following a thread


shared by FraserElliot on flickr

A storm has blown up once again in the blogosphere over grammar McNuggets and it got me thinking about how I serve them up with my present class of beginners. So I decided to pick out one particular nugget and follow the thread from its first appearance to its present state.

The nugget I’ve chosen is the simple past.  On the suggested syllabus and pacing schedule supplied by the school, the simple past appears somewhere towards the end of term two.  It cropped up much earlier for us.  In the fourth week of the course (we have two classes a week of an hour and half so this was after about 10 hours of class) we looked at jobs: the lexis of jobs, the conditions and responsibilities, the qualifications and training, and of course we answered the question, What’s your job? Two of the students in the class are retired, so they needed the following language to be able to answer the question:

I’m retired.

I was a secondary school teacher.

I worked in a bank.

I gave the chunks, we used them in conversation.  We looked at “was” and identified it as the past of both am and is.   We looked at “worked” and I pointed out that the “ed” ending denoted the past.  We used worked in context in our conversations but we didn’t delve any further. This short note on morphology was the first bite of the nugget.

When I was writing up the summary of that particular lesson I decided it was time to expand on my style.  The initial summaries had simply been lists of useful language gleaned from our mini conversations. E.g.:



 Hello, good morning!

How are you?

Fine thanks / very well thank you/ OK

And you?


 What’s your name? 

My name’s …  

And you?

Pleased to meet you

You too / and you

They had evolved over time and I started to include comments and short tasks but now that the –ed nugget had emerged, I could start to use a more narrative style:

Remembering questions

Here are the questions you remembered. You know a lot of questions from only three weeks of classes!

Over the next three or four weeks, we didn’t go back to focus on the past at all, but I peppered the summaries with regular verbs and examples of was and were.  Here is the description of one of our conversations a few weeks later:

3 favourite foods

 We talked about the food we like to eat at different meals.  It was a great conversation.  We talked about a lot of different things.  Here is some of the new vocabulary we looked at:

 Tastes:  bitter, sweet, sharp.  Can you think of food for each taste? For example, coffee is bitter.

Herbs and spices: cinnamon, mint, vanilla.  Do you like them?

 Can you remember the words in bold? What do they mean?

We talked about making fresh juice in a blender and José Antonio told us a story about his grandfather who put a big watermelon on the table for the little José Antonio forty years ago.  He talked about the delicious heart of the watermelon.  We talked about the difference between grape juice and mosto and wine.  José Antonio explained that real mosto is light and thick and perfect for barbecues.   You can drink a lot of mosto but you don’t get drunk. We also talked about barrels of sherry and bottles of wine.   And then we talked about siestas. Do you have a siesta

Looking back at this, it’s clear that some at least of this conversation with José Antonio involved past verbs.  I guess we dealt with them as they cropped up.  I can remember we quickly talked about the fact that some verbs are irregular in Spanish and the cuteness of kids mastering (or not) the irregular endings. I explained that when the past was irregular, I’d give them the form they needed but that we wouldn’t start a list quite yet.  Looking back over the summaries in those three or four weeks, the following examples of the simple past cropped up again and again: looked at, talked about, described, practised, listened to, remembered, played, introduced, explained – and I started to add negative forms too: You didn’t have any questions from the last lesson.

We generally kick off the class by looking quickly at the summary of the lesson before and airing any questions or doubts. Not once did the students ask for clarification of a past verb.  I like to think that the initial explanation and the gentle drip-drip exposure meant that they were slowly acquiring the form.

In the first lesson after the Christmas break, it seemed the right time to look a little closer at the simple past.  This was more than a month after we’d first noticed the –ed ending.  Here are the notes from our summary:

In this lesson we talked about the Christmas holidays and we looked at:

 1 How to form the past simple

2 Ordinal numbers

3 How to say dates


Here are our notes for the past simple:


? questions DID + subject + verb Did you have a good holiday?
+ affirmative Verb + ED We stayed in Puerto Real.
negative DIDN’T + verb We didn’t go away.  


Remember we used the past simple to talk about jobs.

José Antonio:  I worked in a bank.

Lourdes: I was a Science teacher.  


The verb to be is irregular in the past.  Look at this table.


present Past
I amYou/We /They  are

He/She / It is

I wasYou/We/They  were

He/She/It was


Some verbs are irregular.  Here are some common irregular verbs we used in the lesson:


Present Past










The presentation part of the lesson was very short, board-based and grew out of the language that had emerged from our chat about the Christmas holidays.  During the chat I’d been using a mini whiteboard at my elbow on the shared table and I’d made notes of useful and new language with a box set aside for past verbs. The students were using past verb forms with very little prompting.  There were questions about the use of the infinitive with didn’t, but as most verbs were in the affirmative that area will need more exposure and practice I guess.

In the next lesson (which was a Monday) we talked about weekends and looked at a very small set of irregular past verbs: had, made, went, did, and commented on how much we could say with just four verbs.  We collected examples of collocations. In the summary I set them the task of thinking of more.  We looked at these again at the beginning of the next lesson.

We looked at expressions with each verb.  Can you think of more?

We had a big lunch.  We had a coffee at home. We had a beer in the sun.

I made Paella.  I made some pastries. 

I went shopping. I went for a walk.

We did some cooking.

The lesson after that we talked about the upcoming exam (more about that to come in another post) and the students asked that they not be tested on the past verbs.  I was fine with that, but actually, when it came to the speaking section of the exam, they all used various simple past forms with no problems at all.

So what?  Well, it was interesting for me to see how this particular nugget emerged. It needed a little pushing, it needed time to grow and it’s still growing. But looking back at how I had “taught” this area, there was very little classroom time devoted to teaching. I shared links to simple presentation videos on youtube that the students watched at home (3 or 4 minutes maximum and everybody did watch them) so I guess there was more “teaching” going on there as well, and I was consciously using and re-using and embedding examples in my post lesson emails and in the summaries on the blog as well as in teacher talk during class, but I was still pleased to see how painless the whole process had been. And only once did we actually focus attention on the form and on practising the form. The rest of the time it’s just come up in conversation.  Oh, and yes, we’ve looked at pronunciation, but you know, that classical –ed extra syllable sounding has hardly been a problem at all.  I think there’s a lot to be said for growing grammar slowly at this level.

At present I’m taking a back seat as I watch the present continuous slowly sprouting.  It isn’t on my suggested syllabus until the third term, but the students have already spotted the –ing ending for nouns and are slowly moving towards a natural translation of estar + present participle in Spanish. I think it’ll probably be time to acknowledge its presence very soon.

This entry was posted in musings, reflecting on teaching, thoughts on learning, thoughts on teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to following a thread

  1. Daniel says:

    Hi Ceri,
    What you do here with the McNuggets McTangle is lovely! Scott’s right, of course – nothing has changed with the way grammar is being chopped up and packaged, whether it is by publishers or software developers, but teachers worth their salt ignore all this and respond to their learners’ needs and ways of learning.
    The challenge for writers may be to intervene in this new onslaught of MacDonaldification but the responsibility within the teaching and training profession is to equip new and inexperienced teachers with the tools they need to teach grammar sensitively, over time, integrating it into their lives and needs.
    Your blog’s a great place to look for inspiration :o)
    Right, get back to making BigMacs, Dan, you’ve got a deadline! ;o)

  2. Ceri Jones says:

    Hi Dan, yes I was asking myself how a coursebook or adaptive platform would fit into this picture. And, of course, the answer lies in the teacher and the teaching context. I’m lucky, I have the freedom to experiment and choose to grow grammar as we want – or better, to let it grow as it will.
    Good luck with the Mcfarming 🙂

    • Daniel says:

      You have the expertise as well. I’m sure many of us wouldn’t feel confident or knowledgeable enough to let go of the certainty of the course book. Your post shows us all that it is a straightforward matter of responding to learners at the point of need and noticing language when it is being needed.

  3. Ceri Jones says:

    It’s an exciting experience (really!) and what I like best is it keeps me on my toes, always listening, always responding, always analysing, and never sure that what I’m doing is right! And for the moment I’ve found a format that works for me, the shared lesson summaries, the youtube videos as back-up and to some degree flipping the grammar presentations. I’m not sure it’s a question of expertise as much as of confidence (and I don’t always have that!)

  4. I love this description of ’emergent grammar’ in practice, not least because we have so few readable descriptions of how this happens, and how the teacher’s interventions can support it. The metaphor of grammar ‘sprouting’ is a felicitous one, in that it recasts the teacher, not as a pedagogue (for want of a better term to capture the ‘presentation’ function traditionally associated with teaching) but as a gardener, providing the optimal ‘growth’ conditions, and nurturing language into life. I also applaud your use of post-lesson summaries – a technique that should really be introduced on pre-service courses, so important (and so relatively simple) as it is.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Scott, thanks, I was a bit worried about mixing metaphors! I’ve been working with post-lesson summaries for a couple of years now and they’ve really helped scaffold and develop my teaching, as well, hopefully, as the students’ learning. I’m planning on looking at the process in more detail in a post coming soon.

  5. pjinturkey says:

    This and Scott’s article have reminded me of a conversation that I had with Lindsay Clanfield in Bolu, Turkey last year. He was a keynote speaker at the 4th international Blacksea ELT conference and he asked me a question at the conference dinner about the use of technology in the ELT classroom as well as the development of distance learning courses which are on the increase. Being mildly inebriated I remember saying something along the lines of there is something missing from what we do, of course since then I have been thinking more and more about this question and reading articles like yours and Scott’s.
    I think that Ian Gilbert’s statement, “Knowledge has been democratized, but learning hasn’t” is a fresh look at a stake situation, and like Ceri above Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet” “on teaching”

    “No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge………

    (A teacher) If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind……….”

    It is this natural process of learning that which is already half known, that as young children fills us with a desire to learn by playing with everything. We enter education with the knowledge of how to speak acquired from our families, we already know there is writing and some of us have acquired this as well. Our families have terrorized us with the concept of maths and science but we still want to attend school to make new friends and learn. Of course as time passes this changes but at heart this simple urge to wonder remains the same.
    Your leaving it to grow method Ceri resonates so much with what I am trying to do here in Turkey, as education is very rigid here. If you are a teacher there is an automatic deference that is almost nauseating, as anything a teacher says is taken as Gospel. I conducted an experiment in class one day and convinced all the students that the past continuous and the present continuous are the same form with a different title. Without one word of dissent they accepted what I was saying, even though they knew better. This is because I am a teacher and as such I cannot be questioned because I know my subject,
    Please keep sharing and good luck with your experiments

  6. Pingback: 100 words | close up

  7. Pingback: The tale of two Grammars | Paul J in Turkey

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