Ask Elaine: Five Steps to Teaching Grammar

Work/Life English's founder, Elaine Kirn-Rubin, has over 40 years of experience teaching, developing, and publishing effective English language learning and teaching tools. Send us an email below if you want your question covered in the next "Ask Elaine" post! 

No matter what the “key learning points” are, an effective grammar mini-lesson plan is likely to have at least five (5) steps or stages: 1) Presentation with Recognition, 2) Demonstrating Comprehension, 3) Grammar Explanation, 4) Practice Exercises, and 5) Communicative Expression.   

1. Presentation is a context that offers plenty of examples. It can be live-action, visual, printed, verbal, audio, animated, or a combination of several forms.  For instance, here’s a strip story with many instances of third person singular verbs in present statements (from WL-E 3G: Chapter 4 / Work, Part One, p. 58). This particular presentation consists of 8 frames (panels) on the subject of “Job Searches.” The captions tell the story of “Helena’s Uncle Stephen,” who's lost his job and tries to cope with the situation: 

Because Stephen often argues with his boss, she fires him. He files a claim for unemployment benefits. He doesn’t collect any. He gets no pension and doesn’t receive Social Security. He asks his union for help. Here reads classified ads. He types letters of application and sends out his resume. He has excellent qualifications. He goes out to look for employment but seldom has an interview. He doesn’t attend school or courses. 

Depending on its form, users can watch a presentation, view its pictures for clues to meaning, read it silently or aloud, hear it read by others, “act it out,” or use any non-threatening, fun modes that work.

2. Comprehension comes next. It can be checked in many different, natural, direct ways. For instance, an instructor, helper, or self-teacher can use familiar grammar and vocabulary to ask comprehension questions about presented material. For beginners, perhaps the first of these should elicit yes/no or one-word answers (Examples: Does Stephen have a job now? [No.]. Yes or No: He tries to get unemployment benefits, but can’t. [Yes.] Who does he ask for help? [His union rep.]). Later, the questions could evoke the targeted grammar, in this case third-person singular verbs. (Examples: Why doesn’t Stephen have a job anymore? [He argues with his boss. She fires him.] What does he do first, second, next, . . . ? [He files for unemployment benefits. He lives on his savings. He asks his union for help. He reads ads.  He types letters.]

Finally, the best “comprehension test” may be a summary or retelling of material in learners’ own words. 

3. Explanation of grammar points may or may not be necessary or helpful, depending on participants’ “learning styles.” It can come in various forms, the simplest of which is a “Grammar Box,” perhaps with Review, titles like “Statements with Third Person Singular Verbs,” labeled sentence elements, and aligned vocabulary as examples. This typical visual is from WL-E 3G: Chapter 4 / Work, Part One, p. 59. It uses parts of sentence examples from the preceding presentation, “identifying” their functions by their placement in a “chart.” Other kinds of explanation may be (printed) lecture, call-outs pointing to things they explain, aural speech evoked by clicks, references to articles. etc. users may or may not want to talk about the grammar; identify elements as “Subject,” “Verb,” “-(e)s Ending,” or the like; or repeat the “rules” in their own words. Even better, they may want to propose comparable sentences, preferably within the context of the subject matter. Most important is the “assimilation” of the grammatical pattern, along with a sense of being able to use it when it applies in appropriate situations. In their heads, learners can also “play with” the model sentences, substituting other vocabulary, making “transformations” from singular to plural, from affirmative to negative, from statements to questions, etc.

4. Practice is usually in the form of exercises, which proceed from simplistic or automatic (to build confidence) to more challenging. In the latter, exercise-doers must consider more factors in completing each item. Even so, if someone is actually acquiring a grammar pattern or point rather than guessing thoughtlessly, the answers should come quickly, with little effort, becoming more and more “natural.”  At the same time, learners should always stay aware of the meaning of the language that they are producing. 

  • The Sample Exercises A, B, and C to the right are from WL-E 3G: Chapter 4 / Work, Part One, pp. 59-60. The first (A.) simply supplies base verbs for blanks in a meaningful paragraph, to which doers add –(e)s endings.
  • The second (B.) requires them to locate appropriate vocabulary in a simulated “Application” that follows, putting affirmative or negative third-person singular verbs in the blanks.
  • The third (C.) has users repeat the nine (9) statements of Exercise Band add “tag-questions” at their ends.

In all three, the “trick” is recognizing the considerations that lead to correct or appropriate answers; the “immediate motivation” is the puzzle-like format of the exercises, which are “in need of” solutions. In addition to or rather than checking their responses with an Answer Key, exercise-doers gain satisfaction by reading (aloud) the language of the completed sections to see if they “sound right” and make sense.  

After completing exercises, learners ought to “go beyond” them and get more practice. They can use various techniques such as covering the answers and supplying them again, storing the “story” in short-term memory and then paraphrasing it, making up similar items of their own, making up substitution and transformation drills with the items, etc.

5. Communicative Expression occurs through speaking and listening, sometimes followed up with writing and reading. Such activities require little printed material and few aural cues, although participants may want to refer to grammar points (including those that are not the focus of the targeted grammar) and/or collect the words and phrases they need. In this example (Activity *D.), they ask one another real questions, for which they need only the structures and phrasing offered in the Chapter Part. Then they convert those real answers into statements that include the targeted grammar, practicing it naturally. They can even adapt the same patterns to different topics, ones they truly want to know about—until the activity rises to the level of real conversation containing other structures and vocabulary that they acquire in genuine situations. Communicative interaction of this type can continue for a while, until participants have expressed all they want to say and learned all they can take in about others.  Because their experience has been authentic and successful, they are likely to repeat it in different situations with other people and other information. Their freshly acquired language skills will last a long time, rising to new levels of interactive effectiveness. 

Of course, the same five (5) steps can be adapted to deliver most grammatical topics into learners’ repertoires. They can also be designed to “teach” or practice other language skills and topics: listening skills, speaking (including pronunciation), reading comprehension, writing, vocabulary. Their stages can vary considerably from those used to grasp and embed grammar, of course. 

 Work/Life English Grammar

Presented and practiced in useful, practical contexts, instruction on each grammar topic (Imperative, it vs. there, Possessives, Simple Present, Modal Verbs, Question Forms, Pronouns, Kinds of Nouns, and other phrase/ sentence patterns for effective functioning in English) begins with a situation/scenario.

Then it moves to explanation and exercises. Finally it progresses to expressive and communicative oral and written activities. Each pattern or rule is reviewed or reinforced in the chapters and/or books that follow.

No space, time, or energy is wasted on unproductive tedium. While learning from
examples and practicing appropriate, effective grammar, learners acquire useful information, help one another, express their own needs and ideas, and generally improve their language and everyday life abilities.

At Level 1, grammar is presented in the Skills Book and reinforced in the Workbook.

At Levels 2-5, the level and chapter themes, sentence structures, and vocabulary of the five Grammar books are correlated with Listening/Speaking and Reading/Writing texts that may be used in conjunction with each Grammar.

Everything is derived from proven methods/materials, and proven in numerous classroomsTake a fresh look at this amazingly well-organized and complete series of instruction and practice in the grammar & structure of English at SIX Level.

About Work/Life English

Work/Life English is an experienced provider of fun, effective English language improvement content that advances the lives of native English and English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers by improving their English competence, comprehension, and communication skills.  For more information, visit: www.worklifeenglish.com.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published