perfect inductively, starting with a timeline of life events, leading students to an understanding of how and when to use these two verb tenses. Suzanne does a great job of co-constructing the grammar with the learners. 

I look forward to learning more from everyone this week!



Hi Betsy,

I can see how stimulating it would be for students to apply the grammar point to real life situations; they learn grammar and interesting information at the same time.  If I were a language learner in a class like yours, I could see myself thinking about the real-life situations that the teacher presented in the classroom and then finding real-life situations outside class to mentally “practice” the point with.  For example, “This January, the cost of snow-removal is much higher in the mid-west and east than here in the Pacific Northwest!” 


Thanks for your post, Betsy, and for referring us to Suzanne McCurdy's video. All the New American Horizons videos--which Betsy had a major role in producing -- in fact, you'll hear Betsy's voice in the narration-- are great, and Suzanne's is one of my favorites! These videos are wonderful tools to see real adult ESL classrooms in action. Members can read a review and access these videos in the LINCS Collection.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Hi again Susan.  I'll respond here to the other two questions that you had asked in your introduction to this discussion.

What are your thoughts about the importance of grammar terminology in teaching grammar?

In answering your questions, I’ll be focusing on the teaching of grammar as it applies to writing skills.  As with other skills, even outside of language learning, for example driving a car, playing a musical instrument, or playing a sport, understanding some common terms can facilitate the learning process.  I can’t imagine trying to teach someone how to drive a car without first teaching them terms like accelerator, turn signal and brake pedal.  (Especially “Hit the brakes!”) 

Similarly, grammar terms are tools that we can use to help students write more clearly and express more sophisticated ideas.  For example, we can use conjunctions to show a connection between two ideas.  Let’s look at the following examples.

            • Ann had to give a speech.  She was nervous. 

(After reading these two sentences, we might assume there is a connection between having to give the speech and her nervousness, but we’re not completely sure.)

            • Ann had to give a speech, so she was nervous.

(By seeing the conjunction “so,” we are now completely sure of the connection.)

So when we want to show students how to explain their ideas more clearly by moving from simple sentences to compound sentences, it’s easier to do this if they understand three terms:

            1 subjects
            2 verbs
            3 clauses
           4 conjunctions

To make learning grammar terminology as user-friendly as possible, I keep the number of terms they need to know to a minimum.  For instance, in the example above, students don’t need to know the term “compound sentence” in order to work with conjunctions.

Probably the most powerful “tool” for intermediate and higher-level students to use in order to be able to write more deeply is using “subordinators.”  Let’s look at the following:

            • The mailman came late today.  It was snowing very hard.

            • The mailman came late today because it was snowing very hard.

For students to learn how to use subordinators, it’s helpful if they understand these terms:
           1 subjects
            2 verbs
            3 independent clauses
           4 dependent clauses
           5 subordinators (e.g. when, where, who, if, while, although)

As mentioned above, I’m a minimalist when it comes to which terms I think students need to know.  Thus, I don’t expect them to understand the terms like “relative clause,” “noun clause,” “non-restrictive clause.”  (As an aside, while I do value the importance of these structures, and I do teach them as structures, I wouldn’t expect students to remember the terms themselves.)

These are the terms that I’ve found to be the most helpful “tools”:

High-Beginner Level (12 terms): subject, noun, pronoun, verb, helping (auxiliary) verb, verb tense, present, past, future, articles, adjectives, possessive

Low-Intermediate Level, all the terms from the High-Beginners PLUS these 8 additional ones: conjunction, present progressive, past progressive, conditional (will and would), infinitive, preposition, prepositional phrase.

Intermediate-Levels and Advanced-Levels, the previous two levels’ terms PLUS these 7 additional ones: clause, independent, dependent, gerund, subordinator, passive/active

Learning these terms can actually provide a sense of relief for students.  They may have heard some of these but were not quite sure how they fit into sentence structure in general.  Becoming aware of how these terms operate in English grammar can relieve the stress from not knowing or understanding at all.

Your second question, Susan, is “If it is important, what are some ways to teach this terminology in meaningful and learner-centered ways?”

In Monday’s comment, I discussed and gave some examples of an inductive approach.  These types of exercises can actually seem like an interesting puzzle for students to figure out.

I’ll attach another set of exercise showing how to teach the terms “conjunctions” and “clauses” on my website. https://commonsense-esl.com/2018/01/14/lincs-discussion-about-grammar-handout-exercises/  As with all the handouts on my site, you are welcome to print it out and try it with your students.

I’ve also found a type of structured small-group activity, called Grammar Groups, to be engaging for students who are learning these terms.  You can find a couple of examples on my site https://commonsense-esl.com/2018/01/14/lincs-discussion-about-grammar-handout-exercises/.

In addition, I give my students short, grammar-terms quizzes.  On these, all they have to do is identify the terms in sentences.  I do not ask them to explain what the terms mean or what the terms are—only identify them in sentences.

For example:

Part 1 Directions
   1) Write S above the subjects.
   2) Write V above the verbs.
   3) Write HV above the helping verbs.

     1. My roommate likes to sleep late on the weekends.

     2. They were driving to Seattle at night with their good friends.

Part 2 Directions
   1) Underline the possessives. 
   2) Write C above the conjunctions.

     1. Ann’s dog was sick, so she bought some expensive medicine for it.

     2. If I get more money, I will buy a new bicycle for your birthday.

     3. We will start to work at 11 a.m., but we won’t eat lunch for three hours.

I’ll attach a sample grammar quiz on my website. https://commonsense-esl.com/2018/01/14/lincs-discussion-about-grammar-handout-exercises/

On Thursday, I’ll show how we can use students’ understanding of the terms to help them become better self-editors of their writing.

It would great to read any thoughts or questions you might have about using grammar terminology in your classes and teaching it.









Susan, David and group members: In teaching grammar I am Old School. I include basic grammar lessons in my classes for beginners, providing the students with a text that I wrote that includes: a description of the grammar terms and examples followed by exercises. My course is bilingual and I incorporate translation as part of the exercises.

Actually you can see the order in which I teach on my website, pumarosa.com.

I am sure that if grammar were taught in this way in beginning classes, there would be fewer problems later on in intermediate classes, such as those mentioned in the discussion.

I have studied a number of languages using Old School methods, especially Latin, German and Spanish. I remember conjugating verbs in the beginning Latin class.

My German class was very progressive and I still have the original text, which presents lessons on grammar using explanations, short anecdotes and dialogues and quizzes.

And when I studied Spanish on my own, I bought a number of books, all of which had grammar lessons in the first half of the lessons.

In my opinion, learning grammar should be an integral and interesting part of the class. 



I totally agree with you Paul. Although I keep it at a basic level, I introduce grammar lessons to all my students, even the beginners. It became a natural progression for me because teaching vocabulary led to words that are homonyms which forces us to distinguish definitions by naming their grammatical terminology: nouns & verbs. When I taught the word wait, my students asked if it meant standing on a scale. Of course, after defining each word, I also informed them that wait is a verb and weight is a noun. This happens so frequently that I don't hesitate to make it an important part of my lessons. 

I use grammar terminology to teach grammar. I enjoyed and will make a note of which terms you use for each level. One game I use to teach basic word terms is MadLibs. I put students in pairs to fill in the words. Then I put the empty list on the white board. I let each group by fill in the list by turn until it's full. Then I put the story up on the board and fill it in with the joint list we made. We have a great time reading the story out loud. This is a mid to high level class, and they love this activity.

Hello David, Thanks for all the interesting and helpful information you have shared with us thus far. Today, I'm wondering if you can you talk about students who some would describe as ear-learners?  I think many of the learners we see in adult ESL programs fit that profile. Can you share your thoughts on what particular challenges ear-learners face with English grammar especially in writing and how teachers can effectively address these challenges?

Again, thank you for sharing your expertise with all of us!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

Hi Susan and everyone,

The first time I became aware of “ear-learners” was about 15 years ago.  Mimi, an immigrant student from Taiwan, enrolled in my top-level, pre-college writing course.   In many ways, Mimi’s personal story was a typical one.  Her family moved to Washington state where, despite the fact that her English skills were limited, she was enrolled in middle school, and throughout middle school and high school, she attended regular classes with the American students.  After graduating, Mimi placed into the academic ESL program at my college.  It was quickly evident to all of her instructors here that she was bright and motivated.  Her classmates were international students, who, unlike Mimi, had studied the terminology and grammatical structure of English before coming to our college.  Nevertheless, Mimi was a better reader than them; she also put more effort into editing her written work than did most of the others.  However, while the written work of her classmates improved, Mimi’s showed little or no progress.  She was diligent and thorough in every assignment, but she was getting nowhere; the same mistakes resurfaced again and again, and this confounded her teachers.

One day, halfway through that course, while working with her, I discovered some revealing insights into how she thought.

She and I were focused on this sentence, which she had written in her assignment that day:

             · He didn’t found his money yesterday.

Rather than remind Mimi of what grammar rule applies when forming the simple past tense, that day, I asked her why she had chosen to use the past form, found, in “didn’t found.”  She explained that she had, in fact, spent a long time thinking about it before opting for “found.”  She added that, at first, she had thought the verb should be didn’t finds since the subject was he.  However, in the end, she said she had decided to use found because the event happened in the past.  Obviously, she had assumed that the rule was:  When writing about the past, all verbs should be formed in the past—not only auxiliary verbs but base verbs as well.  In this instance, Mimi displayed a characteristic that is typical of ear-learners; she had developed a grammar rule of her own, and it was wrong.

Then, on another assignment, Mimi revealed an additional characteristic of the ear-learners; she made a grammar mistake because she had learned the language by ear and, consequently, didn’t recognize her own mistake because, to her, it “sounded right.”

In this case, Mimi wrote:

            · He avoided drive at night.

She was unaware that the gerund form, driving, should follow the verb “avoid” because she had never heard the –ing pronounced by those around her.  In fact, when I explained that she needed “driving,” she was surprised because, she said, “avoided driving” sounded strange.  For many of these aural learners, as time passes, errors such as this one can become fossilized, i.e. internalized permanently as “their version” of how English is structured.  This probably results from the fact that they have been able to navigate successfully through everyday life via their own “non-standard” English system, and this has led them to assume that it is correct.

 As a group, ear-learners share some common characteristics.  When at home—or with friends, either on or off campus—they generally speak a language other than English.  They also tend to have learned what English they know by ear, i.e. through input from listening to the media, friends, salespeople, teachers, and work colleagues.  Because their English world has been, to a great extent, an aural one, many of them manage well in situations where they can rely on their fairly well-honed skill of listening.  However, the English input that they have been “hearing” is likely to have been informal in nature.  In turn, written work that they produce for their courses may have a conversational quality to it.  Add to that the fact that each individual is likely to have developed his/her own set of “rules” about how English is structured—rules that are frequently mistaken.

In 2005, my colleague, Patti Braimes, my wife and I received a grant to do a study involving immigrant students to find out if we could significantly improve their writing by employing an alternative approach to teaching grammar skills on writing tasks.  The title of our report was: “Transitioning Immigrant Students into Academic ESL Writing Coursework: A Non-Traditional Approach to Grammar Instruction.”  (You can find the complete report on my website at this link https://commonsense-esl.com/2018/01/14/lincs-discussion-about-grammar-handout-exercises/ and a shorter version here https://commonsense-esl.com/2017/06/02/approaching-grammar-with-generation-1-5-students-and-other-ear-learners/)

The materials used in this approach involved four aspects:  (I’ll include sample exercises of these four aspects on my website.)

Aspect 1: Inductive rather than deductive thinking.  For immigrant students, who, as ear-learners, have learned English intuitively, an inductive approach could be more effective. 

Aspect 2: Analytical rather than pattern practice.   To help students internalize a grammar rule, they were asked to analyze and explain “on their own” why a specific grammar rule would apply in a certain case

Aspect 3 Multi-sensory rather than visual only.  As ear-learners, immigrants have acquired much of what English they know by listening and speaking.  The grammar instruction for this study included oral / aural components. 

Aspect 4 Paragraph-level, rather than just sentence-level, application.  Each lesson in the study culminated with an assignment to write a paragraph. 

For our study, at the beginning and at the end of the course, they wrote an essay, completed a “’Grammar Terms’ Confidence Survey,” and took a grammar quiz.  The group of eight students who participated in the study showed a significant improvement between their Pre- and Post-essays.  Also, from the pre- and post-Grammar Confidence scores, we found that all but one student felt that they had developed a better grasp of the grammatical terms by the end of the term.  The difference was significant.  However, there was no significant difference between the scores on the Pre-Grammar Quiz and Post-Grammar Quiz. 

I think the take-away from all this for teachers is that by applying those four aspects explained above, they can help their students improve not only their writing skills but also their attitude toward grammar.

One final note:  Three students (two of whom were subjects in the study) who had previously expressed no interest in attending academic classes changed their minds during the course.  In fact, two of them began academic coursework in the spring of 2005, and the third started in the summer.  The instructor felt convinced that a firmer grasp of grammar may have bolstered their self-confidence and inspired them to enroll. 

Ear-learners are fascinating.  I’d be interested in hear others’ experiences teaching them.  Also, let me know if you have any questions.


Over my 14+ years of teaching ESL, I assisted many adult students whose foundation of learning English began through necessity to maintain a job or be participating members of their communities. Since these particular adults did not have access to ESL classes, they were self-taught and became “ear learners” via their co-workers, listening to music, and trying to follow dialogues on TV shows & news reports. As usual, I administered the Learning Styles Inventory and determined that they scored highest with auditory skills. With this information, I decided to devote more time on their listening skills during our class sessions and eventually in combination with reading-writing-listening-speaking exercises, they overcame those errors in pronunciation, verb tense, etc. However, there were some students who repeatedly made the same mistakes over and over again. Two of them in particular, one from Ecuador & the other from Bangladesh. devoted hours of study per week but continued to repeat those same errors. Early on, I thought it might be cultural, then perhaps educational background, but as time passed, I realized they came from very different backgrounds yet both exhibited these basic error-patterns:

I didn’t slept well last night.

How we are going to get home?

People needs to work for to survive.

I’m work overtime almost every day.


Like you, I took each student aside and asked if they knew why they keep making these mistakes but they had no reason. After reading your post, I finally connected the dots because I recalled their history of learning English informally through exposure to Americans. It makes sense to me now because even though they could name the grammar rules I taught them to correct the errors, they still spoke and wrote in these areas incorrectly. I also remember how some of their pronunciation issues were due to weak listening skills, so without teachers to support them in those early days, I understand how “making their own set of rules” became a necessity for them. In essence, they developed habitual grammatical errors. However, they both currently work at successful jobs, one is a Spanish teacher and the other a hematology lab assistant.


What a relief to find an answer to these issues that have troubled me for years. I plan to read your reports on the website and although my teaching approaches are quite similar to the 4 aspects you have presented, I need to hone in on perfecting these exercises. Thank you for this eye-opening experience.


Hi Victoria,

I can completely relate to your experience of teaching the student from Ecuador and the one from Bangladesh.  I think that I actually read those exact same sentences sometime during my teaching career. 

Two sources that have helped me better understand these ear-learners are:

Harklau, L., Losey, K.M. & Siegal, M. (Eds.) (1999).  Generation 1.5 meets college composition: Issues in the teaching of writing to U.S.-educated learners of ESL. Mahwah, NJ: Earlbaum.

Reid, J. (1998). “Eye” learners and “ear” learners: Identifying the language needs of international students and U.S. resident writers. In J. Reid, & P. Byrd (Eds.), Grammar in the composition classroom (pp. 3-17), New York: Heinle & Heinle.

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, Victoria.


Thanks Victoria and David, for sharing these resources. Members can also access "Academic Writing and Generation1.5: Pedagogical Goals and Instructional Issues in the College Composition Classroom" by Singhal (2004) in the LINCS Collection. Learners who received much or all of their primary and secondary education in the United States and learned English through listening and interacting are sometimes referred to as "ear" learners and/or Generation 1.5. These learners usually have excellent speaking and listening skills in English but need to enhance their academic writing -- if they have academic goals.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

I want to thank you so much for your time and energy in facilitating these discussions! LINCS provides such a valuable service for us to share resources, experiences and expertise. Although I have not responded much this past year to posts, I have been reading the posts and gained important information, insight and guidance from my colleagues.

Have a great weekend, Victoria



Hi David, I appreciate your guidance and will check out the resources. Your posts were so relatable to what I have been and still do experience in my classrooms. Although I followed all of your posts and responses from my colleagues, I wish I could have participated more often but it's been a super busy week. Thank you for sharing your expertise. I hope you feel free to join in our LINCS conversations now and then.

Have a great weekend,  Victoria.

And thank you, Victoria and everyone, for your contributions.  It's been an enjoyable experience exchanging ideas with the LINCS members.  And I do hope to be able to join in future LINCS conversations.  At the same time, if you or anyone would like to continue to have a discussion about these or other topics, please feel free to contact me through my website https://commonsense-esl.com/ 

Best wishes for a great 2018!


Susan, David et al, yes, because we all learn by reading, listening, watching and copying,  adult ESL students benefit greatly by using Audio / E-Books , CDs, Videos, etc., to supplement the texts in class.

My website, Pumarosa, has an audio component that accompanies the text to help with pronunciation and memorization.

Now I have put texts and videos on a thumb drive, which I shall be copying to the students’ thumb drives. I include lessons on pronunciation, grammar and stories to read utilizing a “graded reader” method, which usually adds a bilingual vocabulary list at the end of each reading. The readers are excellent ways to review and learn more grammar.

All of which leads to a curiosity of mine concerning what materials are used by teachers and also in what kind of class, i.e. how many students are there, are there computers in the class, etc.?

Paul Rogers

Hi Susan and all,

I’ll try to answer this question in two parts.  In Part 1, I’ll describe an oral approach.  In Part 2, I’ll describe a writing approach.  Many teachers are using these approaches with high-beginners to advanced students.  You may notice that these approaches depend on students’ understanding of grammar terminology, which I had discussed on Monday’s and Tuesday’s discussion.

To help students become better at self-editing, it’s important that they have confidence in their ability to do it.  As teachers, we can help them develop this confidence by how we talk to them about grammar mistakes or how we mark these on their writing tasks.  This means that we lead students to discover their mistakes rather than just tell them what the mistakes are and/or how to correct them.  In other words, we give them some chances to discover the mistakes on their own.

Part 1: An Oral Approach

Imagine that you are sitting next to a student, Amy, looking at her writing assignment, and you want to help improve the grammar in it.

Let’s say she had written this sentence: “Yesterday, I go to a party.”

Here is an example of telling, not leading, a students.  In other words, Amy is not given a chance to find the mistake on her own.

        Teacher : "I see that you have a mistake in this sentence in your essay.  Instead of writing, “Yesterday, I go to a party,' you should write, “Yesterday, I went to a party.'"

Now, let’s contrast that with an example of leading the student to discover the mistake by giving what may end up being a series of hints.  In other words, the student is given many chances to find the mistake.

     Teacher: I see you have a grammar mistake in this sentence.  Can you find it?

     Amy: No, I think it looks correct.

    Teacher’s Hint 1: There is a mistake with your verb.  Do you see it?

     Amy:  No.

    Teacher’s Hint 2: Can you underline your verb?

    Amy: Yes.  (The student underlines “go.”)

    Teacher’s Hint 3: When did you go to the party?

    Amy: Yesterday.

    Teacher’s Hint 4: Yes.  Is “yesterday” the past or present?

    Amy: Past.

   Teacher’s Hint 5: Right.  Is your verb in the past or present?

   Amy: It’s in the present.  But it should be in the past: “went.”

In this dialog example above, Amy was alerted to the fact that there was a mistake and had six chances to find it on her own. 

I should note here that sometimes students just cannot find the mistake even after the teacher has given them several hints.   In that case, the teacher could directly explain what the mistake is and how to correct it.

There is a kind of art to this approach; it is for the teacher to be able lead students by saying as little as possible.  ELL students often do not have the listening skills needed to internalize long grammar explanations anyway, so it’s most effective if the teacher can lead students by asking short questions.

Here is a second example using two sentences from an essay titled “My Family.”             

“In my family, we have five family member.  They are my dad, mom, brother, sister, me.   Most of Chinese parents want boys, not girls.  . . .”

Mistake 1

    Teacher’s  Hint 1: In the first line, you have a mistake.  Can you find it?

(If the student finds it, then go to Mistake 2, below.  If not, give Hint 2.)

    Hint 2: You have a mistake with a noun.

(If the student finds it, go to Mistake 2.  If not, give Hint 3.)

    Hint 3: Underline the nouns in the first sentence.

(If the student finds it, go to Mistake 2.  If not, give Hint 4.)

    Hint 4: There is a mistake with “member.”  Is there only one member or more than one?

(The student corrects the mistake changing “member” to “members.”)

Mistake 2

    Teacher’s  Hint 1: There is also a mistake in the second sentence.  Can you find it?

(If the student finds it, go to Mistake 3.  If not, give Hint 2.)

    Hint 2: In the second sentence, you need to add a word.

(If the student finds it, go to Mistake 3.  If not, give Hint 3.)

    Hint 3: (Teacher underlines the words “brother, sister, me.”)  You need to add a word here.

(If the student finds it, go to Mistake 3.  If not, give Hint 4.)

   Hint 4: (Teacher points to the space after “sister.”)  You need to add a word here.

(If the student finds it, go to Mistake 3.  If not, give Hint 5.)

    Hint 5: (Above the sentence, the teacher writes “a _ d.”)  It has three letters.  The first letter is “a” and last is “d.”

About four years ago, the Writing Center at our college was interested in increasing the number of ELLs who used it.  So I wrote a guide and manual for training the tutors in this approach. After the training, the tutors were able to help students by leading them to discover an address their grammar mistakes rather than just telling them, and as a result, the number of ELLs who started using the Center increased significantly.  And students have reported greater satisfaction in their experiences there.

I’ll include more details and examples about this approach on my website How to lead ESL Students to Discover their Grammar Mistakes on Writing Assignments

 Also, if you’d like to receive a copy of the handbook (Handbook: Grammar Conferencing Techniques for Teachers and Tutors) and guide (Training Guide: Grammar Conferencing Techniques for Teachers and Tutors), you can contact me through my website, and I can send them to you.

Also, our Writing Center produced a YouTube video showing a tutor using this approach.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FH3Fs2_iOcI&feature=youtu.be

Part 2: A Written Approach

As with the “Oral Approach” above, this approach is designed to give students many chances to discover their mistakes. The basic difference is that in the Written Approach, instead of the teacher orally giving the first hint, it’s in the form of a written code in the margins.  Then if the student can’t find the mistake, the teacher orally leads the student using the types of hints described above.

To illustrate, imagine that your students wrote an essay.  After class, you mark the grammar mistakes on them and planned to return them to the students the next day for them to revise.  Here are two sentences that a student, Tony, has written.

• “I have three friend who have help me a lot.  When I have problem they are always stand me. . . .”

I’ll juxtapose two techniques for “marking” the essay.  (About the codes, NF=noun form; VT=verb tense; +comma=add a comma; +prep=add a preposition; -W=omit a word.)

Type 1: Teacher directly indicates the mistakes.

                                                          NF                    VT
                                    I have three friend who have help me a lot.  When I have 
                                                 +comma                     +prep
                                   problems ^ they are always stand  ^ me.

As you can see, Tony has missed the opportunity to discover his own mistakes.  To revise this, he doesn’t need to apply editing skills since the teacher had directly indicated what needs to be changed.  Tony may look at this and notice that there is a mistake with “friend,” and think, “If my teacher indicated that the form of ‘friend’ is wrong, it probably means I should change it to ‘friends.’”  He may not really understand the reason for the change.  As a result, he could be developing a dependence on his teacher to edit his writing rather than learning how to self-edit.

Type 2: Teacher gives hints in the margin. 

NF / VT                    I like three friend who have help me a lot.  When I get

+ Comma / -W         a problem they are always stand me.                                   +prep          

 By putting codes (hints) in the margin, the teacher has given Tony a chance to find the errors on his own.  Drawing on his own knowledge of grammar terminology, he knows that he should look for the verbs in the first line.  Then he applies what he has learned about verb tenses to decide which of the three verbs (“like,” “help,” or “get”) needs to be changed.  It seems that this opportunity to analyze his own writing is what will most effectively help him become a better self-editor.

However, what if Tony can’t find (on his own) some of the mistakes with the “code hints” in the margin?  The teacher would apply the oral techniques described in Part 1 above.  When conferencing with the student, the teacher gives additional hints to lead him to find the mistakes.  For example, let’s say he can’t find the NF (noun form) mistake in the first line.  The teacher could say, “Underline the nouns in this line.”  After he underlines “friend,” the teacher could ask, “Do you have one or more than one friend?” 

After several of us teachers changed from coding directly above the mistake to giving hints in the margin, we noticed a great improvement in students’ ability to self-edit.

Also, we found students interest in using the hints to correct their mistakes increased.   It’s often amusing to see their reaction when they ask for an addition hint and then realize that they could have found it on their own.  “Oh, no.  That was a foolish mistake.  I should have found that.”   It’s almost as if they feel like they missed a chance to score points in a game.”

As mentioned above, many of us teachers have used the margin-codes technique successfully with students from high-beginners to advanced. 

On my website, I’ll include an activity that can be used to introduce students to using margin codes to correct their mistakes. CommonSense-ESL.com

I’d be interested in hearing about any approaches/techniques others have used to help students become better self-editors.


David, the size of the class is a very important factor in how a teacher approaches any subject. Your methods obviously work well in a one-on-one tutorial session, but most ESL programs must have a minimum daily attendance of 20 students or more to maintaine funding. In that case, other tactics have to be used.

At the same time, I did not see any reference to a textbook or other educational materials, such as videos or websites. There is a wealth of information available to us now, and the incorporation of technology into our teaching works small miracles.

I also believe that those intermediate students who do not know basic grammar were taught incorrectly in the first place. Many beginning students actually want to learn grammar but teachers do not include it in their classes.

There are a number of chronic problems in adult ESL, which all contribute to a high dropout rate. Many students are simply bored and would like to be challenged with lessons on grammar, etc.  Perhaps more discussions like this will provide a stimulus to work on improving classes.

In any case, keep up the good work! 


Paul, I agree, class size can affect how a technique can be applied.  The “leading-students” conferencing technique, that I described, is being used by other teachers and me in classes of 20 and even 25 students.  If a class is primarily teacher-centered with mostly whole-class activities, it wouldn’t allow easily for this individualized approach to happen during class time.  However, in a more “workshop” approach, in which there is a mixture of whole-class and individual work, teachers would have time to conference with each student.  For example, in my 110-minute Writing class, at the beginning I introduce the days assignments and other things they need to know.   Then we may work on some exercises together and/or do group work. All that may take about 70-80.  Then for the final 30-40 minutes, while they are working individually on the assignments (introduced earlier in the day), I conference individually (using the “leading-students” technique) with students about previous tasks that they had written, that I had coded and that they had tried to revise.  If I don’t have time to meet with each student, the ones who I didn’t talk to are first on the “conferencing” list for the next class.  I use the same proportion of time in a 60-minute class.  Also, in a 110-minute class with lower-level students, who may need more teacher involvement, I may spend 90-100 minutes working together whole class or small groups. But that still allows me 10-20 minutes to conference individually.  (As mentioned above, I am working with them on assignments that they have already tried to revise on their own.) Again, I may not be able to talk to every student during a class, so the conferencing may carry over to the next one.  And I may not be able to “lead” each student to absolutely every mistake.  In such cases, faced with a time-limitation, the teacher may have to prioritize which mistakes they would be able to focus on by using the “leading” techniques.  But, in either case, students have a chance to discover their mistakes through “leading hints” by the teacher.  And that, I believe, is what helps students develop a more solid foundation in the process of self-editing.  

Hi Paul, Thank you for your comments here. Your bilingual method as well as the many ways you integrate technology into instruction have proven highly successful, including for the acquisition of English grammar. That's commendable!  It's certainly possible that, as you say, students who do not know basic grammar were taught incorrectly. However, it is also possible, and in my experience more common, that these adults were never taught grammar at all or that their opportunity to learn grammar in the past was quite limited. In fact, some learners may have never had the opportunity to attend school where grammar is typically taught.

I would say that all English learners can benefit from being taught grammar. Those with limited formal education will especially benefit through the methods advocated and demonstrated by David Kehe!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

Susan, in my experience a small minority of adult ELS students have not learned grammar and pehaps only attended a few years of school. But the overwhelming majority know grammar, and many often know grammar terms quite well. But I would say - no matter what - all the more reason to include grammar within the first six months of a Beginning ESL class!!!  

To explain further - in my classes everyone receives copies of the texts to be used plus CDs and DVDs which they own and can take home to study independently. Those texts include lessons on; Basic Vocabulary. English Pronunciation, Cognates, A Graded Reader, and two Basic  Grammar texts. Actually these texts reflect the lessons in Pumarosa.com, which is also used in class. Within six months I am usually able to teach all the lessons in these texts, plus songs.

The degree to which each student "masters" or learns all the lessons depends on a number of factors. Some learn just about everythig while others learn 50% or less.

I consider my class "successful" when the students ask me questions, and most questions are either about pronunciation or grammar, or about problems they encounter with using English during the day.  

Regarding your statement: "Those with limited formal education will especially benefit through the methods advocated and demonstrated by David Kehe!" - I would agree except for the fact that you should have included me also!!!!  Or anyone else who has success with teaching grammar to this group of students. We need cooperation not competition.




Hello David and all, The process you describe to support students to discover their own writing mistakes is great. As Paul notes, this kind of feedback does take time, but --just today in a class of 15 low and high beginners, I was able to implement this process with individual students as I floated around the room while the class was engaged in a conversation grid activity. Students were interviewing each other and writing their partner's responses on the grid. One question was "How long have you been here?" The partner wrote the following, "2 month." I pointed to the word month, and asked the student, "How many?" The student immediately remembered that she needed to add an "s" for plural nouns.

I wanted to share another technique that has worked well for me. We usually use technology, including word processing, when teaching writing with intermediate and advanced learners. Word processing programs make it possible to add comments in the margin. What I have found especially helpful is for students to use the comment feature to ask questions about things they are uncertain about in their writing, which gives me a wealth of information to support the learners' language acquisition. For example, a student might write: "Have I used the correct verb tense here?"; "I am not sure of word order here" ; "Is this the right word to use here?"

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

You gave a great example, Susan, of using an opportunity to “lead” a student to finding a grammatical mistake.  Instead of just telling the student to change “month” to “months,” you gave her the chance to consider the “grammatical context” with your brief hint of “How many?”

Also, thank you for the description of how you used comments in the margin.  With not only the teacher giving codes or hints, but also with the students asking questions in the margin, you’ve made this process into a meaningful interaction.


Hello David,

Your entire post brings back recollections of the self-editing skills I have been using over the years. Although I retired 3 years ago after 10+ years of working with international students at the university level, I learned within the first year that “telling” the students about the mistakes was ineffective. At the beginning, I did this as a time-saver since I was the only ESL support for these students. We met one-on-one and had lengthy discussions about ALL corrections on their assignments ranging from 2-12 pages. Some professors supported students who struggled with the English language but many did not. Therefore, reading and writing assignments became critical to successfully completing most college courses. For this reason, I edited their papers on my own time after our classroom sessions due to the size of my classes and the limited length of time I had the room for teaching. Then I scheduled individual time with each student to discuss errors, gave them copies of the edited papers, and prompted them to use these papers as a review-resource to assist them with the next writing assignment. For a long time, I felt frustrated that they repeated the same mistakes until several students admitted that they “just don’t have time” to review the edited papers.


Therefore, I went a step further which is the first additional approach I wish to share. I made a comprehensive list of “common mistakes” applicable to each individual student. Some made consistent mistakes with prepositions, use of articles, conjunctions, but others showed weak skills with verb tense, noun forms, subject/verb agreement, etc. so I tailored each list to a specific student. For example:



belief is a noun = trust/faith/idea                 believe is a verb

different is an adjective                                difference is a noun

fireman is singular                                        firemen is plural

fire man is not two words                            fireman is one word with no space

phrase = small group of words                    paragraph = several sentences about a specific topic

piece (n) = fragment/portion                        peace (n) = harmony/goodwill

prove is a verb = confirm/support               proof is a noun = evidence/testimony

then: an adverb relating to time                  than is a preposition used to make a comparison

this is singular                                               these is plural

when is an adverb = at what time               went is a verb = past tense of go

where means location                                   were is a past tense helping verb


I must say, these individual lists improved their self-editing slightly because they served as cheat sheets. However, only when I began the “leading” approach you discuss above and used the cheat sheets on a secondary basis did I see significant improvement.


This brings me to the second additional approach I wish to share. Intermittently throughout the Oral Approach and before the Written Approach, I prompted the students to read the incorrect sentences aloud. Then I would ask the appropriate questions as you note above in your post. In this way, many students self-corrected before I reached the “hinting” strategies. Often, a focus on listening helps students to express pride that they were able to “fix” the error on their own. However, if the student cannot justify the correction with a brief grammar explanation, then I continue the oral/written approaches.


David, I want to thank you for listing your approaches, mistakes, and hints in such a systematic way. I have always considered myself an organized person but I must admit that your step by step Teacher’s Hints give me guidance in asking the questions in a more progressive manner.

Hi Victoria,

It sounds like we agree on how to help students edit their papers.  From my experience, I can say that students don't want a teacher just to tell them what the mistake is and how to change it.  Also, if after a series of hints, they still can't find it, at that point they usually just want to know how to correct it and move on to the next mistake.  They don't want to hear a long grammatical explanation.  

I've also seen how students will view the "hint" process as a kind of puzzle, and they'll express a satisfaction in "finding" the mistake "on their own."  Sometimes as I'm going through a student's paper with him/her, I'll say, "This is kind of fun, isn't it?"  And they'll often surprise themselves by agreeing.

On some drafts in which I'm focused on the content/organization of their essays, I don't mark any codes the margins; i.e., I don't look at their grammar.  It's not unusual for a student to be a bit disappointed by this and ask, "Hey, where are the red mistake codes?"  They want to see the red!

Some day, when I finally retire from teaching, I have a feeling one of the things I'm going to miss the most is being able to sit down next to a student, read their papers and talk one-on-one with them leading them to their mistakes and complimenting their successes.


Hi David, yes we appear to be in agreement with our editing strategies. I responded later yesterday on my perspectives regarding the connection between reading, writing and keeping journals. However, I failed to mention that I do not always edit their journals/essays as you stated above. At times, some students just want to revel in the notion that they succeeded in completing an entry but others make a request for editing. They deserve to make choices periodically.

Yes, I suspect you will miss that personal contact with your students when you retire. Currently, I work part-time for that very reason. I retired from my full-time & a half job at the university but experienced withdrawal symptoms at the thought of not teaching at all! My students inspire me and I learn almost as much from them as they do from me.

Have a nice weekend,  Victoria


Hello David, Thank you again for sharing so many great ideas and concrete examples for teaching grammar. I'd like to pose another question for you that is along a slightly different track. I know a lot of teachers are keenly interested in the link between reading and writing in language acquisition. Could you comment on the connection between reading and writing and the potential impact specifically on the acquisition of grammar?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

Hi Susan and all,

This true story from 2016 is about one of my students, which for me best illustrates the powerful impact that reading can have on writing skills.

Emily, a student from Vietnam, was struggling with the grammar in her writing assignments.  In addition to her Writing courses, she worked with a tutor on her written work, but she was continuously making basic grammar mistakes.  In the fall, the program reluctantly promoted her to my higher-level Writing course.  I found her to be the third lowest of 17 students in the class in being able to apply grammatical accuracy to written work.  Ten weeks later, she was the second best.  I was totally amazed!

At the end of that Fall term, she passed my class and then took English Comp (English 101) during the Winter term.  She got an A.

I had a chance to talk to her about her remarkable turn-around.  What she ended up telling me she did is not beyond what other students can do. 

That Fall term (when she was my student), Emily was concerned about an academic course that she was planning to take during Winter term, so she decided to read as much as she could about that subject area before January.  She went to the library and found several books.  But, she realized that since she could only check them out for three weeks, she’d need to be focused in order to read through all of them over the course of three months.  She told me that during that fall, all she did whenever she wasn’t doing assignments was read those books.  She didn’t play video games, didn’t spend time on social media, didn’t go to parties, didn’t watch TV, etc.  She just read, sometimes even while eating.  Not surprisingly, she learned a lot about the subject area, but to me, the most astonishing result was that her grammar improved so dramatically during my course almost as a byproduct.

At almost any level that I’ve taught from high-beginners to advanced, there have been students who were able to score top grades on formal grammar tests but were unable to apply that knowledge to their writing.  There have also been those who were the reverse; they got mediocre grades on grammar tests but were outstanding writers.  I have found that almost without fail, the weak writers rarely read in English outside of class, and the stellar writers read regularly in English.

A challenge for ESL programs is to finding a way to get their students to read more without adding extra work for the teachers.  Fortunately, in the program that I teach at, we have found a way to do this.  And best of all, besides the benefit to students, it costs the program very little money and adds no work to the teachers.  Here is what we do:

Students are required to choose something to read for at least one hour a week and write a “journal” entry.  We encourage them to find something that is of high-interest and that is not too difficult.  The sources of the readings can be things like newspapers, magazine, online articles, novels, etc. The entries consist of a brief summary of what they had read and a reflection, for example:

• I found some interesting/important information in this article.

• There is some information in this article that I could apply to my life.

• I agree / disagree with the author about something.

• This article reminded me of (me/ my family/my friend).

• I was surprised by something in this article.

On my website https://commonsense-esl.com/2018/01/14/lincs-discussion-about-grammar-handout-exercises/, I’ll add an example of how we explain these “reading  journal” assignments to students.

In order to avoid adding more work for teachers, our program hires one or two “Reading Journal Readers” to read, to write comments on the journal entries and to record them for all the classes.  They are paid the same rate as a tutor would be paid.  They don’t mark the grammar; they only write encouraging comments that show they had read and found the entries interesting.  For an example of an entry with comments, see my website https://commonsense-esl.com/2018/01/14/lincs-discussion-about-grammar-handout-exercises/.  I’ll also include a “Reader” job description.  (By the way, being a reader has proven to be a very popular and rewarding position for people of all ages, including some retired teachers.)

Some benefits from this “reading journal” process are that we’ve seen a great improvement in students’ writing abilities.  Also, some students have told us that they found something so enjoyable to read that they continued to read more than the assigned one hour per week and even after they had completed our program.

It would be interesting to hear from others about their perspectives on the connection between reading and writing.


Hello David and all, Just yesterday, I was talking with a colleague about the value of students keeping reading journals or reading logs. I have had intermediate and advanced students do so in the past. Students were required to choose something --anything!-- to read outside of class, e.g.,a magazine, info online, newspaper, book, poetry, product label, informational flyer, etc.. They would also choose a new vocabulary word and explain the meaning of the word and use it in a sentence in their reading log. When they came to class, they would talk with a partner about what they had read and also discuss the new vocabulary word. This simple activity proved to be so successful at getting students using English in personally meaningful ways, that I also asked them to keep a listening/viewing log where they would choose something to listen to or watch, e.g., a song, the weather report, a conversation overheard on the bus, a sporting event, a podcast, a commercial, a movie, the news, etc. Similarly, in class they would talk about what they had listened to or watched and discuss the vocabulary word they learned with a partner.

I also had students take turns formally teaching a chosen vocabulary word from their logs to the whole class. (There is a lot more to this, so if anyone wants to know more, please let me know.)

Keeping a log or a journal is a great way to support learners who are immersed in English to profitably exploit the language-rich environment all around them.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

As a newcomer to this group, and the profession of ESL education, I was very interested to hear of your comments regarding reading, writing and grammar. I have been struggling with how best to teach grammar in my ESL class, and perhaps will try to introduce extra reading and journal writing. My recollections of how I learned to write well always centered on the fact that as far back as I can remember, I read books. I don't every remember any explicit grammar lessons that helped me learn how to write. Thanks!!!


Hello David & All.

Without a doubt, I strongly agree that the connection between reading and writing skills proves to make a significant impact on improving both skills. I learned very early in my ESL teaching career the need for my students to read more often. This realization came during writing exercises in which my students not only struggled to write sentences and/or paragraphs but they hated it! I discussed the importance of reading & writing over and over again, not just to help them speak better English but to write better grammatically. Up to that point, I tried multiple strategies to encourage my students to read at home because there just wasn’t enough time in the classroom. For this reason, I began assigning mandatory reading & writing homework without success. For the most part, I got excuses that they did not have time but I persisted. I eventually realized that the main reason they rebelled was that they felt intimidated without teacher assistance. In order to ease their fears, I developed a plan to begin with simple assignments. I began with a handout in which they were to keep track of the weather journalistic style (6 of these fit on one page):

WEATHER JOURNAL                              NAME: ___________________________________________

Reporting the weather

**  Today is ______________________  ______________________  _________  ________  _________

day of week                                   month                         date             year                        time


** It is ___________  ___________  ___________  and  ___________  ___________  ______________

                   hot                      cool                  cold                         wet                    dry                    windy


** The temperature is: __________ according to the _____________  ____________  _______________

                                          Degrees                                       newspaper                 radio                    television


The students appeared to enjoy reading weather reports in newspapers, watching TV, etc. and looked forward to reporting their answers in class. They even remarked how some family members liked to help them fill in the blanks. After several weeks of this method, I gave students a choice to accept a challenge for writing a journal entry of 3 (or more) sentences at least 3 days a week. Some students took on the assignment and little by little, they influenced the remaining students to participate because, as with the weather reports, some of them enjoyed sharing their entries with their classmates voluntarily.


Within a few months, I monitored student reactions and participation, determining that they were ready to accept the next level of the assignment. Each month, I get a subscription for Easy English News with a copy for each student. Now, the new assignment is that they must read an article, plus write in their journal, so I give them the entire week to complete this homework, giving them full freedom to either summarize or reflect. However, this time they must write at least a full paragraph or two. I used to assign the article for them to read but found it to be more successful to allow them to select an article that fits their interest. Some students have not progressed to this higher-level assignment yet, but they continue to strive to improve…and that is the true goal of a teacher.


I apologize for sending this and the previous post so late.

Thank you, again, for your insights and expertise.


Hello Victoria and all, I love how you kept trying different approaches until something clicked for students. The way you scaffolded the weather report homework for learners is great. I will definitely borrow this idea! 

I want to affirm your point about offering choice. I think the reading and listening logs I described above were so successful for that very reason. Students could choose anything they wanted to read or listen to, and they loved coming to class and talking about it.

Thanks for sharing these ideas with all of us, Victoria!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

I believe that if we include L1 support from Day 1 in Beginning classes, we would solve or prevent a lot of problems associated with learning grammar that are being discussed here.

When students in my classes make grammar mistakes, I have simply gone to my bilingual lessons to help them make the correction.

I also teach in a step-by-step fashion, focusing on pronunciation. Learning basic pronunciation is essential to learning English. The index to Pumarosa shows the sequence I use in general.

In my classes, all students receive copies of my texts, which they take home. And they learn how to use Pumarosa. The materials students use to learn English play an integral part in their studies.

Basically, then, I am advocating that the method of teaching ESL should be reformed to include L1 support, or the use of the bilingual method – even in a multi-lingual class. 

While we discuss various methods we can use to teach, we also need to examine what materials we use. Do your students own a bilingual dictionary, a good grammar text, a book of readings, etc? Or do you hand out worksheets instead?  In all the classes I have ever taken, esecially language classes, I always had good texts, and actually still have some of them in my library...after about 40 years!!!!


Hi Paul, I continue to agree with you that L1 support is important in teaching grammar on an as-needs basis. As a matter of fact, I believe it is just as critical for teaching concepts as I have several students who have accessed your Pumarosa website. When I teach beginner ESL adults sight words, such as teacher, student, book, etc. that is easy. However, I struggled with such words as teach, study, learn, race (noun & verb), place (noun & verb), etc. Frequently, I have higher level students who often assist me with Spanish definitions during our lessons but if they are not available, then most students bring a smartphone to class and use the dictionary translator. The smartphone becomes especially helpful since class enrollment, although largely Hispanic, consists of Asian, Haitian and Turkish students.

An additional advantage to this strategy is that I conduct these "teaching exercises" in a role-playing manner so that the leader-students become the "teacher" which boosts their self-esteem. As a matter of fact, I conduct this exercise every few weeks so that all students get the opportunity to “teach” a word/phrase/sentence in their language and I become the “student” (with the rest of the class). The sharing-caring aspect of these exercises strengthens student rapport and understanding of other cultures.