Simple Games Give Grammar a Boost

The only memory I have of sixth grade is of playing “My grandmother went to Europe,” a traditional memory game.

In the game, the first player (the one closest to the teacher’s desk, if I remember correctly) says, “My grandmother went to Europe and in her trunk she took…” The first player names some object. The second player repeats the sentence adding a second object. Play continues with each player repeating the list and adding an object not already named until a player makes a memory error.

The game requires no real talent, but it has just enough challenge to keep a class from getting out of hand.

An English teacher with a grain of creativity could modify the game to add a bit of oral grammar drill — and possibly drill on other topics as well — while still keeping the game moderately engaging for middle school students and even for some high school students.

Here are three possible ways to add some useful content to grandmother’s trunk:

1) Instead of using the simple past tense, use a different verb tense. For example:

  • “My grandmother will go to Europe, and in her trunk she will take…”
  • “My grandmother has gone to Europe, and in her trunk she has taken…”

2) To give students practice in using irregular verb forms, use a different verb in opening clause such as fly, swim, drive, ride, hike, or cycle.

  • “My grandmother will fly Europe, and in her trunk she will take…”
  • “My grandmother swam to Europe, and in her trunk she took…”

3) When students are familiar with the way the game works, have them invent a pair of clauses to use in practicing other grammar and possibly in recalling other information.

  • “This week my favorite sport is football, but next week it may be __.”
  • “Last month my sister’s hair was blonde, but next week it may be __.”
  • “Anne Frank and her family hid in a building, and in this building there was/were __.”

Since most of us acquire grammar by hearing spoken language, oral activities help students whose out-of-school experience has not provided opportunities to hear “good” English grammar patterns. Try one of the memory games when you have a block of class time that’s too long to waste but too short for any activity you’ve planned.  Observing students’ reactions can provide a useful clue to students who could benefit from ear training in grammar.

Oral and written presentations

On his blog recently, Seth Godin listed 10 responses to the question “What’s high school for?”  One in particular caught my eye because it is particularly relevant to teaching in the English language arts arena:

  • How to persuasively present ideas in multiple forms, especially in writing and before a group.

I see an increasing emphasis being placed in ELA classes on the ability to present ideas visually but far less on the combination of writing and oral presentation that is the norm in the business world.

Digital book trailers and blogging may be cool, but writing memos, emails, and reports, and speaking in small group situations are more useful skills for students looking for paying jobs.

645 meanings of the verb run

Let me run this by you.

Simon Winchester says in an op-od piece in today’s New York Times  that, according to Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer Peter Gilliver, the word run has 645 meanings in the verb-form alone.

If you teach literacy, reading comprehension, or English (including all its initialized formats: ELA, ELL, EFL, ESL), that fact should make you blink. Run is, after all, one of the most common words in our language. It is among the words students learn in their first encounters with reading and writing.

If there are 645 meanings of the verb to run, what does that say about the difficulty of learning vocabulary in context? And what are the implications of a 645-definition word for writing teachers?

Those are not trivial questions.

According to US census data a fifth of the population over age 5 speaks a language other than English at home. Of those, only 56.2 percent say they speak English “very well.” When you look at the ages of the people who do not speak English in their homes, you’ll see in every language group the largest segment of non-English speakers is school age.

Census data assumes that speaking only English at home means proficiency in oral English. I think most teachers would question that assumption.

However, even if it were true, the number of people who are fluent in oral English is higher than the number who are skilled at reading and writing English, even among people whose primary language is English.

For me as a teacher, these data mean I do not have the luxury of spending time on topics just because they are fun or just because students are interested in them. I have to choose teaching topics because they help me accomplish my learning objectives. Then I have to find ways to make the topics fun or relate them to something that already interests the students.

What significance do you find in the 645 meanings of the verb run?