They began an English major at the university where I was teaching in South Korea. Several students could communicate in English, but when they were asked to sit down and write, it was a disaster! All the words were out of order because the word order in English and Korean is completely different. The verbs were conjugated wrong. Many times, they were doing things like using a gerund in place of a verb because they didn’t know any other form of the verb. No one knew how to use an article. They didn’t understand what constituted a complete sentence because in Korean, just a verb without a subject or just one word can be used as sentence, and they tried to do that in English. These students had studied English in school for several years, but no one taught them what an English sentence was, and we were supposed to teach them to write essays. The sentence problems were overwhelming, so before they could learn to write essays, the English professors could see that we needed a class on sentence writing. The task of teaching them to write sentences fell to me.
I had been collecting a list of mistakes Korean students make when writing in English, and the list was exhaustive. When I collected a list like that when I was teaching English in a Romanian university, the list was much shorter and manageable. However, from the looks of the list of things the Koreans students didn’t know, I saw that I could easily write a book, not just a several page handout for them like I did for the Romanian students. I sat down and analyzed each of the problems they were having and wrote out how to fix all the problems, and it was long enough for a book, but I wasn’t finished.
I also made a set of sentence patterns beginning from the shortest two word sentences, then building and showing them how to make the sentences longer and longer, going on to compound sentences, conditional sentences, and even ending with parallel and periodic sentences.
After that, I made lists of the most used verbs. I made verb conjugation charts to help them know how the verbs were supposed to be conjugated. Sometimes. It might seem that all I had to do was to explain a verb tense rather than make a chart, but the problem with English is that the verbs we use the most often are the ones that have the most exceptions, so if people speak English as a second language, there is one tense they have to really work at and work some at the others. The one tense that really takes much more work than the others is the simple past tense. We say we just add “ed,” but if you sit down and look at the past tense of the verbs we use all the time, some are completely different from the basic verb and you can’t just add “ed,” for example: went, took, wrote, ate, saw, etc. The charts were necessary study material. The other tenses needed charts and explanations too, but they weren’t quite as complicated as simple past tense.
I put all this information together in one book for my students. I also made verb tests. I separated them by verb conjugations. The easiest tests were on the lower levels, and the conjugations got more complicated as they went up. I labeled each test according to what kinds of verb conjugations were on the tests. I made a whole system of verb tests beginning with the easiest conjugations, and then going on to harder, then harder, and then the hardest conjugations. When the students took these tests, they were supposed to get an 80% or higher. If they didn’t get 80% or higher, they had to stay on the same level taking another test with the same verb tenses until they mastered those tenses. I had three options of test on a level and eight levels of tests. The students were expected to complete all eight levels during the course of the semester. Most could get off a level in three tries, but I ended up having to make extra tests for some, especially on the first level that has simple present, simple past tense, and future tense. Some of them just flat had a lot of trouble with simple past tense.
When the students came to class, I would first teach a few of the sentence patterns at the board, explain a verb tense, and explain one of the grammar problems. After that, the homework for that part of the class was to write ten sentences using each of the patterns I had taught them. We would then take a break so everyone could get a drink or use the bathroom.
After the break, when they came back, it was time for the lab portion of the class. I laid all the tests according to level at the front of the class. The students knew which level they were on. If they didn’t, they could look at my chart. If they weren’t ready to take the test for the level they were on, they were expected to sit there and study the tense before the took a test, and they did. They were very diligent. As they took the tests, they brought them to me immediately when they were finished. I graded their tests on the spot, so they got their feedback right away. Since other students were waiting, I didn’t have time to sit and explain to each one of them their mistakes, so I had a system to help them understand what they did wrong. Everything in the book I wrote for them had page numbers. I had a kind of code. I would find the kind of mistake they made and write the page number on their paper for them to study, and they would go back to their seats and study those pages before they took another test. I had a special chart I made where I recorded their scores on their tests. They weren’t big tests. They were more like quizzes because they were being used as a teaching tool. If everyone was busy taking tests and no one was ready for me to grade their tests, I either walked around and made sure no one was cheating or I graded homework.
I always made sure when they wrote those sentences for homework that I graded them after the class and gave them back in the very next class. Feedback was paramount if they were going to make progress. I also used my book and the codes like I was using for the verbs tests to help them understand how to fix the mistakes they were making in their sentences. It saved me from getting carpal tunnel from grading their sentences because all I had to do was to circle the mistake, and then write the page number for them to read to understand how not to make the same mistake twice. My system worked really well.
Some of them struggled excessively with the verbs regardless and needed extra help. I had a time outside of class that was called “English Clinic.” All the English professors were expected to put in time just spending time with students speaking English or helping them with their English in some way. I made a verb game that matched the levels of the verb tests I was giving. When they came to my English clinic, they learned the verb tenses in a fun, easy way by playing the game I invented. There were times in the lab portion of my class I let a group of them play the verb game together too. The verb game and the verb tests both turned out to be excellent tools for teaching them to conjugate verbs, and they enjoyed them both. They were all very diligent in the lab portion of the class. I never had trouble with students not trying. They loved the verb tests and the verb game! When they were taking the verb tests, it was like they were competing against themselves like one of those online games they play. They couldn’t wait to get up to the next level!
When they came out of that class, most of them could write almost perfect sentences, and many were writing perfect sentences. My system worked. They were ready for the beginning essay writing class after that. The next professor wasn’t pulling her hair out after we decided to begin with teaching sentence writing before they could have an essay writing class. I taught the whole Freshman class of English majors at once, and because I was organized and did everything systematically, it was okay that the group was large.