So you’re wondering how to teach English grammar. A lot of new or budding ESL teachers seem to think it’s enough to be a native speaker. And that the job just involves talking to people.
Unfortunately, learners of English will always have questions about grammar so you’ll need to know how to teach English grammar.
But you probably have bad memories from school of French, German or Spanish grammar – learning rules, memorising verb tables, reciting irregular verbs.
Just because you learned that way doesn’t mean you have to teach English grammar this way. While vocabulary is essential for communication, mastering grammar is what gets you beyond the basics to higher levels of fluency.
So your students will want grammar and you’ll need to be ready to teach it. Here’s how to teach English grammar in fun and effective ways.
Why Teaching English Grammar Matters
You often hear that vocabulary will get you much further than grammar. That’s because you can’t say anything meaningful with just grammar words like “the”, “be”, “and” or “for”.
However, even if you just know a few words or phrases in a language, you can get your message across with vocabulary only.
The ability to say “help”, “husband” “hurt” and “doctor” could mean the difference between life and death, even if there’s no grammar in that sentence (if we can call it a sentence!).
But if you want to go beyond basic, caveman-like communication, then you’re going to need grammar. You can think of grammar like the glue that holds your words together. On their own, grammatical words are meaningless. With vocabulary and grammar, suddenly you can say a lot more.
- Ask questions to get information or clarify points or simply show interest in another person
- Talk about hypothetical situations – the game-changer for humanity is surely our capacity to imagine things that don’t yet exist, and to act on that
- Discuss not only the present but also the past and the future so that you can reminisce or plan ahead
As you can see, if you want to get beyond beginner level, and become fluent in a language, mastering grammar such as the different verb tenses or future and conditional forms is non-negotiable.
Before I answer the question of how to teach English grammar, let's have a look at what not to do!
How NOT To Teach English Grammar
Have you ever opened up a grammar reference book and started reading the explanations, either about English or another language? Did you feel your eyes glazing over rapidly? Did your brain melt a little?
No-one learns to speak a language by memorising rules from grammar books. In fact, no-one learns all that much from these types of books. They’re a reference tool, not a learning one.
If we could teach languages this way, our job would be super simple. We could teach languages like any other subject and give lectures where we tell people rules.
Unfortunately, trying to teach languages like other school subjects such as history or biology is exactly why learning at school is so ineffective.
We don’t learn our first language by learning rules. We start with exposure (or input) to the language – lots of it in fact. And thanks to this massive exposure, we eventually start speaking correctly, according to the rules without consciously being aware of them.
That’s why, as a new ESL teacher, you have to develop a conscious awareness of the rules so you can teach, as opposed to telling students “well that’s just the way we say it” every time they have a question about the language.
Also, no-one learns a language by learning isolated words or bits and pieces of grammar. Again, you may remember this approach from school – word lists to memorise or verb tables to recite. But language only makes sense in context.
How To Teach English Grammar: 5 Ways Create Engaging English Grammar Activities
So you’ve learned that giving lectures where you read out the rules won’t work. And neither will giving people lists of irregular verbs to memorise.
But the question remains – how to teach English grammar? And especially in ways that are fun and effective for your learners.
#1 Start With Context, Not Rules
Instead of starting with the rules, start with context. This way, you flip the approach – you start with the language as it is, and then explain and analyse it after.
This is exactly what happens in the StoryLearning® method and why it’s so effective. You read a story, at your level first, over and over again. And only after do you get an explanation.
You can use this contextual approach in your lessons too. Perhaps you give students a story to read, or you tell them a story. You might also use a listening activity or show them some pictures or even listen to a song together.
Whatever you use to introduce the context, make sure it’s meaningful and engaging for them. Teenagers might love working on a song that’s popular right now, whereas adults might prefer to listen to something more nostalgic.
#2 Make It Meaningful
A lot of students are scared of grammar or feel like they’re just bad at it, probably due to the academic approach imposed on them at school.
But if you can connect grammar topics to real-life situations, then it will start to seem less scary and more meaningful and useful.
A simple example is talking about what you did at the weekend which is a common small talk topic. I’m sure you’ve spent many Mondays at work chatting about the previous weekend’s activity.
So why not spend time in class discussing that? This will help students feel more comfortable using past tenses.
Once you’ve heard from them, you can spend time going over any errors (such as errors with irregular verbs) or clarify potential areas of confusion (the difference between past simple and present perfect).
#3 Teach A Little, Practise A Lot
Don’t be too ambitious in your grammar teaching plans. As with any ESL lesson planning, you’ll need to take into account the level of the students you’re working with.
In one lesson, you’re not going to be able to cover all the past tenses or all the possible future forms or first, second and third conditional.
In fact, you’re better off teaching less but then providing plenty of opportunities for students to practise what they’re just learned. This can look like worksheet-style activities where they do more controlled practice as well as freer, more speaking-based activities.
So if the students have been working on question formation, they can create a survey and then interview the other students. Or if they’ve learned to use be + verb + ing to talk about future plans, they can talk to each other about their holiday or weekend plans.
#4 Disguise The Grammar Part
As you can imagine, walking into class and announcing – today we’re going to learn about the present perfect – will turn your lesson into an instant flop.
The students will be stressed out. And your lesson won’t be effective because you’re setting yourself up for giving a grammar lecture that will bore your students.
But you can disguise the fact that you’re working on grammar in various ways. For example, students often find question formation in English difficult due to changes in word order and the use of auxiliary verbs.
Also, when native speakers say questions in fast speech, they delete or blend some of these auxiliary verbs with other words. So English learners can’t even understand what they’re asking properly!
So why not disguise a lesson on question formation as a listening task? Pronounce common questions at normal native speaker speed and ask your students to write down what they hear (or think they hear).
That way, you can teach them the fast pronunciation of question structures like “What are you…?” which sounds like “wha chah”.
#5 Encourage Students To Get Exposure Outside Of Class
As I’ve already mentioned, we pick up our first language thanks to masses of exposure. And that of course includes grammatical knowledge.
Unfortunately, most ESL learners are rather dependent on their teachers to teach them, instead of getting lots of input. So they don’t always do much outside of class.
Or they do the wrong things – endless grammar exercises or memorising of vocab rather than lots of reading and listening.
So make getting exposure part of your classes. You could ask students to make sure they come to class having read or listened to something that motivates them in their own time. In class they can discuss it with the others.
You could even create a book club by asking your students to read a chapter of my short stories in English book. And then in class you discuss it together. You can also go over any new or tricky language with them.
How To Teach English Grammar
As scary as the idea might be, as an online ESL teacher, you do need to know how to teach English grammar, even if it feels like you’re just getting paid to talk to people.
As your students learn more grammar, they can express themselves better and talk about more interesting things, such as the past and future or hypothetical situations.
Of course, grammar takes a long time to master. And many people will be able to communicate fine without knowing all the ins and outs of verb tenses. So there’s no point in obsessing over grammar either (despite what the grammar villain says!)
In any case, thanks to this post, you now know how to teach English grammar in a meaningful way. That means you can avoid giving lectures or making your students do the boring activities you remember from school.