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Classroom observations: morphology and syntax in the second language classroom

Angela Sharpe
Colorado State University


Classroom observations offer many invaluable benefits to pre-service teachers,
experienced teachers, and to administrators. First, they offer insight into the application of the
grammatical and pedagogical knowledge obtained in grammar and methods classes; second they
offer a pre-service teacher the opportunity to view a variety of techniques and strategies for
teaching EFL/ESL, along with the opportunity to glean insight into the forms and structures that
they will teach; and third, and most importantly, they offer the pre-service teacher the chance to
reflect on language learning and teaching in order to inform their own instruction. In much the
same way that English is simultaneously the subject and object of study for EFL/ESL students,
classroom observations are an opportunity for a teacher to learn and reflect on language learning
and teaching as the object and subject of effective learner-centered instruction.
Over the course of the semester I observed many classes focused on grammar. The
classes took place at INTO CSU as part of their academic English program. This context of
teaching English prepares students for linguistic demands within an institution of higher
education in the United States. The levels of the classes observed ranged from basic beginning
tier, to the intermediate to high intermediate tier, and up to the advanced tier of classes from
which presumably students are prepared for mainstream university classes. In this institution,
grammar is not integrated with other skills, such as listening, speaking, reading, or writing.
However, many of the classes integrated other skills in order to present the learners with the
forms and structures in context. In the lower level classes, it seemed that grammar was through
the skills of listening and speaking, whereas, in the intermediate and advanced tier classes,
grammar was integrated in to reading and writing skills.
Organization of the observations
In this paper, the observations are separated so as to enable myself and the reader the
ability to make comparisons between the methods, techniques, forms, and structures taught in
this program. Each observation begins with identification of its level and its title or focus. The
observations are numbered to represent their placement in the sequence of observations done for
the compiling of this report. Each observation also begins with a short introduction on the
context of that specific class.


Observation #1 and #2: INTO AEP

AEIN 103/ Intermediate One: Grammar/Writing
My first observation took place in grammar 103, which is an intermediate one level
within the AEP curriculum. Thirteen students attended class this day. I think it is important to
add that the class took place in February on nearly the coldest day of the winter. The
demographics of the class on this day were all L1 Arabic speakers. Overall, seventeen of the
eighteen students registered for the class are L1 Arabic speakers and one student is a L1 Russian
The class began with a warm-up activity. Each student was given a card and told to write
a question using a regular simple past tense verb. The students then moved around the classroom
asking other students their question and writing down the answers. I heard many students
helping each other with word order and spelling for both the questions and the answers. A
couple of students came and asked me for correct question word order. I asked them what they
thought the correct word order was and indicated if they were correct or whereabouts they
needed to improve something. Insertion of a do operator in the question form was the
predominant missing form.
After the warm-up, the lesson moved to forming questions in the simple past tense with
Wh- + Be question structure. The example was modeled for students as, where were you
yesterday afternoon?
The students then practiced making questions using other Wh- word forms and discussing the
different meaning of each form in terms of what an appropriate answer would be to their
questions. For example, the students agreed that when + be questions have answers with times
and dates, where + be questions have answers with locations, who + be questions have answers
with people. The premise of the discussion was to make students aware of the word order for
questions containing a Wh- + Be sequence but it also included a connection between form and
meaning. A dialogue format exercise was assigned from Basic English Grammar by Betty Azar,
that the students worked on in pairs. The first part exercise was a question completion exercise
where students had to use the correct Wh- form and the correct corresponding be form. The
students were made aware of the proper Wh- form by a noun phrase at the end of the sentence
(e.g. a prepositional phrase with a date triggered when, a prepositional phrase with a location


triggered where, and a noun phrase naming a person triggered who, etc.). The students had to
choose the correct form of be according to the subject of the sentence.
Question 1a: ___________ Anne Frank?
Answer 1a: She _______ a young victim of the Nazis during World War II.
I heard a lot of Arabic being spoken which I think is good for clarification, but really difficult to
avoid in a lower level grammar class composed of a homogeneous (on this day) L1 population. I
also heard a lot of groups conducting peer correction, which is very important especially at this
early juncture in language learning. In research conducted by Philp (2003) on native speaker
target language recasts as a response to non-native speakers non-target-like utterances, it was
found that learners whose level of acquisition of question forms matched the level of acquisition
of the recast formulations resulted in a modification of 90% of the question form utterances.
This supports that group learning, where the learners are at the same level of acquisition for the
target structure, can be better at recasting and noticing than a native speaker who may recast
forms which are too far beyond a learners interlanguage grammar level.
The second observation took place the following day in the same class. This lesson
contained a listening activity focused on the phonology of the past tense {-ed} morpheme.
Students were given a comic strip called The Legend of Willy the Kid. Students were told to
listen and follow along as a dramatized recording of the comic was played. On the second
playing of the recording students were told to listen closely to and circle the {-ed} inflectional
past tense morphemes of the past tense of be copula verb and pay attention to how the three
different allomorphs sound. After the second time listening, the teacher played a youtube video
that explained the three different ways to pronounce the regular past tense {-ed} inflections. The
video explained how the {-ed} inflection in the regular simple past tense is added to the
infinitive whose ending characterizes how the {-ed} sound is realized. The video explained the
difference between voiced and voiceless sounds. It explained how a voiceless consonant before
the {-ed} triggers a /t/ sound to be realized for the {-ed}, a voiced sound before the {-ed}
triggers a /d/ sound to be realized for the {-ed}, and a /t/ or /d/ before the {-ed} results in it being
realized as /id/ sound. The dramatization was played for the students again and they were told to
replace the {-ed} inflections with the sound they heard. For the most part, the students were very
good at distinguishing the three sound differences. There were questions about the words
carried and rushed. The teacher explained that the infinitive carry ends in a voiced sound and


the /sh/ ending in rush is one voiceless sound. I thought her explanation was adequate for the
level of the class. It would have been helpful to teach students IPA symbols and sound
correspondence before the lesson.
The last 15 minutes of class were spent transitioning to the irregular past tense verbs
which the teacher told the students they must memorize as there is no rule for their formation.
She explained that they are historical remnants from the formation of the English language.
Students were assigned homework introducing them to common irregular past tense verb forms.
This explanation seemed too broad for me as there are sub-patterns that exist in irregular verbs
such as explaining how many of the irregular verb forms were part of the strong Germanic verbs.
These verbs often have a past participle morpheme {-en} and include some of the most
frequently used verbs. This could have made for a nice 10-15 conversation about the history of
English and I think may have given students some perspective on language evolution and
change. To me it just seems like a more acceptable answer, then memorize these forms.
Observation #3 and #4: INTO AEP
Grammar 203/ Intermediate Two: Grammar/Writing
My third observation took place in a class of 16 students. All of the learners were L1
Arabic speakers. During the observation there was an activity on the meanings of and
collocations of, yesterday, last, and ago. The following information was added to the board per
students responses:














(*must include # before time


word and ago is after time)


*****as the article a can be


used here, I think this may


have been too simplistic of an


explanation. It may have



been a nice opportunity to


explain what the article a

means and compare it to the
article the.

The teacher, then introduced how to form questions and responses with did. She modeled the
sentence structure on the board as:
Q: Did + subject + base form
A: subject + did + base form
An exercise from the Basic English Grammar by Betty Azar was assigned and students worked
in pairs to complete it. The information in the chart above was incorporated into the explanation
of how to form questions with Wh- word forms and did by placing the Wh- word before did. She
explained that adding a Wh- word form to a question asks for more reason or information than a
question with only did which asks for a yes/no answer. A quick review of the semantics of each
Wh- word form was given. The students then formulated Wh- + did questions and wrote them on
the board. Together, as a class they formulated answers to the individual questions (e.g. what did
you do last week?).
This observation, in concordance with the previous observations in a lower level class,
gave me insight into the developmental sequences that learners proceed through. Pienemann et
al. (1988; as cited in Ortega, 2009, p. 132) found a developmental order of emergence for the
productive use of accurate word order in English questions through similar research for German
L2 word order. According to their theory, later called the Processability theory, it was proposed
that beginning L2 learners have a limited initial memory capacity for syntactic information and
increase this capacity gradually and in a hierarchical pattern of increasing complexity for word
order patterns. The Processability theory has been expanded to other languages and is thought to
provide explanations for word order processing and morphosyntactic patterns in acquisition for
typologically distant languages. From their initial research on German L2 acquisition, a similar
rational was formulated for English L2 word order acquisition. The developmental sequence of
the Processability theory basically outlines the stages learners go through in relation to word
order acquisition of question formation. The three observations gave me a glimpse into this
hierarchy of acquisition of word order, from do + SVO to Wh + do fronting questions. The


observations demonstrated explicit teaching techniques that afforded learners the opportunity to
transfer syntactic information in a strategic order for the acquisition of increasingly complex
question word order. Basically, this technique reminded of sentence modeling techniques that I
have seen for teaching basic SVO word order in order to progress to longer sentences.
My fourth observation took place on Valentines Day. The instructor took advantage of
the holiday to incorporate the cultural traditions of the day into her classroom by having students,
as a warm-up activity, look at the sayings on candy hearts she passed out to each of them. The
students had been practicing future tense interrogative and declarative forms with the modal will.
She had them incorporate the sayings into questions and statements with will. For example, one
student got Be Mine to which he formed the question, Who will be mine? She explained
what Be Mine means. The class took about 10 minutes forming questions and answers from
the sayings. The students enjoyed the exercise and had many questions about the purpose of
Valentines Day.
The rest of the lesson was spent examining contractions in sentences which included the
modal of will and phrasal modal be going to. The teacher used the song Shell be comin round
the mountain when she comes to illustrate the phonological reductions.
Observation #5: INTO AEP
Grammar 303/ Advanced One Grammar
This observation took place in a class of 17 students. Ten students were L1 Arabic
speakers, 4 were L1 Chinese speakers, and the remaining 3 were L1 Japanese speakers. This
lesson focused on gerunds as the objects of verbs. The students completed an activity where they
were given a verb with which they had to form a sentence using a gerund that functioned as the
object of the verb. The teacher gave the example: I enjoy doing my homework. The students
got into groups and made sentences quite successfully. The following were examples: Will it
ever stop raining?, Would you mind opening the window, I will do my homework when I finish
eating dinner., I will keep working until the job is through. I wish there had been some mention
of the difference between a gerund (derivational) and the present participle (inflectional). This
may have already been mentioned in a previous lesson, or it was purposely not mentioned to
avoid confusion, but I think it is an important form-function distinction.
Observation #6: INTO AEP
Grammar 403/ Advanced Two Grammar


My final observation took place in a class of 16 students. There was a mixture of L1

Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese speakers. The first part of the class focused on forming tag
questions where the tag did not include the be verb. The students were told if the first clause is
positive then the second is negative and vice versa. The teacher told the students that if they use
nobody as a subject with a third person singular verb form they must use a plural indefinite
subject and corresponding verb form. For example: Nobody enjoys being sick, do they. In the
next activity students had to write two paragraphs using the modal should and the contracted
modal form shouldnt. After 20 minutes the students got into heterogenous L1 groups to peer
correct each others paragraphs. The teacher asked students to read some of their paragraphs and
as a class they conducted further peer correction. For homework, students had to rewrite their
paragraphs to include gerunds.
This opportunity to observe classes at the AEP gave me a better understanding of the
elements of grammar necessary for this context of second language learning and the order in
which they are taught. I feel slightly more confident of my ability to answer grammar questions
on the spot, but these observations have shown me that, especially as a native-speaker, I have a
lot more to learn about the forms and structures of my own language.
From these observations, I have also gathered that learners have many questions that
teachers do not have the answers available when they are asked. It seems that each teacher deals
with this situation differently, however, I think it is important to take every question as a learning
opportunity. In the case where the answer is unknown, I think it is up to the teacher to find the
answer for the students, even if it means the next class. As a student myself, I have found that
when one student has a questions, often others students have a similar question. The English
language is a difficult language to learn, so when learners have questions about the language, it is
our job as teachers to give them a historical perspective on language change and variation so that
they may make connections to their own language or to the fact that English is difficult to learn.
In my ideal teaching context, I think it might be easier to teacher grammar through
content, preferably authentic language content. I also think it would be easier to teach grammar
in a task-based integrated classroom, where they get practice using grammar in many different
ways, i.e., more replicative of how the forms and functions of grammar are used in the real-world
in any language for that matter.


Ortega, L. (2009). Understanding second language acquisition. London: Hachette.
Philp, J. (2003). Constraints on noticing the gap. Studies in Second Language Acquisition,
25(01), 99-126. Retrieved from: