As teachers we would all agree that English is still very important for academic work: people use English to gather information and knowledge from books, the Internet and other information hubs; we use English to communicate in the workplace and English is still the most important means for access to higher education. Therefore, we need to teach our students how to use English academically; that is, for defining, comparing, arguing, reporting, describing, commenting, debating and so on. We know that success in all these academic functions requires mastery of specific grammatical structures and categories. In this unit, we will help you take your students through certain activities that should help them write better for academic purposes. This should improve students’ reading and writing abilities across the curriculum.
Upon completion of this unit you will be able to:
Teacher support information
By building on the students’ prior knowledge of grammar, we can help them understand how to form grammatical structures that serve the specific academic function they need to perform. For example, they will be able to decide which structure to use to define a concept, how to illustrate a point with examples, how to describe the cause and effect of a scientific occurrence and so on. At the JSS level, students will already have learned about complex and compound sentence structures, various tense forms and other grammatical categories such as phrases and clauses. In this unit, we will try to use students’ existing knowledge to help them use English appropriately for academic purposes.
At the JSS level, teachers usually put a lot of emphasis on teaching grammar by giving facts, defining grammatical terms and analysing sentences on the board — with little emphasis on using grammar in context. As a result, many students at this level cannot use the appropriate grammatical structures for real-life needs, such as asking for clarification of something in a History or Geography class, for example, or for summing up a group discussion, joining a discussion politely, preparing a scientific report using passive voice and so on. In other words, despite their many years of grammar lessons, students still have difficulties in reading their textbooks and responding to the information given there. Students usually memorise the information in content subject texts, such as Science and Social Studies. Many students also find the language of their textbooks difficult to understand — the structures and vocabulary are often far beyond their reading levels. The overall result is a poor performance in their final English Language examinations.
Mr Robinson, the principal of a college in Botswana, was so worried about this situation that he called a meeting of all the English teachers in the college. They came up with some good ideas to change things and set about putting them into action. First, they identified the students’ proficiency levels through a simple grammar and usage test. Then they divided the students into advanced, intermediate and elementary groups according to their test scores. Next, they set aside two hours every week for proficiency development classes. The advanced group received a variety of literary texts to read — popular fiction, poetry, travelogues, biographies, etc. — for weekly reading and group discussion assignments. The intermediate group received simpler texts to read, and were made to practise using English through a set of standard communicative texts. The elementary group received a minimum of texts; their spoken proficiency was given more focus through speaking and listening activities. In addition, they had to work with textbooks that matched their level of competence. The overall result of these efforts and strategies was a marked improvement in the students’ confidence and ability to communicate in English with minimum effort. Their grammar improved dramatically — thanks to the opportunities to use language in appropriate contexts and for appropriate functions. The principal encouraged the teachers to continue to use these strategies, which eventually translated into improved performance in English in all the public examinations.
Points to ponder
Activity 1: The language of definitions: Using appropriate clauses
One of the most common uses of language in academic texts is defining. We come across definitions in almost all subjects: Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, Geography, Economics and so on. Writing a definition is also the most common task given to students in these subjects. Knowing the grammatical structure of definitions is a useful language skill.
It is common to hear students complain that they understand a concept well, but cannot define it appropriately and so lose out on good grades. In this activity, students will practise the language of definition.
To test the students’ ability to define, you can start with a pre-writing activity. Write the names of several objects or concepts that your students are familiar with on slips of paper then fold the papers. Ask the students, working in pairs, to pick a slip of paper and write a short definition of the word written on it. You should choose words across disciplines like thermometer, earthquake, per capita income, ballad, parallelogram, bacteria, magma, fort, etc. Give them five minutes and then ask them to read out their definitions. Put two or three good and bad definitions on the board, and point out what is good/bad about them, so that the students can see what makes a good definition. In the feedback session, focus on whether the definitions clearly say what the thing/concept is, what it does or is used for and whether there is an example provided where necessary. You can highlight the different ways of defining as illustrated in Resource 1.
Have your students notice the grammatical structure used in definition — Main clause + subordinate relative clause.
Main clause + Sub. relative clause
A thermometer is a medical device + that is used to measure temperature, especially of air or in a person’s body.
To give the students more practice with the structure of definitions, you can have them do the following matching task. They can do this in pairs.
Once the students have finished this exercise, have them sit in small groups to work out the definitions of a set of terms like those listed below. Remember that they are going to practise structures of definitions, so the expressions you give them need not be simple dictionary definitions. Also, let the groups come up with different definitions for the same expression. The important learning point here is whether they have been able to use the structure main clause + subordinate relative clause correctly.
Suggested list of terms: A national holiday, harmful bacteria, a nature park, freedom, a mobile phone, examination phobia, racing cars, professional sports, global warming, a school project, etc.
Activity 2: Grammatical forms in the language of science and technology
The language of science and technology includes specific vocabulary, grammatical word classes and structures. To help students recognise the special uses of language in science and technology textbooks, you can give them the following task.
Divide the students into groups of six, and give each group a chapter from a science/technology textbook. Their task is to try to find out the specific uses of language in scientific discussions. To make the activity interesting for the students, give each group member a specific designation and role to play. The group leader will be the Discussion Director. Grammatical Structure Finders seek out the grammatical structures in the chapter. The Word Class Investigators find out the kinds of word classes used: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. The Vocabulary Enrichers locate and analyse the technical terms in the texts according to their prefixes, suffixes and roots. The Illustrators look at the visual representations — diagrams, labels, tables, charts, graphs, etc. — to find out what is special about the language used there. The Summarisers prepare a brief summary of the aspects of the texts analysed and present it to the class. Some sample texts, and the kinds of structures found in them, are included in Resource 2. You can use these texts as an illustration.
Some of the aspects that should come up in the discussion are:
After the students have finished their task, each group should summarise their discoveries and present them to the class. The class should offer comments and suggestions, and the groups can modify their findings in line with these.
If you would like to take this activity further and guide your students in writing a summary from their notes, you will find Resource 4a helpful. This resource gives tips on summary writing.
Your students can now be given some practice in using the language of science and technology. Give the groups three expressions each from the list (below) of fictitious scientific terms. Their task is to write a scientific description of each term. This includes defining the term using an appropriate grammatical structure, using prefixes or suffixes that describe the terms more clearly and illustrating the item with diagrams and labelling. These can then all be used to write a short description of the item. Allow the students to refer to a dictionary to find related words, be innovative and define or describe the term imaginatively. Remember that there are no right or wrong answers for this task as the words in the list are imaginary. The idea is simply to familiarise them with the language of science and technology.
LIST: outstep, nasal mapping, eatopia, insectography, emailogy, mobilomania, computeritis, sensitiser, pressure clock, instomatic, stomachitis, fusion pump, bio-tyre, ventiladder, ear gloves
Activity 3: Grammatical categories for comparing and contrasting
When we compare two things, persons or events, we usually look for similarities; when we contrast, we look for differences. Comparing and contrasting are common academic tasks that students have to perform as part of regular subject study. One of the easiest ways to compare and contrast is to make a table with the headings Category 1/Category 2 or Similarities/Differences. But this kind of tabular presentation of information may not be appropriate for all study purposes. Students also need to learn how to express similarities and differences in written form.
This activity should help your students learn how to use the specific grammatical categories of comparing and contrasting, such as coordinating and subordinating conjunctions in compound sentences.
First, have your students listen to the audio/watch the video (see Resource 3) of two people describing two objects. Ask them to note carefully what is being described and what they notice about the things being described. Then play the file a second time, telling the students to confirm what they noted, and also to notice more carefully what is similar and what is different about the two objects. They should find at least three similarities and three differences.
Put the students’ responses on the board point by point. You could draw a line down the middle of the board and show the similarities and differences in two columns. Take a point of similarity and a point of difference, and put up two sentences illustrating the structure, as in the sentence below. Then underline the conjunctions in each sentence. For example:
Similarity: Both the CD player and the MP4 player are small in size and can be carried around.
Difference: The earplugs of the CD player are connected to the player with a wire whereas the earpieces of the MP4 player are wireless.
Encourage the students to make more sentences in these patterns, using conjunctions like and, but, whereas, while, also, on the other hand, in contrast, similarly, etc. Draw their attention to the sentence structure of compound sentences:
Main clause + coordinating/subordinating conjunction + main clause
Main clause: The earplugs of the CD player are connected to the player with a wire
Subordinating conjunction: whereas
Main clause: the earpieces of the MP4 player are wireless.
After the students have practised using these structures, you can give them a similar task to do on their own, either in the class or as a homework assignment. To make their comparisons more interesting, they could illustrate the objects being compared. Some possible pairs of comparable concepts are: desktop computer/laptop computer, electric oven/microwave oven, film/play, etc.
In this unit you learned how to train your students to discover the importance of familiarising themselves with specific points of grammar across subjects and the different types of grammatical patterns in the various textbooks they have to study. More specifically, the unit focused on the language of science and technology and the way the grammatical forms are used to access the texts.
Resource 1: Various kinds of definitions
A parallelogram is a four-sided figure of which two sets of opposite sides are parallel and of equal length to each other.
Magma is hot liquid rock that is found just below the surface of the Earth.
A thermometer is a medical device that is used to measure temperature, especially of air or a person’s body.
Per capita income is the money that is earned by one citizen in a country.
A ballad is not a short poem composed to describe one event or feeling; it is a long poem that tells a story.
A fort is neither a civilian building nor an open space; it is a military building consisting of an area surrounded by a strong wall designed to defend it from attack.
Resource 2: Sample analysis of the grammar of science and technology texts
The two passages below are from Science and Technology texts. The grammatical structures used in such passages have been analysed to help you familiarise your students with such structures.
Living things are things that have life in them. They are classified into two major groups: plants and animals. The characteristics which they possess make them different from non-living things. Examples of living things are man, insect, bird, fish, toad, and lizard, while non-living things are salt, water, stone, chair and table.
An organism is said to be a living thing if it can carry out the functions of movement, respiration, nutrition, irritability, growth, excretion, reproduction and death. Organisms are able to move their whole body from one place to another in search of food or away from danger, but for plants, movement is done with certain parts of their body. Movements in plants are generally slow and towards gravity or water.
Respiration is the use of oxygen from air to break down food in the body cells to release energy. Energy released is used to carry out body activities such as growth, breathing, running, and movement. Living organisms make use of oxygen and give out carbon dioxide and water as waste product of respiration.
(Source: P. Adebayo-Begun, et al. (2008). Integrated Science for Junior Secondary School. Ibadan: University Press, PLC.)
Electrical energy is transmitted over a long distance into homes, public places, and industries, where it is transformed into heat energy, light energy or mechanical energy for performing various form of useful functions like cooking, lighting and moving machines parts. As discussed before, there is the need to determine the rate at which energy is being consumed. For example, the rate at which electrical energy is consumed by an electrical iron is significantly different from that of a TV set which in turn is different from that of a radio set. The rate at which electrical energy must be supplied to the pressing iron is much higher than the battery can cope with.
Thus it is important that we know the rate of energy consumption of an appliance. This is nothing more than its power consumption. Power is the rate at which work is done.
The electric iron, which is a heavy electricity power generator–device, is made up of nichrome element wound on mica-former and two heavy stainless steel plates in between which element is fixed. The weight of the steel-plates applies pressure which, the element coupled with the heat from the element, smoothens the clothes being ironed. An asbestos pad, a poor conductor of heat is, fitted to the upper steel plate to maximize the upward flow of heat from the element.
Before discussing power, which is a rate of energy consumption or generation, let us, first of all, discuss how energy is measured. A body at rest on the ground, a piece of block for instance, has what is called mass. Explained in a very simple terms, mass is a measure of the amount of matter or materials contained in a body. The mass of a piece of block makes it to have weight in a gravitational field. In other words, the weight of a piece of block is a measure of the gravitational force being exerted on its mass. Gravitational force is a force which tends to pull all bodies towards the centre of the earth, that is, it is the force which ensures that the object thrown up comes down.
(O.A. Bamiro, A. Nurudeen and I.O. Akuru (2005). Introductory Technology for Schools and Colleges, second edition. Ibadan: Evans Brothers, Nigeria, Ltd.)
The two passages above, from JSS texts, illustrate the grammar of science and technology in the table below:
Use of declarative sentences (i.e., statements)
Movements in plants are generally slow and towards gravity and water.
Living organisms make use of oxygen and give out carbon dioxide and water as waste products of respiration.
Use of subordinate relative clauses with wh- words
Electrical energy is transmitted over a long distance into homes, public places, and industries where it is transformed into heat energy, light energy or mechanical energy for performing various form of useful functions…
The electric iron, which is a heavy electricity power generator-device, is made up of…
Less use of personal pronouns like I, he, she, they
Electricity is transmitted over a long distance into homes instead of I/We/He transmits electricity over a long distance into homes.
Definitions (usually with the verb is/are)
Living things are things that have life in them.
Respiration is the use of oxygen from air to break down food in the body cells to release energy.
Descriptive adjectives, usually before the nouns
Living things: living modifies things
Major groups: major modifies groups
Body cells: body modifies cells
Mechanical energy: mechanical modifies energy
Electrical energy: electrical modifies energy
Stainless steel plates: stainless+ steel modifies plates
More use of passive sentence structure than active to make the information more objective
Energy released is used to carry out body activities.
There is need to determine the rate at which energy is being consumed.
The rate at which electrical energy is consumed by an electrical iron is significantly different from that of a TV set.
Tighter sentence construction through contraction (that is, removing words that affect the meaning)
Energy that is released.
An asbestos pad, a poor conductor of heat, is fitted to the upper steel plate to maximize the upward flow of heat from the element.
An asbestos pad, which is a poor conductor of heat, is fitted to the upper steel plate to maximize the upward flow of heat from the element.
Listing of items
Examples of living things are man, insect, bird, fish, toad, and lizard, while non-living things are salt, water, stone, chair and table.
Word morphology (breaking a technical term into prefixes, suffixes and roots to determine the meaning)
Re-(=again)-produce (root=bring to life)
Trans-(=across) mit-(=show)-ed (verb-past)
Consume (verb: root=eat) –tion (noun)
Resource 3: Comparing and contrasting
Are you familiar with this object? It is a portable music player, which plays music on compact discs (CDs). The player has two earplugs at the two ends of a wire that you can connect to the player and listen to music without disturbing anyone. You can simply pin the player on your shirt pocket, trousers band or belt with the clip attached, and carry it wherever you go. The player has a detachable battery that gives you four hours of playing time, and it comes with a charger that you can plug in and recharge at home. The player is also quite cheap — I bought mine for a hundred bucks! The size is also quite small — it looks like a round lunch box, and so it easily fits into my schoolbag.
This is an MP4 player. It looks like a small camera, doesn’t it? That’s because it has a screen — a liquid crystal display (LCD) screen which can not only show me the lyrics of the song I’m playing, it can also play the video recording of the song. It’s an amazing gadget, and though this model is very expensive, I don’t regret buying it one bit! It can store thousands of songs, so that I don’t have to keep changing discs like the older players, and it has a battery back-up of eight solid hours. Can you beat it!!?? I just need to recharge it like a mobile phone. It’s also as small as a mobile, and quite similar in looks, so I can just put it in my pocket and carry it around. Also, it comes with a wireless earpiece, which is a tiny device that I can stick into my ear with the clip, and it stays out of sight, hidden by my hair. Why don’t you buy one for yourself?
See in the enclosed DVD a video recording of the activities:
If you have trouble playing the video, you can have your students listen to the audio recording (below) of the same conversation:
Resource 4a: Guide to summary writing
Resource 4b: Turning notes into essays
Notes are not written in complete sentences or statements, and are not joined together in grammatical ways. When the time comes to turn your notes into an essay, you should:
Teacher question and answer
Question: Can an English teacher undertake the teaching of grammar across disciplines alone? How can the English teacher improve students’ grammatical competence in other subject areas?
Answer: Improving students’ proficiency in English in all subject areas is certainly not a task for the English teacher alone. The English language teacher and other subject teachers need to work together to complement one another’s classroom activities. Perhaps the language activities could be centred on topics from other subject areas. This would encourage meaningful and contextual use of language across the curriculum, and improve students’ communication skills.