The ESL Educators’ Guide: How To Teach Grammar Effectively

"ESL Classroom" Photo by UCentralArkansas on Flickr

The ESL Educators’ Guide Part One: Teaching Grammar Effectively

Teaching Grammar is a Tricky Business

Teaching grammar, especially for first-time ESL teachers and even for experienced ESL teachers, can often be a tricky business. In fact, it is one of the most difficult aspects of a language to teach.

When we think of grammar, we think of a set of word forms and rules of usage that govern how we speak and write. Some teachers tend to focus on these rules and forms in their classroom, believing that their students learn best through rote memorization. While it is imperative that ESL students learn the rules and forms of grammar, this is not an effective method of teaching grammar. It tends to result in a classroom full of bored and uninterested students who know how to produce excellent results in exercises and on tests, but fail badly at using the language in contextual situations.

On the other hand, there are teachers who teach grammar through osmosis. Teaching methods tend to revolve around the assumption that students will absorb grammar rules in communication activities or they believe that children learn their first language without grammar instruction; therefore learning a second language should be learned the same way.

Think back, for example, to what you learned about grammar in elementary school and high school. Your grammar lessons most likely focused on identifying the basic parts of a sentence, but you probably didn’t learn much about specific grammar forms. This is because we learn these forms naturally as native English speakers. Thus, many first-time ESL teachers and even long-term ESL teachers never really learn how to teach grammar effectively to ESL students because they themselves never learned grammar in that manner. How then, can an ESL teacher teach grammar effectively when the teacher never learned grammar as part of learning a second language?

The trick is to take examples from both teaching styles.

Here are a few tips to help you make the best of your ESL grammar lessons:

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

To teach grammar, you have to understand grammar.  Generally speaking, I meet a lot of first-time ESL teachers that are able to identify different parts of a sentence, but don’t have a clue about grammar tenses and specific grammar rules beyond the basics taught in high school. All too often, I see teachers go into a classroom and wing it by simply going through a bunch of exercises and answers. Moreover, there’s no way to make grammar fun if you don’t have a clear understanding of what you are teaching.

Your active understanding of what grammar is and how it works will allow you to better understand the errors and challenges that your students face. ESL students don’t learn grammar the same way that native English speakers do. It’s not enough to look at something that a student has written and say that you can’t explain why it’s wrong. Your job is to help students understand where they’ve made mistakes, when to use specific grammar forms, and the difference between written grammar and spoken grammar.

Learn How to Give Overt Grammar Instruction

Overt grammar instruction helps students acquire the target language more efficiently, but you should also incorporate as many communicative activities into your lesson plan as possible to strengthen what you are teaching. Remember: Most people learn from learning, observation, and practice.

Break your class time down into manageable sections, and make sure that you are introducing and explaining the grammar lesson, demonstrate how it is used in contextual situations, put it to practical use in the classroom, and play an engaging game that reinforces your lesson.

Try the following ideas in this order during your next grammar lesson and see what happens. The following should take no more than 15 minutes to accomplish in class. I cannot stress the importance of planning your grammar lesson and the examples you will use to reinforce your lessons in advance. Winging it in class can often lead to examples with exceptions, and believe me, you don’t want to introduce an example and then realize that there is an exception to the rule.

  1. Write the target grammar rule on the whiteboard.
  2. Introduce your target grammar rule/tense and explain when to use the grammar point and why.
  3. Go over the rule again. Present the grammar point in written and oral examples to bring the lesson into context and to address the needs of students with different learning styles.
  4. Providing examples is an important part of grammar instruction. Plan your examples around two basic principles: a) Examples must be accurate and appropriate. They must present the language appropriately and be culturally appropriate for the setting in which they are used. b)Use the examples as teaching tools. Focus examples on a particular theme or topic so that students have more contact with specific information and vocabulary.
  5. Once you’ve run through your examples, ask your students if they can come up with some simple ideas or sentences that match the rule you are teaching.
  6. Conclude this portion of the lesson by teaching any exceptions to the rule.

How To Reinforce Your Lesson

Now you’re ready to move on to guided oral practice. I like to do this by handing out a simple question and answer lesson that the class completes together as a class. The focus here is not to provide the answers for students to write down. Therefore, I suggest telling your students that no writing is allowed during this portion of class. I like to make sure that the questions on the activity sheet are similar to what I assign for homework.

Go through all of the answers on the paper together as a class, or if you think your students can handle it, have a student answer a question and have the class repeat after the student.

  • Don’t focus on making sure that your students have mastered every aspect of each grammar point that you teach. Instead, focus on the points that are relevant to immediate communication tasks.
  • Don’t focus too much on error correction.

Don’t Bore Your Students to Death

Grammar involves a lot of rules and forms, but there are ways to make teaching grammar fun. Your goal in class is to enable your students to carry out the grammar point that you are teaching for communicative purposes.

Start the game off by using a few questions and answers from the textbook or from the guided oral practice section that I talked about in the last section. Once students understand how the game works, you can move start introducing different examples for the grammar point or have the students come up with their own examples.

Here are some links to a few grammar games that I’ve used in my classroom to reinforce my lesson. I’ve adapted both games to suit lessons plans based on grammar points, vocabulary, and simple review lessons.

Survivor for Grammar Lessons

Dead Dice for Grammar Review

Interested in learning more about teaching abroad?  I got my jump on the ESL industry with Reach To Teach Recruiting.

This monthly series is designed for ESL educators in countries all over the globe. As part of a new Blog Carnival called ESL Educators, I will be posting an informative article on English as a Second Language on the 20th of every month.


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3 thoughts on “The ESL Educators’ Guide: How To Teach Grammar Effectively

  1. Jenna Makowski

    “Winging it in class can often lead to examples with exceptions, and believe me, you don’t want to introduce an example and then realize that there is an exception to the rule.” Been there, done that, and I cannot agree more. Exceptions to the rule seem to pop up enough on their own, organically, in reinforcement activities. No need to invite them into the presentation and teaching stages as well.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Tips for Teaching Grammar to ESL Students | Concordia Online

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