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Language Analysis for EFL and CLIL Instruction. Analyzing Grammar Items
CES Don Bosco
3.1.- Getting started
Questions for discussion.
a) Brainstorm major differences between the Grammar of the Spanish and English
b) What are some areas of the Grammar of the English Language that you find /
found particularly difficult to learn?
(inf and ger, preps, modal verbs).
c) Can you give reasons why the structures or words in (b) were particularly
difficult to learn?
This chapter proposes a framework for analyzing grammatical items. It first looks at
grammar structures and phrases
3.2.- Analyzing Tenses and Grammar Phrases
3.2.1.- A Toolkit for analysing tenses, modal verbs and other structures
For a tense, modal verb or other grammar structure (conditional or comparative
sentence, etc) you need to think of:
THE MEANING / USE
Time (Past / Present / Future)
E.g. The future simple is obviously about the future, but so is the present
continuous for describing plans.
Aspect (In progress / completed / state / action / habit / etc)
E.g. The Present simple may be used to describe habits.
Modality (e.g. obligation, prediction, hypothetical, ability, etc.)
E.g. “must” for obligation or prediction, second conditional for hypothetical
• Function (e.g. threat, promise, request, etc.)
This may overlap with modality, but it can also depend on context
E.g. The first conditional may be used for prediction, but also as a warning (You’ll
be in trouble if you don’t follow my advice).
Style / Register. Can it be used in all contexts or is it sometimes too formal
E.g. “You are expected to…” is a formal way of giving instructions, suitable for
stating institutional rules and procedures (possibly on paper), but not for parents
talking to their young children.
Verb forms that make up the structure.
E.g. The present perfect simple is formed by
Subject + have / has (aux.) + past participle
in Madrid for a long time.
Irregular forms, especially past simple and past participle of verbs.
Think of the classic “three column” table EFL students often study, including
irregular verbs like
Run / ran / run
See / saw / seen
Spelling rules, e.g. doubling of consonants in present participles
Run - running
Auxiliary forms and contractions
I have becomes I’ve; She will becomes She’ll; etc
Bear in mind that using contractions is the “natural” way of speaking and writing
English in most contexts.
Word order, especially in question forms.
Pos: I can swim
Interr: Can you swim?
Did she go?
Where did she go?
Forming negative sentences and questions
I am / I’m not (free tonight)
She smokes / She doesn’t smoke
He can read / can’t read (Japanese)
Did you see her? I did.
Have you seen her? I have
Can she swim? She can
You saw her yesterday, didn’t you?
You haven’t seen her, have you?
You could have said something, couldn’t you?
As with lexis, you need to consider
Sounds, especially difficult phonemes for your students and eliding sounds.
Number of syllables, e.g. studying contains three syllables, not two.
More specific phonological features of tenses and structures include
Strong and weak forms (extension: note on sentence stress and rhythm)
When clarifying tense usage, we are not working with words in isolation but with
connected speech. This means that, in addition to word stress, sentence stress and
rhythm are also important when recognising or orally producing tenses.
English Sentence stress and rhythm are quite different to other languages, especially
Spanish. (At this end of this section you will find a quick note on how they work.)
Although these differences are of interest to teachers, the most important consequence
for tense structures is two possible pronunciations for certain words – in this case,
auxiliaries – depending on whether they are stressed or unstressed. Let’s look at some
examples of this.
Compare the pronunciation of the word can in the following two sentences:
(a) I can speak three languages.
Question: Can you speak French
Answer: I can.
In (a), unstressed can is pronounced /kəәn/. This is its weak form
In (b), the answer includes a stressed can, pronounced /kaen/. This is its strong form.
Note that can in question (b) will normally be a weak form, but may be pronounced
more like a strong form depending on the context and/or speaker. On the other hand,
auxiliaries in affirmative sentences like (a) can only be strong forms when the speaker
wants to be emphatic, e.g.
No, I said I can (kaen) speak three languages! (You misunderstood the first time)
Similar cases occur with other auxiliaries
Auxiliary verb / strong form / weak form
As we will see further down, grammar words such as a, to or the also have a strong
and a weak form.
Intonation (e.g. in questions)
Especially important for understanding / communicating functional meaning. (See p. )
Note on sentence stress, rhythm and weak forms
Look at the following sentence:
She was lying on her bed when the phone rang.
If you read the sentence out loud, you will easily realise that the stress pattern is as
She was LYING on her BED when the PHONE RANG NOISILY.
Now look at the words that are stressed. They are what we call content words (also
lexical words), that is, words that carry meaning. In fact, if you were to read them in
LYING – BED – PHONE – RANG - NOISILY
You could probably get most of the meaning of the sentence, and be able to guess
what the other words are.
Content words are normally nouns, verbs, adjectives and most adverbs, and they are
typically more stressed in sentences than the other words, called function, structure
or grammar words. These are normally articles, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions,
some adverbs and, most interesting here, auxiliary verbs.
This is incomplete!
Weak and strong forms
Because of auxiliaries, pronouncing English tenses …
Note that not all the categories above need be relevant for the given target
Reference: Swan, Thomson & Martinet, Murphy (see course outline).
3.2.- Identifying Learner Problems: Common Areas of Difficulty
Learners can of course have all sorts of problems with English tenses and grammar
structures, but here are a few suggestions of things to look for when planning your
classes on these language items.
(a) As with lexis, it is always a good idea to ask yourself, How is this said in my
student’s mother-tongue (Spanish)? Typically, the less correspondence there
is between the grammar of the two languages, the harder it will be for
your students to grasp the precise use and form of the structure.
Take conditional sentences, for instance. Conditional 1 (If you study, you’ll
pass) is much easier for the Spanish speaker than Conditionals 2 (If you
studied, you’d pass) and 3 (If you’d studied, you’d have passed).
Now, it’s true that the concept involved in conditionals 2 and 3 (unreality) is also
harder to grasp, but the fact is that, whereas conditional 1 is constructed as in
Spanish (present simple + future), conditionals 2 and 3 vary significantly,
Spanish relying on subjunctive tenses to express hypothetical situations /
At other times, there is no equivalent structure, or the equivalent structure
serves other uses which lead to confusion.
English “used to” to describe past habits or situations is sometimes translated
as Spanish “solía”, but then Spanish students intuitively try using “used to” in
the present as *use to – understandably, as in Spanish the verb soler can be
used in the present simple tense.
(b) Another source of trouble is caused by interference between different English
structures. In other words, students may use a similar tense but not the right /
At a low level, a student of Primary might say *I play football (now) instead of
I’m playing football to describe action in the immediate present.
This often happens whenever differences of function are involved, as in future
tenses. The weather person says “It will be sunny tomorrow”, but we say “It’s
going to rain tonight” when we see dark over our heads.
(c) Often we are good at predicting or detecting student errors, but we should also
look for language that is used too much or too little, making the user’s speech
less natural than it could be.
This often happens because of one of two reasons:
Sometimes, the equivalent structure is used less (or not at all) in L1.
This is the case with the passive voice, which is used much more
frequently in English than in Spanish. (Spanish will often prefer active
voice or pasiva refleja sentences beginning with the particle ‘se’.)
At other times, although both languages may use the structure in
(roughly) the same way, the form of the L2 structure is particularly
difficult and so students choose easier L2 alternatives.
Teaching upper-intermediate students of English, I have noticed that
they are reluctant to use modal verbs of speculation (That could be /
She must have been, etc), preferring instead to rely on adverbs
(probably that is / perhaps she was).
So care should be taken to ensure that students actually use the structures we
present, and not just some less demanding alternative.
(d) A huge area of difficulty when looking at tenses are auxiliary verbs. They are
hard because there are many of them (do, be, have, will plus the modals) but
also because they tend to get contracted.
In my experience, many students of English rarely use contractions. This is not
surprising, as they have often studied them in class as an appendix or
addendum to the “real” word, the uncontracted form.
Don’t teach like this. Children need to be exposed to real English, which heavily
uses contractions. This means that both your use of English and your
explanations should emphasize that, in most cases, contractions should be
used by default.
3.2.2- Sample analysis
Target language: Present perfect continuous
Model: She’s been staying with her grandparents for the last three weeks
Meaning / Use:
The Present perfect continuous is used to talk about an activity that began in the past,
has continued into the present without a break and may or may not continue into the
future. If the activity has finished it is recently finished and has some results or effects
in the present. (In this case the person may have recently found a flat and is about to
-ing form of main verb
Contractions: She’s, He’s, We’ve, I’ve, etc.
Spelling of –ing forms may be irregular: studying, sitting.
Stress: She’s been STAying with her GRANDparents
Sounds: been is a weak form: /i/ not /i:/
1.Meaning / Use
It is not sure whether the activity is
finished or not. If it is finished, the action
will have recently finished.
Use clear concept questions and timelines
to clarify and check meaning
Students may confuse the structure with
other similar structures such as Present
Perfect Simple, Past simple or the Present
and Past Continuous.
There will probably be confusion over
whether the activity has finished recently
It is not sure whether the activity will
continue into the future or not.
Style: this structure is used in all contexts.
The contraction ‘s for “has” might cause
problems. They might think it refers to “is”.
Make this clear at the presentation stage
using finger highlighting.
Students might mix up the two time
expressions “for” and “since”.
Highlight the difference between the two
explaining “for” refers to an amount of time
and “since” refers to a specific point in
Students might have problems spelling the Students should be familiar with this but
you might have to review it briefly.
-ing form. E.g. *studing, *siting, but
The students might have a problem with
the weak form of “been”.
Highlight this at the presentation stage and
so some backchain drilling to help.
They might have difficulty pronouncing
sentences with the right stress pattern:
* OOO instead of ooO
1. Is she staying with her grandparents now? (N)
2. When did she start staying with her grandparents?
(Three weeks ago)
3. Was she staying with them all the time? (Y)
4. Will she continue staying with her grandparents?
(Perhaps; we don’t know)
3.2.3.- Teaching Focus: Timelines
3.3.- Analysing Grammar (II): Grammar Words
So far we have looked at grammatical structures involving verbs – both tenses and
sentences. However, much work on grammar is devoted to single words that perform a
structural, rather than lexical, function. In other words, whereas they convey little or no
information, they help to establish relationships between other words.
In the previous section we came across auxiliary verbs as important grammar words.
Other characteristic examples of these words are articles, pronouns, prepositions,
conjunctions and some adverbs.
As you will shortly see, analysing grammar words combines features of both lexical and
3.3.1.- A Toolkit for analysing grammar words
When analyzing grammar words, you need to consider
MEANING / USE
For instance, the words also, and and in addition to are used to add information.
Prepositions like in or on can have all sorts of uses: to refer to time, duration or period,
to specify topics or fields…
Task – How many uses can you think of for the preposition over?
Position - Flying over me
Orientation to the speaker - Over the road
Circumstances: Discuss plans over coffee
Duration: over the next weeks
For this reason, grammar words are often analysed by functional groups or families,
in a way resembling lexical sets.
e.g. prepositions of place, connectors of contrast.
Also, note that a lot of grammar words are taught in the context of language
E.g. expressing purpose / cause
for + -ing form
to + infinitive
When analysing use, note important exceptions to rules and specialised uses wherever
E.g. in / on / at.
e.g. in the morning, in the evening but at night
However, remember that the quantity of information / clarification you give depends on
your students’ level and needs.
Finally, as we saw in the previous chapter, prepositions are often to be found in
collocations with verbs, nouns or adjectives, for instance
admit to / count on / succeed in
accustomed to / good at / glad about
respectful of / frustrated with / shocked by
My suggestion is that you analyse and teach them with a lexical focus, that is,
whenever you are teaching the content word in its lexical set.
Compare the uses of furthermore and and, which perform the same function. Can you
think of texts / contexts where one would be less appropriate than the other?
Sometimes, some grammar words are more appropriate in some contexts than others.
For instance, moreover is a more formal connector than and or plus (this one being the
most informal), and you wouldn’t expect to see it in an informal email between, say, two
Syntax and word order. Where in the sentence?
Task – compare the position in the sentence of and, also, too.
Plurals for some determiners
Person for personal pronouns and determiners.
My / your / her / etc
Me / you / her / him / us / you / them
Task. Which of the prepositions below contain difficult sounds for Spanish speakers to
produce?* Explain your choices.
On top of
*Note: It’s a good idea to use a dictionary or online resource if you are unsure of the exact pronunciation of
the word or phrase.
As we saw in the previous section, grammar words tend to be unstressed, therefore
normally pronounced as their weak form:
Task. Find examples of weak and strong forms of each word in connected speech,
following the example provided.
W: Good for saving money
S: What is that for?
3.3.2.- Sample analysis
Target language: like and as to express similarity and function*
Models: See below
*Note: like and as are often taught together, as they are synonyms in some uses, but
not in others. Also, some languages (notably Romance) only have one word for both of
them, leading to learner confusion. (e.g. “como” in Spanish)
Meaning / Use:
Use1: (a) - To express similarity: My brother’s accent is like mine.
(b) – To express similarity, more informally, instead of as:
It’s difficult to play the piano like she does.
Use 2: - To give examples: He’s good at team sports, like rugby.
Possible extension: the phrase such as could also be taught as a way of giving
Uses 1 (a) and 2
Like is a preposition
Like + noun / pronoun
Use 1(b) like is a conjunction (see below)
B - As
Use 1: To express similarity:
It’s difficult to play the piano as she does.
Tomorrow, as on Tuesday, we will meet at 7 pm.
Use 2: To express function or role: She worked as a librarian for a few years.
(= in the position of)
In questions, the conjunction will go at the end of the sentence:
What do you want to work as?
As is a conjunction
as + clause (as she does)
As + preposition phrase (as on Tuesday)
As is a preposition
as + noun group (as a waiter)
As is normally a weak form, pronounced /əәz/
1.Meaning / Use
The main problem we have here is that
Spanish only has one word (como) for
these two English words in this context.
Therefore, students could easily use one
instead of the other incorrectly, for instance
She likes team sports as rugby.
My brother’s accent is as mine
When presenting the TL, contrast work
as / work like by giving several
examples. Check understanding
through concept questions.
To reinforce the initial presentation, drill
the use of “as” for position by showing
different professions on the overhead
and having students repeat, He/she
works as a _______
(Less likely, as like is normally taught
before for similes and will therefore be
She works like a teacher.
Students might put the grammar words at
the beginning when asking questions:
Insist that prepositions and adverbs
usually go at the end of questions.
As what do you want to work?
Students will probably find it difficult to
pronounce as well in connected speech.
They are likely to pronounce the strong
form /as/ instead of the weak form.
Model the weak form /əәz/ in connected
speech and drill. Correct students on the
spot whenever necessary and encourage
them to produce the weak form.
If he drives like a professional car racer, is he one? (N)
As a manager, she has to make a lot of important decisions. Is she a manager (Y)
Like a manager, she has to make a lot of important decisions. Is she a manager (N)
3.4.- Common areas of difficulty and teaching suggestions
- again, difference with Spanish
- most prepositions can used in many ways.
problematic area: preps (e.g. in / on / at); for / to)
Teach according to function, not by name. E.g. prepositions of place, not “uses of to”
- Phrasal verbs? Treat as lexis
3.5.- Researching grammar
(grammar books, word reference…)
Once in one of my classes students were practising ways of expressing purpose, with
People go abroad ….
to improve their English
because they can’t find work at home
At some point, a student asked me whether she could use for + a gerund, for instance,
People go abroad for getting to know new places.
Obviously my answer was that this sentence was wrong, but at the same time I knew
that sometimes you can use for + gerund to express purpose. But when and how?
“I’ll get back to you on this”, I said.
Task. Brainstorm on the answer to this question. If you have a grammar book or
Internet access, try to research the answer.
That night I looked for clarification in a Grammar Book and was able to give a clear yet
concise explanation the following class. It probably took me two minutes to find the
answer, but those two minutes have helped me better plan explanation and practice
work on expressing purpose ever since.
As with lexis, the skill of researching grammar usage and explanations is crucial to
Traditionally, the only way of doing grammar research for learning and teaching
purposes has been through grammar books.
Nowadays, however, there is a plethora of online resources on the Internet. Let’s take
a look at how both may be used.
a) Grammar books
Compare the following well known grammar books:
Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage
Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use
Thomson and Martinet
Oxford Practice Grammar / Cambridge…
Discuss the following questions:
What obvious differences do you find between them?
Can you put them into two categories according to their potential users?
Which of the two kinds should you have?
There are many kinds of grammar books, but perhaps the most important distinction is
that between practice and reference grammar books.
Practice grammars emphasize student learning, which is why they are published
according to language level: elementary, intermediate, advanced. (Grammar in Use is
a good example of this). While they may be used for reference and clarification,
readers may find the exercises distracting, and the information may not be presented
as clearly and concisely as in a reference text.
Reference grammars, on the other hand, are there to provide clarification on the use of
language items. In this sense they are directed at teachers and expert language users.
b) Internet resources (some of this for the lexis section)
There are hundreds of valuable web-pages devote to TESOL, ESL and language
teaching generally. For the purposed of language research, you may find the following
Online notes and explanations from language teachers and professors.
On-line forums for language teachers. The interesting thing here is that you can
post messages and ask clarification. Often, however, you can access
discussions on the language items that interest you without posting a new
The quickest way of accessing specific information is, of course, by using search
engines. The nice thing about these searches is that you can be as specific as you
want. For instance, if you’re unsure about when to use important for vs important to,
just google [important for or important to] and in a couple of minutes you will have had
time to read a few discussions on the topic.
Browsing on paper, the process would of course be less direct and probably less
effective. You would have to look up the word “important” in a dictionary, and hope to
find examples of these combinations.
Use a search engine to answer the following questions:
1.- I’ve heard a native English speaker say “There’s five beers in the fridge”, and yet
my grammar book says it should be “There are five beers”. What’s going on?
2.- What is correct: at weekends or on weekends?
c) In conclusion: pros and cons of grammar books and Internet resources
Comprehensive treatment of the
grammar of a language
Often very expensive.
Most published English grammar
books are of great quality
Many people still prefer browsing
on paper than computer screen.
Can get to specific information
Can obtain very specific
information about usage in
different English speaking
Documents may contain wrong or
Information (especially on forums)
must be used with caution, as there
are few mechanisms to ensure its
Interactive – you can post your
own questions and get specific
answers / advice.
In conclusion, chances are that you will be doing a lot of language research on the
Internet, but don’t neglect paper reference texts, as often they’ll provide you with a
more in-depth and comprehensive treatment of language from true language