TESOL Connections

Lesson Plan: Listening

by Sarah Sahr
Listening is an important and often neglected skill in teaching English language learners. Sarah Sahr provides a quick lesson that demonstrates good listening skills and gets students working together. A handout is included. 

Listening is, in my opinion, the most important and most neglected skill in ESL/EFL teaching. I believe that people spend most of their time listening and, with the advent of smart phones, it can be argued that peoples’ listening skills are deteriorating. Throw in second language and you have a cocktail of miscommunication just wanting to be served. This quick lesson outlines some rules that need to be followed when students practice their listening skills.


Materials: Good Listening Evaluation 
Audience: All proficiency levels; all ages  
Objective: Students will be able to demonstrate good listening skills by having conversations with their partners on assigned topics or a topic of their own choosing. 
Outcome: Students will evaluate their own and a partner’s listening skills.
Duration: 40–50 minutes.

Introduction (10 minutes)
Brainstorm, as a class, the characteristics of a good listener. Use the “Think-Pair-Share” activity:

  • Think to yourself:  Each student creates a list of good listening characteristics in his or her head.
  • Pair yourself:  Students find a partner to share their lists with.  This is an opportunity for students to practice what they are going to say to the class.
  • Share with class:  Each student shares characteristics with the whole class.

As students share good listening characteristics, you can write them on the board. 

Starter Activity (15 minutes)
Divide the class into four teams.  Have each team form a line that starts at the front of the class and goes toward the back. Take the last person in each line out to a place where the other classmates can’t hear (outside the classroom is best).  Tell these four students a simple sentence (make sure they remember it). Once they return to the classroom, they should go back to the end of their team’s line. When the teacher says, “GO!” students in the back of the lines whisper the sentence into the person’s ear in front of them, and then that student whispers it to the next student, and then the next and next... 

It’s a competition. The first group to be able to get the sentence to the front of the line and recite the sentence correctly to the teacher gets a point. If a team finishes and finds that their sentence is incorrect, the student from the back can send the sentence again if no other team has won the round yet; however, once one team successfully gets the correct sentence to the teacher, the round is over. Once a point is awarded, the person in the back of the line comes to the front and the new last person in line goes out to the hall to receive the new sentence. 

This can go on until everyone gets a chance to go in the hall and receive a sentence, or for just a set number of sentences.  Make sure each sentence is more complex than the last, in grammar and/or in pronunciation. However, keep in mind the proficiency levels of your students.  For example:

  • I am going to see a movie this weekend.
  • The traffic is very congested in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • When sheep are tired, they sleep on the grass and in the sunshine.
  • Studying English and practicing the piano are my two favorite pastimes.
  • Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore.

Pair Work (10 minutes)
Have each student return to his or her seat and find the same partner from the “Think-Pair-Share” activity. These pairs of students will be having one-on-one conversations with each other. Topics can be assigned by the teacher, or students can choose them on their own. Some suggested topics for different levels might be:

Primary School Students

  • School cafeteria food
  • Is there enough time to play in school?
  • Dealing with siblings

Secondary School Students

  • The school’s dress code
  • Sports or hobbies
  • Celebrities

Adult Students

  • Transportation to school
  • Work/jobs (or lack thereof)
  • Family heritage and traditions

Obviously, some of these topics might need a quick review of vocabulary or the teacher might need to share some talking points. When choosing topics, keep your students’ interests in mind. 

Make sure you give students time to think about their topic before they start talking to their partner. Each student should talk for at least two minutes. Partners should give appropriate comments in response and ask appropriate questions when necessary.  Encourage students to stay on topic. However, if they find themselves off topic, that’s fine.  The goal of this lesson is to get students listening to each other.

Evaluation (5 minutes)
Now that students have listened to one another, pass out the Good Listening Evaluation to students.  You may want to go over this as a class. Students must rate themselves and each other (see handout for more details).

Closure (5 minutes)
Go back to your list of listening characteristics on the board.  How many of the students utilized the characteristics listed on the board?  How many students think they are good listeners? How many students think they are bad listeners?  If students are comfortable with it, have partners share their evaluations.

Download this lesson plan (PDF) 


Sarah Sahr works at TESOL and has her Masters in ESL administration. She has managed a school in Vietnam, trained teachers in South Korea, implemented school reform in Qatar, run a circus train classroom for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and taught 8th grade writing in Maryland. Prior to all that, Sarah was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia. She is also a certified ashtanga yoga instructor and has managed an eco-lodge in Chugchilan, Ecuador.

"Lesson Plan: Listening" by Sarah Sahr for TESOL International Association is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareA like 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.tesol.org/permissions

TESOL and the Next Generation Science Standards

by David T. Crowther
The Next  Generation Science Standards are being developed and will soon be piloted in 26 states. The Standards add a dimension of learning for all children that provide a context for understanding science and language. Learn about the Standards and how they connect to English language teaching.

This is an exciting time in education.  The Core Curriculum State Standards (CCSS) in Language Arts and Mathematics are being used in classrooms across the United States, WiDA has an updated version of their English Language Development standards available online, and, soon, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will be piloted in 26 states for the 2012–2013 school year.

Developing the Standards
The National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve have embarked on a two-step process to develop the NGSS. The first step was a critical review of the most current research in science, how children learn science, and identified the science all K–12 students should know.  This first step resulted in the release of A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2011).  The Framework outlined the content, practices and general principles to be incorporated into the NGSS  (Achieve, Inc., 2012).

The second step of the process involved the actual development of the standards.  The first draft of the standards have been written by a team of writers and reviewed by critical stakeholders in both a state level and a public review. Information from the primary review is being scrutinized and will be incorporated into a revised version, and then 26 states will pilot the revised standards.  This will lead to yet more revisions, and the goal is for a final version of the NGSS to be available for late 2012 or early 2013 (Achieve, Inc., 2012).

The Structure of the Standards
According to the Framework and a working version of the NGSS, There are three main structures to the NGSS: Assessable Component, Foundation Boxes, and Connection Boxes (see nextgenscience.org for a visual). The actual standards are written in the top box (Assessable Component) and are organized by grades, grouped in Grades K–5, 6–8, and 9–12.  Groups were delineated by specific grades rather than by level (elementary, middle school, high school) to avoid any confusion.

Below the Assessable Component are the Foundation Boxes:

  • Science and Engineering Practices (in blue) were formerly known as the process skills that are required for actually conducting science. These include practices used in science and engineering like asking questions, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, and constructing explanations. The science and engineering practices are of particular interest to the TESOL community as these have a large overlap with the language domains (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) and involve using both social and academic language to support learning. 
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas (in orange) involve the main science disciplines in the standards.  These areas include life science, Earth and space science, physical science and science and engineering. 
  • Crosscutting Concepts (in green) contain the major cross-cutting themes in science and engineering that connect topics of science over different disciplinary areas (e.g. patterns, cause and effect, structure and function).   

Finally, the Connection Boxes support the CCSS in both language arts and mathematics. Actual CCSS standards in both content areas are outlined to help make connections to other content area instruction (Achieve, Inc., 2012).

Connection to Language Teaching and Learning
The Development of the NGSS includes a review of diversity and equity and the development of resources for diversity and equity. The charge of the NGSS Diversity and Equity Group is to ensure the NGSS are accessible to all students by highlighting changing demographics of the student population and identifying emerging national initiatives for a new wave of standards. The scope of work for the group involves three primary tasks:  a) review standards statements, b) draft a Diversity and Equity discussion chapter, and c) create vignettes of diverse student groups (Achieve, Inc., 2012).

To help make the language connection to the CCSS and the NGSS, the Understanding Language project is bringing together leading educators with expertise in disciplinary knowledge and language learning to create knowledge and resources for teachers of ELLs in this new context.  Understanding Language aims to heighten educator awareness of the critical role that language plays in the new CCSS and NGSS. The long-term goal of the initiative is to increase recognition that learning the language of each academic discipline is essential to learning content.

Language demands such as obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information; articulating and building on ideas; constructing explanations; engaging in argument from evidence and other language-rich performance expectations permeate the new Standards.  This project will provide seamless connections of the standards by connecting them all together (including WiDA) so that consumers may work to support and have success with linguistically diverse children. For more information about this work, go to http://ell.stanford.edu/.

Suggestions for Improvement
Upon a review of the Next Generation Science Standards, this author felt that the standards are, generally, developmentally appropriate by grade level and that they do contain many language connections through the “Practices of Science and Engineering” portion. The color-coded format of the standards is easy to read and support materials for the content are outlined with connections to CCSS in Language Arts and Mathematics. The general structure is very user friendly. Two concerns are readily apparent with the NGSS:

  1. reducing the emphasis on inquiry from the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) throughout the document, and
  2. the lack of explicit nature of science in general.

Both of these concerns have been pointed out by numerous reviewers of the NGSS.

There are two primary additions that could be made with minimal effort to the NGSS that would help teachers work with linguistically diverse children:

  • Highlight the academic vocabulary. With this vocabulary highlighted, teachers would know what words will be on the tests. A link to definitions and a matrix so that teachers can see how academic vocabulary is scaffolded from the early grades to older grades and how that relates to the conceptual development of the same standards would also be helpful.
  • Include a link to language standards. This author suggested that a link also be made to the WiDA 2012 English Language Development standards in the “Connections Box” where there are links to the CCSS in Language Arts and Mathematics. This would greatly help teachers working with English learners to find ways to build the language domains for their students at appropriate levels.

The NGSS add a dimension of learning for all children that provides a context for understanding science and language through purposeful and meaningful interactions with scientific phenomena. TESOL members will find the NGSS an important document in helping linguistically diverse children acquire both content and the English language.  

Note: A significant portion of this column was retrieved from the Next Generation Science Standards Web site.  Please visit nextgenscience.org for updates, details and the final release of the standards.


Achieve, Inc. (2012). Next Generation Science Standards. Retrieved from http://www.nextgenscience.org/.

National Research Council (NRC). (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council (NRC). (2011). A Framework for K-12 Science Education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.


Common Core State Standards (CCSS) (2009).  Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/.
Understanding Language project (2012). Stanford University. Retrieved from http://ell.stanford.edu/.

World Class Instructional and Design and Assessment (WiDA). (2012). English Language Proficiency Standards.  Retrieved from http://wida.us/standards/elp.aspx.


Dr. David T. Crowther is a professor of science education at the University of Nevada, Reno.   Dr. Crowther has 19 years of teaching experience at the university level, and teaches science methods, general biology for education majors, and graduate courses in curriculum, science education, and research. He is the coauthor and editor of Science for English Language Learners from NSTA Press, and his current research interests involve teaching science through inquiry to develop English language acquisition for English language learners, inquiry content instruction within general biology at the university level, and general methods of inquiry science teaching at the graduate and undergraduate level. 

Greening the L2 Classroom: Linking TESOL and the Environment

by Wendy Coyle and Amy Delis
Learn how to integrate environmental education into the L2 curriculum by motivating students to be involved in sustainability. 

Behind closed doors, after all our students left for the day, we became the garbage ladies. We would sift through the garbage cans in our last period classrooms, separating glass, paper, aluminum cans, and plastic from the nonrecyclables and would tow them down to the recycling area of our building. After a few weeks of doing this, we said, “There has got to be a better way.” The better way is to green the L2 classroom by integrating environmental education (EE) into the second language curriculum and by motivating students and other teachers to be involved in sustainability.

Greening the L2 classroom offers advantages for learning English. It:

  • is content-based, so students learn language and interesting, environmentally related content simultaneously rather than learning language in isolation;
  • connects students with the authentic world beyond the classroom as it is a contemporary global issue;
  • requires completing tasks that have existence and relevancy outside the classroom, and often requires physically leaving the classroom;
  • necessitates critical thinking in that students must use analysis, synthesis, and other higher-order thinking skills to interact with information and each other; and
  • supports group work and cooperative learning because students work in small groups to teach and support each other while they complete various tasks. 

Teachers can green the L2 classroom by integrating some relevant activities and tasks or by teaching a unit or class on environmental studies. To teach a class on environmental studies, consider this step-by-step process: 

Step 1: Generate Understanding
Generate a basic understanding of the natural environment and how human beings interact with it. One way to do this is to create interactive PowerPoint presentations on EE that cover the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. Draw your information from internet and library sources.

Step 2: Raise Awareness and Excitement
Raise awareness and get students excited about EE and participation through fieldtrips on or off campus. Research interesting and relevant destinations in your community. In our case, we took the students to a number of places, including the architecture building, which will be the first net zero energy remodel in the United States. (Net zero means that, when the project is finished, the building will generate as much energy as it consumes through generation, conservation, improving resource management, and maintaining efficient building operations.)

We also took our students to the Facilities Management Building on campus; its turbines are powered by natural gas now instead of coal and even produce 10% of the University’s electricity while it heats up university facilities. Some types of places you can consider for your students:

  • A landfill: These sites store and bury the garbage generated by a city or town and keep it isolated from groundwater.
  • A Recycling Center: These centers gather recyclable materials, package them, and ship them to places that produce items made from recyclable materials.
  • Recycled glass-making plant, paper mill, or aluminum factory: These centers recycle used bottles, paper, or soda cans and turn them into new ones. 

Step 3: Develop Skills
Help your students develop skills to address environmental problems through a number of assignments.

Questionnaire and Letter
Have them complete a questionnaire on “How Green Is Our Classroom Building?” with the following questions.

  • Is the attic of the building insulated?   
  • Are the windows of the building double paned and well fitting?
  • Does the building have clearly marked and adequately placed bins to recycle aluminium, plastic and paper?
  • Does the building have smart lighting? 
  • Does the building have fluorescents lights rather than less efficient incandescent lights? 
  • Do lights and air conditioners get turned off after classes end? 
  • Are power strips that provide power to electric appliances turned off at the end of the day?
  • Does the building have a reflective roof?
  • Does the building have an energy-efficient furnace?  

Have the students compile and discuss the findings from the questionnaire, and then write a persuasive letter to the relevant leadership (your University’s Office of Sustainability, the principal, or the superintendent) in which they propose changes to your building.

The students can also create PowerPoint or other types of presentations on environmental problems in their countries and on proposed solutions to those problems. Some themes they can consider include air pollution, water pollution, and conservation. 

Assign your students journal activities. Give them a list of environmentally sound activities, or have them conceive their own.  Ask them to choose one each week, practice it during the week, and write a one-page summary of the experience. Some examples of experiences include: 

  • bringing reusable bags to carry home your groceries;
  • recycling newspapers, plastics, glass, and cans;
  • using public transportation, walking, or riding a bicycle;
  • washing only full loads of clothes in cold water in the washer; and
  • drinking filtered tap water from reusable cups and bottles instead of bottled water. 

Listening Activities
Have your students participate in listening activities, take notes on lectures and videos, and use those notes to answer quiz questions. In addition, you can help the students improve their reading skills by previewing materials on EE, practicing skimming and scanning articles, and answering comprehension questions.

Solve Environmental Problems
Have students participate in solving environmental problems. A great activity for this is to have students analyze and produce their own infomercials. By tapping into their creativity, students can produce infomercials about reducing, reusing, and recycling, or another environmental theme.

For this activity, first show them examples of creative YouTube infomercials.  Next, teach them persuasive techniques such as using loaded words, drawing on people’s fears concerning their security, producing a slogan, using humor, appealing to people’s emotions, showing popular celebrities endorsing the idea, or telling viewers that “everyone is doing it.”  After that, have student groups spend time generating ideas for the infomercial and planning, filming, editing, and publishing them, and finally sharing them at an end-of-session gathering.

View student examples of environmental infomercials: 

*Video used with permission.

Evaluate Solutions
Provide opportunities for the students to evaluate proposed solutions to environmental problems. If possible, invite guest lecturers to come to your class and explain how they are contributing to a greener campus or community. In our case, we invited the Office of Sustainability to come and respond to the letters the students wrote them about improving the sustainability of our classroom building. Additionally, we invited a representative of Chartwells—a catering company on campus—to come to the class and give a lecture on how her business is becoming more sustainable. Consider inviting a representative from a local environmentally friendly or sustainable company.

At the same time as greening the L2 classroom can advance English proficiency, it can raise environmental awareness and offer opportunities for practicing environmental responsibility. EE enables students and teachers to develop knowledge and sensitivity about environmental problems. It changes attitudes so students and teachers are motivated to act. It develops problem-solving skills that involve identifying an environmental problem, investigating it, and setting up a course of action to resolve it, and it provides active hands-on participation in which students embark on a plan of action that can result in improving or resolving an environmental problem (Braus & Wood, 1993, pp. 6–7).

EE is essential in a world of diminishing natural resources and biodiversity, and increasing environmental degradation. EE can empower teachers and students with the means to live more sustainably and improve the quality of the environment, thereby enhancing responsible stewardship of the planet.


Braus, J. A., & Wood, D. (1993). Environmental education in the schools: Creating a program that works! Peace Corps, Information Collection and Exchange.

UNESCO-UNEP. (1976). The Belgrade Charter: A global framework for EE. Connect 1(1), 1–9.


Wendy Coyle grew up outside the United States, primarily in Asia. She believes that is where her interest in TESOL began. She received a MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Utah and has taught ESOL in Thailand and the U.S. She enjoys spending time with family, art, traveling and soccer.

Amy Delis graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in English Literature and an MA in TESOL. She has been teaching ESOL since 1997 and has taught adults as well as children in the U.S. and China. She enjoys travelling with her family and has visited over 30 countries (and counting!). She speaks Spanish and has a goal to one day speak Mandarin Chinese. 


iPads for Student Learning

by Kathleen Mitchell
Using iPads in your classroom can promote learning and easily engage students—all while focusing on good teaching practices and student learning outcomes. 

Many institutions are investing in iPads; I work at one such institution, INTO Oregon State University.  In fall 2011, we purchased 30 iPads for classroom use. Now we are exploring how these devices can promote learning. While the devices easily engage students, we need to focus on good teaching practices and learning outcomes over flashiness.

The learning goals we have tried to address with the help of iPads range from vocabulary acquisition to presentation skills to paraphrasing. We meet these objectives by taking advantage of three primary components of the iPad:

  • Portability— This allows us to bring class materials and activities into settings that might be more interesting or authentic.
  • Connectivity— This allows us to access materials from around the web, simplifying dictionary searches, research, and so forth. It also allows us to publish on the web more easily.
  • Multimodality—This allows students to escape their black and white books for a world of interactive videos, pictures, and multimedia authorship. These features can help create meaningful learning opportunities, including creating multimodal digital flashcards and analyzing sources found online.

Incorporating iPads in the classroom is an interesting challenge. iPads, while popular, are often seen as a personal device, used for gaming, shopping, and surfing. There are, however, unending educational possibilities. They span the entire table of the revised 21st-Century Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson et al., 2001) from remembering to creating.

The multimodality of the iPads is the most exciting. The activities aren’t always revolutionary, but they are adapted for and enhanced by the iPad. With that and Bloom’s Taxonomy in mind, below is a list of ideas and activities to do with iPads. They range from simple to complex and showcase the added value of iPads.

1. Remembering

  1. Students can use sites like Quizlet on the iPad and create multimedia flashcards. In addition to normal flashcard functions, Quizlet automatically generates quizzes, games, and other activities with the words you input.
    Activity: Assign a group of students five to ten words. Have them create multimedia flashcards with definitions, example sentences, and pictures. Once the cards are created, students can trade iPads to work on a different set of words or share the link so work can be done at home.
  2. Students can use applications like Choice Board to do simple multiple-choice question games. The activities can be created specifically for your class and integrate images and sound.
    Activity: Create a Choice Board activity to test preposition knowledge. Have students choose the image that best matches the sentence. (As a higher-level activity, students could create these activities themselves, too.)

2. Understanding

  1. Students can illustrate their understanding of new vocabulary by taking pictures of objects in the classroom, on campus, or in their community.
    Activity: Ask students to find examples of food categories (grains, fats, etc.) from an on-campus market or cafeteria. (Jim Jamieson at INTO OSU had great success with this activity.)
  2. Students can complete formative assessments. Using SurveyMonkey, the school’s course management sites (such as Blackboard or WebCT), and whiteboard apps (such as Educreations or ShowMe), teachers can obtain a detailed picture of students’ current knowledge and performance levels. With this information, they can adapt their teaching to their students’ needs.
    Activity: Using the whiteboard apps, ask students to correct a sentence on their whiteboards and hold up their answers. Or, using SurveyMonkey, ask students to give their opinion on a controversial question.
  3. Students can create informative videos. These could be videos explaining new vocabulary, grammar points, or other topics. The videos could be shared on your class website or made public.
    Activity: Ask students to create a video explaining how to cite a source correctly. Share the video with your writing class.

3. Applying

  1. Students can make animated videos (e.g., with Puppet Pals HD) to dramatize situations, like speaking to a teacher after class, or use grammar in context.
    Activity: Ask students to create an animated movie telling the story of what they were doing when the fire alarm went off (or another event) to practice past progressive.
  2. The portability of iPads allows students to take class materials into different contexts and settings.
    Activity: Have students create interview questions based on a specific lesson plan or instructional module. Have them take the questions they wrote in class to English speakers in their community or around campus and film interviews.

4. Analyzing

  1. Students can analyze the plethora of materials online and in apps like iTunes U. This is sometimes more advantageous than using the computer lab because the iPads can be quickly plugged into the main projector via an APP VGA adapter and analyzed in plenary.
    Activity: Have students watch a video and analyze how the speaker uses cohesive devices.
  2. Students can relate facts and materials from standardized textbooks to materials online. With the iPads, students can conveniently access materials from numerous sources while in the classroom.
    Activity: Have students compare the statistics or facts given in a textbook, especially older textbooks, to those online. Discuss how the digital information affects the textbook author’s argument or purpose.

5. Evaluating

  1. Students can research topics in class and judge the materials’ credibility. In class, this activity becomes more of a conversation than doing a similar assignment as homework.
    Activity: Have students research a topic and assess the reliability of the sources. Have students discuss one article that they think may not be reliable with a partner. Select a few to discuss as a class.
  2. The class can watch student-generated content and critique, appraise, or categorize it.
    Activity: Have your students create two videos, one that is informative and one that is persuasive. Watch the videos as a class and categorize them as informative or persuasive, asking students to explain their decisions.

6. Creating

  1. The ability to create materials is quite possibly the most exciting element of the iPad: book reports, persuasive videos, filmed advice for future students, and so on. These high-tech alternatives to typical assignments have the potential to produce less anxiety, encourage more creativity, and increase motivation. Apps might include iMovie, Puppet Pals, or a plethora of other creative apps.
    Activity: Michelle Scholz at INTO OSU has students turn their normal book reports into videos using iPads. Those videos will be linked to QR codes taped to the cover of the books in the INTO OSU library, so students can watch a peer-created video review before selecting a book to read.
  2. Students can use Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites to synthesize data and create a hypothesis that describes the data. 
    Activity: Require students to choose a topic to investigate (social, reading, computer habits, etc.). They should design an experiment using social media polling, for example through Facebook, to gather numerous responses in real-time and thereby test their hypothesis. Students present their findings and experiment to the class. 

Hopefully, these ideas will help those of you with iPads in your classroom. If you aren’t one of those lucky and overwhelmed iPad educators, perhaps these ideas will help you make a case for iPads in your educational setting.


Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M. C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Complete edition). New York: Longman.


Kathleen Mitchell is an instructor at Oregon State University where she teaches academic English to speakers of other languages. She is also the technology adviser. Before working at Oregon State University, she received her Master’s in TESOL at Portland State University and taught in the Portland area and abroad at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Her research interests include digital literacy, second language writing instruction, and computer-assisted language learning.

Grammatically Speaking

by T. Leo Schmitt
T. Leo Schmitt answers your grammar questions. This month we discuss definite articles. Get teaching tips to help you in class and language notes to help you understand context. 

If you have a question for Grammatically Speaking, please send it to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org. We welcome all types of language questions.

Dear Mr. Schmitt,

I'm aware that it's British English, but is there a genuine reason why the BBC would not use the definite article for a ship's name in its article on the history of the Titanic? http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/titanic. Or was it perhaps an editor's flub?

Thanks for your answer.

Lyn Steyne

Thank you for the question, Ms. Steyne. There are many varieties of English and although there are variations between them, the underlying grammar is clearly closely related.

Traditional Grammatical Explanation
The question of the definite article the is an extraordinarily complex issue, yet there are very clearly patterns of usage that are productive. One pattern in using the definite article is that when there is only one such item or restricted group (as in the Seven Wonders) in existence, we use the, as in the sun, the Pacific, or the Statue of Liberty. However, a second pattern is that we do not use a definite article with proper nouns as in Leo, America, or TESOL International Association. Clearly, as the above examples show, these two patterns can be mutually contradictory. What speakers have done to deal with this is to apply different patterns to different subgroups. Thus we use a definite article in cases such as for landmarks (the Taj Mahal), oceans and seas (the Mediterranean), island groups (the Moluccas), etc. On the other hand, we use no definite article for other groups, such as people (Ms. Steyne), countries (Brazil), and works of art (Twelfth Night or Gone with the Wind). With these two different groups, it makes it hard for learners of English to know what to do!

Types of vehicles/vessels tend to belong to the former group and take a definite article. Thus we have cars (the Batmobile), trains (the Orient Express), airplanes (the Spirit of Saint Louis), spaceships (the Enterprise), and ships (the Mary Celeste) taking definite articles. Thus your query is a natural one. We would expect the Titanic to follow the pattern and take a definite article. This would be standard and I cannot think of a single example of a ship that is routinely and generally called by its name without the definite article.

In any case, it seems clear that the general preference for ships, including the overwhelming data from the British National Corpus, is to use a definite article, and so the Titanic would seem preferable, but see below for some discussion on style.

Teaching Tips
As we saw above, dealing with a specific group such as vehicles/vessels is comparatively straightforward, but the patterns for definite articles remain problematic. This is especially so for those students whose languages make minimal or no use of articles. For advanced students, it can be worthwhile to explore the various groups, such as those mentioned above, that take or do not take a definite article.

On a broader note, we can look at one way of classifying the most common uses of the definite article.

The first is where an object has been previously mentioned and thus both reader and writer or speaker and listener know which noun we are talking about as in “I saw a cat this morning... and there wasn't a single point in which you would bear comparison with him. The cat's eyes were clear - yours are muddy.

The second use of the definite article is associated with a shared situational context, where both the reader and writer or speaker and listener know what is being referred to. This is more common in spoken language as we see the environment around us. One example would be the telephone in front of both speaker and listener as in “Finally, can you answer the phone when this happens?” Another example would be “Long live the Queen,” where the specific queen in question is known by those speaking.

The third common use of the definite article is when surrounding adjectives, clauses, or other markers modify the noun to narrow it down to a clear single example as in “The first cut is the deepest,” or “the car that was hit by a meteorite.

There are many other uses of the definite article that make it a very difficult concept to master for second language learners. This includes idioms such as “on the other hand” and “in the nick of time.” It is an ongoing process.

Language Notes
Interestingly, your question brings up another question.  The writer of the article you cite is clearly an educated first-language user of English. Why, then, did he or she choose to omit the definite article? From the context, it seems clear that the choice was deliberate and not a typo. Interestingly, it seems that among sailors and other maritime folk it is not unknown to drop the definite article when referring to ships as in “I am meeting two new friends from this years [sic] event for a little sail on Dauntless!”. It may be that the writer was reflecting a saltier grammar than most of us landlubbers can muster. English is a global language with hundreds of millions of speakers making choices of what and how to speak every day. There is no officially sanctioned body that passes binding judgments on what is or is not appropriate, and grammar commentators can offer their own insights.

However, many large institutions create their own style guides to address common issues of contention. The BBC has an in-house style guide that is not available to the public, but older versions indicate that a definite article would be expected in this situation.

I contacted the BBC to query the usage in this article. Mr. Ian Jolly, Style Editor, responded that generally the approach would indeed be to use a definite article for this sort for naval craft. However, as he says, the writers in the history department chose to omit the definite article. He did say that the BBC strives toward a more unified style but he closes by saying “However, it is a big organisation and others will wish to plough their own furrow!” The challenges at such an august institution as the BBC reflect at a very small scale the challenges of English and how grammatical patterns may be used and re-evaluated by different speakers at different times with many choosing nonstandard usages that grow and change as the language itself grows and changes.

Last Month’s Brain Teaser

Look at the two example sentences below. Explain what grammatical holdover they illustrate and suggest how a teacher might teach this to a language class.

  1. Here's why working at home is both a curse and a blessing.
  2. In particular, Biden cited the billions of dollars in government financial support for U.S. automakers during the recession as an example of the differing approaches between the parties.

The answer I was looking for is that these sentences both include an example of the English dual plural (both and between). English used to have a much more complex grammar which included dual plurals, rather than just a simple singular and plural. Both and between are relics of this structure as are either and neither. Essentially, we use them when there are exactly two of something. Compare one cat, both cats, and all cats.

This distinction continues to fade, with people having said between three or more things since at least the 16th century (which would strictly have been among three things in old English), even though the word itself is etymologically derived from two (tween). Singular and plural can cause confusion for some learners, especially those whose languages handle number difference in a very different way. Highlighting these words and their standard (three or more plural) can help. The common ones are both/all, neither/none, and either/any.

Note that, strictly speaking, former and latter only refer to the first and second of a group of two (but again this distinction is not always followed). The standard for more than two would be first and last, with room for as many as necessary in between. All of these seem to be flexible in modern language with the exception of both, which seems to be fairly robustly limited to two things.

This Month’s Brain Teaser:
Look at these two sentences. How would you explain the difference between them to students?

  1. Do you want some more coffee?
  2. Did you want some more coffee?

The first correct answer will be published in the next column of Grammatically Speaking.
Please e-mail your responses to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org.

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Note that examples cited in this column are authentic examples of language use and are not the author’s creations.