From The Blog



Grammar Hour topic: Prepositions

Prepositions are one of the hardest concepts for English language learners because there are no hard and fast rules about how prepositions can be used across the board. Most rules are specific to one or two words, and often, there are multiple prepositions that you can use with one word, but each one can have a different meaning.

For instance, here’s a sentence about location…

“Grammar Hour is held in Harrisonburg at JMU in Carrier Library on the third floor in room 247 at a table.”

Even though this sentence refers to the location of something, each place calls for a different preposition!

For native speakers, knowing which preposition to use is usually a matter of which one “sounds right.” We have grown up learning the language, so we are accustomed to using certain prepositions in certain phrases. You can imagine how difficult it is for English language learners to choose the proper preposition when they have not had years of English language immersion – they can’t necessarily tell which word “sounds right.”

Unfortunately, the only way to get around this challenge is to MEMORIZE all of the preposition and verb combinations! During our session last week, we went through a lot of different combinations of words and prepositions – and we practiced using them properly.

If you want to learn more about using prepositions, check out this handout. You can quiz yourself on the combinations, and practice using them in your daily speech and writing.

If you have any questions about this or any other grammar topic, come to Grammar Hour!

By Talat Altayyar

The difference between my first and second semester at JMU

My first semester at JMU wasn’t an easy semester for me. As an international student who has English is his second language, it was really hard the shifted between being a student in an English school to an academic student at JMU. I was the kind of student who is just took notes and kept any questions that I wanted to ask in my mind in order to avoid saying it wrong or not clearly. I was very concern about my English, especially my writing, which was one of the hardest parts and the most uninteresting part for me. In the first semester, I wished that all the quizzes are just multiple choice, so I will avoid the writing. One day I just decided to improve my writing skills because as an academic student, writing is the one of the most important things that I have to not just know how to do, but to be perfect at. Writing in a university is more than just write papers or essays, but it also taking notes. Moreover, it’s very important as an academic student to know how to write good emails when I communicate with the professors. So, I found that the writing is really taking a big part in the university life and I have to start working on it.

I stared to improve my writing by many ways. First, I went to the multilingual writer’s community, where I can write whatever I want, share it with other students, and help each other to improve our writing skills. I also went to the writing center at JMU. By that time, I became interested in writing and wanted always to learn about how to be a better writer. When I finished my first semester, I was very surprises that when I chatted with people I started to chat in English all the time, which makes me felt that I really began to love the writing especially writing in English. So, when the second semester started and the time to decide which classes I should enroll in came, the first class that came to mind was a writing class. Thus, I enrolled the writing class and I really felt the improvement that happened to my writing skills. My writing is not too perfect, but is much better than what it was before. I also notice that I became not worried about quizzes or exams that required me to write sentences to answer the question or to fill in the blank, instead of just wanting to have multiple choice questions.


This past Friday, during Grammar Hour, we took a grammar diagnostic test from the Oxford Practice Grammar program. This type of test is designed to help you determine which grammar concepts cause you trouble, and which concepts you have mastered. We will use the results from the students who took the diagnostic last week to select topics for future sessions.

If you’d like to diagnose your grammar, check out the tests online. You can try the intermediate test or the advanced testOnce you’ve taken the test, score your answers to see how you did!

If you have questions about the test, or any other grammar concept, come to Grammar Hour!

Grammar Hour topic: Forming complex sentences using adjective clauses

Here is an example of using an adjective clause in a complex sentence: “I am friends with the people who live across the hall from me.”

These clauses serve to modify the sentence to add a description. Typical adjective clauses use words like “whose,” “where,” “when,” “which” and “that.”

There are a few patterns of adjective clauses that are commonly used by native English speakers, and some that are not.

For instance, “I like the people who live next to me” is more common than “I like the people that live next to me.” “Who” is more commonly used as a subject pronoun than “that.” In addition, “I like books that have good plots” is more common than “I like books which have good plots.” Finally, when using adjective clauses, many native speakers will often leave out words like “whose,” “where,” “when,” “which” and “that.” Instead, they might just say: “I liked the people I met last night” or “I liked the book I read last week.”

The most complicated part about using an adjective clause is knowing how to punctuate it. A general rule for this is: You do not need to use a comma if the adjective clause is needed in order to identify the noun it is modifying. You do need to use a comma if the adjective clause is only giving extra information in the sentence, but it is not necessary to identify the noun. In addition, when you need to use a comma, you cannot use the word “that.” You can only use “who,” “whom,” “which,” “whose,” “where” and “when.”

For example:

The professor who teaches astronomy gives a lot of homework. (Necessary information. Doesn’t need commas.)

Professor Smith, who teaches astronomy, gives a lot of homework. (Extra information. Needs commas.)

Finally, commas can also slightly change the meaning of a sentence. Read these two sentences, and see if you can tell the difference.

 “The children, who wanted to play soccer, ran to the field.”

“The children who wanted to play soccer ran to the field.”

Did you figure it out? This one is tricky. In the first sentence, the commas mean that all of the children wanted to play soccer. This is because the commas indicate additional information. In the second sentence, the lack of commas means that only some of the children wanted to play soccer. This is because the commas indicate necessary information to identify which children ran to the field.

If you have any questions about this or any other grammar topic, come to Grammar Hour!

Grammar Hour topic: Perfect vs. Simple tense

Knowing when to use a simple tense (I went to the store) or a perfect tense (I had been to the store) can be complicated. But, there are a few simple rules you can follow to keep things straight!

Generally, simple tenses describe one event in at one particular time. Perfect tenses describe two events, and they give the idea that one thing happens before another thing. Perfect tenses are formed by using a form of have plus the past participle.

For now, we’ll focus on the simple present, the simple past, the present perfect and the past perfect.

The simple present expresses things that usually or always happen (my roommate enjoys ice skating). The present perfect, on the other hand, states that something happened sometime before now (the show has already ended).

The simple past describes something that began and ended at one point in the past (Jane walked the dog). The past perfect indicates that some action was completed before another time in the past (I had already made a batch of cookies by the time my mom got home).

When using the present or past perfect, you use the past participle. There are quite a few verbs that have irregular past participles. Here are some of the common irregular past participles:

I had already begun eating when the guests arrived.

She has never broken a bone.

Have you chosen a movie yet?

She hasn’t kept up with her homework this semester.

My mom had met my boyfriend before we went on the trip.

There are many more! Come to Grammar Hour if you have questions about this or any other grammar topic! :)


Modals 1

We are excited to announce that, due to popular demand, Grammar Hour is back this semester! Lani Furbank, the ELLS peer educator, will spend an hour each week answering grammar questions and leading a mini-workshop about a specific grammar concept.

Modals: May I learn more?

Last week, we discussed the use of modals. The word modals sounds daunting, but it just refers to words like ‘may,’ ‘could,’ ‘would,’ ‘should,’ ‘can,’ ‘will,’ etc. These types of words are critical in English, but they are not as common in other languages. Many of the modals have similar meanings, and the differences are very subtle. Because of this, it’s tricky for English language learners to know which modal to use, and when.

So, last week, we focused on the nuances of modals. We discussed how modals in general tend to “soften” our language. By this, I mean that when you use a word like ‘could’ or ‘would,’ you give your sentence a more specific tone or attitude. So, when you request something (using ‘can,’ ‘would,’ ‘could,’ etc.) you are politely asking something, instead of demanding it. This is considered a sign of respect. Or, when you give someone advice (using ‘should,’ ‘ought to,’ ‘had better,’ etc.) you are offering your opinion to another person.

Specifically, ‘could’ and ‘would’ are considered slightly more respectful than ‘can’ or ‘will.’ Your tone of voice also determines the level of politeness. Advising someone using the word ‘should’ can be tricky when addressing someone who is of a higher status than you. For instance, you wouldn’t want to tell your professor that they should extend the deadline for an assignment. You might ask them if they could do that. But, you could tell a professor that they should read a certain book, because you think they’d like it! The first one is more aggressive, whereas the second one is just a casual suggestion.

For friends and family, it’s usually safe to use either requesting or advising modals. A parent though, might use a more threatening modal, like “you had better clean your room, or else!” He or she might even say, “you will eat your vegetables!” This is very demanding, because it implies that the action is sure to happen.

If you want to learn more about each modal, check out this handout. We hope to see you at the next Grammar Hour event!

Grammar Hour is held every Friday at 1:30 pm in Carrier Library, study room 247 (on the second floor, behind the elevator).


By Altayyar, Talat

Before I attend to James Madison University I was in an English school in Houston, TX, to improve my English and to be able to attend an American university. I stayed for 9 months learning English then I moved to Harrisonburg, VA, to start my bachelor degree in computer science at JMU. My first week was hard. I felt I didn’t understand what is going on around me so, I was concerned about my English very much. I went to my academic advisor office and told her that I will not be able to be a good academic student in my classes because my English and especially my writing is not good. I want be in English school for more time. She saw that my English while we are talking is not that bad and that might be just fear about being an academic student.  She recommend me to visit the Multilingual Writers’ Community and there my writing will improve.

There are many reasons for me to come to the Multilingual Writers’ Community.  The English that I learned in my country or in the English school in Houston  helped me to understand most of what other people are saying and helped me to know how to write.  In fact, as an academic student it is important not only to know how to write, but it is to know how to write academically. In the Multilingual Writers’ Community I really learned how to write academically and I really found that my way in writing is informal and is not the type of writing that I should hand in to my professors. Not all these previous reasons for me to come to the Multilingual Writers’ Community, But also here I am learning how American people write a good paper and this is important. For example in my country and in my old school I learned to write a general information in any introduction for any essay, but in the Multilingual Writers’ Community I learned that is what professors expect from students in America is to get to the point directly and not to write obvious things.

It is nice to post what I am writing in the blog for many reasons.  First, it is good to show my family how their son is working hard and his writing skills are improving in time. Second, when you are writing and thinking that what you write will be in the blog that makes me write much better than if I knew that I will just write to show one person.  By thinking about writing better makes me ask a lot of questions about spelling and grammar and here I learn more.  Finally, it is also good to write in the blog because you are posting different kind of topics and these topic might help people who have the same fear that I had before first I came to Harrisonburg.

Also, I want to mention that in the Multilingual Writers’ Community I work with a professional and other students and this is one of the greatest things that help me to learn how to write better. Working with partners is such a good thing because my partners and I can learn from each other and what I mean by that is to give advice to each other.

By- Shirley Yang

Language is not just a tool to connect with others. It has the cultural definition in it. As an English language learner pursuing college, how to master second language effectively is a challenge. For example, I want to describe a pulley or truck traveling on an overhead track and serving to support and move a suspended object. If you ask this to an American, they will answer you, cart. But the British may say trolley. That would be very confusing for an English language learner. When this language comes to a paper in an academic form, the mistakes are exposed everywhere. After all, it is not our first language, sometimes I don’t know why I should write “can” instead of “could”? They are so similar.

Before I came here, I need to pass an English language test. I took IELTS test which is the International English Language Testing System. It tests on four skills: listening, reading, speaking and writing. Overall, I think writing is always considered as a barrier because it needs correction from others. I can practice listening and reading by more individual practice, such as listening to news or even listening to others talk. In the same way for reading, sitting on the couch with a newspaper in hand would be ideal way to practice. Speaking, it may sound like you need other people to practice with, but I don’t care about too many details, the listeners may ignore the small mistakes as long as the conversation goes smoothly. However, when practicing writing, you need a person to read it so he or she can point out which parts you are weak in; it needs practice and correction. People have to sit down and look at what you wrote. That is not easy and it is hard to find this place.

Actually, there is a place that writing can be practiced. Multilingual Writers’ Community is not just one person who can look at the writing. It is a community where writers share about their writing based on a certain topic. The topic can vary from daily life or even the favorite food. It is a relaxing environment and no grade will be given. It is just practice without stress. What writers need is only pen, paper and a willingness to write. Practice always makes perfect; no one will improve ability without frequent practice.

So, don’t hesitate and finding an excuse anymore. Writing Community is an ideal place to improve our academic achievement.

Writing in College:

A New Change for Us

BY Shirley Yang

       As we get off the airplane, carrying our heavy luggage into this new country, we know everything will be different from our home country. What we hear, read, speak, and write will be changed from our native language to English. Since our first language is not English, the grammar and sentences structure is so different. The ways we use English tend to be rigid, especially when we put the language to written expression. Thus, writing in college may become a potential problem for international students. But from the experience I have gained in my writing class my first semester, I have found that writing is not too complicated as long as we can find effective solutions to handle the issues.

      In college, many classes require a high process of writing. When we did our writing in the English-learning Center to prepare us for studying in a university, only one final version can decide a person’s writing ability. However, the process of writing in a university setting is a way to show how writing can build up step by step. When I prepare my writing, I just randomly write anything on a piece of paper not worrying about grammar at that time. This beginning stage is called “free writing,” which is just a spew of any thoughts on a given topic. After the first stage, we can build up a basic structure, organizing the essay. Then we begin writing the first rough drafts. This process can be problematic, messy, or even shitty. The process is usually tedious and even frustrating, especially if it has been revised several times. But we should believe that every time drafts are refined, it means it’s getting closer to the final fine-tuned version. In terms of language and grammar, I usually stress about it in the final stage of drafting an essay, because the focus of writing first drafts should be the process of formulating ideas and organization rather than the language proficiency.

      Before we start the writing process, consider the intentional audience who will be influenced by your writing. That is the biggest difference from our previous writing experiences as international students. The purpose of writing has changed. We are no longer using English sentences to impress teachers with our proficient writing skills we have obtained. Instead, it is important to make those sentences work together to let people who read your essay think. In other words, we put our skills to the test. When I write my essay about studying abroad, I assume that my intentional audience is the young students who are planning study abroad after they graduate from high school. However, after discussing with the faculty of the Writing Center, I realized that I only argued about how studying abroad will benefit students of all ages. Thus, when writing an essay, establishing a bridge with the people who will read my essay is highly essential to college writing.

      After considering the importance of the audience, using personal experiences to support an argument is another international difference from our previous writing classes. In college writing, using personal experience by using “I” is more convincing and it is an approach to build the relationship with the audience. For example, the second essay that I wrote for the writing center, I used my own experiences as one of the reliable resources to support my ideas in order to encourage my readers to take action. The research was conducted by Jia-Ying Lee, which shows the learning differences due to cultural variety. The students from Asian areas usually regard themselves as part of a group. Therefore, their work is usually operated in an interdependent form. Personal opinion or experiences are less mentioned in group working (76). Since we are here, American culture proves to be very different. Individual opinion is highly encouraged as long as it comes with the strong argument opposed to collective understanding.

      Even though using personal experiences is beneficial for a persuasive essay, finding credible information by conducting extensive research can make an argument even more effective. Doing research on a specific area or topic is not as simple as typing the main topic into Google. As a freshman, making full use of the library resources is an ideal way to explore points. Asking the reference table or chatting with the librarians throughout the library website is really helpful when you feel confused with different types of citation styles or feel get lost when it comes to locating a book effectively. From my annotated bibliography assignment, I have talked to a librarian who works in the writing center. She has extensive knowledge about different references and even has recommended books to me on occasion. These learning resources are useful for many different areas of study.

      After doing a thorough research, citing references correctly is a crucial requirement for any research assignment. But before we came here, no matter which educational level we are at, we had no idea that incorrect usage of resources may lead to academic plagiarism. However, the reason why we were confused about citation style is because of the culture we belong to. In Western culture, the importance of intellectual property is highlighted. Once you use someone else’s thoughts, be sure to cite it correctly by the required citation styles in various style manuals. I was confused and lost when I saw the MLA requirements for my resources. It became even more puzzling when I used a variety of sources. However, after I finished all my writing, citation is a normal and easy procedure to add with help from manuals and librarians.

      During the different writing stages, you are not alone. The first time, you may feel that the new learning style and new requirements are puzzling and confusing. It takes time to adapt to a new environment. International students may have unexpected culture shock when it comes to learning a style that is very different from their own. According to Jia-Ying Lee who works in the department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Iowa, the relationship between teachers and students in Asian culture are hierarchical where teachers are highly respected by students (76). We can’t ask the teacher questions in class, because that is regarded as disrespectful and rude. Asking questions in front of the class means interrupting the learning time of others. When I received feedback from my professor, she commented on the paper: “Be sure to “ask” if you have any concerns”. The way of learning changed dramatically. In class, interaction between students and teachers is encouraged. Different professors have their own requirements for students and in order to fulfill the requirement, it is important to talk with the teacher, express your concern, and discuss writing ideas in order to adjust to the new learning style.

      As second language users, we don’t know if American teachers know what our exact meaning is. In American colleges, there are numerous learning resources here to help students succeed. In my writing process, the writing center and the English Language Learner Services have been my life savers. Some international students may feel embarrassed or afraid of their imperfect English writing being exposed in front of an English-speaking tutor. I had the same feeling at the beginning, but after I visited there several times I felt that the way they work with international students was different from native students. But when we studied in our home country, we tended to get information in a passive way. According to Featherstone, who is a coordinator at the Writing Center at James Madison University, tutors in writing center concentrate on the process of writing so most of them will ask you what stages writers want to work on and then work to solve the problem together. Therefore, don’t expect tutors to take over your paper or help with your grammar mistakes. They’re there for structure and organization.

      Studying abroad is a hectic situation. We may suffer different language barriers since the way we have learned English in our home country has been quite different. Wendy Green pointed out that Asian students learn information under exam pressure which could be a reason why writing in college may pose obstacles (330). However, having an optimistic attitude and the willingness to change the old ways of writing, such as following an exam-oriented formula, are the keys to success. Be confident to face new challenges in a new environment and feel open-minded to seek help.

(read more…)

by Kristen Shrewsbury

Writing – the MWC is a group that brings people together for many reasons and at many stages as writers.  I am consistently surprised about how my students get here and what they want to do.  This morning I am happy to have a native English speaker here, a bilingual student who wants to be a better writer to “impress” her professors, and a writer new to this culture.  Seeing interest in writing as a community brings me great joy as I try to meet the needs of students and to offer them something different from their traditional academic pursuits.  I also appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with other student writers as I realize that in my doctoral pursuits I am also a student writer.

Getting to the heart of writing without teachers is what this effort is all about.  I see myself as a third party, a guide.  I am neither these writers’ teacher nor peer, but a facilitator of academic life experience.  So, what do I do?  I share my life experience and lessons acquired over years of trials and joys.  One fact that I want to think about further is that I was not a stellar student when I was in high school and undergraduate study.  Yet here I am mediating learning experiences and skills development for students seeking to cultivate their own learning.  It could be that I am now someone I wish I had met in 1996 when I started college.  How would my school life – my life – have been different?

For one thing, I probably would have benefitted from feeling like I belonged to an academic community.  To have the attention of an experienced learner, an expert would have guided me through rough patches.  Of course, most of my undergraduate experience was spent searching for community, so an academic focused community would have played to different interests and strengths than where I ended up finding community.  As it was, I found a social community which I would be remiss not to acknowledge for the benefits of learning how to be a leader among friends and peers.  I learned to listen to what people really need and to organize relevant events.  Both of those skills have provided stones in the foundation of my career.

My time with writers in the Multilingual Writers’ Community setting has been primarily satisfying as a witness to the depth, breadth and motivation of the writers’ interests.  Coming from diverse backgrounds, the writers met her by way of writing – arguably one of the most critical skills in academic self-expression in US education.  The role I see for myself is cheerleader and developer. Developer sounds like I shape some untouched landscape into my own vision – so I will revise to claim that I caretake.  The writer has a unique vision and bring experiences, tools and goals.  I caretake the process of actualization.

I remember the Idea hitting me with an air of promise. It was last year’s spring when I went to George Mason for a quick tour about their ESOL programs. I had my mind set, ready for learning and brainstorming. At GMU, I learned about the various services they provide to English language learners. They had it all, including a “conversation group” which basically aimed to facilitate English-language learning through the most effective communication medium of all: conversation.  I knew I wanted to start something new. I wanted to help students in the position I was in merely five years ago, when I left Guatemala and moved to America.

The idea of Conversation Club appealed to me from the moment I saw it in action. I envisioned myself engaged in interesting conversations and cultural discussions. Both fortunately and unfortunately, JMU lacked any program as such geared toward non-native speakers. It was my calling, my opportunity to begin something on my own. Thus, I began the process to incorporate a Conversation club for students here at JMU. I started a pilot of Conversation Club a few weeks after I began the planning. It took place in East Campus Library in a rather forgotten corner in the second floor. The first meeting I remember, set the record for the least attendees, you guessed it, zero. Though my expectations were damaged a little, I decided to advertise it more until I found the first conversation group in the history of the English Conversation Club. Two weeks later and my first two-students made an appearance. I continued the English Conversation Club  pilot until the end of that semester and I left with the motivation to expand the idea further.
Now, I have a tremendous sense of accomplishment. From one semester to the other, the club grew exponentially. An average of six students come to every meeting. As the group grew, I thought It would be a good idea to also expand on the meeting days. Conversation Club now meets two days a week for an hour.

The way in which the club has evolved and progressed has struck me. As we keep meeting, I sense an air of confidence, friendship and trust building with every conversation that takes place. Even native speakers now are eager to join and help me out with the task. I definitely want to keep doing this program as long as I’m at JMU. I love teaching students things that you can’t learn in a well-structured semester-long course. As for the future of the club, it might be a little uncertain what my next step will be.  It could be anything. Of what I’m sure is that mo matter what students might need or want from the Club, I will be there to talk about it.