Playing with syntax

Published on 14th April, 2011 in Teaching Tips by Frances Watkins

There are many ways to encourage students to focus on different levels of language: syntax, lexis, spelling, punctuation, etc. One of my favourites is the dictogloss, where students collaboratively construct a text they have heard and made notes on. I relish watching the cognitive wheels turning as my learners discuss their linguistic choices.

Sometimes coursebook exercises encourage students to look at different word classes, but they rarely require students to change the whole sentence correspondingly. It was when teaching academic and IELTS students how to describe graphs that I realised the value of this. Look at this edited sample of student writing, describing a graph on the use of social networking sites:

There was a dramatic increase in the number of people joining such sites between 2007 and 2010. For Facebook and MySpace there was also a rapid growth in the amount of countries where they worked. At the same time, there was a slight decrease in the number of people registering …  

This extract, despite its strengths, shows a fairly limited and repetitive use of the structure: There + be + noun phrase. Highlighting the repetitive nature of this can be useful for students. Providing controlled practice in changing these noun sentences to verb phrases can add variety and sophistication to students’ writing.

If students need help, first instruct them to locate what has changed, eg the number of people joining such sites; the amount of countries, etc. Students identify the current noun phrase after the there starter, eg a dramatic increase, a rapid growth … Students then change the syntax at sentence level. You will need to highlight adjective-to-adverb changes too: The number of people … increased dramatically.

This kind of exercise need not be restricted to academic or exam students: it can be useful for any students wanting to improve their descriptive writing skills.


  • Excellent tips!

    Dorothy Wong on 14 April, 2011
  • just perfect. I have used the dictogloss technique and i have seen the real energy and benefits it creates in the classroom.

    Saber on 7 September, 2012