Tag Archives: Clarifying meaning

Using etymology to help learners expand their vocabulary


In this episode we look at the etymology of different English words and how this can be used practically in class to help our students broaden their vocabulary, as well as being better able to guess the meaning of new words. We first look at some of the Latin and Greek roots and prefixes, such as ante-, for example, and then we discuss connections between English and modern European languages.

Looking forward to hearing what your thoughts on this are. Do you make students aware of the meaning of different Latin and Greek prefixes? Do you try to draw connections between English and other languages to help students learn new words?

Listen to and download these podcasts from our Soundcloud channel here or in this section of the blog. Soon, they’ll be available in the iTunes store too.

The podcast music theme is under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 International License and was downloaded from this website.

TESOL Convention 2015: ‘A commonly overlooked aspect of teaching verb tenses’ by Cynthia Zocca De Roma and Jelena Runić


In this report from the TESOL 2015 Convention that took place two weeks ago, I’ll summarise the presentation given by Cynthia Zocca De Roma and Jelena Runić. For more reports from the TESOL 2015 convention, click on this link.

The aims of Cynthia’s and Jelena’s presentation were to show the participants that:

  1. we’re more familiar with the lexical aspect then you think
  2. lexical aspect is only mentioned in grammar books in passing, but should be talked about more explicitly in class

The speaker also pointed out what this workshop wasn’t. First, it wasn’t about Lexical Approach, which is different from lexical aspect (read my post on Lexical Approach here). It also wasn’t aimed to be a rant on textbooks.

2015-03-27 09.36.27

Finally, in the talk the presenter focused mainly on [present perfect simple (PPS) and present perfect continuous (PPC).

First, we were shown 9 example sentences which used either PPS and PPC. * means that the sentence is grammatically incorrect.

  1. I’ve eaten a sandwich
  2. I’ve been eating a sandwich
  3. I’ve worked here for 10 years
  4. I’ve been working here for 10 years
  5. *I’ve met John since 2002
  6. I’ve been friends with John since 2002
  7. I met John in 2002
  8. I was friends with John in 2002
  9. I’ve met a lot of people since I arrived in Toronto.

2015-03-27 09.58.38

In view of the above definition, we have two options to explain the difference between sentences 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, as well as 9. Option 1 is to do this on a case by case basis. However, many exceptions weaken the predictive power. Option 2 – expand the rules, which more often than not can cause more confusion.

Fortunately, there’s an easier way out, because the differences between the examples above, as well as the mistake in example 5, don’t come from a misunderstanding of tense, i.e. the grammatical aspect; but from misunderstanding the implicit meaning of each of the verbs, i.e. the lexical aspect.

First, though, what is tense and what is aspect?

2015-03-27 09.38.02 (1)

The grammatical aspect helps us locate events in time relative to a moment of reference. On the other hand, the lexical aspect:

2015-03-27 09.38.58

I agree with the presenter that while the classification of predicates might be clear for teachers and linguists, it is definitely too detailed and complicated for English language learners. As a result, a simpler division was proposed by the speaker:

  1. Stative – e.g. love, like, hate
  2. Habitual – performed habitually, e.g. live, study, teach
  3. EPISODIC – performed at specific moments, e.g. graduate, eat, start, move

Bearing the above classification in mind, we can now come back to our 9 examples to see how it can help us explain them in perhaps a simpler way than standard grammar explanations.

Using episodic verbs with PPC or PPS yields different interpretations, e.g. examples 1 and 2:

2015-03-27 10.01.28

On the other hand, using the habitual aspect with PPC and PPS doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence (examples 3 and 4).

As we saw above, explanations in grammar books of PPS and PPC can be a bit conflicting. For example, when learners encounter PPS, they’re told it’s used for actions that started in the past and continue until present. Then, when they learn PPC, they’re told exactly the same thing, which can be confusing to say the least.

On the other hand, we could try to make the lexical aspect slightly more explicit to show the learners why examples 1 and 2 are very different, whereas 3 and 4 essentially the same. Similarly, the lexical aspect helps us understand why sentence 5 is wrong, but 7 correct, i.e. because ‘to meet’ is an episodic verb, incompatible with the PPS or PPC.

Interestingly, the aspects can be different in different languages, something which wasn’t pointed out in the workshop and which I didn’t get a chance to mention in the Q&As. For example, in Spanish, French and Portuguese the verb ‘to know’ (conocer, connaitre and conhecer, respectively) can be both episodic and state verbs. This leads to students producing sentences such as:

  • *I knew John two years ago (to mean – I MET John two years ago).

Knowing this and pointing it out to students, can potentially help them improve their command of grammar. Yet another reason to learn another language, colleagues! 🙂

So taking all this into account, how can we help students notice the lexical aspect?

  1. explicitly mention lexical aspect with grammatical aspect
  2. practise classifying verbs stative vs habitual vs episodic
  3. point out the role of the verb tense and the context in constructing meaning – simplifies the description of each tense

Finally, the presenter concluded that the awareness of the links between grammatical and lexical aspect can be beneficial for students.

What do you think? Would you also use lexical aspect to explain the differences between the 9 example sentences? Or would you do this differently?

Would love to hear your comments.

Timelines in EFL – some tips

As you might have read in this post, two weeks ago I gave my first ever webinar. It was on different ways of concept checking. While preparing for it, I drew quite a few timelines and realised that I’d almost forgotten how to do this properly. Below is the first timeline that I drew.

Ive been living in Holland black

It’s fairly typical. We’ve all seen similar ones, and probably been guilty of drawing  a few too.

It’s also really boring! While it clarifies the target language, it makes you yawn right away.

So how can we improve it?

Tip #1 – add colours

Ive been living in Holland colours

Tip #2 – add symbols and use them consistently

I was watching football when

The symbols I usually use:

  • box to denote longer actions
  • ‘X’ to denote points in time
  • ‘—–‘ to denote actions that might continue in the future (see picture 1)
  • ‘?’ to denote we’re not sure when exactly an action happened (e.g. I’ve been to Spain 3 times)

Tip #3 – add pictures

I was watching football_pictures

If you’re as bad at drawing as I am, then the pictures will make your students laugh. And when you’re doing grammar, a bit of comic relief is just what the doctor ordered. You can also get the students to draw the pictures for you.

Tip #4 – add arrows

Ill buy pizza for lunch

Arrows are good for showing relationships between different events or points in time. For example, with this use of ‘will’ it is important for students to realise that the decision was made now (in contrast to ‘going to’, which if used for future intentions, suggests that the decision was made in the past).

Let’s practise:

Now it’s time to put it all into practice. Try drawing timelines for these two sentences:

  1. At 8pm on Monday I’ll be playing football .
  2. He realised he’d been drinking since Friday.

You can see my suggested timelines by clicking on the links below:

  1. Suggested answer – future continuous.
  2. Suggested answer – past perfect continuous.

Final suggestions:

  • use real-life examples AND
  • make the sentences meaningful and the language probable
  • OR use examples that might be amusing
  • get the students to draw timelines and put them up in the classroom as posters
  • draw blank timelines and get students to guess which action is which (this is what I would have done for the timeline in photo under Tip 2)
  • ask students for feedback to improve the quality of your timelines

If you have any comments or suggestions, please comment below. I’d love to hear from you whether you found these tips useful, and how you tend to use and draw timelines in the class.

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You might also like:

  1. Do you understand? – 7 ways of concept checking
  2. Checking understanding – practice
  3. Clarifying meaning
  4. Recycling vocabulary

Checking understanding – practice

In a previous post I listed 7 practical ways of checking understanding. Now it’s the time to put these ideas into practice.

Just to quickly remind you what they were:

  1. CCQs.

  2. Timelines.

  3. Clines.

  4. Personalisation.

  5. Extension.

  6. Translation.

  7. Do you understand?

Below is a list of 10 sentences. The underlined phrases represent the target language whose meaning you have already presented (for ideas on presenting and clarifying meaning of target language read this post). However, now you want to check and make sure that the students have actually grasped the meaning.

Use each of the 7 techniques for checking understanding at least one. Justify why you decided to choose this particular technique and not a different one (as described in the previous post, some lend themselves better than others to certain language issues).

I haven’t posted my suggestions, because I’d like to hear from you in the comments section. I don’t want to influence your choices either. I’m also hoping I can learn a lot myself from your ideas and suggestions. Finally, for each example there’s definitely more than one correct answer, so it should be interesting to see how different teachers approach each language point.

If you don’t have time to do all 10, choose the examples that interest you most, or that are the most tricky.

Good luck! Looking forward to your suggestions and comments!

  1. He’s sleeping under the table. vs. He always sleeps under the table.
  1. I have to put up with lazy students.
  1. I used to live in Poland.
  1. He can take off any accent.
  1. I’ve been drinking since midday.
  1. I hope we’ll have finished this exercise by 2pm.
  1. I’m still not used to the traffic here.
  1. That can’t have been him.
  1. He swerved to avoid hitting a pedestrian.
  2. Should you have any doubts, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Do you understand?

In one of my last posts I discussed different techniques which can be used for clarifying meaning of new language. Here I wanted to talk about the next likely stage, that is checking understanding.

I entitled the post “Do you understand?” because it’s perhaps the most natural, yet the least welcome, way to find out whether your students have understood the explanation or not. And if you’ve done CELTA , then you know that it’s THE persona non grata of language teaching. But I’ll come back to this point later and first start with the more “acceptable” techniques for checking understanding:

  1. CCQs: 

    The teacher asks a question or a series of questions which focus on the underlying meaning of the target language, and check if the student has grasped the concept. Keep the responses short so more students can participate, and less demand is put on their production, e.g. I bumped into a friend yesterday. CCQs: a) Did I meet a friend yesterday? (YES) b) Was it planned? (NO) c) Was it an accident? (YES)

  2. Timelines:

    Very useful when dealing with expressions where the tense is the problematic bit (although can be culturally dependant), e.g. I’ve been teaching for 6 years.

  3. Clines: 

    Useful for any language concepts which can be ranked, e.g. frequency adverbs, modal verbs for probability, degrees of reality/imagination, although it can be tricky to decide on the exact degree (e.g. I love, I’m crazy about, I’m keen on)

  4. Personalisation: 

    Standard CCQs can be followed by something more personal, i.e. a question which uses the target language or one which elicits a response with the target language. For example, for the verb to ban you could ask:

    • Should the government ban smoking in public places?
    • Is banning soft drugs a good idea to prevent their use?
  5. Extension: 

    Students finish a prompt given by the teacher; they’ll only be able to finish if correctly if they understand the concept, e.g. CC although:

    • T: Although it was raining…
    • S1: …we went out.
    • S2: …we went for a walk.
  6. Translation: 

    This is normally frowned upon, especially on initial TEFL courses. However, if you speak students’ L1, it can sometimes be useful to translate in order to dispel any doubts. L1/L2 comparisons can also be a useful tool, raising students’ language awareness of similarities and differences between the two languages. It’s also very quick and relatively unambiguous.

  7. Do you understand?

    Well, technically this question is persona non grata and all CELTA candidates have a really hard time avoiding it. Probably because it’s the most natural thing in the world for god’s sake! Of course, it is not to say that it should be our only concept checking technique. Having said that, if we know that our students usually speak up when they don’t know something, asking do you understand?can:

  • tell us when our previous concept checking has failed and we need to re–clarify
  • save us time by avoiding unnecessary CCQs

Do you use any of the techniques more often than others? Are there any you use which I haven’t put on the list? Would love to hear from you in the comments section.

In the next post I’ll present a few activities in which you’ll be able to try out and practise some of the techniques described above, so stay tuned! 🙂

If you’re teaching lexis soon, check out this post on clarifying meaning and this one on recycling vocabulary.

For now, you might find these sources useful: