GRAMMAR, SYNTAX, AND ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS

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1 GRAMMAR, SYNTAX, AND ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS When it comes to grammar, many writing tutors and instructors are unsure of the most effective way to teach ESL students. And while numerous studies, articles and books have been produced on this very subject, no definitive answer has been reached. The reason for this is simple different methods work better for different students and teachers. Aside from finding an appropriate way to teach grammar to ESL students, it is also essential that instructors learn more about their students and are sensitive to their unique backgrounds, skills and needs. These following materials provide an overview of what every teacher needs to know before teaching grammar to ESL students. WAYS TO REFER TO STUDENTS WHOSE FIRST LANGUAGE IS NOT ENGLISH Many educators are unsure of how to refer to students whose first language is not English. Given the controversial history of bilingual education in the U.S., it is not surprising that these educators are anxious about using an offensive or outdated term. While being conscious of how one refers to students is important, it is perhaps even more important to acknowledge that these students are not a homogenous group nor does one allencompassing term exist. To facilitate this understanding, provided below are commonly used labels and their explanations. English as a Second Language (ESL): Perhaps the most commonly recognized label, although it is considered outdated by some educators. Still used widely in higher education to refer to students, instructors or programs. In order to acknowledge that for some students, English can be a second, third or even fourth language, can be modified as English as a Subsequent Language. Resident ESL students: Students whose first language is not English, but who have lived in the U.S. for a considerable amount of time or are U.S. citizens.

2 Appropriate for students who are moderate to advanced in their speaking and listening skills, yet are less than proficient in their English reading and writing skills. English Language Learner (ELL): Commonly used in secondary education to refer to students who are still in the process of acquiring English listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. International students: Students who received most of their education in a country other than the United States and/or an institution in which English was not the primary language. These students may intend on returning to their native residence after acquiring a degree from an American institution or may intend on staying in the U.S. permanently. L2 learners: Commonly used by applied linguists to refer to learners of English as a second language. Nonnative speakers of English: Students from countries in which English is not the primary or official language. Similar to ELLs, L2s and international students, these students are still in the process of acquiring English language skills. MYTH VS. FACT: COMMON ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT ESL WRITERS DEBUNKED Myth: If an ESL student learns the rules of grammar, they will learn how to write proficiently. Fact: Some ESL students may know grammar rules inside out but still produce less than proficient writing. This is because they have not learned how to apply this knowledge to their own writing. Students need to be taught grammar in context; not through drills or

3 worksheets. While grammar rules can be useful for explaining certain concepts, students also need to understand how to apply these rules. Myth: If an ESL student speaks English well, they know how to write proficiently in English. Fact: Some ESL writers are still in the process of learning the difference between spoken English and written English. These students may have an intuitive sense of grammar when listening, but are still developing their writing skills. Keep in mind that students go through the language acquisition process in different ways and just because they seem to have mastered one component (listening or speaking), it does not mean they have mastered the others (reading and writing). TEACHING OR TUTORING GRAMMAR AND SYNTAX Once you understand the complex nature of ESL students, it is then time to determine the areas in which your student(s) most needs to improve. Writing tutors or instructors often become overwhelmed by the large presence of grammatical errors in an ESL student s paper and feel they have to tackle every single one. Because of this, some tutors or instructors inadvertently succumb to correcting or editing a student s paper linebyline. Not only is this practice costly of your time, but it is also a disservice to your student. Instead of becoming an editor, isolate a couple of issues, the ones that seem most pertinent. Then, attempt to understand why the student is having difficulty in those areas and work together to find an effective way to help them understand. The table on the next page offers suggestions on how to work in these problem areas.

4 COMMON AREAS OF DIFFICULTY FOR ESL WRITERS Area Explanation Examples Common reasons for confusion Subjectverb agreement Plural subjects with singular verbs or vice versa. The students studies for the exam. Confusion over inflected or plural verbs and subjects. Missing/misplaced articles Incorrect word usage Absence of or confusion about when to use articles such as a, an, the. Words that seem to be out of place or context. I walked to store. Student s first language does not use articles. Confusing homophones ( their v. there ) Misunderstanding the meaning of a word Limited vocabulary or unreliable sources (Microsoft Word spell/grammar check, electronic translators). Tense shift Vague pronoun reference Runon sentences Sentence fragments Unnecessary changes or shifts in tense form. Unclear pronoun references. Sentences containing more than one independent clause. Incomplete sentences. Misspelling words I walked to the store and buy some food. Amy and Jessica went shopping for her birthday. My teacher assigned a research paper he said it is due in two weeks. And is worth 30 points. Student is still in process of acquiring ability to use various tenses. Unfamiliarity with English pronoun use. Student is still in process of developing an ear for English. Limited vocabulary or unfamiliarity with English sentence structure.

5 TIPS FOR TEACHING GRAMMAR Teach in context You may meet an ESL student who is more knowledgeable about the rules of grammar than even you are! Why then, you may wonder, does their writing still exhibit misuses of grammar? The answer is, the student needs to be shown how to apply their knowledge of grammar rules to their actual writing. Find patterns in their writing and focus on those during your instruction. It may also be useful to have students keep a grammar log where they can record repeated difficulties and their solutions. Teach in increments Don t feel the need to tackle every aspect of their paper at once. Start with one or two concepts; choose only the most pertinent issues. Also, explain to the student that grammar is not learned overnight; the process of acquiring or developing new language skills is timely and requires extensive practice. Teach students to identify, explain and remedy sentences Many students rely on their instructors or tutors to fix their papers; however, this will not help the students themselves become a better writer. Resist overcorrecting a student s paper and instead work slowly towards helping the student selfedit and correct. Remember, the best teachers put themselves out of business! Suggested activities: Having students show you how to correct a sentence Showing students how to use proper dictionaries for ESL writers (i.e., Longman or MerriamWebster s versions for ESL students) Showing students how to effectively use a grammar handbook Motivate students to learn syntax and grammar Most importantly, remember that students learn best when they are motivated. After all, your student may ask: why do I need to learn grammar? What s wrong with the way

6 I normally speak? Composition scholar Beth Neman identifies two reasons why it is important for students to learn grammar: The first is their need to communicate in writing, and the second and more important is their need to succeed in a world where nonstandard dialect is a negative social and economic marker (283). Additionally, be sensitive to your students varying backgrounds and experience. Avoid language such as wrong, error, mistake, ungrammatical or improper. Emphasize instead that that all dialects are equal and that appropriateness varies for different settings. In the setting of the University, for instance, it is appropriate to use Standard American English or SAE. Which, by the way, is a second language for everyone! Additional Resources Ferris, Dana R., and John S. Hedgcock, eds. Teaching ESL Composition. 2 nd ed. Routledge, Matsuda, Paul Kei, et al. SecondLanguage Writing in the Composition Classroom: A Critical Sourcebook. Bedford/St. Martin s, Neman, Beth. Teaching Students to Write. 2 nd ed. Oxford University Press, Developed by Andrea Hernandez for Antioch University

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