Grammar, Vocabulary and Assessment

In this issue we present classic posts on grammar, vocabulary and assessment by Alexandra Chistyakova, Steven Herder, and Rose Bard. Please, read, enjoy, and share.

Alexandra Chistyakova
Chris Mares
Steven Herder
Steven Herder
Rose Bard
Rose Bard


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The Assessment Issue – Rose

Rose Bard

Assessment is A Destination – Rose Bard


Assessment should work for learners and teachers, not against them. It should be a compass showing the way rather than taking the role or image of a judge. It should point the way, not be a burden to carry. Unfortunately the latter is the most common view among teachers and learners. One too many people feel trapped instead of liberated, thus the perspective that assessment is there to help you grow is quite often not present in many classrooms and minds.

To prove to you this fact, ask your learners what assessment is, and probably they will use a lot of negative words to describe it or how they feel about it. In order to change such a view in students’ way of seeing any type of evaluation they might have to take, the teacher has to shift her own view of learning, how knowledge is constructed and therefore the very nature of assessment.

We should ask ourselves questions like: What is the purpose of assessment? Is it to categorize learners into those who fail and those who pass? Is it to help teachers see what stage of the journey their learners are in so they can prepare better lessons? Is it to punish learners for not being engaged enough during our lessons? Is it to actually help them to succeed by showing them the way?

Do you ever take the time to explain to learners what you are assessing? The criteria you are using to measure learning? Do you actually give feedback on whatever type of evaluation you chose to give? Do you go through the results with each learner?

A lot of learners complain about this. They feel it isn’t fair. They shut themselves out. They disconnect simply because they don’t understand the purpose. They feel they are trapped in the competition and labeling system. Many along the way just give up. Some may decide to make your life miserable. This might be because it’s normal to react badly to stuff as a defense mechanism. Each context is a context, but moreoften than not, that is what I have seen happening in mine. The more anxious learners are, the less involved they get in the learning process, turning the whole thing into a burden to carry. It becomes a matter of just surviving.

I take the affective side of this matter seriously, and it takes time and strategies to change students’ point of view about what assessment really is. Regarding time, don’t rush. No matter what the system wants you to believe, take plenty of time at the beginning to work on shifting those negative thoughts by teaching students how to learn and the purpose of assessing their journey.

Do not just talk about it. Create opportunities for you and your group to feel that assessment is working for you as a positive tool. Also, position yourself as a lifelong learner instead of someone who knows it all – the expert in English. And I’m not saying you don’t have to be. We long to be experts. English is our trade, so we must be at the level of proficiency that our job requires. Period. But none of us knows it all. And that is what our learners should see in front of them. A teacher is just someone some steps ahead of them, leading the way for them to get to the same point where we are or beyond it. We should hope for that. As I side story, I usually tell my learners that they might become better at English than me. They laugh, but I truly believe it. And when my mind is so tired that I slip with a spelling or put the wrong word on the board, I thank them for helping me. Be kind to yourself and to your learners. Be fair. Treat mistakes and lack of knowledge with kindness.

Our school requires formality, and formality requires us to give grades, but I really think that it is not fair to just give them a mark. Learners should be able to know what exactly we are assessing and why. From class one, I start working on error and mistakes with kindness. Analyzing errors and mistakes is a good way to help learners move forward. Spotting mistakes/errors is easy. Create any kind of evaluation and they will pop out like a big neon billboard. But what really makes assessment shift from summative to formative is the actions teachers and learners decide to take afterwards. Is the error part of the process? Is it a persistent one? What strategies can the teacher and the learner use to overcome it?

Although the literature on assessment defines summative and formative differently, and I know that in nature they are, an evaluation can be both. Summative is concerned with giving a conclusive mark indicating what the student knows and is able to do on a given test. Formative on the other hand is concerned with the quality of the learning and how that is achieved.

I often use three types of assessment: diagnostic, summative, and formative. The diagnostic assessments, though simple and informal, help me identify who knows what. The formative assessment involves for me the diagnostic stage, then further evaluation tasks followed by reflection of my own and often discussion with students about what strategies are needed to achieve a certain goal. In feedback sessions with students I ask them how they did something or what they think was the reason they didn’t achieve a particular goal.  Then, I use summative assessment because grading is the formal aspect of the system for parents and schools and they need to see it quantified.

Still I also prefer to look at how learners progress in the learning of a language a bit differently. Instead of grammar points and vocabulary, I prefer to look at it from the perspective of continuing development in the ability to communicate, and until they become more confident, critical and autonomous, assessment is not just my job, it’s everyone’s job. Assessment is not the destination. It is the process where learning is critically thought of and a new course of action is taken.


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Grammar Issue – Alexandra

Alexandra Chistyakova

Grammar Is …  – Alexandra Chistyakova

Grammar is boring. No one enjoys grammar: neither learners, nor teachers. Fluency is more important than accuracy. Why is I need to study grammar if everyone can understands me good?

These and many other assumptions about grammar can be heard every time and then. Grammar seems to be an ugly duckling of the foreign language teaching and learning.

However, it has never been so for me, especially, since the time I started learning English consciously and then teaching it. Actually, I could never relate to the notorious dispute on what is more important: accuracy or fluency. I have always been convinced that accuracy and fluency are equally important.

Moreover, throughout my teaching practice I’ve had numerous examples of both schoolchildren and adults expressing the wish to study English grammar more thoroughly. Thanks to these examples, I can say with certainty that there is a really high demand among learners for the good grammar instruction.


Grammar Is Important

Fortunately, there are a lot of learners who never question the importance of grammar. Unfortunately, there are those who doubt it. If the latter is the case, I like to give my students the following situation to consider. I say to them:

“Just imagine this: a brilliant idea comes to your mind and you immediately want to share it with your English friends. There is no time to consult a dictionary or a textbook: you are dying of how much you want to share your idea right now! And here you go! You put your idea into words; you quickly select some phrases, words, structures – you are wrapping your idea, like a gift, with the language – and then send it off to your friends. You are anticipating their joy and surprise at your idea!


But if you weren’t careful with the wrapping, the gift your friends receive could be surprising indeed. But will it be joyful? It could rightfully be rather puzzling: instead of a beautifully wrapped gift that can easily be opened by simply pulling a colourful ribbon, they might receive an ugly trunk with an unfriendly-looking heavy lock in front. And now, if your friends really wish to unlock your message and discover your brilliant idea, they have to strain their every nerve and struggle to find the appropriate key to your “trunk”.

What a laborious and tedious task! Do you expect your friends to enjoy the process of unlocking your idea? Do you think they will be looking forward to communicating with you more in the future? Was it possible to avoid this awkward situation and make communication pleasant and smooth?

Surely, this could have been done: Grammar is the key! Correct grammar unlocks messages easily.”

Usually, this story is enough to persuade my students to study grammar better. Only stubborn or naughty students continue denying the necessity of grammar for them. How to persuade such students or if at all there is the need to persuade such students is a different story which has nothing to do with the grammar itself.


Grammar Is Fun

But is grammar really that tedious? Or perhaps, it’s the way it is taught that is boring? In fact, grammar itself presents no limits to imagination, creativity and fun. To quote from Shakespeare: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. So why not to make grammar engaging and meaningful to our students?!  Even grammar drills can be turned into a fun and interesting activity.

For example, one of my favourite activities on extensive practice of interrogative forms, past and present tenses is the “With your back to the class” activity which I borrowed from Mario Rinvolucri’s Grammar Games (Cambridge,2006). This activity is suitable for students of elementary to intermediate levels.

In the activity, the teacher has a short story with an unusual ending. The teacher writes two or three key words from the story on the board for the students to restore the story by asking Yes/No questions to the teacher. However, all communication between students and the teacher goes on silently: the questions are written on the board and the teacher puts his/her answers on the board too. But the teacher gives answers only to the questions which are grammatically correct.  If a question is grammatically incorrect, the teacher draws a question mark on the board, and students need to work together to find the mistake and correct the question.

At first, all this writing and the close focus on grammar forms might seem boring and off-putting, but as soon as students get the idea and receive the first answers they get engaged and enthusiastic about solving the mystery. Moreover, they become eager to find what is wrong with the question and spot the mistake. So while being highly grammar-focused, this activity is both meaningful and fun.


Grammar Is Useful

Teaching grammar can bring students to a better understanding of how the language works. Thanks to studying the grammatical framework of a language, students can see the language as a single whole. They can see how many different linguistic features are intertwined and interdependent. Through teaching grammar, teachers can raise students’ linguistic consciousness and understanding of how grammatical errors can influence a message and a communicative act in general. For this purpose, teachers can exploit learners’ mother tongue, for instance. Teachers can imitate a similar grammar error in the learners’ language to vividly illustrate how absurd, funny or even inappropriate a sentence might sound to native speakers. So, grammar can change students’ attitude to their language studies and to the language itself.

All in all, teaching grammar is important, fun and useful. But to make it so is the teacher’s task, which sometimes requires creative and even artistic efforts from the teacher. Teaching is an art. Teaching grammar is rightfully so, too.


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Presenting Vocabulary – Steven Herder

Herder grayscale copy

Dream Students and the Rest of Us – Steven Herder

In economics, these days we hear a lot about the 1% and the 99%. In ELT, I also see this division when it comes to learning vocabulary.

Dream students (1%)

There are countless resources – many of them free online – for students who want to increase their vocabulary while learning a second or foreign language. If your students have already made a commitment to improve their vocabulary, and if they also have the skills to make decisions, make a viable plan, follow through on the plan and adjust the plan as necessary, teaching vocabulary is very easy for us teachers.

Here are some great posts and resources for that small percentage of your students who simply need to be pointed in the right direction:

vocab Herder 1





vocab Herder 2Vocabulary sites




Normal students (99%)

In my experience, however, the vast majority of learners do not fall into that category. Most of my students over the years say they want more vocabulary but haven’t addressed the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of vocabulary that is needed in order to succeed with vocabulary. Here are a few sets of questions (and answers I’ve heard from some of those Dream students) that your normal students need to answer in order to succeed with vocabulary:

1. Why should I make an effort with to learn more vocabulary?

–       It makes you smarter and opens many more doors to your future (especially for those who don’t know exactly what they want to do yet).

–       It is the quickest way to raise your score in tests like TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, etc.

–       It teaches you discipline and you’ll gain confidence.

2. What vocabulary should I learn?

–       You need to learn the most frequent words (Top 2000, 3000, 5000, etc).

–       You need to decide which words are active and which are passive, then decide which ones YOU need.

–       You need to focus on TOEFL words if you are taking the TOEFL test. There are many lists available online.

3. How can I learn vocabulary?

–       Spend time with words in order to learn them.

–       Use the words you want to learn (Speak and write them a lot).

–       Read more than you currently read!

–       Learn to notice words you hear but don’t know

4. How can I not give up after three days?

–       Make a good plan that will last over time.

–       Collaborate in studying vocabulary with your friends.

–       Make learning fun by using new words with friends and teachers.

–       Develop a system (word cards, smart phone, etc).

–       Set goals and get feedback on your progress.

–       Talk with your teacher and solicit their ideas.

–       Tell your friends, and get them to join you or check up on you to make sure you continue.

5. When can I fit in this extra study plan?

–       Make it a habit or routine in your life (at breakfast, on the bus, before you sleep, etc).

–       Set daily, weekly goals that are attainable and race to meet your deadlines each day.

–       We all have “dead” time or little “chunks” of time throughout the day; we just need to use it.

Once you make a good plan, and get used to doing it, you will begin to see your improvements. As humans, we like to succeed. And the old saying, “Success leads to more success” is very true. Another way of looking at this phenomenon is called the “virtuous cycle” – we make an effort, then we begin to get better, So we get excited and motivated more, this leads us to make more of an effort, and the virtuous cycle continues.

So, if you are a normal student, answer the questions you need to succeed and then go succeed.

I hope some of you will add both questions and answers to this post, because I’m sure there are a ton of other useful ideas out there!