TESOL 2015: Grammar and Writing in a Nutshell

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TESOL 2015 Convention Blog Post

To say that I was sad to not attend all the TESOL 2015 sessions I wanted would be an understatement. I was crushed. Grammar! Writing! Pronunciation! Research! Classroom strategies! Organizational involvement! I struggled to decide what sessions to attend, often vacillating between two final candidates on an escalator before committing. Fortunately, knowing that I needed to plan my blog on grammar and writing helped.

As a first-time attendee and new TESOL member, I proudly wore my badge and ribbons as I hustled from session to session, learning about topic after topic, taking page upon page of notes (yes, I’m one of the weirdos who doesn’t photograph every PowerPoint slide), hoping to distill some of the brilliance and enthusiasm I witnessed into bullet points and scribbled notes to later meld into my own craft as an ESL teacher. (Well, at my school, I’m the ESL teacher, but the minor change of an article has major implications, and that’s a different story for a different day.) I think, by the standards I set for myself, that I succeeded. My goals were specific: get resources and make contacts to help me answer specific questions that I have for my university, network with people who might have advice for me as the one-woman ESL program at my school, and dig deep into the topics for this blog.

Alas, readers, the sessions I attended frequently overlapped with other sessions I desperately wanted to attend…but I present to you here my takeaways from the grammar and writing sessions I had the pleasure of observing at TESOL 2015. I’m certain there are other fantastic ideas, new methods, and interesting research projects that I didn’t get to hear about, but that’s part of what makes our field so exciting: I don’t know what I don’t know, so this nutshell is what I have. And the rest? Well, I’ll look to my new contacts and you, dear reader, to fill me in on what I missed.


Grammar

My favorite topic, bar none, is grammar. I hesitate to reveal how much I love it at times because it’s such a polarizing topic within language teaching, but let’s be frank: I love grammar. (I once waxed poetic on the subject to a student and, after I compared grammar to music, the student giggled herself into a stupor.) The sessions I attended geared towards teaching grammar led me to the following conclusions:

  • The “flipped classroom” concept is alive and well, and experiments with teaching grammar in this style are ripe for investigation.
  • Students crave grammatical explanation even though we may think they find it boring.
  • There are ways to make grammar less boring (descriptivists: rejoice!) and more interactive without losing content.

The super short (super fascinating) presentation about teaching pronunciation and grammar through linguistics (by Eden Kaiser) helped me realize that even though things like syntax and morphology might be tough for students to learn at first, becoming familiar with even just the basics could propel students’ comprehension and interest in grammar beyond the typical basic exercises, sans deeper linguistic understanding. I’m excited to explore how to implement some of Eden’s techniques in my class for Fall 2015.

To address the problem of students who seem to have learned grammar “by ear,” I learned more about how to get students to stretch beyond what they may have internalized with functional grammar. The cycle of grammar deconstruction –> joint construction –> independent construction (… repeat as needed) that Elizabeth O’Dowd-Parker employed in her presentation—along with examples of how she employed this cycle in her classes—serves as a model for negotiating meaning through even some of the most challenging grammatical elements for ELLs like passive voice, packed noun clauses, modality, and argument generation. Focusing on the discourse level, rather than sentence level, seems to be most important here, but once students grapple with structures together and evaluate each others’ writing they can learn to write like the readers they are.

Writing

Vocabulary

My favorite session by far, of all the ones I attended, was “Teacher, I Need More Words!” by Laurel Pollard. I hadn’t planned to attend this session (I mixed up the A and B rooms in the convention center…an easy, but total newbie mistake), and after attending I thought to myself, “Well, I can’t blog this, but it’s a happy accident.” But, after deliberating on the intrinsic interconnectedness of the various skills we teach during my 9-hour drive home from Toronto, I decided to include my thoughts on this wildly popular session because vocabulary building ultimately leads to better writing.

The clear-cut nature of Laurel’s vocabulary building strategies leaves them wide open to learners of all levels, based on the potential for scaffolding at the teacher’s discretion. I sat next to someone teaching K-12 and we discussed (with Laurel’s overt permission, as she ran a tight ship throughout the class!) the ways in which we would modify the exercises for our students. From a better designed flash card deck to context building and peer teaching, the low- or no-prep solutions shared were so ready to implement that I’m using one in my class tonight with a pre-assigned reading!

Discourse Synthesis

A perennial struggle I sought to overcome (with strategies or resources) at TESOL 2015 is discourse synthesis. My students’ levels vary greatly, but this one area seems to be difficult across the board. Fortunately, Carol Numrich’s presentation encouraging the dismantling, chunking, and reordering of information to synthesize texts gave me a few ideas for how to help my students learn this skill more effectively. Obvious benefits include improved reading comprehension, improved critical thinking skills, and (perhaps best of all) minimized plagiarism.

Graphic organizers are key to the lessons on discourse synthesis. By organizing, selecting, and connecting information, students can get comfortable with the references they’re reading and prepare to synthesize them within their own writing. (For those who may balk at the value of synthesis in writing, consider its value in an oral capacity regardless of written language! Oral speech may not require APA/MLA citations, but it certainly can be helpful for arguments and persuasion, whether in formal debate or at the water cooler.)  I definitely plan to use “the language of synthesis”—reporting verbs, compare/contrast structures, transitions, common leads, and providing examples—in future lessons.

Did you pick up any useful strategies or ideas about teaching grammar or writing at TESOL 2015 that I missed and that you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below!

About Karissa Kilgore

Karissa Kilgore
Karissa J. Kilgore teaches English language learners at Seton Hill University, a leading Catholic liberal arts university in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. She finds great joy in teaching her students the peculiarities and history of English grammar and pronunciation. Outside of the classroom, Karissa is the president of Seton Hill’s Toastmasters and, in her spare time, enjoys running, gardening, knitting, and—of course—blogging.
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2 Responses to TESOL 2015: Grammar and Writing in a Nutshell

  1. Althea says:

    Interesting post — I wish I had been at the conference! I hope to be there next year. Do you have any recommendations for a good advanced grammar textbook (for university-level students)? I’d be interested to hear any suggestions you have. Thanks!
    Althea

  2. David von Schlichten says:

    Thanks for your reflections, Karissa. Keep up your outstanding work teaching ESL. We need you!

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