This article first appeared in Modern English Teacher April 2009 Vol. 18/2
There is more on the subject by the author in HLT Practising the Grammar of Spoken English
The Grammar Spoken of English
Simon Mumford, Turkey
Simon Mumford teaches EAP at Izmir University of Economics, Turkey. He has written on using stories, visuals, drilling, reading aloud, and is especially interested in the creative teaching of grammar. E-mail: email@example.com
Been there, done that!
Clipping sentences drill
Phrasal chain picture description
Parallels and repetition
Nose buzzer hesitations
Joint production alibi
Changes in tags
With regard to flexible word order, McCarthy and Carter (2001) argue that headers, tails, fronting, the flexible position of adjectives and adverbs ‘play key textual and interpersonal roles’, and therefore ‘should not be relegated to a dusty corner of the grammar’. Therefore, rather than being a novelty or a specialist area of the language for those with special interest, Spoken Grammar is in fact very important for learners, and there is a strong case for teaching for production elements of spoken grammar which help students express themselves and interact in a natural way.
It would probably be counter-productive, and even a contradiction in terms to practise spoken forms in written exercises. The logical way is through oral activities, drills, and games. Contextualising particular spoken grammar points, as described in Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter and McCarthy 2006), by finding or creating situations where they can be used in a semi-natural way seems to be a good starting point for practise.
The fronting of adjuncts, objects and complements is common in spoken language (Carter and McCarthy, 2006:192). In this activity, a sentence is drilled, then teacher’s questions act as cues to front different parts of the sentence.
T: I went to France with John last week. (standard written word order)
Ss: I went to France with John last week.
T: You went where?
Ss: To France I went with John last week (location fronted)
T: You went when?
Ss: Last week I went to France with John (time fronted)
T: You went with who?
S: With John I went to France last week. or John I went to France with last week. (person fronted)
The answer to the question is fronted each time, ‘thematising’ the information. The questions used are ‘echo questions’, a feature also associated with spoken language (Carter and McCarthy 2006:199).
Write a model on the board then practise other sentences, e.g. I am going to the play with Mary tomorrow/ I sold my old guitar for 10 Euros to Joe. Let students practise in pairs, one asking questions and the other reorganising the sentence accordingly. Note that although it is rather unnatural to repeat the whole sentence as an answer, giving practise in fronting different parts of the sentence provides the justification.
This phrase is commonly used by some native speakers to boast, since the speaker is claiming he has already been to a place or done something, for example:
A. I climbed Kilimanjaro! B. Been there, done that!
The pronoun and auxiliary verb (I’ve) in the phrase is always ellipted. This is known as situational ellipsis, because it is clear who is being refered to in the immediate situation (Carter and McCarthy 2006:181).
In the following game other verbs are used: met/eaten/drunk/seen/heard/played /ridden/driven/bought/caught/read. Put students in groups of four, with one acting as the caller. The caller makes a statement with the name of a book, film, car, food, drink, place, CD etc. The first student to give the correct verb (participle form, because it is an ellipted present perfect) and appropriate pronoun (that/him/her/one) wins. Examples:
Caller: A Mercedes I’m going to.... S1: Driven one!
Caller: President Bush I’m going....S2: Met him!
Caller: The new CD by (name) .... S1: Heard that!
Caller: Japanese wine... S3: Drunk that!
Caller: A shark I’m going to try ..S2: Caught one!
Note that the object of the sentence is fronted. This is natural if you want to stress the importance of the person, car, food, CD (Carter and McCarthy 2006:780). It also makes the game more challenging, because to win, i.e. be first to make a claim, students have to predict the verb before the sentence is completed.
In spoken language My brother, his wife, her best friend is more likely to be used than My bother’s wife’s best friend because such complex nouns are hard to produce and decode in real time (Carter and McCarthy 2006:783). The following activity practises this.
(bought a new mercedes)
(crashed her husband’s new car)
(won the lottery)
(changed her name)
(went to prison)
(emigrated to Australia)
||Old school friends
(lost money gambling)
(became a workaholic)
(stole credit cards)
Students look at the table which shows people and their relationship to each other and make sentences as follows:
S1: Jane, her cousin, his neighbour became a workaholic!
S2: Eddy, his ex-girlfriend, her old schoolfriend emigrated to Australia!
S3: Rebecca, her boss, his sister crashed her husband’s new car!
- Students play in groups of three. They take it in turns to make sentences.
- Each player has to make a sentence that includes three people. Each person mentioned in a turn must be in an adjacent square (above, below, right or left) to the preceding person.
- Players have to start each turn with the last person mentioned in the previous player’s turn.
- Players can move in any direction.
- Players must get the male/female relationship right where there is one (eg brother/sister), and use correct pronoun (his/her).
- A player may use a name any number of times in a game.
- The first student to make a sentence with all the names and comply with the rules is the winner.
In this drill, students clip the initial and final elements off sentences, shortening them at both ends.
T: Do you want to play? I don’t want to play.
S: Want to play? I don’t want to.
T: Have you ever seen a ghost, if not, do you want to see one?
S: Ever seen a ghost, if not, do you want to?
T: Did you have to go, or was it okay not to go?
S: You have to go, or was it okay not to?
T: I’ll get a new car if I can afford to buy one.
S: Get a new car if I can afford to.
This should help students make a connection between the ellipsis of pronouns and repeated main verbs. Repetition of the verb is redundant because it is clear from context; pronouns and auxiliaries are similarly redundant (Carter and McCarthy, 2006:181).
Carter and McCarthy note that limited thinking time in spoken language often produces ‘sequences of adjective phrases or simple noun phrases’ rather than sentences (2006: 169). Put students in pairs, each with a picture face down, which in turn they look at and describe to their partner for the period allowed, maximum 20 seconds. In this time, students have to describe as much as possible, using phrasal chains, as there is not enough time for full sentences. Example:
(Turns over picture) A big red bus, several people waiting to get on, er, a modern building, grey building beside the road, tall and ugly... (hides picture) and that kind of thing I saw in the picture.
The last part is said after the picture is hidden again, since the description has ended and there is now time to say it. This reflects production in real life, the important points have to be communicated under pressure of time, and other elements can follow in a tail when the pressure is off.
Students can swap pictures with other pairs when finished. The listening student keeps time.
In the construction of conversation, ‘...lexical repetition combines with parallel structures and repeated grammatical items’ (Carter and McCarthy 2006: 263). Students describe a picture, finding as many objects as possible to identify. Rather than add details in a random way, they echo elements from the previous turn. In the example below these are repeated words (rich, leaves), parallels (autumn / winter, mother / daughter) and pronoun reference (mother and daughter / they). Students can also practise ‘taking over’ from other speakers, by using a subordinate clause as a completion of the previous speakers’ turns (Which he’s holding. / Although this woman is not so rich. ) (Carter and McCarthy 2006:171). There is no need for full sentences, since phrasal chains are often in speech (Carter and McCarthy 2006:169).Give a time limit to keep the description moving and the turns short, and specify number of turns, e.g. three times round the group in five minutes. Example:
S1: There’s a big tree with leaves.
S2: Green leaves, and brown leaves.
S3: Lying on the grass. Autumn perhaps.
S4: Or winter, and a cloudy, grey sky.
S5: It’s dark, yes. Perhaps it’s going to rain.
S6: Yes, I think it is. The man’s got an umbrella.
S1: Which he’s holding, and black coat. He looks unhappy.
S2: Or worried. He’s tall, handsome, I think, rich.
S3: Although this woman is not so rich.
S4: But she’s happy. And she’s got a daughter.
S5: She’s about five. Pretty black hair and yellow coat and red shoes.
S6: They are going home, I think. They have been to the park.
The fillers mmm and err are respectively the 16th and 17th most common word forms in spoken English (Carter and McCarthy 2006:12). Tell the students that everytime they press their nose, it makes mmm or err sound. Of course, they make the sound with their mouths! To demonstrate, drill example sentences as follows:
T: I ...(touches nose for 1 sec) er ...I think that... (touches nose for 3 secs) errrrrr …that I’ll stay here for while.
Let students repeat, including the hesitation and nose touching.
When students understand how it works, set up a free speaking activity where they have the option of holding their turn by touching their noses and making the appropriate sound. Later, of course, they should learn to hesitate without touching their noses. Note, however that touching the face/forehead often seems connected to pausing and thinking, and therefore it is logical to connect this with fillers.
McCarthy and Carter (2001) note that a normal feature of spoken grammar is joint production of grammatical units, where an utterance is left incomplete and finished by another speaker. This happens when a speaker is unable to find the right phrasing (Carter and McCarthy 2006:174).
In the original version of the game ‘alibi’, the class are told that a crime has been committed, and that two students are sent out of the room to invent an alibi, for which they are given time to prepare, and are then questioned individually by the rest of the class.
In this version, they are questioned at the same time, without any time for preparation, so they have to listen carefully to each other. Also, it should be a joint production, with students interrupting, and filling in details for each other. Example:
Detective: What were you doing at ten o’clock?
Suspect 1: We were in an Italian restaurant in...
Suspect 2: ...in the High Street. We were there for...
Suspect 1: ...about an hour. We left at eleven, and then took a taxi...
Suspect 2: ...home. I got home, about 11.15 and John...
Suspect 1: I got home about 11.30.
Detective: What did you have?
Suspect 1: I had a seafood pizza and a glass of Cola and Jane had spagetti...
Suspect 2: . ..Spaghetti Bolognese and a glass of red wine.
The detective can question either suspect at any time, asking them to repeat what was said before, so they have to listen very carefully to their partner. The detective can indicate a change of turn at any point just by pointing to the other suspect. This is an exercise in close cooperation in the spontaneous construction of a narrative.
The meaning of tags depends on the intonation. With rising intonation, while expecting agreement, a tag ‘is open to challenge’ (Carter and McCarthy 2006: 725). If the intonation falls, it is simply a request for confirmation, expecting ‘a constrained or desired answer’ (ibid).
In spoken language, what a person intends to say can change very quickly, especially in response to another person’s behaviour. For example, I may have heard that a film is good, and say It’s a good film, isn’t it? , intending to use falling intonation, but on seeing the disapproving look of my partner, I change to rising intonation to allow for a challenge. Such exchanges can function as the introduction to conversations in pairs:
S1: That was a good match on Saturday...
S2: (shake of head)
S1: ...wasn’t it? (rising intonation, allowing for a challenge)
S2: I didn’t enjoy it very much...
S1: That was an easy test last week...
S2: (nods in agreement)
S1: ...wasn’t it? (falling intonation)
S2: It was the easiest this term...
It should not be too difficult to find ways of practising the Spoken Grammar of English, since many speaking activities can be readily adapted for Spoken Grammar practise. An awareness of the forms and the role they play in aiding fluency and the joint construction of conversation can help teachers and material writers create authentic or semi-authentic contexts for practising this language. It can also increase the range of motivating activities we can use with our students.
Carter, R. and M. McCarthy (2006). Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
McCarthy, M. and R. Carter (2001). Ten Criteria for spoken grammar. in E. Hinkel and S. Fotos (eds) New perspectives on Grammar teaching in second language classrooms.
Mahwah, NJ Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Retrieved 23 September 2008 from
Mumford, S. (2007) The Grammar of Spoken English. Modern English Teacher 16/4
Please check the Methodology for Teaching Spoken Grammar and English course at Pilgrims website.