ITAIS Newsletter

ITAIS News, Volume 14:2 (October 2009)

by User Not Found | 10/27/2011
In This Issue...
  • Leadership Updates
    • Letter from the Chair
    • Editor’s Note
    • Call for Contributions
  • Articles and Information
    • Grammar Monitoring for ITAs: Reawakening Grammar Awareness
    • Speaking of Writing: The Why and How of Providing Writing Support for ITAs
    • Member Profile: Keith Otto, SUNY-Buffalo
    • On the Web
  • About This Member Community
    • TESOL International Teaching Assistants Interest Section
    • ITAIS Community Leaders, 2009–2010

Leadership Updates Letter from the Chair

Cheryl Ernst, Southern Illinois University

Early fall greetings from southern Illinois!

It seems like only yesterday we were in Denver (where does the time go?) and tomorrow we will be in Boston. As in the past, the ITAIS offered numerous relevant and innovative topics in Denver, with a large dose of snow as an extra benefit.

Thanks must first be given to everyone who participated in making the convention wonderful: from the steering committee to the presenters, volunteers for the booth and dinner planning, and meeting attendees. Of course, this newsletter would be impossible without the talents of our editor, Kate Martin.

TESOL 2009

For those of you unable to attend the 2009 TESOL Convention in Denver, Diane Cotsanos has quickly gathered and posted the available convention materials. They can be viewed here. Presenters, if you haven’t submitted your slides, handouts, or other documents to Diane at, please do so! Thanks, Diane, for keeping us up to date!

TESOL 2010

Many thanks to this year’s proposal readers! Your comments are always insightful and you have a keen sense of what is cutting edge and practical.

Thanks, too, to those of you who submitted proposals. Submissions for this year numbered 38, and though they were excellent, the number was low in comparison with other ISs. (Well, we are a small but diligent IS.) As a result, we were allocated a very small number of sessions (9) and Discussion Groups (2). When combined with our Academic Session and two InterSections, our total is 14, which is down from 21 in both 2009 and 2008.

One thing for us to think about prior to the submission deadline next year is how to package presentations. Maybe in Boston we can discuss some ways to expand our submissions, because this is the key to session numbers. The more submissions we receive, the more sessions we are able to hold.


It has been a number of years since the ITAIS governing rules were revised, so this year Mary Jetter and Gordon Tapper have been reviewing and updating the governing rules, which will be presented to the IS at the Open Meeting at TESOL 2010 in Boston for approval.


TESOL has initiated its own “stimulus plan” in two ways. The first is by offering a $20 voucher for a TESOL publication (publication, not subscription) of the submitter’s choice for submitting something to the TESOL Resource Center. The second is also a $20 voucher good toward the purchase of TESOL books at the convention and a $10 voucher toward any food purchase at the TESOL Exhibit Hall for those registering for the 2010 TESOL Convention in Boston.




Enjoy reading about methods for teaching writing and grammar as well as still more online resources for ITA development in this newsletter.

Editor’s Note

Kate Martin, University of Minnesota

To what extent do writing instruction and grammar monitoring figure into your curriculum for international TAs? In this issue, two of our colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University, Cara Costello and Rebecca Oreto, share their rationale and methodologies for improving ITA writing and grammatical accuracy.

Also in this issue, learn more about ITAIS Chair-Elect Keith Otto’s road to a career in TESOL and current endeavors in the Member Profile piece. Check out some new and updated Web-based resources shared by Past Chair Mary Jetter in “On the Web.”

Finally, take a look at the newly expanded submission guidelines for our spring 2010 (and beyond!) ITAIS Newsletter. I encourage all members of our community to contribute by January 15. Voices of experience and new perspectives alike are encouraged!

Note: Articles that appear in the ITAIS Newsletter with bylines are not copyrighted by TESOL or the interest section. Authors retain copyright of their own work. Although TESOL encourages readers to share the contents of the newsletter with interested colleagues and students, articles may not be reprinted or posted online without the express written permission of the author.

Call for Contributions

The ITAIS Newsletter encourages submission of articles and reviews on topics of significance to ITA professionals.

Articles, including program descriptions, course descriptions, best practices, teaching techniques, or editorials on any topic of interest to ITA practitioners, are welcome. Collaborative authorship among ITA professionals or ITAs themselves is encouraged.

Reviews that provide analysis relevant to the practice and theory of ITA education are sought. Writers may review books, articles, resources, technologies, Web sites, or conferences.

Please send your contributions for the next issue to Kate Martin at before January 15, 2010.

In an effort to make the submission process as easy and smooth as possible, the following submission guidelines have been formulated. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.


1. Submissions should begin with a brief abstract (approximately 50 words).

2. Submissions should conclude with a one- or two-sentence bio about the author(s).

3. Length can vary depending on the type of submission—articles should be no more than 1,000 words, but other types of submissions will be shorter.

4. Use the Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, Fifth Edition (APA style) guidelines for referencing all outside sources.

5. Use Verdana 12 font.

6. Use a space between paragraphs instead of indenting.

7. Clearly distinguish the different heading levels and use bold:

  • This Is a Level 2 Head
  • This Is a Level 3 Head
  • This is a level 4 head


1. Keep text short and bulleted, as online readers prefer well-chunked information, and put main ideas first.

2. Use plenty of headings and subheads.

3. Use links (write out the complete URL in the text).

4. Try to add pictures, graphics, and tables. (They should be sent as separate “.jpg” files and their position in your document should be indicated by an “insert picture X here” statement.)


1. Submit articles in Microsoft Word (as a “.doc” or “.docx” file) attached to an e-mail to the editor (

2. Include a picture of yourself as a separate “.jpg” file, and indicate in the e-mail body that you give permission to publish your photo.


1. After receiving a submission, the newsletter editor will review it, possibly revise it for readability, clarity, or formatting, and then if changes are made, send it back to the author for a final check.

2. All articles then go on to TESOL for final editing and publishing.

3. Articles will be printed as soon as they can, depending on scheduling and when the article is received.

Articles and Information Grammar Monitoring for ITAs: Reawakening Grammar Awareness

Rebecca Oreto, Carnegie Mellon University

Many highly fluent nonnative English-speaking (NNES) students find that, even though they can use English in complex situations, they still make a great number of grammar errors. Why does this happen?

  • They may have stopped paying attention to their own grammar mistakes.
  • They may not know that they are misusing grammar structures.
  • They lack the fluency to handle presenting or discussing a complex topic while monitoring grammar at the same time.
  • They learned English primarily from interacting with native speakers (e.g., as undergraduates in the United States, or working in a U.S. company), but with little feedback on errors and little formal grammar training.
  • They may have learned grammar in order to take tests such as the TOEFL, but have little experience in applying those rules in communicative situations. As a result, their spoken language is often riddled with grammar errors.

How can ITA trainers help their students learn to monitor and correct their own grammar errors when speaking? How can teachers help students reawaken their awareness of grammar and grammar errors in order to handle errors in a more effective way?


At the Intercultural Communication Center at Carnegie Mellon, we teach a six-session, 9-hour class, Advanced Grammar Monitoring, that develops ITAs’ understanding of grammar and grammar errors, raises awareness of individual grammar problems, and gives students strategies and practice in monitoring for their own grammar errors.

In the class, students begin to think about grammar in a different way: there are exercises focused on why learners make grammar errors, as well as exercises that help students monitor grammar errors so that the students can begin to notice them on their own. Because the class focuses on consciousness-raising, it doesn’t “fix” their grammar. Instead, it plants seeds so that students begin to become aware of their own grammar issues. (Teachers notice a difference a semester or two later, but there is no way to quantitatively assess this process.) The focus of the class is on grammar as a series of flexible patterns, rather than as a strict set of monolithic, inflexible rules. The students begin by doing a series of critical thinking exercises that focus on grammar structure, and its use and misuse. Following are two sample exercises used in the class.


Exercise 1 (from Discover English, Bolitho & Tomlinson, 1995, p. 8)

Why do these nonsense sentences sound acceptable? What kinds of grammar structures are used in these sentences?

  1. He crattled his splot and scrot out a neelying groal.
  2. They strentered folicly until a magan veened to famble them.

Objective: Students identify the grammatical markers that identify these sentences as English: subject-verb-object sentence structure, subject pronouns, adjectival participles, past tense verb endings, articles, etc. This exercise brings grammar patterns to the fore.

Exercise 2 (from Discover English, Bolitho & Tomlinson, p. 54)

Why do language learners make errors? Correct the errors in the following sentences and write down what you think might have caused each of the errors.

  1. My father is a fisher.
  2. I am seeing a lion in that cage.
  3. He like football.
  4. He leaves in a large house.
  5. When I will go there tomorrow I will visit Mary.
  6. I like Boston, because I can see snow there.
  7. I am going to the lake for swimming.

Objective: Students correct the mistakes, and then with the teacher, think about why a learner might make such an error. This exercise builds on the previous one and leads to a greater awareness of the patterns of grammar and grammar errors and of the types of errors learners make.


Consciousness-raising continues with the following types of exercises designed to simulate real-world speaking situations. A critical aspect of grammar monitoring is learning to listen for mistakes, in videotaped speech, in transcripted writing, and in live speech, both as a listener and as a speaker. Below are activities from the class that give students practice in listening to grammar.

  • Students listen to a videotape of a nonnative English speaker, and try to hear the mistakes that she makes while speaking. Students review what they found in groups, then they review a transcript of the videotape to see what they missed and try to correct all the mistakes they found. (Samples of these transcripts are located in the appendix.)

  • Students look for grammar mistakes in written transcripts of presentations made by former graduate students, and try to correct the mistakes. 

  • Students work in small groups to monitor themselves and each other for grammar errors while making short presentations. They look for patterns of errors, confusing sentence structures, mispronunciations that change the grammar of the sentence, and so on. The teacher monitors and then writes some of the more egregious or frequent mistakes on the board for the class to work on together. Students may hear only a few mistakes during this exercise; that’s ok. The point is not to correct a huge number of errors, but to begin to listen to oneself again while speaking.


As part of all of our classes, we typically use students’ videotaped in-class presentations (e.g., mock teaching presentations) to monitor their grammar; the student and the instructor review the presentation sentence by sentence, looking for specific errors. It is critical for the student to see the types of mistakes he or she is making, so that he or she can become more aware of mistakes when speaking in everyday situations. This is a good opportunity to talk with the student about a large variety of his or her mistakes, as the student will be receptive to being corrected and may even catch many of the mistakes him- or herself.


  • Use a videotaped presentation. Students will probably not be able to hear many mistakes while in the course of speaking. It is also very disconcerting to try to speak if someone is correcting you every other sentence. A better strategy is to videotape the student making a presentation, then watch the videotape together. The student will be better able to focus, take notes on problem areas, and build awareness of patterns of grammar errors.

  • Have the student write a transcript of his or her presentation. This is particularly useful for students who lack awareness of the frequency and severity of the grammar mistakes they make. Have the student transcribe a videotape of him- or herself presenting without correcting his or her mistakes. The student can then read through the transcript with the teacher or tutor and correct the mistakes in writing on the paper. This has helped many of my students become more conscious of the fact that they are making mistakes much more frequently than they realized.

  • Distinguish between low-level errors and errors that hinder meaning.Some are simple errors that do not hinder the meaning of the sentence, such as missing –sendings on plural nouns, but some of the errors are serious and can cause critical misunderstandings. The errors that cause misunderstandings should take priority over “cosmetic” errors that don’t sound nice, but don’t necessarily cause problems for the listener.

  • Pick your battles. Teachers probably should not focus on pointing out every single mistake every time one is made. A low-fluency student may not be able to correct mistakes in the course of speaking simply because he or she cannot take the focus away from fluency. Conversely, a high-fluency student may make many mistakes in every sentence. Teachers should use their judgment to decide which and how many errors they to focus on, taking into account the student’s level of fluency or other linguistic challenges.


Bolitho, R., & Tomlinson, B. (1995). Discover English: A language awareness workbook. Oxford, England: Macmillan.



Sample 1: Bio-Statistics

“So, um, let me summarize a little bit. So, usually we collect our data from animal and friends by doing experiment. For example, if my goal is try to know um if smoking will cause lung cancer or not. If they are mouse, mice, if they are mouse, then I can let some mice smoke. But this can confounded by noise information.

What’s noise information?

A special way to answer what is noise information just like. . . you are interested in the smoke or not will cause lung cancer or not. There may be some other noise information like you work in a factory and you smoke, you will smell lots of bad air.”

Sample 2: Organic Conductors

“Free electron means, OK, let me give you an example. Generally speaking, if we have a nucleus, the electron can moving around the nuclear, to form a, form an atom, so it’s an atom [draws picture]. In other words, an, an atom contains a nuclei and some electrons surrounding it, surrounding the nucleus. But, so this electrons can just moving around this nucleus and this electrons can just move around the nucleus. But in metal, I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, this but the metal, the electrons can get away from the nuclei, they just, is easy for them to flow like a wave, to, like a water flow. To get away from the nuclear. You know what I mean? Ok.”

Speaking of Writing: The Why and How of Providing Writing Support for ITAs

Cara Costello, Carnegie Mellon University

Writing is a critical ITA skill that is all too often overlooked in ITA training because of the more immediate need to focus on speaking skills. Certainly, spoken communication is a large part of any ITA’s job, but writing has become an increasing responsibility for a number of ITAs, who have to grade students’ written work, write test questions, and respond to students via e-mail, wikis, blogs, and so on. In addition, ITAs are graduate students who are expected to write professionally in their chosen field, which may include writing conference papers and grant proposals and publishing research. The many writing tasks they face are demanding and pose challenges for the ITA, especially in terms of flow, grammatical structure, organization, and awareness of U.S. academic writing style. To help ITAs deal with these challenges, we, as ITA trainers, have the opportunity to provide writing help that ITAs cannot get from their advisors or colleagues. This raises the following questions: In what way and for what purpose should ITA programs provide writing support for their students? How can this writing support complement the support that is typically provided for speaking?

To provide such writing support, the Intercultural Communication Center (ICC) at Carnegie Mellon University takes an individualized approach. When we began our writing program, we focused only on offering individual appointments, but recurring conversations between students and instructors in these appointments inspired us to expand our program to include a series of writing seminars. Our center now offers two types of writing support: (a) individual work with a writing tutor and (b) a series of stand-alone 2-hour writing seminars. Our writing program enables students to choose seminars and appointments that specifically address their writing goals and also fit into their busy schedules.


In individual appointments, ITAs bring in an assignment they are working on, and a tutor identifies weaknesses in their writing. The tutor then helps the ITA revise the writing sample he or she has brought in. In these appointments, we typically see graduate students who are working on their dissertations or class assignments, or who simply need to improve their grammar and add more precision to their language. ITAs often come to the appointment with a specific concern, either their own or a concern raised by a professor/advisor. Some common concerns include the following: I don’t know if my organization is clear, I have trouble connecting my ideas, and I have trouble writing my ideas in a concise way.

When students come to individual appointments for the first time, they usually don’t have a good sense of what is problematic in their writing. For example, they may know that their writing is hard to follow, but not know why. It is here that our writing support distinguishes itself from that given by faculty advisors and colleagues, who can often spot writing errors but lack the experience and training to diagnose and correct the many writing problems that are endemic to ITAs.Occasionally, an ITA (or faculty advisor) may recognize surface-level errors (e.g., articles or prepositions) that are often masking more significant problems with their writing (e.g., confusing sentence structure or organization). Using resources listed at the end of this article, our tutors are specifically trained to work with the ITA to pinpoint the most critical areas that he or she should work on and thereby establish clear, tangible goals for improvement.

Once clear goals have been established, the tutor helps the ITA revise his or her own writing. Note that the focus here is on revision and not editing; the tutor and ITA often spend an entire 40-minute appointment intensively working on one or two paragraphs. During the appointment, the discussion between the ITA and the tutor is as important as the actual revision. With the guidance of the writing tutor, ITAs learn how to identify problematic patterns in their writing and learn strategies for revising these patterns so that they can make similar revisions on their own.

Although the focus of this individual tutoring is ostensibly on written language, discussions in these appointments provide valuable opportunities for ITAs to build academic fluency, as they often need to reword/rephrase confusing sentences and summarize earlier parts of their writing. Individual appointments are also helpful for students who make consistent grammatical mistakes in their spoken language; examining grammar in the written context can help them become more aware of their spoken grammar. For these reasons, individual appointments have greatly benefited our ITAs, resulting in improved writing (as reported by ICC instructors and advisors) and providing another avenue for students to improve their speaking skills.


By working closely with ITAs in individual writing appointments, we recognized that many of our students face similar challenges with their writing. To better address these issues, we developed a series of 2-hour writing seminars. In general, our writing seminars help ITAs learn new ways to improve their writing to meet the expectations of a U.S. academic audience. Our current seminars cover a wide range of academic writing skills and include Introduction to Academic Writing, Citing Sources, Improving Scientific Writing, Communicating Data Effectively, Writing Academic Summaries, and Using Articles Accurately. (See descriptions of these seminars here.)

Though there is some opportunity for practice in the seminars, it is not expected that ITAs will completely master all the techniques they have learned in any given 2-hour seminar. Thus, students have an opportunity to follow up by coming to individual writing appointments where they can work on applying these techniques to their own writing. Table 1 outlines how instructors approach the most common writing challenges in both individual and seminar settings.

Table 1. Instructional Strategies Used to Address Common Student Goals and Questions

Common student goals & questions

ICC instructor strategies

Cohesion: I want to improve the flow of my writing.

The instructor works with the ITA to revise the structure of his/her sentences so that given information (the context) comes before new information.

Clarity: I want to make my sentences more readable/clear.

The instructor helps the ITA make his/her writing more direct (e.g. placing the subject close to the verb, reducing the number of modifying phrases).

Concision: I need to make my writing more concise.

The instructor helps the ITA eliminate unnecessary words and choosing more descriptive verbs (especially helpful when revising abstracts, research/project proposals, etc.).

Style: How formal or informal should the writing be?

Instructors often encourage students to find examples of writing from their field to observe the level of formality that is common in their discipline. This includes looking for common grammatical choices and vocabulary choices (e.g. use of direct questions, use of first person, etc.).

Organization: What organizational patterns are common in U.S. academic writing?

Many ITAs have the problem of providing too much detail before giving the context or general idea. In this case, the instructor often needs to convince the ITA that using a “general-specific” pattern is more common in U.S. academic writing, and that using a different pattern of organization may be confusing for the U.S. reader. Often this discussion turns into a conversation about cultural variations in writing.


The ICC’s writing program takes a highly individualized approach by providing one-on-one feedback in individual appointments and encouraging students to choose writing seminars that address their specific issues. This structure allows busy graduate students to optimize their time by providing help that is specifically tailored to their needs. Because of the individualized nature of this writing program, it could readily be implemented in other ITA programs. Integrating writing support into one’s program will not only help ITAs with writing but also provide a new context to build their academic fluency.


Gopen, G. D., & Swan, J.A. (1990, Nov-Dec). The science of scientific writing. American Scientist, 78, 550-558.

Huckin, T. N., & Olsen, L. A. (1983). English for science and technology: A handbook for nonnative speakers. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Robertson, W., Oregon State University. (2005). Writing across borders [DVD]. Available from

Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills (2nd ed.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Member Profile: Keith Otto, SUNY-Buffalo

Kate Martin, University of Minnesota

Kate Martin: Keith, thanks for agreeing to be featured in this issue. Can we start with just a brief bio?

Keith Otto: My pleasure, Kate.

I was born in Iowa, lived in Minnesota until 8th grade (so my accent is a wonderful model for my students), and then moved to a suburb of Buffalo, New York. My undergrad days were at Cornell University, where I started in mechanical engineering and rapidly switched to English. I started out as a TA at the University at Buffalo’s (UB) English Language Institute (ELI) while working on my EdM in TESOL. Now, as program director for English as a second language programs, I supervise the ESL faculty and courses, primarily freshman composition but also one course for ITAs; SPEAK testing and ITA evaluation; and some of our summer programs in partnership with my colleagues at UB’s ELI.

KM: How did you get your start in the TESOL field? And how did you come to be involved in ITA development?

KO: I taught EFL for a year in St. Petersburg, Russia, looking for an interesting experience somewhere out of my comfort zone before going to grad school. The plan was to become a regular high school English teacher. Returning home, I learned that I could get my teaching certification in both English and ESL if I majored in TESOL, and quickly realized that English was much more interesting in the context of a cross-cultural university classroom.

Correcting SPEAK tests was my entry into the world of ITAs, followed by a chance to teach one section of our program’s ITA course.

KM: What are you currently teaching?

KO: Each semester I teach two sections of Communication for International TAs, which covers presentation skills, strategies for interaction, and the basics of classroom culture.

KM: What ideas, methods, or technologies have you been experimenting with lately in your teaching?

KO: There’s a great quote, attributed to W. Edwards Deming: “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

I’m working on “spinning” language instruction as instruction in a communication process, rather than just instruction in saying what you know. Awareness of how we structure our communication has a big impact on our chance of success, and I’m experimenting with different ways of helping the students see this.

KM: What research interests are you pursuing at this time?

KO: Just some low-key action research on raising the awareness I mentioned in the previous answer. Increasingly, I’m intrigued by the potential for improvement that reflection and self-evaluation promise.

KM: Do you have a favorite ITA-related story from your research or teaching experiences?

KO: A recent story concerns a series of teaching demonstrations I evaluated for a science department. One of the TA candidates was a former student. The faculty members who watched the demonstrations commented favorably on several of the communication strategies that my student had used—strategies that he had learned in our course and that made his presentation more effective than those of other candidates with higher English proficiency.

KM: What do you like to do when you’re not working?

KO: I like to read my favorite children’s books and poems to my own kids. I enjoy wandering around the yard with my wife, imagining how we could transform our home into “the dream home” if we were millionaires. I play guitar two Sundays a month at my church.

KM: Is there anything you’d like readers to know about you that I haven’t asked yet?

KO: I’ve already mentioned my wonderful family and my friends here at UB, all of whom I am grateful for, so I think that’s it. Thanks very much.

On the Web

Mary Jetter, University of Minnesota

1. University of Southern California Center for Excellence in Teaching USC’s Center for Excellence in Teaching is a gold mine of resources for ITA instructors. The “nuggets” section offers short articles on a variety of topics including basic presentation skills, professionalism for TAs, and holding office hours. The “modules for New USC Teaching Assistants” includes videos with advice for new TAs from faculty, experienced TAs, and students.

2. Rate Your Students

I don’t refer my students to this site directly because of its often cynical tone and rough language, but I’ve mined it over the years to provide background on and stimulate discussion issues TAs might encounter in the classroom, particularly related to students.

3. Videos on YouTube from JenniferESL

Jennifer, a professional ESL instructor, has created more than 100 videos relating to English pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. There are a few follow-up exercises on

4. Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts

This site started out with just a few podcasts, including the very popular Grammar Girl, but has since expanded to include 15. “The Public Speaker” gives great advice on public speaking, “Get-It-Done Guy” speaks about work-related issues, and my business students enjoy “The Winning Investor.” Transcripts are included for all podcasts.

5. The Grammar Grater

A podcast from Minnesota Public Radio, The Grammar Grater is about more than grammar. Past podcasts have included “Animal Farm” (There’s an elephant in the room!), “Spicy Expressions” (Mustard anyone?), and the use of trademarks in writing.

About This Member Community TESOL International Teaching Assistants Interest Section

The International Teaching Assistants Interest Section (ITAIS) serves TESOL members who work with nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants as researchers, teachers, and program administrators.

The ITAIS seeks to encourage the sharing of expertise and specialized knowledge among ITA practitioners, to promote research into the spoken discourse of ITAs and the nature of classroom communication, and to foster communication between researchers and practitioners.

ITAIS Community Leaders, 2009–2010

Past Chair: Mary Jetter, University of Minnesota

Chair: Cheryl Ernst, Southern Illinois University

Chair-Elect: Keith Otto, SUNY-Buffalo

Secretary: Stew Markel, Cornell University

Members at Large: Pamela Pollock, Cornell University; Zeynep Altinsel, Michigan State University

Historians: Theresa Pettit, Cornell University; Susy Sarawak, Ohio State University 

Editor: Kate Martin, University of Minnesota

Editor-Elect: Anne Halbert, University of Connecticut

Webmaster: Diane Cotsonas, University of Utah

E-List Manager: Jules Gliesche, University of Florida-Gainesville

Discussion e-list: Click here to subscribe to ITAIS-L, the discussion list for the community, or if already subscribed, click here.