Volume V- 2000

Jargon Cells: Integrating Grammar and Lexis through Topical Focus
by Judy Hartt

         Ms. Judy Hartt teaches advanced ESL, Grammar and Composition at Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe. She is the founding editor of the ESL newsletter Internationals Share and is co- author of the NLU freshman composition text Models . Her specialty is developing tactile teaching methods in the instruction of ESL.

         Recent research indicates that certain grammar structures appear in clusters within particular modes of discourse (Byrd and Reid, 1998). For example, a narrative essay requires a working knowledge of transitional words that convey a logical progression to the culmination of the story. Such transitional words constitute a cluster. Another example is the cluster of verb tenses that are essential to this progression. These studies also indicate that students can apply the contents of a specific grammar cluster to a wide range of narrative topics. Inverting this process--that is, strategically choosing a single topic--offers the opportunity of putting into place an even more systematic and effective teaching device. By focusing on a single topic that naturally incorporates a cluster, we can teach (1) the components of that cluster in speech as well as writing, and (2) the cultural context of the topic. I call such a collection of related linguistic elements a "jargon cell." Some of the jargon cells that I have developed are based on traditional American heritage themes that broaden not only students' English vocabulary, but also their knowledge of diverse American cultures (Figure 1). In this paper, I exemplify the technique by discussing in detail the construction of a jargon cell that deals with travel and related prepositions, phrases, -ed adjectives, and idioms.

Figure 1. Discourse Modes and Jargon Cell Topics

Discourse Mode
Grammar Focus
Native American Nations
Count + Non-count Nouns + Articles
Cause and Effect
Notorious American Gangsters
Modal Auxilaries
Vintage American Comedy
Teams Question Words
A Vicarious Road Trip
Prepositional Configurations
Vintage Cartoon Characters
Pronoun and Antecedent Agreement


Choosing a Topic

         Once the jargon cell is constructed, it constitutes the heart of a clearly defined system of instruction. Initially at least, it is the teacher who is responsible for constructing the cell. The process begins with the selection of a topic that should be cross-cultural: students should already have a good understanding of the concept in their own cultures or through recent experience in the USA. The topic should also have sufficient depth to support the incorporation of as many speaking and writing tools as possible; that is, it should lend itself to the study of manuscript style, reading, composition and articulation (Scarcella and Oxford, 1998). In developing a jargon cell based on prepositions and travel, the second step is listing as many prepositional configurations as possible (See Figure 3). Current computer software that includes a dictionary and thesaurus is helpful, as are ESL web sites on the internet (see Appendix).

Objective: Flow of Information

         The main objective of this jargon cell assignment is the generation by students of a logical flow of written and spoken information. For example, with our topic of "Travel," students must be able to read a road map, measure distance, interpret a legend, and explain information in complete, effective sentences. This topic conforms easily to the requirements of authentic purpose, targeted audience, and substantial process that are emphasized in the ESL literature on rhetoric and composition (Reid, 1988). A rich selection of reference sources involving road travel in the USA permits modification of the assignment to satisfy particular circumstances, such as class size, cultural makeup and the availability of technological services. Because travel is a universal concept, explanation of the topic requires a minimal amount of time.

Figure 2. Stages in Development of a Jargon Cell

Step 1. Choosing a Topic
Step 2. Constructing the Grammar Components
Step 3. Research: Information gathering by students
Step 4. Composition
Step 5. Articulation: Oral presentation by students
Step 6. Evaluation

Responsibilities of Teacher

         Developing and conducting a jargon cell activity falls into six distinct steps (See Figure 2): choosing a topic, constructing the grammar components, research, composition, articulation and evaluation. Like the choice of a topic, the assembling of elements of grammar is the responsibility of the teacher. He or she sifts through lists of simple and multiple-word prepositions that are clearly identified with road travel (e.g., direction, time and location) and that can be classified as members of a common jargon cell. To add depth to the unit, phrasal verbs,-ed adjectives and prepositions, and pertinent idioms that contain prepositions should be included. Isolating topic-related terminology into a compact jargon cell allows students the opportunity to concentrate their efforts on one collection of terms and phrases at a time.

Figure 3: Grammar Elements in "Travel" Jargon Cell

One-Word Prepositions


Two-Word Prepositions

ahead of
away from
bound for
close to
down from
down to
east (west, north, south) of
far from
on to
up to
way down
way over
way up

Three and Four-Word Prepositions

as far as
at the intersection of
at the point of
by way of
for the purpose of
in the middle of
to the north (south, east, west) of

Phrasal Verbs
(Useful for directional information)

arrive in, at
burn up (the road)
catch sight of
come across
come through
converge with
cut across
cut through
double back
drive through, toward, up, down, around
gas up
go straight
head out
intersect with
set back
set out
wind up
depend on
end up

Ed Adjectives with Prepositions
(Useful for details about city and state)

accustomed to
alarmed at, by
amazed at, by
astonished at, by
bored with, by
clothed in
composed of
confined to
confused at, by
covered with
delighted at, by

disappointed in,with
employed at (place), by (company)
entertained by
impressed by
occupied with
perplexed at,about, by
pleased with
puzzled at, by
relieved to
shocked at, by
suited to (person) for (occasion)
surprised by, at

(Useful for adding creative flair)

along for the ride
as the crow flies
a stone's throw away
change of pace
don't let the grass grow under your feet
end of the world
end of the road
fork in the road
hang around
have a go at it
hole in the wall
in the middle of nowhere
in two shakes of a lamb's tail
jumping off place
like a bat out of hell
load up the car
make a beeline for
make a day of it
off the beaten track (path)
put the pedal to the metal

Pinpointing Locations

         The best way to acquaint students with the abstract quality of the listed prepositions is to secure a large road map of the state where the class is presently located. With the map displayed, pinpoint your location. From that mark, point out county lines, state lines, map legend, city and town index, and so on. Return to the pinpointed city and begin explaining the relationship of each preposition in the jargon cell. Make an arrow from self-adhesive colored paper for each preposition of direction and location, and write the terms on appropriate arrows (see Figure 4). Work through each term illustrating how that particular preposition relates to the location of the city. To reinforce the concept, practice that procedure with other locations on the map. Marcella Frank's Modern English: A Practical Reference Guide includes helpful illustrations that explain "direction of movement in regard to a point" (p. 165, 1993). Following this grammar drill, a detailed explanation of what is expected from each student throughout the process of completing the assignment should be given. A suggested outline of the explanation follows:

Figure 4. Prepositions of Direction and Location
The Assignment

A Road Trip We Will Take


         Each student is assigned a city that can be traveled to by car within the continental United States. (Choose historic sites, natural wonders, remote towns where famous people lived, etc.) Give the following: instructions to students:
o     Obtain a map of the continental U. S.
o     Highlight boundary lines of the state where the assigned city is located. Pinpoint the city.
o     Use the map's legend to assist in locating the capital city of the state and pinpoint that city.
o     Highlight boundary lines of state where you are presently located.
o     Pinpoint city of your present location.
o     Using the legend, signify Interstate (Federal), Highway (State) and Road (County) systems.
o     Trace the best possible route based on self-directed research from your present location (city) to your assigned location (city). As you plan the route, carefully correlate prepositional terminology to explain changes in direction, roads, states, regions.
o     Collect the following facts about your road trip:
1. Comparison of time zones between your present location and your assigned location
2. Total mileage
3. Population of assigned city
4. Name of county where city is located
5. Type of terrain surrounding city
6. Local attractions (natural, historical, etc.)
7. Average climate conditions (the best time to visit the area)
8. Basic economic structure
9. Recreation
10. Telephone area code
11. Postal zip code
12. Local universities

Each student will prepare a visual display that illustrates the following state symbols: State seal, State flag, State bird, State flower, and State motto.

         Each student must write an essay that will be the basis of an orchestrated oral presentation before the class. The oral presentation will include a prepared map, a visual display of symbols, and the written essay. Details about the assigned city and state must emphasize usage of prepositions denoting direction, location, and time. In order to facilitate explanation of the assignment, have at hand a state road map for each assigned city and state, and distribute them accordingly. Try to choose cities located in as many different areas of the United States as possible. This leads to a better understanding of many colloquial idiomatic usages of prepositions. When students have located their assigned cities, direct their attention to the maps' legends. The students should note the wealth of colorful, general information about the state.

Research: Information Gathering by Students

         The key to success in this phase of the project is to utilize as many tangible learning tools as possible. Real road maps, real atlases and real computer software place a stamp of validity on the lengthy assignment. The research techniques students use to assemble their reports are valuable to any field of study, in any language. To generate the most effective learning experience, list as required reference sources the following: an authentic road map, an atlas, computer software (for example, Trip Maker by Rand McNally & Co., 1994), an encyclopedia, a telephone book, a zip code directory, the internet (for example, e-mail is excellent for finding information about attractions that are near the assigned city but are off the beaten track), travel book, and an American idiom directory.


         As reported by Reid, Scarcella, and Oxford, the processes of writing compositions according to the basic modes of discourse are as essential in ESL classes as they are in regular English classes. One of the most easily taught modes is that of explaining how to do something, or how to get from here to there. The chronological and spatial aspects embedded in the concept of road travel easily support the sequenced explanation assigned to the process mode. The three basic sections of a process composition--introduction, body and conclusion--assist the students in determining how to organize/arrange their collected information.

         The introduction names the process of travel and indicates why and under what circumstances it is performed. The body normally treats one major stage of the procedure. This stage is divided into several steps presented in chronological and/or spatial order, interrupted only for essential explanations or cautions. (Such an interruption is italicized in the following example: "Travel west on I-20 to Dallas, Texas, where I-20 intersects with I-45 South. Be careful at this interchange because there is major road construction in this area.") The conclusion summarizes the results of the process and can explain the significance of these results. Personal Creativity and Idioms

         Formal writing associated with rhetoric often intimidates less advanced students. To avoid this, the teacher might encourage a reliance on personal creativity. That teacher might also consider expanding the jargon cell to include phrasal verbs,Ed participial adjectives and prepositions, and idioms containing prepositions. These interesting idiomatic phrases can play a key role in allowing students the opportunity to showcase their own voice and mood. One of my students, a Yugoslavian world-class swimmer, directed his classmates to head for the mountains, grab a Coors Light, and go for the gusto. In his next sentence he also warned us to watch the spit [sic]limit. Idioms are challenging, and gaining fluency in the use of them takes a great deal of effort and dedication.

         It could prove useful to the students to know that many idioms can be correlated to familiar parts of speech. Some idioms are verbal: "You will catch sight of the city as you come down the mountain highway" and "If you burn up the road, you can drive the distance in ten hours." Some idioms are adjectival: "We are hoping to find an isolated place off the beaten track to go on our vacation." Some are adverbial: "You have to drive like crazy to reach the city before dark. Others are nominal: "When you have reached this destination, it's as if you have reached the end of the world. Students can be required to use at least one dictionary of American idioms and to consult Internet sites specifically geared toward idiomatic structure. An example is: ESL Emporium at http://nbm.company.com/emporium.html. Students can include any related idiomatic expression, even if it does not contain a preposition. Some interesting additions have been wanderlust, bottleneck, all systems go, come in handy, get your rear in gear, and boogie on down the road. The focus of the assignment is not only on planning a road trip, but also on giving students a chance to explain the process with newly acquired English language skills. The jargon cell approach provides this opportunity.

Articulation: Oral Presentation

         Each student acquires knowledge about a particular area of the USA. Mainly out of curiosity, the other students want to know about that area and are therefore willing to listen with attention. In this way, there forms a natural theater situation that the teacher can take advantage of. In fact, the oral presentation should be conceived as a well-orchestrated performance that involves correct pronunciation of cities and states, correct identification of the USA roadway system, and correct preparation of visual aides. Students are responsible for their own visual aides, which have varied from colorful posters with hand drawings, to travel brochures, to computer-projector slides. Interest and excitement builds as students compete to see who can make the most spectacular presentations. One interesting aspect is that each student develops a loyalty to his or her assigned location and takes personal pride in displaying the selling points of the location.


         An unscientific but often effective way to determine results is by listening to what the students have to say. Some commented that they had never used a U.S. map to any significant extent before and had not realized that so much information is packed so efficiently in symbols and lines. Many said that manipulating the software program Trip Maker was excellent practice on the computer in general. Others enjoyed e-mailing the respective Chambers of Commerce for travel and tourist information. However, virtually all reported having enjoyed least the writing of a structured essay that had to be submitted for a grade.

         Three of my Chinese students actually traveled to one of their assigned cities. They drove to San Antonio, Texas, to see the beautiful Christmas lighting festivities and the flotilla on the San Antonio River that flows through downtown San Antonio. The students were amazed because they heard very little English from the average American citizen while there. They heard a third language--Spanish! The students were very pleased that they knew so much about the city before they actually visited it. They found themselves explaining a few points of interest to other tourists--the actual duration of the battle of the Alamo, the historical development of the Mexican Market Place, the significance of the Hemisphere. Two of my Japanese students took a side trip to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on their way to Washington, D.C. Listening to their excitement as they described being at the exact spot where the Wright brothers flew the first airplane convinced me that the assignment, even the written portion, had been a worthwhile project.


         Not much has been written about going deeply into one narrow area of usage with an intermediate class of language learners. In a sense, then, we have broken a little ground by at least attempting to do that. Some of the skills gained through constructing jargon cells remain out of balance until they are integrated with other parts of the language system. We will await the opinion of researchers as to whether or not that is a good idea. While this approach does call for some memorization, doors to far more dynamic activities were pushed open by my students, often before I saw what was happening. As a result, I am convinced that a well-planned jargon cell can be quite useful in teaching students who want to "boogie on down the road" toward a better understanding of the American version of English.


The following study-help sites are available on the Internet:

A Collection of Unique Expressions, Sayings, and Quotes.

Cobuild Idiom of the Day.

Internet TESL Journal. "Idioms."


Byrd, Patricia and Joy Reid, eds. 1998. Looking Ahead Series. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Frank, Marcella. 1993. Modern English: A Practical Reference Guide. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Reid, Joy. 1988. The Process of Composition, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Scarcella, Robin and Rebecca Oxford. 1998. The Tapestry of Language Learning: The Individual in the Communicative Classroom. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Trip Maker (computer software for Windows 95). 1994. Rand McNally and Co.

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