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Teaching Grammar as a Resource for Writers . Dr. Jan Frodesen Director, English as a Second Language Department of Linguistics UC-Santa Barbara [email protected] Outline of presentation. The role of grammar in teaching composition Prevailing attitudes about grammar

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Teaching grammar as a resource for writers l.jpg

Teaching Grammar as a Resource for Writers

Dr. Jan Frodesen

Director, English as a Second Language

Department of Linguistics

UC-Santa Barbara

[email protected]

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Outline of presentation

  • The role of grammar in teaching composition

    • Prevailing attitudes about grammar

    • Need for new perspectives

  • What does “grammar as a resource” mean for student writers?

  • What’s a teacher to do? Guidelines for helping students develop academic language proficiency

  • Sample activities for writing classrooms

    • Text analysis activities (noticing, explaining)

    • Production activities (guided exercises, composing and revision tasks)

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To begin, a thought about grammar from a writer…

Grammar is a piano I play by ear.

All I know about grammar is its


Joan Didion

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The role of grammar in the teaching of composition

First we will briefly look at:

  • Prevailing attitudes about grammar in the field (L1, L2 composition)

    Then we will consider:

  • Why new perspectives on grammar are

    are needed

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Prevailing attitudes about grammar for writing instruction

“In composition studies, grammar is unquestionably unfashionable. It is frequently associated with ‘low-skills’ courses that stigmatize and alienate poor writers while reproducing their status as disenfranchized. This association emerges naturally from teaching methods that present grammar as a fix-it approach to weak writing, rather than, as Martha Kolln describes it, ‘a rhetorical tool that all writers should understand and control’.”

Laura Micciche, “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar”

(CCC 2004)

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Some supporting evidence…

  • “My students have been so beaten down by emphasis on grammar, I don’t want to further weaken their confidence in themselves as writers.”

    Spoken by a veteran college writing


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More “dissing” of grammar…

Remarks reported by Terry Santos (2005):

“I’ll never teach grammar in my writing classes: I don’t want to be accused of malpractice.”

“I’m glad I never learned formal grammar; now I’ll never be tempted to teach it.”

“Teachers only teach grammar in a writing class because it’s easy and makes them feel like they’re doing something.”

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  • Some may even think of grammar focus in writing as being about as helpful as the toad in this little poem:

    A centipede was happy quite,

    until a toad in fun

    Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”

    This raised his doubts to such a pitch

    He fell distracted in the ditch

    Not knowing how to run

    (Author unknown, cited by Richard Feynman in

    The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Perseus Books, 1999)

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In sum …

  • Grammar instruction, especially at the sentence level has often been thought to be:

    • Unnecessary

    • Remedial/stigmatizing

    • Unrelated to larger concerns of purpose and audience

    • Detrimental to students’ composing processes

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As evidenced by discussions in both L1 and L2 composition literature (including journals for K-12 ), teachers, researchers and curriculum developers are advocating new (and improved!) approaches to grammatical focus other than traditional grammar.

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Why are new perspectives needed?

  • Recent reports such as the intersegmental (CCC, CSU, UC) document on English Competencies for Entering Freshmen stress that students need to learn a range of academic registers and that language focus should be an important part of the curriculum in preparing high school students for higher education and beyond.

  • Develop in applied linguistics and composition offer new directions for teaching grammar ascentral to many components of writing:

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New Perspectives: Centrality of Grammar

  • Meaning: Grammar is integral to meaning making

    We draw on our language resources to make choices about expressing meaning.

  • Text cohesion and coherence: Writers use a variety of grammatical devices to organize, focus, emphasize and link ideas.

  • Stance: Writers draw on various linguistic forms to engage readers, express attitudes about ideas, establish an authoritative voice, etc.

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New perspectives on academic writing

  • Academic texts:

    • Are not decontextualized but differently contextualized from those contexts familiar to students

    • Are complex in a way different from the complexities of conversational language

      Schleppegrell, 2004)

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Linguistic vs. cognitive demands

Schleppegrell (2004):

Descriptions of academic writing as decontextualized, explicit, complex often interpreted as cognitive issues.

Instead, we need to consider the linguistic issues: Different language for different genres/purposes, many of them unfamilar to our students

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Need for explicit language instruction

  • Students often given assignments with expectation that they understand directives such as “Use a formal academic style,” “Be clear,” “Put it in your own words,” “Use appropriate vocabulary”

  • Need to show student writers how texts are structured and organized and how language is used for different purposes and audiences

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Issues related to advanced level multilingual writers

  • Their language problems not always easy to diagnose compared to those of less proficient writers who have many obvious grammar/syntax/lexical errors

  • Though some problems similar to L1 developing writers, others are not: Educational backgrounds and literacy experiences may be very different

  • In the case of entering freshmen, often their academic vocabulary has been acquired receptively (e.g., for SAT preparation), and they have had few opportunities to use this language productively

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So what does “grammar as a resource” mean for student writers?

  • Students develop awareness of different kinds of grammatical forms and structures used in different types of texts.

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Different types of grammar for different text types writers?

  • The environmental impacts of the wine industry have been assessed in recent years. The different stages of the wine grapes cultivation and production all contribute to the global impact of the industry.

    From a case study for Environmental

    Science and Management

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Different types of grammar writers?

'SO YOU'RE THE Mexican who doesn't speak good Spanish," the Univision Radio producer sneered as we discussed whether I should appear on his show. Wow. My "¡Ask a Mexican!" celebrity star is no brighter than gaffer level, yet rumors and whispers about my personal life already buzz around town.From My Sinful Spanish Syntax By Gustavo ArellanoAugust 28, 2006

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Grammar as a resource for students writers?

  • Students also develop a rich repertoire of language options: Different ways to introduce, develop, focus and link ideas in writing and to reference the ideas of others.

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Drawing on language options writers?

  • Replacing overuse of logical connectors with lexical links to

    create cohesion.

  • Using relational verbs instead of logical connectors

    X results in Y instead of Therefore…


    Therefore, Henry lacked a respect for his father.

    Revised: Henry’s belief that his father was weak

    resulted in a lack of respect for him.

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Grammar as a resource for students writers?

  • In addition, students learn that there are different systems of grammar from which writers consider their choices.

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What are “systems of grammar”? writers?

  • Reference system in English

    • Personal pronouns: it, they

    • Demonstrative pronouns and adjectives + NP:

      this, this belief

    • Definite article the + NP

      the beliefs of many writing teachers regarding the role of grammar in writing

    • Comparative forms: such, such a + NP

      such beliefs; such a response

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Systems of grammar writers?

  • Modality for expressing probability/possibility

    • Modal verbs: can, could, might, may

    • Probability verbs: indicate, attest to

    • Frequency adverbs: frequently, scarcely

    • Probability adverbs: perhaps, maybe

    • Determiners: many, most

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Grammar as a resource for students writers?

  • Students learn, too, how writers make different choices among grammatical forms based on communicative purposes and assumptions about readers.

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Different choices for different purposes writers?

  • From student essays:

    • Wendell Berry thinks that escaping nature is what we seek for satisfaction, but how can that be so?… He also mentions, “Life will become a permanent holiday.” That is impossible!

    • Let us not part from nature nor from technology: instead let us carry them both with us into the future!

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Student essay examples, cont. writers?

  • Although technology has caused many people to lose sight of their own capabilities, we cannot overlook the medical advances and research possibilities that it has allowed us and still allows us.

    (Schleppegrell, 2004, p. 59)

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Grammar as a resource for students: writers?

  • Students learn as well theways in whichgrammar and vocabulary interact

    • New approaches to grammar recognize that grammar and the lexicon are overlapping, not separate domains and have complex interactions.

    • Lexical-based grammar assumes that vocabulary choices affect grammatical choices.

    • Corpus-based resources offer much insight in this area (corpus grammars, collocation dictionaries, concordancers).

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Collocations writers?

  • Definitions of collocation

    ‘the company words keep’ (J.R. Firth)

    ‘the ways words combine in predictable ways’

    (Holten & Mikesell, forthcoming)

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Collocations writers?

  • Here are some examples of collocation (from Moon, 1997, cited in Holten & Mikesell, forthcoming)

    • Idioms: Don’t count your chickens

    • Compounds: collective bargaining

    • Phrasal verbs: give up

    • Fixed phrases: how do you do

    • Prefabricated routines: the fact/point is…

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Interaction of grammar and vocabulary writers?

  • Lexical choices have grammatical consequences

    Television does not find happiness,

    but serves more as a time out.

    He criticizes that cars would create more

    accidents and deaths in the nation.

    Invention and necessities help develop each other through history.

    Student written examples

    from Holten & Mikesell (forthcoming)

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Grammar as a resource for students writers?

  • In addition to all of the previous gains, students learn that grammar functions at the larger discourse level, not just the sentence level, to create focus, clarity and information flow

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Discourse grammar and information flow writers?

  • In writing, “flow” may mean to student writers a nice sound to writing as it’s read, but that flow is achieved grammatically as well as lexically by the structuring of information in sentences, with given (“old,” “known”) information presented first – the theme– followed by new information - a comment or claim about the theme. Linguists often call this topic-commentstructure.

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Information flow: writers?Given and new information

From The Hurried Child (para. 3 in handout)

This idea of childhood as a distinct phrase preceding adult life became inextricably interwoven with the modern concepts of universal education and the small nuclear family (mother, father, children – not the extended family of the earlier eras) in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the heyday of the original Industrial Revolution.

“Given” information or themesummarizes the ideas in the previous paragraph, so this information is known to the reader. Note the use of reference word this.

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Information flow: Student sample writers?

Consider the information flow of this passage from a research paper:

[A] sweat lodge is made of long saplings, which are stuck into the ground and bent inward to form an igloo-shape. These supports are covered with blankets. [The] diameteris about six-feet. In the center is a hole in the ground. Rocks are heated until they are hot outside the hut.

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Thematic positioning and coherence writers?

  • Looking at the themes (sentence subjects of introductory elements) of a piece of writing can reveal the extent to which the text is structured coherently or whether it seems to shift topics.

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Grammar as a resource for students writers?

  • Yet another very important area of grammar in writing is that students develop effective ways to express interpersonal relationships: their stance on ideas and their relationships (engagement) with their readers.

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Expressing stance and engagement writers?

  • Over the past decade or so, academic writing has gradually lost its traditional tag as an objective, faceless and impersonal form of discourse and come to be seen as a persuasive endeavor involving interaction between writers and readers.

  • This view sees academics as not simply producing texts that plausibly represent an external reality but also as using language to acknowledge, construct and negotiate social relations.

    (Hyland, 2005)

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Expressing stance in academic writing writers?

Stance: This refers to the interpersonal relationships that writers have with readers and their texts.

We take positions in relation to what we are writing about, and we position ourselves in relation to others who hold points of view on the topic. To persuade others, we need to show competence and to express our views in a way that is convincing. We do this with language among other things.

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What does grammar have to do with stance and engagement? writers?

  • There are many different ways to express our evaluations and attitudes in our writing

    • We hedge our claims with words like

      perhaps, possibly, suggest

    • We boost claims with words like of course, obviously, X shows

    • We express attitudes about what we say with words such as unfortunately, hopefully, remarkable, agree

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Problems multilingual writers have with expressing stance writers?

  • L2 writers rely on a more limited range of markers of doubt and certainty (e.g., I think, probably, definitely, it is clear that) than L1 writers

  • They make strong commitments that are not appropriate for the claims (e.g., using always or never when a claim needs to be qualified.)

  • They use stance markers inappropriately or in ways not common to academic writing

    It is clearly showing that these buyers usually lack confidence.

    Probably, they can learn the importance of confidence.

    Hyland and Milton (1997)

    Hyland and Milton note that little attention is paid to these important linguistic devices in writers’ handbooks, style guides and most ESL textbooks.

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Grammar as a resource for students writers?

  • And finally:

    Focus on grammar as a resource means that students will gain better understanding of the interrelationships of the aforementioned areas. Writers need to draw on a variety of features that characterize different registers.

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Interrelationships: Stance in different academic disciplines writers?

  • Hyland (2005) found striking differences in how markers of stance and engagement were used across disciplines.

    Example: Appeals to shared knowledge such as “Of course, we all know…” used frequently by philosophy, marketing, sociology but not sciences such as physics or biology.

  • Many multilingual students, including international graduate students, need to become more familiar with the ways in which writers express stance in their fields in English.

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What’s a teacher to do? writers?Helping students develop proficiency

  • Teach grammar not only reactively but proactively

    Reactive: Responding to diagnosed errors, responding to

    students’ questions and requests for information

    Proactive: Anticipating needs, providing instruction and

    practice that addresses specific task demands, develops

    fluency, provides a range of structures for expressing

    stance, making connections, etc.

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Helping students develop proficiency writers?

  • Use content-based and genre-based approaches to grammar teaching

    • Anticipate and incorporate grammar at points where students need knowledge/ practice for particular functions or tasks

    • “Mine” assigned readings for examples of grammatical structures, lexico-grammatical relationships that may be helpful

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“Mining” texts writers?

  • Some examples:

    • Frequently used clause patterns that serve particular functions; e.g., relative clauses used for definitions

    • Varied use of verb tenses for different purposes: Establishing time frames, introducing topics, topic shifts, providing background information, expressing writer stance (e.g., conditional tenses for the latter)

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“Mining” texts writers?

  • Set or routine phrases (multi-word units) often used in academic writing for introducing sources, agreeing, disagreeing, comparing viewpoints, etc.

  • Different word forms for key vocabulary –e.g., civil, uncivil, civility – and the grammatical forms needed with them (articles, nouns, etc.)

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Helping students develop proficiency writers?

  • Encourage students to “Read like a writer”

    • Explain how this is different from reading for content.

    • Discuss how you yourself developed as a writer this way.

    • Model the process as it related to language focus – take a short text and discuss what you find and how it can help you in your own writing.

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Helping students develop proficiency writers?

  • Have students read, discuss and write about the features of different text types

    • Look at textbook pages, newspapers, blogs, e-mail, texts from different disciplines, etc.

    • Ask students to bring in examples of texts to discuss in groups.

    • Have students look at different examples of student writing.

    • Provide brief guides or charts for them to complete to direct the activities – they can be very simple!

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Helping students develop proficiency writers?

  • Show students how to use a variety of resources (paper and online) for composing and revising

    • Dictionaries

    • Thesauruses (online and paper)

    • Corpus-based references: Collocation dictionaries, concordancers

    • Writing handbooks with useful templates

      (e.g., Graf & Berkestein’s I Say, They Say)

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Corpus-based resources writers?

  • For more information about/examples of corpus-based resources, please see my PowerPoint presentation:

    Using Corpus-Based References to Guide Editing and Revision in L2 Writing



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Helping students develop proficiency writers?

  • Assign both analysis and production tasks and show students how to approach them

    • Analysis tasks should provide grammatical

      explanation where needed (e.g. what

      a noun phrase is if students don’t know).

    • Students need productive practice – and lots of it – to acquire academic language proficiency.

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Need for productive practice writers?

For learners the language is not real or authentic until they have learned to realize or authenticate it.

Widdowson, 1991

Cited in Seidelhofer,

Controversies in Applied Linguistics,

Oxford, p. 80

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More Sample Text Analysis Activities writers?

The following offer more suggestions for types of text analysis: noticing and explaining grammatical and lexical features in assigned readings.

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Techniques for noticing writers?

  • “Noticing” means paying attention to forms and why they are used and to patterns of language. Noticing techniques can include asking students to do the following:

    • Highlight words and phrases (e.g., highlight present perfect verbs to see how they are being used to frame topics).

    • Put brackets around structures such as clauses and phrases to see how complex sentences are created.

    • Create lists of structures identified (e.g., make list of words that express a writer’s stance about claims)

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Text Analysis: Feature Clusters writers?

  • Ask students to identify language features that characterize different text types – see Biber et al. (2000), Byrd and Reid (1998), Holten and Marasco (1998) for more information and examples.

    Example: “Engagement” features in “A Law for Bad Humans”

    Students identify imperatives, rhetorical questions, 1st person for author, 2nd person you to address readers

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Text Analysis: Sentence Variety writers?

  • Ask students to speculate on reasons for a writer’s use of sentences in a text and to react to them.

    • Why short sentences? Why long ones?

    • Why do some sentences start as they do?

    • Which kinds of sentences (simple, complex) seem to be dominant? Why?

    • Pick a particularly long sentence with multiple clauses. Why did the write use the sentence this way instead of several shorter ones.

    • Which sentences do you like? Why?

    • What kinds of sentences do you use most?

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Text Analysis: Lexical Chains writers?

The following task created by Margi Wald uses sample student writing on Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary and the ICAS Academic Literacy competencies report.

One of the ways that writers link key ideas in a text is through lexical chains, repeating words/phrases and using words/phrases that have similar meanings. Look at the sample student essay. Focus on the opening sentences of each paragraph. Scan the previous paragraph to find words the student echoes in the opening sentences to the next paragraph by changing the word form. Highlight the words in both paragraphs. Notice also the strong verbs and abstract nouns the writer uses and how these verbs and nouns help the writer create cohesion. The first two are done for you.

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Analysis: Lexical chains writers?

  • Sentence from par 2:

    Theassumptions professors make include a student'sability to think critically, "exhibit curiosity,” and “ask provocative questions” when they read (13).

    Opening to par 3:

  • The mistake is professorsassume that all students, even students who have attended low-achieving high schools and high schools in other countries, will automaticallybe able to actively engage with readings and assignments.

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Text Analysis: Identifying complex noun phrases used for cohesion

  • Many types of academic writing employ complex noun phrases as subjects for cohesion

    • Information in previous clauses are reduced to phrases and nominalizations

      The pressure to engage in competitive sports

      is one of the most obvious pressures on contemporary

      children to grow fast. (From The Hurried Child)

    • Resulting phrases and nominalizations have high lexical density (LD= number of lexicalized elements in a clause – Columbi & Schleppegrell, 2002)

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Complex noun phrases for cohesion cohesion

This is a noticing task based on The Hurried Child excerpt.

Some sentences that begin paragraphs have long noun phrases that summarize previous information. To see how these structures function as sentence subjects, for each of the following sentences: 1) Find the verb; underline it. 2) Find the head noun of the subject; draw a box around it. 3) Put brackets around the entire noun phrase that is the subject; include all the prepositional phrases and other modifiers. You should be able to replace the entire phrase with it or they. The first two have been done examples.

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Complex noun phrases for cohesion cohesion

1. [Today’s |pressures|on middle-class children to growup fast] beginin early childhood.

(They begin in early childhood.)

2. [The |trend|toward early academic pressure] was further supported by the civil rights movement.

(It was supported…)

3. One consequence of all this concern for the early years was the demise of the “readiness” concept.

4. But the emphasis on early intervention and early stimulation (even of infants) made the concept of readiness appear dated and old-fashioned.

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More Sample Production Activities cohesion

  • The following tasks offer examples of guided production activities focusing on academic language development.

    In almost all cases, such tasks will involve a focus on both grammar and lexicon.

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Production activity: Lexico-grammatical relationships cohesion

Building Knowledge of Word Collocations

These phrases are taken from The Hurried Child. What prepositions occur with the phrases? Skim the passage if necessary. Write the prepositions in the blanks.

  • 1. a consequence ______ something (or doing something)

  • 2. an emphasis _______ something

  • 3. a direct result ______ something

  • 4. a golden opportunity ______ something/someone

  • 5. pressure ________ something (e.g. achievement)

  • 6. pressure ________ someone

  • 7. stimulation ______ someone

  • 8. a trend ___________ something

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Production Activity: Lexico-grammatical relationships cohesion

  • Ask students to substitute verbs in sentences they have written and to make needed syntactic and lexical changes using a learner’s dictionary or a collocation dictionary.


    Pelleg countered Perlstein’s perspective on college life today. (substitute disagree)

    Rodriguez states that the new technology is the cause for the lack of literacy today.


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Production Activity: Highlighting themes cohesion

Focus on sentence themes: As mentioned earlier, the beginning of a sentence, and often the subject, expresses the theme of the sentence. Student writers sometimes “bury” their themes in other places, such as embedded “that-clauses” or prepositional phrases. Revision tasks can help them highlight themes.

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Highlighting themes cohesion

  • Help writers revise sentences beginning with phrases such as “I think that…” or “He says that…” by deleting the introductory phrase, substituting a noun phrase that expresses a key idea and using an appropriate verb.

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Highlighting themes cohesion


Original: I think, without distractions, when a person is limited to what they have, then that’s when their true abilities shows.

Revised: Getting rid of distractionscan allow a person to draw on his or her true abilities.

Original: Rodriguez mentions the idea that teenagers that sit behind the bar are able to comprehend the importance of literacy.

Revised: The importance of literacyis understood by people in prison.

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Focus on themes cohesion

  • Another way to focus on thematic information is through sentence combining practice in revision.

    Example: This article is written by Richard Rodriguez. He wrote about our current literacy status.

    Revised: This article by Richard Rodriguez discussed our current literacy status.

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Production Activity: Creating cohesion through reference and summary words

(Another task courtesy of Margi Wald)

The following are some sentences from Sydney Harris’ “What True Education Should Do.” For each one, write a second sentence with a reference form + summary word. Remember for each, write a sentence that “makes sense” with what Harris is saying in her article. The first one is done for you.

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Creating cohesion through reference forms summary words

  • 1a. Original: Sydney Harris writes, “So many of the discussions and controversies about the content of education are futile and inconclusive because they are concerned with what should "go into" the student (1).

    1.b. Your sentence: She feels such concerns do not focus on what’s important – how to get the student to generate more information on his or her own.

  • 2a. Original: “When most people think of the word ‘education,’ they think of a pupil as a sort of animate sausage casing.”

    2b. Your Sentence:

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Revision activities related to stance summary words

  • Following noticing or other instructional activities, students could be asked to do the following:

    • Check claims that need to be less certain. Add hedges to qualify them (e.g., modals such as may or could; verbs like suggest; determiners like most; frequency adverbs like often)

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Revising for stance summary words

  • Consider places in a draft where attitude markers (e.g., unfortunately, important) could be added to strengthen positioning about one’s topic

  • Revise to vary stance markers (e.g., avoid repeated use of I think; substitute verbs such as seems or appears that are often more frequently used in some kinds of academic writing.

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A few final words summary words

  • Don’tbea toad (), but do try to provide students with the language support they need to meet challenging academic tasks.

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Final words… summary words

  • As a mantra, try

    “Grammar as a weapon: Bad, Grammar as a resource: Good!”

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Final words… summary words

  • Think like Joan Didion:

    Grammar is power!

    Help students develop their

    knowledge of it as an instrument

    they can “play by ear”

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And lastly… summary words

  • Help students have fun with language (even academic language). And have fun yourself!