Category Archives: Tips for Teachers

Understanding academic grammar


collins cobuild grammarThis article has been written by Julie Moore, who is an ELT materials developer and lexicographer.  

For students new to dealing with academic texts in English, they can seem daunting; full of long words and long complex sentences. Are academics just trying to show off how clever they are and confuse their poor readers? Well, maybe just a little bit sometimes, but most of the time, there are good reasons for the grammatical choices made by academic writers. Understanding the reasons for those choices can help students of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) make more informed choices in their own writing.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar has a supplement dedicated to the grammar of academic English, explaining some of the features typical of an academic register. In this post, we’ll look at three key features of academic writing and the reasons behind them.


In everyday conversation, we use roughly equal numbers of nouns and verbs (Biber et al., 1999). Because we’re coming up with ideas on the spot, our linguistic processing power generally only allows us to construct quite simple structures, often consisting of subject + verb (+ object) clauses:

I bought a new bag yesterday. (pronoun + verb + noun)
Your phone’s ringing. (noun + verb)

In speech, if we want to give more details, we tend to string together a sequence of simple clauses. An academic writer, on the other hand, often needs to convey a lot of detailed information in a concise way. To do this, they tend to use long noun phrases and relatively fewer verbs (roughly three or four nouns for every verb; Biber et al., 1999). Look at the following examples, in which the noun phrases have been underlined, and consider how long and awkward the ideas would be if you tried to express them as a string of simple noun + verb (+ noun) clauses:

The maintenance of blood pressure is achieved less rapidly as we age.
Parliament is a national governing body with the highest level of legislative power.

Of course, it takes time for students to learn how to unpack these long noun phrases. Breaking them down and looking at the processes involved can help. In the examples above, we can see three of the key building blocks of noun phrases:
– nominalization of processes: maintain becomes maintenance
– premodification: adding details before the main noun; a national governing body
– postmodification: adding more information after the main noun. In the second example, a relative clause (which has the highest level …) has been reduced to a prepositional phrase (with the highest level …) to make it neater.


Students new to EAP will often say that passives are more common in academic writing, but they only have the haziest understanding about why this might be the case. In fact, passives are slightly more frequent in academic writing than in other registers, but they still only account for around 25% of verb forms (Biber et al., 1999). Consider these two versions of a short text and the effect of the verb form in the second sentence in each case.

  1. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic drug. Doctors around the world now use antibiotics to treat infections and save lives.
  2. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic drug. Antibiotics are now used around the world to treat infections and save lives.

In A, the subject of the second sentence, doctors, is not especially important to the message and in fact, I found it quite hard to choose an appropriate noun; doctors, medical staff, healthcare professionals, hospitals? The focus of the sentence is the drug itself, antibiotics, so it makes sense to make this the subject. To achieve this, we need to use a passive form of the verb (are used). This is often the case in academic writing where the product of an action is more significant than the person performing it: 40% of the world’s coffee is grown in Brazil (we’re less interested in the farmers who grow the coffee, so we omit the performer of the action and focus on the product).

What’s more, in B, the text has a more cohesive feel because the second sentence conforms to the typical ‘known information’ > ‘new information’ structure. So the writer mentions antibiotics first to link back to the previous sentence (the reader already knows the text is about antibiotics), and then goes on to add the new information (used around the world …). This ‘known’ > ‘new’ structure is one technique that can be used to guide a reader through a text and make it more readable. Choosing an active or a passive verb form is one grammatical feature we can manipulate as writers to allow us to move information around in a sentence to best achieve this flow. It isn’t that a passive verb form is always more ‘correct’ or more ‘academic’, it’s just one option that can help us to organize information in the most effective way.

Tentative language

So we’ve seen how we can use grammar to organize lots of academic detail into a concise and easy-to-follow form. Good academic writers don’t only need to describe ‘facts’, however; they also need to think about how they want to communicate their message. Concepts such as voice and stance are essential to becoming an effective academic writer. Student writers need to learn to emphasize what’s most important, to express evaluation, and comment critically on ideas. They also need to develop their use of tentative language, sometimes known as hedging, to express their degree of certainty – or uncertainty – in their message. Tentative language can include adverbs (partly, approximately, apparently), modal verbs (could, may, might, can), semi-auxiliary verbs (seem, appear), and prepositional phrases (in most cases, in general). Consider the effect of the underlined words in the following examples. How does the message change if they are removed?

Increased risk of infection is predominantly linked to poor sanitation.
As will be seen later, current models are inadequate in some respects
Electric cars appear to offer a pollution-free alternative to conventional vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

It can seem counterintuitive to new student writers to include language that’s intentionally vague or cautious. Surely they want to confidently demonstrate what they know, don’t they? Overconfidence and overgeneralization though can leave the writer open to criticism. Poor sanitation may not be the only reason for increased infection. Current models may not be completely inadequate, they may have some good points. And there may be some reasons we haven’t yet thought of why electric cars aren’t completely pollution free. By acknowledging possible limitations and uncertainties, the writer is pre-empting potential criticisms and thus, actually making their claims more difficult to argue against.

All of these features of academic writing, when properly understood, enable the writer to make choices about the most effective way to express their ideas and the most appropriate way to get their argument across to their reader. They can, of course, be overused and misused as well, making writing muddled and difficult to read. The key for new academic writers is to understand their options and to always be asking themselves why they’re making particular grammatical choices.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.



Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English Longman: Harlow

Tense vs aspect

This article has been written by Damcollins cobuild grammarian Williams, who is an ELT author and teacher trainer.

Consider the following statement:

Present tenses refer to the present and past tenses refer to the past.

How far do you agree with this statement? Can you think of any exceptions? What about the following:


I wish you were more polite.

Earthquake kills 200.

Could you possibly open the window, please?

As you can see, the examples above show that the ‘rule’ given above isn’t very robust, as there are many, perfectly acceptable, exceptions. What we’re using when we say things like the statement above are not really ‘rules’, but ‘hints’. Michael Lewis (1986) makes the following distinction:

Advice and classroom hints are one thing, grammar rules are another. Rules cannot be given which include words like sometimes, in certain circumstances, might mean, etc.

So, what’s going on with the exceptions above? Well, in fact, these are not exceptions but actually part of a wider rule about the use of tenses. In order to gain a fuller understanding of what’s happening here, we first need to look more closely at what tense and aspect actually refer to.

Tense vs aspect

Tense and aspect are often labelled as the same thing. It’s not uncommon to see the present progressive referred to as ‘the present progressive tense’ or will have + past participle referred to as ‘the future perfect tense’, for example. However, tense and aspect are not the same thing.


There are two aspects in English: the progressive aspect (also referred to as continuous), and the perfect aspect.

The progressive aspect is formed with the auxiliary be (reflecting the tense) and the addition of -ing to the main verb. It usually describes an event which is taking place during a limited time, e.g. I’m staying with friends while my house is being redecorated. We also often use it when we’re more concerned with the action rather than the time frame or result, e.g. I’ve been writing reports all day as opposed to I’ve written all four reports.

The perfect aspect links two times together in some way, for example, by showing that an event which started in the past is ongoing (I’ve lived here for twenty years), or by showing a future result of a present action (They’ll have visited all the continents by 2025).


In Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017), tense is defined as ‘… a verb form that indicates a particular point in time or period of time’. And in his study of The English Verb, Lewis, (1986:50), describes tense as involving ‘a morphological change in the base form of the verb. A verb form which is made with an auxiliary is not, in this technical meaning, a “tense”.’

Following this understanding, we can see that there are two tenses in English, the ‘present’ and ‘past’ tense; these are the only verbs forms that do not require an auxiliary. We add further meaning and viewpoints to these basic forms through the use of aspect. Aspect allows the speaker to interpret the events being described and express how they view them.

A closer examination of what tense really refers to can provide us with a deeper understanding of how tenses work in English. Rather than think in terms of present and past, it can be useful in English to think in terms of distance. What we refer to as ‘past’ in English is better thought of as ‘remote’. Likewise, what we consider the ‘present’ is better thought of in terms of ‘close’. With this in mind, our choice of tense in English is influenced by three key factors, time, reality, and register:

In the diagram above, you can see there are three ways in which distance affects our choice of tense: time (close as in ‘my life now’ or remote as in ‘my life in the past’), reality (close to reality or remote from it, i.e. unreal), and register (the ‘closer’ someone is to me socially, the more ‘present’ tenses I use).

There are no exceptions to this rule.

It’s important to remember that so much of our choice of tense and aspect depends not only on how we view the events, but also how we want the events to be viewed. For example, in the newspaper headline given at the top of this post, ‘Earthquake kills 200’, a present tense is used, even though the event occurred the day before. However, if a past tense were used, the event would sound less immediate, and therefore less newsworthy.

Another very common use of the present simple tense is to describe past events in the ‘historic present’, often used when recounting personal anecdotes, e.g. So she just walks in, sits down, and doesn’t even say hello! The use of a present tense here makes the story more personal/informal, and therefore brings the speaker and listener closer.

Why is the distinction between tense and aspect important?

Raising your learners’ awareness of this ‘remote → close’ framework can really help when they start to meet hypothetical language. The regret I wish I hadn’t been so lazy is expressed using the past perfect, for example, as it contains two elements of remoteness – past time and unreality (the speaker was lazy). Conversely, the regret I wish I wasn’t so lazy is expressed using the past simple, as it contains only one element of remoteness – unreality (the speaker is lazy), but is ‘close’ in terms of time (the speaker is referring to now).

Similarly, an awareness of the common uses of aspect across the different tenses can help learners have a more accurate understanding of what’s going on when we use them. An understanding that our choices aren’t only affected by how we view events but by how we want them to be viewed, can help learners gain a fuller, more critical understanding of the language they hear. For example, an employer referring to an employee might say, ‘Harry works at my restaurant’, whereas the employee, Harry, may say, ‘I’m working at a restaurant’, implying that it’s temporary, until he can find a better job.

As teachers, we need to be aware of these concepts, so we can be aware of what’s really going on with the language we teach. The question is: to what extent should we share such theories of language with our students? Thornbury (2010) disparagingly calls the more simplified, traditional grammar descriptions that we come across in coursebooks ‘Grammar McNuggets’, describing them in the following way:

An enthusiasm for compartmentalization, inherited from grammars of classical languages, has given rise to the elaborate architecture of the so-called tense system – including such grammar McNuggets as the future-in-the-past, and the past perfect continuous, not to mention the conditionals, first, second and third – features of the language that have little or no linguistic, let alone psychological, reality.

Many teachers feel that the classroom ‘McNuggets’ we teach learners, especially at lower levels, can be useful ‘stabilisers’ in order to help communication and build confidence. However, it’s vital that as teachers we see the ‘hints’ as the simplified half-truths that they really are; we must go beyond a simple coursebook-style ‘compartmentalization’, so as to raise our own awareness of what’s actually going on with the language we teach. We can then gradually introduce our learners to more complex ideas and descriptions as they become more confident, and so able to deal with further subtleties in the language.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar aims to do this by breaking down elements of grammar into useful chunks while also reflecting the true nature of the tense and aspect systems outlined above.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.



Lewis, M. 1986 The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning LTP

Thornbury, S. 2010 G is for Grammar McNuggets  

Further reading

Millin, S. 2014 The English Verb visualised

Bloggingisaresponsibility 2012 The myth of the verb tense 


Grammar and register

This article has been written by Julie Moore, who is an ELT materials developer and lexicographer.

Our last post focused on the difference between a prescriptive and a descriptive approach to grammar. A descriptive grammar, such as the Collins COBUILD English Grammar, describes the language which people actually use, and draws from that a set of norms for usage. These norms, in turn, are used to help learners use English in a way that will, hopefully, come across as normal and natural.

While it doesn’t make judgments about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ grammar, a descriptive grammar does, however, still need to draw distinctions about what is typical in different contexts and what is therefore generally considered appropriate. Language which is perfectly normal in everyday conversation or in social media chat, for example, may be inappropriate or even unacceptable in an academic essay or a business report.  The idea that different types of language are typically used in different contexts is known as register.

Spoken vs written language:

Perhaps the most obvious distinction to make is between spoken and written language. As corpus linguists have begun to study the grammar of not just written texts but of spoken, conversational English as well, a number of important differences have become apparent in the way we use language when we speak and when we write. Carter and McCarthy (2015) highlight two broad differences:

  1. They explain that some of the established grammatical features found in writing need to be rethought when it comes to speaking. For example, whereas written language has clear sentences, spoken language tends to be instead structured around turns, where each turn may or may not consist of what we’d conventionally think of as a complete sentence.
  2. They point out the existence of small words or phrases in spoken language which stand on their own and function independently of grammatical structures, for example, well, anyway, fine, and great.

Consider the following dialogue between two students in a university library. What do you notice about the structure of the turns? Could any of them be considered fully-formed sentences?

A: You finished yet?shutterstock_521796607
B: Nearly.
A: Want to go and grab a coffee?
B: When I get to the end of this bit, maybe.
A: Okay, fine.
B: You go. I’ll be there in a bit.

Only the final turn here contains what we’d conventionally recognise as a fully-formed sentence. So why is this ‘looser’ approach to grammar acceptable in speech but not necessarily in writing? A lot comes down to shared understanding and context. When you’re talking to someone face-to-face, you rely a lot on the shared context (i.e. you and your listener are in the same place, at the same time, looking at the same surroundings) and your shared understanding – about each other and why you’re there. This means that there’s a lot that can remain unsaid, and this is what Carter and McCarthy (2015) term ‘situational ellipsis’. In writing, we generally have to be more explicit because we don’t share the same immediate context as our reader. That means we have to fill the ‘information gap’ between us, especially if our potential audience is unknown. We have to spell things out clearly to make sure our reader understands our message; we can’t judge by their expression whether they’ve understood or whether they look a bit puzzled, and they can’t signal understanding or ask for clarification.

Audience and purpose:

The register you choose, whether in speech or writing, also depends very much on your audience and purpose. Imagine, for example, that you witness a minor car accident in the street and you react in the following three ways.

  1. You take a picture and post it on social media with a comment.
  2. You tell your family about what happened when you get home.
  3. One of the drivers takes your contact details and some time later you receive a letter from her insurance company asking you to write a report of what you saw.


In each of the three situations, how might your language differ in terms of …
– the amount of detail you include?
– vocabulary?
– grammar?

Which of the following examples do you think might be used in each context? Which grammatical features give you a clue?

At 8.30 on the morning of 25 January 2017, I was walking along Clifton Road.
Nasty smash on Clifton Rd … no one hurt, but road blocked & loads of traffic backing up.
The guy was going way too fast, he was never going to stop.
The black vehicle may have been travelling above the speed limit.

The very careful, formalized order of the time adverbials in the first example signals a (semi)legal register. This is how police reports typically describe the time of events and it’s a form that lay people who find themselves in a legal context, such as writing a statement to an insurance company, tend to adopt. As well as it just being ‘the norm’, we use this type of language because we understand the need to be clear and accurate, and to provide as much detail as possible in this particular context; we recognize the purpose of the communication as well as the audience.

In the second and third examples, we see instances of slightly more informal grammatical forms – loads of … and way too + qualitative adjective – which are typical of speech or informal writing, such as on social media. Whereas in the final example, the use of may have to express possibility is a slightly more formal choice than might have or could have. Collins COBUILD English Grammar includes many more examples of grammatical features typically used more in formal or informal registers.

Specialized registers:

As well as the broad register categories of spoken and written or formal and informal, certain features are typical of a more specialized register. We’ve already seen an example of a legal register; some other features most usually found in specialized contexts include:

  • Literary: Her pale face grew paler yet. (yet after a comparative adjective)
  • Old-fashioned or very formal: It is my decision, is it not? (an uncontracted negative tag)
  • Technical: non-ferrous metals such as copper, lead and aluminium (a normally uncountable (mass) noun being used in the plural form to refer to different types of a substance)
  • Academic: a clear demonstration of the brain mechanisms at work (a long noun phrase) 

What happens if you break the rules?

Throughout this post, I’ve been using lots of hedging language – typically, usually, tend to – because I’ve been describing tendencies rather than hard-and-fast rules. Of course, speakers break them all time. But what happens when we get a mismatch in register? The text below is from a television advert (for It’s delivered by a primary school teacher addressing a group of five-year-olds:

I put it to you that on the morning of the 17th you did enter the Story Time Corner and with malice aforethought you did inflict grievous injury upon one Mr Boo-Boo Bananas.

The effect here is humorous because the use of typically legal language sticks out as marked in the context. This is fine if you’re aiming for humour, but less good if you’re a learner who inadvertently uses linguistic features that don’t match the communicative context. In the classroom, we tend to mention register in relation to vocabulary (children vs. kids, thank you vs. cheers), but if we’re going to help our students avoid embarrassing faux pas, then it’s something to bring up in relation to grammar too.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.

Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. (2015) ‘Spoken Grammar: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?’ Applied Linguistics

Prescriptive vs descriptive approaches to grammar

This article has been written by Penny Hands, who is one of the contributors to the Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

In our first blogpost about the new Collins COBUILD English Grammar, we saw how a functional grammar is all about language use:

It’s about communicative grammar that learners can use in the typical situations that they find themselves in as they go about their daily lives. Moreover, it’s an approach in which grammar is not seen as a set of rules, but rather as a communicative resource.

Until the later part of the 20th century, most students and teachers would have expected a grammar book to contain rules for good style. For example, a grammarian might have explained that you should ‘never end a sentence with a preposition’ or that starting a sentence with a conjunction like ‘And’ or ‘But’ is a big no-no. This type of reference, which tells you how to speak so-called ‘correct’ English, can be referred to as a prescriptive grammar.

The Collins COBUILD range is the result of a project that began in the 1980s, when Collins Publishers formed a partnership with researchers at the University of Birmingham, headed by John Sinclair (1933-2007), to develop an electronic corpus of written and spoken English. The aim was to provide authentic examples for Collins’ new learner dictionary. When the first Collins COBUILD Dictionary of English was published in 1987, it revolutionized dictionaries for learners, leading to a new generation of corpus-driven reference materials for English language learners. A grammar book like Collins COBUILD English Grammar, which describes the language as it is actually used, can be referred to as a descriptive grammar.

So, to summarize, a prescriptive grammar serves to impose its own vision of ‘correct’ language use, and a descriptive grammar observes how language is used and passes this information on to readers.

In his blog, ‘An A-Z of ELT’, Scott Thornbury (2011) describes how some trainee teachers ‘come to associate all rules with prescriptivism’ because all statements about how language works seem to be telling students how they should speak or write. So what is the difference between a grammar rule such as ‘don’t put a preposition at the end of a sentence’ and one that says ‘always add an -s to the end of a 3rd person singular verb in the present simple’? Thornbury explains this by distinguishing two types of rules: ‘rules-as-regulations’ and ‘rules-as-regularities’. The former describes rules that attempt to regulate our language use, while the latter describes observations about what regularly occurs in the language. There is always going to be some overlap, of course, but COBUILD is more concerned with regularities.

Let’s look at what this means in terms of Collins COBUILD English Grammar itself.


All the examples in Collins COBUILD English Grammar are taken directly from the Collins Corpus (with only minor changes made to cut out any distracting ‘noise’). The corpus is regularly updated with new material taken from everyday speech and writing. This allows us to give clear illustrations of how people really speak and write, rather than telling students how we think they should express themselves. For example, we all know that stative verbs (e.g. want, feel, see, hear, love) are not usually used with progressive forms (apart from in informal I’m lovin’ it-type phrases). However, examples from the Collins Corpus show that in certain cases it is perfectly normal, even in formal situations, to use them with perfect forms:

I’ve been wanting to speak to you about this for some time.
Then she heard it – the sound she’d been hearing in her head for weeks.

Similarly, who hasn’t taught or learnt the rule that the determiner much is used in negatives and question forms, and is not generally found in affirmative statements? While this rule is perfectly legitimate and serviceable, our corpus data shows us certain cases in which much can be used in affirmative statements. This usage is most common with abstract nouns, particularly those relating to discussion, debate, and research.

The subject is generating much debate among political and business analysts.
After much discussion, they decided to take the coin to a jeweller.

Regular analysis of corpus data and a perpetual ear to the ground mean that pedagogical grammarians at COBUILD don’t allow themselves to be complacent. That would be the way for rules to become ‘rules-as-regulations’ (i.e. prescriptive) rather than ‘rules-as-regularities’ (i.e. descriptive).

Pet peeves

Let’s now look at how Collins COBUILD English Grammar deals with some of the ‘old chestnuts’ of English grammar – those prescriptive rules that came about because some people thought English should emulate Latin, or ones that originated as the ‘pet peeve of a self-anointed maven’ (Pinker 2014).

‘Never begin a sentence with a conjunction’
As Allison Vannest (2016) writes in her blogpost on, ‘The prohibition against opening a sentence with a conjunction is one of the most persistent grammar myths of all time.’ She adds that the Chicago Manual of Style estimates (perhaps rather wildly) that ‘as many as 10 percent of the finest sentences ever written began with a conjunction.’

In the section on coordinating conjunctions, Collins COBUILD English Grammar notes:

In writing, you can sometimes begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. You do this to make the sentence seem more dramatic or forceful. Some people think this use is incorrect.

Why do learners need to know that some people think this is incorrect? Well, it’s all about knowing your audience, getting a feel for how conservative they are, and acting accordingly. If learners want to be absolutely sure that they won’t be marked down by an ‘old-school’ teacher or examiner, they might want to avoid starting a sentence with a conjunction. It’s up to them.

‘Never split an infinitive’
This rule dates back to an era when Latin was seen as the model to follow. Many people still try to avoid splitting infinitives because prescriptive grammar books and well-meaning teachers prescribed this as a rigid rule that should never be broken. However, as Collins COBUILD English Grammar observes:

Sometimes, if you avoid putting the adverb between the to and the infinitive, you change the emphasis of the sentence, or it can sound clumsy. In such cases, splitting the infinitive, as it is called, is now generally considered acceptable.
I want you to really enjoy yourself.

Note the caveat that a small number of people may not tolerate a split infinitive. Again, this is important advice for students who are taking exams or who know that their audience subscribes to a more traditional approach to English usage.

As we can see, then, through careful monitoring of corpus data, old rules-as-regulations start to become anachronisms and new rules-as-regularities are established. Keeping up to date by reading and listening, always with a critical ear, is vital for teachers and learners.

And, of course, for expert help in doing so, always be sure to have access to a good descriptive grammar.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.

Pinker, S. (2014) 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes):
Thornbury, S. (2011) P is for prescriptive:
Vannest, A. (2016) Remember when? 6 grammar rules from the past:

Life after IELTS – helping students to meet academic (writing) expectations

How to best help students to make the transition from IELTS essays to academic writing? How can we help students when they realise that writing styles and levels of formality that may have worked fine in an IELTS essay are suddenly regarded as inappropriate at university?

Els van Geyte, author of the Writing title in the ELTons award-winning Collins Academic Skills Series, answered these questions (and many more!) in a webinar she ran for the British Council.

More information about the webinar ‘Life after IELTS – helping students to meet academic (writing) expectations

Watch a recording of the webinar ‘Life after IELTS – helping students to meet academic (writing) expectations

Els van Geyte is the author of ELTons award winning title Collins Academic Skills Series: Writing, Collins Get Ready for IELTS: Reading and Collins Reading for IELTS.







More information on the Collins Academic Skills Series


COBUILD English Grammar: rethinking the rules

By Penny Hands, senior editor of Collins Grammar in Action

When the new edition of COBUILD English Grammar hit the proverbial and virtual shelves, teachers and students may have been wondering what could be new about a grammar. We all know about new words, which are wheeled out and bandied around at every new edition of a big dictionary, but what does an editor do when she is asked to update a pedagogical grammar?

Firstly, I should tell you a bit about the general approach of the book.

COBUILD English Grammar is a functional grammar. This means that, rather than present learners with a book of rules, completely disassociated from communication, it explains how language works within the context of what people do with language.

So, for example, headings indicate to users that they are going to read about ‘Reporting statements and thoughts’, ‘Expressing future time’, or ‘Linking parts of a conversation together’.

This doesn’t mean that traditional grammatical terminology is dismissed altogether; there are still sections on familiar subjects like ‘Pronouns’, ‘The Passive’, ‘Modals’, and ‘The Present Perfect’. What we have tried to do throughout, though, is to keep in mind that learning grammar is not an end in itself, that it has a function – and that function is to aid communication.

As Nick Ellis puts it in his 2007 article: ‘The wood and the trees’:

‘Language is not a collection of rules and target forms to be acquired, but rather a by-product of communicative processes.’

(Ellis, N. (2007). Dynamic systems and SLA: The wood and the trees. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10/1.)

The integration of functional aims with traditional grammatical terminology means that whether you want to find out about the form of the past perfect, or to learn more about the function of talking about past experiences or describing people and things, you will be able to retrieve the information you need.

Another feature of COBUILD English Grammar is the use of authentic examples, which have been taken from the Collins Corpus – a 4.5-billion-word database of current English. We have tried to select examples that are vibrant and real, while remaining straightforward enough for learners to process.

The following examples can be found at the section relating to the variety of informal ways in which people express plural ‘you’ in English:

What did y’all eat for breakfast?

‘Listen, you guys,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you everything you want.’

Come on, you two. Let’s go home.

Bye, y’all!

COBUILD English Grammar also identifies and highlights features of English grammar that are typical of spoken communication. Some of these phenomena have been around for a while, and others have been identified in our research as having emerged more recently, as we will see below.

So, to return to the question of how one updates a grammar: as mentioned before, it’s common knowledge that words change their meaning, but it is not always so obvious that grammatical structures change too, if not quite as quickly.

Well, we carried out corpus research on several areas of grammar where we had a hunch that things might have changed, and found some interesting results including the following areas:

–      generic pronouns and determiners

–      stative verbs

–      ‘much’

–      ‘be like’ as a reporting structure

We wanted to choose areas where we felt there’s been a recent change, or where traditional explanations don’t seem to tell the whole story.

For each area of grammar that we selected, we searched for examples of that grammar point in the Collins Corpus. We compared UK and US English, and in some cases spoken and written English, and we also looked at how English has changed over the period in question.

Each to his/her/their own: generic pronouns and determiners

First, let’s consider pronouns and determiners. Look at the following two sets of sentences:


I saw John yesterday. He was with his new girlfriend.

My mum is from New Zealand. She moved to Britain when she was 15.

If you see Mark and Linda, tell them I’ll call later.

Residents are allowed to bring their own furniture.


A person cannot ignore the past but he can choose his future.

Every child needs to feel that she is loved.

If a person eats too much fat, they are more likely to have a heart attack.

Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

In set A, the pronouns and determiners refer to a particular person or group of people: ‘he’ refers to ‘John’, ‘She’ refers to ‘my mum’, ‘them’ refers to ‘Mark and Linda’, ‘their’ refers to ‘residents’. In set B, on the other hand, the pronouns and determiners refer to a single person whose gender we don’t know: ‘a person’, ‘every child’, ‘a person’, and ‘everyone’. (Note that ‘everyone’ is interesting because it is grammatically singular, although we tend to think of it as referring to a group.)

We wanted to find out which generic pronouns people are more likely to use these days.

Which would you prefer, of the following?

  1. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept them first.’
  2. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept him first.’
  3. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept her first.’
  4. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept him or her first.’

…or anything else? (e.g. ‘her or him’?)

We searched the corpus for cases where the following pronouns and determiners:

  • he, him, his, himself
  • she, her, hers, herself
  • they, them, their, theirs, themselves
  • he or she, his or her, s/he, etc.

…referred back to individual people whose gender we don’t know, such as:

  • someone, anyone, everyone, each, every, a person, etc.

In other words, we were looking for these pronouns and determiners used generically.

We went through every example and manually checked them to see if they were examples of generic pronouns and determiners. That wasn’t always easy, though. For example, would you say that the underlined text here is an example of a generic determiner?

There is one rule that debars anyone who has played first-class cricket as a home player in his native land in the previous 12 months.

And is this an example of a deliberately generic use of ‘she’?

I mean steal a baby to give it away don’t be crazy why did they whoever left it on our doorstep maybe she‘ll come back for it like Carmella did…

We felt that the answer to these questions was ‘no’. In the end, we decided to discard such examples, because we felt that they weren’t really examples of generic ‘he’ or ‘she’ – rather, they were cases where the speaker/writer was thinking about a person of a particular gender – because most cricketers are men, and most people who leave babies on doorsteps are women.

As you can see from the chart below, we found that generic they (or them, their, themselves) is much more frequent than either the masculine form he (or him, his, himself), or a gender-neutral alternative such as he or she. Generic they is becoming more frequent, and is found in both spoken and written English. We haven’t included generic she on the graph, because it hardly occurs at all in the Collins Corpus.

generic he, he/she they

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Generic they is used in fairly informal language:

‘When somebody feels good, they’re healthy, they work harder and they’re more focused.’

But it’s also used in formal language:

‘The retention piece allows an individual to transfer a portion of their benefit or all of their benefit at different points in their career….’

Also, it’s even used even when the gender is known, for example:

  • ‘I talked to somebody else in line, and they said it would be many, many hours.’

(Even though we don’t know the gender of ‘somebody’, the speaker presumably does.)

And, even more strikingly:

  • ‘Ask the young mothers and no one will say they regret having their baby.’
  • ‘And if someone has an abnormal mammography, it does not mean they have breast cancer’

These kinds of examples show the extent to which generic they has spread, so that it’s used even when it isn’t necessary to be gender-neutral.

We make it clear in the grammar that, when you want to refer to an indefinite pronoun like anyone or someone, or a noun phrase like each child or a person, the most natural way to do that, even in formal English, is with generic ‘they’.

We’re lovin’ it: stative verbs

Now, let’s turn to the work we did on stative verbs. Firstly, what is a stative verb?

Simply put, a stative verb is a verb that describes a state, that you can use in simple forms, but not in progressive forms.

Verbs that are typically listed as stative verbs include those relating to lasting emotions (e.g. love, like, hate, want), mental states (know, think, imagine, remember, forget), senses (see, hear, smell) and permanent states (belong, own, possess, fit, keep)].

Yet we found lots of examples in the corpus like the following:

  • But hang on a tick, I’m forgetting my manners.
  • Nobody is imagining that the Conservatives can win.
  • I‘m wanting the film to be deliberately old-fashioned.
  • I‘m loving midnight blue eye shadow.

Forget, imagine, prefer, want, love are all traditionally ‘stative verbs’ in these senses, yet here we find them – quite frequently, and naturally – in the progressive. So we searched the corpus to find out how frequent these uses are, and whether they’ve become more frequent. We examined about 30 so-called ‘stative verbs’, but here we’ll just look at two of the most frequent ones: love and want.

As you can see in this graph, progressive love has become a lot more frequent over the past 20 years, especially in UK English:

Progressive 'love'

Click the image to enlarge

A lot of the examples are of the sense ‘enjoy’, which is fairly uncontroversial and has been in use for a while:

I’m loving my football so much at the moment I can’t wait for the next game to come along. (UK 90–94)

Now Jessica is four months old and Gillian is loving every minute of motherhood. (UK 90–94)

More recently, though, we find examples of the sense ‘like very much’, especially in articles about fashion and popular culture:

  • Kids 2 and 3 years old are loving our album. (US 05–09)
  • …a model and artist who looked particularly cool in colourful striped socks and a pair of Converse – a look we’re loving. (UK 05–09)

Another interesting verb is want. Do the following examples seem acceptable to you?

We’ve been wanting to come for three years. It was worth the wait. (UK 05–09)

Everyone knew that Bob Rubin had been wanting to resign for months. (UK 95–99)

You want to get married, you want kids, next thing you’ll be wanting Tupperware. (US 95–99)

What about this?

My sponsors have invested a lot of money in it, and I think they’re wanting to capitalize on it. (US 05–09)

We were wanting a price of $35 million and didn’t get it.

What’s the difference between the first set and the second? It seems that want is quite acceptable in the examples shown in the first set. They show want in the present perfect progressive, past perfect progressive and the future progressive. It is the present and past progressive forms, shown in the second set, that are marked.

So we examined these in more detail. We found that these forms have become more frequent over the past 20 years, especially in US English.

Progressive 'want'

Click the image to enlarge

It soon became apparent that the situation with stative verbs is not as straightforward as it might seem.

We wanted to capture this in the grammar, while not being excessively complex, so while we do give the general rule about certain verbs not being used in the progressive, and list these in the reference section, we also show that with some verbs (forget, guess, imagine, lack, like, love, remember and want) – you actually can use them in the progressive form, especially in informal language.

We also show that with some verbs – such as want and hear – you can use them in perfect and future progressive forms, even in formal texts.  

What’s so special about much?

Next, we looked at much. What’s so special about much? Well, the usual rule given in pedagogical grammars is that you use much with uncountable nouns and many with countable nouns. Some grammars also point out that they are not usually used in positive sentences.

Let’s look at some examples. Do the following all seem acceptable?

MANY                                                                        MUCH

How many biscuits do we have?                             How much time do we have?                         Take as many biscuits as you want.                       Take as much time as you want.                   We don’t have many biscuits.                                 We don’t have much time.

We have many biscuits.                                          We have much time.

Native speakers may feel that both ‘We have many biscuits’ and ‘We have much time’ are unnatural, or they may feel that ‘We have many biscuits’ is OK, but ‘We have much time’ is not, or that it depends on register.

We were interested in much because, to a greater extent than many, it seems to be restricted mainly to questions and negatives, and to cases where it is modified by an adverb, e.g. too much, as much, so much. Unmodified statements such as ‘We have much time’, ‘I have much work to do’ seem incorrect, and we wanted to find out how frequent they are. As you can see from this graph, they have indeed become much less frequent over the past 20 years.

Positive unmodified 'much'

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We also found that assertive unmodified much tends to be used with nouns in a restricted set of semantic fields, especially:

  • discussion (much talk/discussion/debate/argument)
  • thought (much speculation/deliberation/doubt)
  • study (much research/study)
  • attention (much attention/interest)
  • excitement (much excitement/laughter/fun/fanfare).

Examples include:

After much speculation that he was killed, intelligence agencies now believe that Saddam survived.

The Israeli team’s findings have caused much excitement among medical experts.

So, the new edition of COBUILD English Grammar makes it clear that much is usually used in questions and negatives or with a modifier, but that you can, in more formal English, use it in positive statements, especially with the set of nouns listed above.

And we were like, ‘What?’: reporting speech and thoughts

Finally, we were interested in the fairly new use of be like as a reporting verb. Here are some examples with be like used to report speech and thought. Is there anything about be like that’s different from other reporting structures like say and ask?

  • We saw that and we were like ‘Oh my god!’
  • At first, I was like, no, what are you talking about?
  • They look at you like you’re mental and it’s like, “Chill out, what’s your problem?”

Here are our thoughts on the matter:

1. It is less formal than conventional ways of reporting speech.

2. You can’t use it with an adverb (‘We were like angrily ‘Oh my God!’)I

3. It has to go before the quote (‘Oh my God!’, we were like’)

4. You can use it with ‘it’.

As you can see from the graph below, we found that be like has become a lot more frequent over the past 20 years, especially in American English. The most common usage is in the first person (I was like or We were like), but we also found that the second most frequent usage is with it. ‘It was like…’ or ‘It’s like…’ is often used to sum up a general feeling or situation, for example:

When I was a teenager, that song came on the radio and it was like, Oh, my God! (UK 05–09)

So I get back in the bus, quarter of an hour passes and it’s like, Where’s Graham? (UK 90–94)

This was an interesting finding, as it applies only to be like, and not to other reporting verbs (You couldn’t say, for example ‘It said, Where’s Graham?’ or ‘It went, Where’s Graham?’)

'be like' as reporting structure

Click the image to enlarge

Academic and Business English supplements

In the course of our preparation for this new edition, teachers and learners told us that a useful extension of our functional approach would be to focus on two main contexts in which English is used as a lingua franca throughout the world: Academic and Business English.

As a result, two new supplementary sections have been added. These identify the principal areas of grammar that learners need to master if they wish to communicate effectively in business and academic contexts.

The Academic English section covers such areas as the grammar involved in reporting findings, ordering and connecting your message, and expressing degrees of certainty.

Reporting illustration

Click image to enlarge

The section on the grammar of Business English looks at typical structures used in such contexts as sharing information, negotiating and giving presentations.

Presenting illustration

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Extensive cross-referencing allows the user to refer back to the main text, where structures are discussed in greater detail.

If you’re looking for an up-to-date pedagogical grammar that is not only based on meticulous research into real English as it is spoken now, but that also shows you how English grammar functions to create meaning in authentic everyday situations, I would recommend this user-friendly and often entertaining reference book.


About Penny Hands:

Penny Hands is a freelance ELT writer and editor with 20 years’ experience in publishing. She began her career teaching general and business English in Europe and in the UK and, after gaining a Masters degree in Applied Linguistics from Edinburgh University, began working as an ELT dictionary editor and lexicographer. Since becoming freelance, she has maintained a keen interest in lexis and grammar. Corpus linguistics plays a large part in her work, contributing to a wide range of language reference titles including dictionaries, grammars and usage guides. More recently, she was Senior Editor for Collins Grammar in Action – a grammar course for young learners – and Collins Exploring English – a literature-based English course for primary schools in India.

Who am I? A bio-mini-quiz to inspire your students

Are you looking for original ways to get your students to read? Here are 8 ‘Who am I?’ questions revealing interesting life-facts about some of the Amazing People featured in the 8 brand-new Amazing People ELT Readers we’ve just published. Can you guess who the people are?

Below you can also find links to videos of each of these Amazing People talking about their lives and achievements. There are also links to download classroom ideas, lesson plans and worksheets from our ELT Readers Teacher Zone, as well as more information about the books the people are featured in.

The answer key is provided at the bottom of this post.


Read the ‘who am I’ questions 1-8. Can you match them with the Amazing People A-H and their images a-h?

Who am I? questions:

1) I wrote the very first computer program – and you might be surprised to hear that I was a woman. My father was Lord Byron, the famous poet, but he died when I was only 8 years old. Who am I?

2) I was born in Salzburg, Austria. People said I was a ‘child genius’ because I began playing and composing music when I was very young. My older sister Nannerl was a very talented musician, too. I’m most famous for my operas, The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. Do you know who I am?

3) I was an American trumpet-player and singer, and I came to discover ‘a wonderful world’. I grew up in a poor area of New Orleans, where life was tough for young African-American boys. Do you know who I am?

4) I became sick with meningitis at 19 months, before I even learned to speak. I still went on to become a famous teacher. I started an organisation to teach people about blindness in 1915. Who am I?

5) Do you know Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Then you probably know my name, too. But the name you know me by is not the name my parents gave me – that’s Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Who am I?

6) I opened my first salon in New York City when I was 25 years old and went on to create what became one of the most famous cosmetics brands in the world. I was also the first woman to appear on the front cover of the Time magazine. My parents gave me the name Florence Nightingale Graham. What’s the name I am known to the world by?

7) A very famous prize for cultural and scientific advances is named after me. I was a chemist and businessman and my greatest invention was dynamite. Who am I?

8) I was a powerful Roman leader, and I lived much earlier than any of the other people in this quiz. From a young age I wanted to be a leader and a hero. I fought hard to gain control of many territories for Rome. My father was called Gaius and my first name is Gaius, too, but I am known by the name of… do you know?


Amazing People A-H:

A) I am Helen Keller. My story is featured in Amazing Women (Level 1).
Helen Keller video / Download Helen Keller classroom and student activities

B) I am Elizabeth Arden. My story is in Amazing Entrepreneurs and Business People (Level 1).  Elizabeth Arden video / Download Elizabeth Arden classroom and student activities 

C) I am Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You can read my story in Amazing Composers (Level 2). Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart video / Download Mozart classroom and student activities 

D) My name is Ada Lovelace and you can read my story in Amazing Mathematicians (Level 2). Ada Lovelace videoDownload Ada Lovelace classroom and student activities 

E) I’m Louis Armstrong, and you can read my story in Amazing Performers (Level 3).
Louis Armstrong videoDownload Louis Armstrong classroom and student activities 

F) My name is Alfred Nobel and my story is in Amazing Philanthropists (Level 3).
Alfred Nobel videoDownload Alfred Nobel classroom and student activities 

G) I am Julius Caesar. You can read my story in Amazing Leaders (Level 4).
Julius Caesar videoDownload Julius Caesar classroom and student activities 

H) I am Mark Twain and I’m one of the writers in Amazing Writers (Level 4).
Mark Twain videoDownload Mark Twain classroom and student activities 


Images a-h:


Can’t see the image properly? Click on it to display full screen.


Answer Key:

1) D) h)
2) C) a)
3) E) g)
4) A) b)
5) H) f)
6) B) d)
7) F) c)
8) G) e)


Amazing-Women-Level-1--PB Amazing-Entrepreneurs-amp-Business-Peo-PB1 mathematicians_level2 Amazing-Composers-Level-2--PBAmazing-Performers-Level-3--PB Amazing-Philanthropists-Level-3--PB leaders_level4 Amazing-Writers-Level-4--PB

Click on the images to find out more about each Amazing People ELT Reader. The Amazing People ELT Readers have been created in association with The Amazing People Club.


The COBUILD dictionary is now available online for FREE!

When the first COBUILD dictionary was published in 1987, it revolutionized dictionaries for learners. It was the first of a new generation of dictionaries that were based on real examples of English rather than on compilers’ intuition – the type of English that people speak and write every day.

Now, more than 20 years later, we’ve decided to take another revolutionary step and make the COBUILD dictionary available online for free!

cobuilddictionaryonline is the COBUILD Dictionary’s new online home. By clicking on the ‘English for Learners’ tab, you’ll find definitions and examples specifically geared towards English language learners. The dictionary is perfect for demonstrating vocabulary to your class on the Smart Board, or to look up new words.

What does COBUILD mean? Watch the video below to find out.


How can the COBUILD Dictionary online help learners of English?

Frequent words

About 90% of spoken and written English is made up of approximately 3,500 words. These words are the most important ones for learners of English to remember. All the words on are therefore ranked by the ‘word frequency’ bar on the right-hand side of the page, which tells the user how frequent a word is.

Changing meanings tells us how the meanings of words change over time. The word cloud, for example, was mainly used in its meteorological sense before 2008. In recent years, cloud, in the sense of web-based storage for files, has become frequent along with new collocations (cloud computing) and new phrases (in the cloud). To help learners, the COBUILD dictionary online always shows the most common sense of each word first.

How can you use the COBUILD dictionary online in the classroom?

Practising pronunciation

Find definitions of several pairs of words that are visually similar but pronounced differently on – ‘through’ and ‘though’, perhaps – and ask your students to listen to the pronunciation of each word on the site. Then project various definitions on the board and invite students to pronounce the words correctly in front of the whole class. You could divide students into teams and allocate points to give the activity a competitive edge!

Understanding British and American English

To demonstrate differences between British and American English, you could show students a selection of words that have different spellings in American English, e.g. colour, centre, etc., and instruct them to use the website to discover the American spelling. This might be particularly useful to Business English students.

DON’T FORGET! Our COBUILD dictionaries and grammar books are also available in print form! Have a look at the COBUILD page on our website for more information.

Cobuild Phrasal Verbs Dictionary  COBUILD English Usage Cobuild Idioms Dictionary

IATEFL 2014 Harrogate

Thanks to all of you who came to the Collins stand during the IATEFL 2014 conference in Harrogate, it was such a pleasure to meet so many of you! Here is a summary of our conference highlights, with links to our speakers’ presentation slides.

We’d also like to send many congratulations out to our three winners!Dora from Greece has won a First English Words Activity Pack plus 15 copies of First English Words Activity Book 1, Kadir from Turkey has won a class set of Research in the Academic Skills Series, and Ivana from the Czech Republic has won 15 copies of the ELT Reader Amazing Scientists. We hope that you’ll enjoy using your prizes with your students!

stand teamThe queen on the moveteamwithqueen1

Queen Victoria at IATEFL 2014

Those of you who visited the Collins stand might remember our special guest, Queen Victoria, who is one of the Amazing People in our new series of ELT Readers. Here are some photographic highlights – with music by yet another person in the Amazing People series, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Have a look at the Harrogate 2014 album on our facebook page if you’d like to see some more snapshots!

Collins ELT Presentations at IATEFL Harrogate


What do you say after “Hello”? Successful networking techniques – Barry Tomalin

Barry asked how we can teach our students to build successful business relationships in English. He introduced listening techniques, gave tips about how to signal interest, and shared the F.A.C.E model.

keybusinessskillsDownload Barry’s presentation slides

Watch the Harrogate Online video of Barry’s presentation

More information about Barry’s title Key Business Skills


First English Words: What can pre-schoolers do? – Niki Joseph and Hans Mol

Sharing lots of engaging activities, Niki and Hans showed how a picture dictionary like First English Words can be used as an active resource with pre-schoolers.

First English Words Activity Book 1Download Nikki and Hans’ presentation slides

Watch a demo lesson with First English Words

Find out more about all the First English Words components


Post-IELTS writing: helping students to understand and meet academic expectations – Els van Geyte

Good essay writing skills are key to academic success, but it’s difficult to make the step up from the IELTS essay to writing for academia. Els explored how students can progress by focussing on crucial academic principles, also discussed in her latest book, Writing. Writing is part of the Collins Academic Skills Series, which has recently been shortlisted at the ELTon awards.

writingDownload Els’ presentation slides

Find out more about Els’ latest book – Academic Skills Series: Writing

Read an interview with Els van Geyte



A fresh approach to advanced listening practice materials – Sheila Thorn

Sheila examined the authentic listening needs of advanced learners, including decoding fast, unscripted spoken English, coping with NES and NNES accents, dealing with overlapping speech and listening effectively despite background noise.

Real Lives, Real ListeningDownload Sheila’s presentation slides

Download audio for Sheila’s presentation

More information and downloads for Real Lives, Real Listening



The Vocabulary Organizer: a new way to record lexis – Pete Sharma

How do your students store new vocabulary? Alphabetically? Digitally? Using flashcards? In this presentation Pete introduced the new Vocabulary Organizer, which enables students to record lexis and distinguish between ‘productive’ and ‘receptive’ vocabulary. The workshop also included practical vocabulary teaching activities, of interest to EAP and general English students.

Vocabulary OrganizerDownload Pete’s presentation slides

Watch Pete introduce the Vocabulary Organizer

Find out more about the Vocabulary Organizer



Amazing People Teach English: new graded readers from Collins – Andy Cowle

Andy offered a practical look at how the exceptional lives and abilities of the most talented people the world has ever seen can make great classroom material, and showed lots of examples, videos, and audio from the Amazing People ELT Readers.


Download Andy’s presentation

Download Andy’s handout

Find out more about the Amazing People ELT Readers

Watch Amazing People videos

Go to Collins ELT Readers Teacher Zone to download classroom ideas, lesson plans, and much more

Tips for Teachers: Get your students off to a flying start with Amelia Earhart

Are you looking for original ways to get students to read? Look no further! This blog post introduces one of over 100 fascinating historical characters featured in the new Amazing People ELT Readers, and includes some ideas showing how to easily create inspiring and meaningful classroom activities around these ‘amazing people’.

Do you know who Amelia Earhart is? A nurse? One of the many people declared dead in absentia? The ‘Queen of the Air’?

That’s all true, actually, but Amelia is most well known for the fact that she was the first woman to fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean.

Amelia was born in 1897 and declared dead in 1937, so she was alive during the First World War and the Great Depression. She lived at the same time as Pablo Picasso from Amazing Architects and Artists and Marie Curie from Amazing Scientists, and was inspired by Charles Lindbergh, who was the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean alone and non-stop.

Collins English Readers - Amazing Architects and Artists     Collins English Readers Amazing Scientists

Would you like to find out more about Amelia’s life? She and Charles Lindbergh are amongst the five aviators featured in the Level 2 reader Amazing Aviators.

Collins English Readers - Amazing Aviators

You can also watch a video of Amelia telling her own life story.

Amazing Aviators - Amelia Earhart video

Teaching Ideas:

Below are some classroom ideas showing how you can use Amelia’s story in Amazing Aviators with your students. You can adapt the ideas to use them for many of the other Amazing People ELT Readers, or you can use them with Amelia’s video.

If you’re interested in a complete lesson plan to go with Amelia Earhart’s story, this will soon be available in the Teacher Zone on our ELT Readers webpage. Just click on the Teacher Resources button to sign up!

1. Ice Breaker: Introduce the topic of flying by asking your students some questions. While you ask the questions, write down important vocabulary on the board, e.g. flying / flew / plane / pilot / captain / scared / a bumpy flight / a smooth flight…

  • Have you ever flown in a plane?
  • Where did you fly to most recently?
  • How much time did you have to spend on the plane to get there?
  • Was it a big plane?
  • Was it a smooth/bumpy flight?
  • Did the captain speak to the passengers while you were on the plane?
  • Is anybody in the class scared of/passionate about flying?

If you like, you could ask your students to discuss all or some of these questions with their partner. After a few minutes ask them to report back on their partner’s experiences.

2. Comprehension: Prepare a handout with some important events in Amelia’s life, but with some words missing. Ask your students to find the missing information in the story or watch the video with the class and ask your students to complete the sentences. After students have completed the exercise, compile the answers on the board, inviting the whole class to contribute. If you think gap-fill questions are too difficult for your students, you can also create true or false statements to test comprehension – or a mix of both.

Here are some examples of sentences you could use:

Fill the gaps

  • Amelia was born in Kansas in __________.
  • In 1907 Amelia’s family ____________ to Iowa.
  • Amelia was with her father when she saw an ____________ for the first time.
  • She thought the plane looked _________________ .

True or false?

  • Amelia finished high school in 1916, when Europe was at war in WW1.
  • When Amelia saw an aircraft for the first time, she thought it looked very safe.
  • Amelia was born in Iowa.

The timeline in Amazing Aviators is a great starting point to prepare this exercise, but please do cross-check your questions with the story text, as the timeline includes more dates than the story.

3. Vocabulary: Ask your students to pick 2 words they don’t know and have never used before from the story. Can they guess what the words mean? If they can’t they may look the words up in a learner’s dictionary. Now, ask your students to think of a way to explain their words to their partner. Students now get together in pairs and explain the words to each other. Together, they also come up with an example sentence for each word. Then open a whole class discussion where each pair of students explains their favourite one of the four words they had to their classmates. To conclude, pick a couple of all the words from around the class and use them in a game of ‘hangman’.

4. Personalisation: In her story, Amelia explains that when she first saw a plane she thought it looked dangerous, but a couple of years later she changed her mind and thought it looked exciting. Show your students the picture of the Lockheed Vega aircraft on p. 51 of Amazing Aviators or stop the video at around 10 mins to show them one of Amelia’s planes. Ask your students if they would like to fly in a plane like Amelia’s? Do they think the plane looks dangerous or exciting? Would they like to learn how to fly a plane?

5. Field Trips/Media: If time and resource allows, you could take your students to a Science Museum, a Transport Museum or a War Museum in your area, similar to the Imperial War Museums, located in London, Manchester and Cambridgeshire. There, they might be able to look at planes similar to the one Amelia has used. Also, it will help to embed the topic of aviation within the wider context of history.

Find out more about Amelia Earhart:

The official Amelia Earhart website has a wealth of resources, including a detailed biography, photos, videos, songs, downloads, information about events and more.

The Amelia Earhart Museum is located at Amelia’s birthplace in Atchison, Kansas. This site gives details about Amelia’s life and the Ninety-Nines, the organisation of female pilots that she helped establish.

The Library of Congress has a timeline and stories about Amelia’s life.

Collins English Readers - Amazing People