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Blog #2


Blog #2

What (grammatical forms) are  difficult for students to Understand?

              In seeking solutions, my first question is ‘What’s hard?’ What grammatical forms are difficult for our students to understand? The first question was answered in research conducted for NAEP and recorded in the CSE Technical Report 536.

              Beyond the issue of abstract or culturally embedded concepts, is the issue of linguistic features that contribute to the difficulty of reading material. Per the CSE Technical Report 536, these features include:

1.Passive sentence structures:                                                           Example: The political party was controlled by a small group of elite statesmen.

2.Long noun phrases:                                                                         Example: Peering intensely as his listener, the mustached and bespectacled gentleman tossed him a brief and sudden quizzical look.

3.Long question phrases:                                                                           Example: If this book were to be added to the bibliography in Document A, which of the following entries would be correct?”

4.Comparative structure:                                                                 Example: Include terms: larger, stronger, surpassed, exceeded, strongest

5.Prepositional phrases:                                                                    Example: “As the last of the delegates were putting their signatures to the Constitution, Dr. Franklin, observing from the side, spoke to a few of the delegates standing near him.”         Prepositional phrases: 7

6.Clause types: Conditional, relative , subordinate , coordinative, and correlative are joined by conjunctions:                                         Coordinating Conjunctions-and, but, for, nor, or, yet  

Subordinating Conjunctions-after, so that, in order that, although, through, than, as, as if, as long as, unless, because, until, before, when,   whenever, if, where, wherever, since, while  

Correlative Conjunctions-both...and, either...or, neither...nor, not only...but also,  whether...or


 What’s Difficult to Express?

                What forms are difficult for our students to express orally and in writing? Teachers and tutors would probably answer “all of the above.” Individuals first learning English as a second language grapple with understanding what basic English sentences sound like and look like. Word order, tense markers, simple prepositions as well as correct pronoun usage are the forms that they master in the beginning stages of using English to talk and to write. Compound and complex sentences may appear to be more advanced language tasks, but that is not necessarily so.


A Few Solutions?


      Programs targeting teaching English as a second language often promote teaching language forms and vocabulary across the modalities, i.e. teach the form for understanding, reading, talking, and writing. We agree and will discuss a sequence of instruction provided partially in a resource listed below.  

      We also believe, however, that high school students in English language learning programs should not be restricted to listening, reading, speaking, and writing in sentences or in paragraphs. Our experience has been that students capable of using simple present and past tense forms in simple subject – verb sentences are also capable of using these forms to express their ideas in five paragraph essays. Students in English language learning programs have the cognitive capacity to learn essay order and idea development even if the sentences used to express those ideas are not the most complex.                 While, then, students are working on essay writing to express ideas, they also need to increase their understanding and use of more complex sentence forms. Assuming that at least two classes a week will target comprehension and use of more complex language, the questions are: ‘What do I teach?’ and ‘How do I teach it?’ Looking at the list of linguistic structures found to be difficult to understand, we suggest teaching to the ‘conjunctions’ that mark the structure and syntax of the compound and complex sentences that cause reading to be difficult. The syntax of a sentence is the format (bones of a sentence) and noun phrases (flesh) add to that format (skeleton). Therefore, I suggest teaching sentence forms that revolve around the conjunctions used, and then teach how to add to these sentence forms with noun phrases and descriptors.                                                                                                                                               

      Take teaching the conjunction ‘if,’ for example. When you teach it, you are teaching this sentence form: If__(Subject)___ (Verb)_,       _(subject) __(verb)__(If Mary wakes up early, she can play in her room). You are also teaching the concept of qualifying conditions: Should Condition A happen, then Condition B will follow.                                    

     Teaching syntax (grammar) and meanings relayed in different syntactical forms helps reading comprehension; but grammar lessons also need to be tied to writing, and here we mean writing in essays. Not only does the student benefit from direct instruction in syntax as outlined below, the student benefits in guided use of the forms for writing. 

We are suggesting teachers

1) target a troublesome conjunction

2) teach meaning of the conjunction

3) give sentence examples

4) have students practice examples orally

5) use pictures to have students generate their own sentences

6) have students write the new sentences they created orally.

In short, teach meaning, model, practice orally, and then transform oral practice into written.



CSE Technical Report 536, NAEP 2001 Report: Harkins-May.

Conversations with Conjunctions:;;sSearchWord=

Davis-Perkins & Chapman. Talk/Write Program:


Featured Website

    Looking for an ELL/ESL website for teachers, parents, and students? is quite a find for everyone!  The grammar section includes tutorials using simple language and also includes quizzes.  But that is only a very small part of this comprehensive website.  Englishclub also includes daily idioms, games, and puzzles all focused on some of the most difficult elements of the English language. Featured now are hundreds of passages, vocabulary lists, and quizzes centered on the Power of Seven: "Use the power of seven to help you learn practical English words, phrases, proverbs and more - anytime you have seven minutes to spare!" Go to now and explore!



Coming Soon!
November: Blog #3 Topic
How direct instruction and guided essay instruction can help both reading and writing goals.
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Topics will include assessment of mechanical errors,
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