Teaching ESL grammar when you aren’t sure what the past perfect is can be overwhelming for new teachers. At the first adult language school where I taught, I’d be assigned a new round of courses every month. We had 10 levels each of grammar, reading, writing, and speaking/listening courses, as well as TOEFL prep and academic essay writing. Each month, the day before the new term started, we’d get our course assignments and begin frantically trying to prepare for the five new classes we’d be teaching the next day.
How well do new ESL teachers know grammar rules?
People who grow up speaking a language are often oblivious to the rules. We can usually sense what is grammatically correct and what isn’t, but few of us can explain the rules to another. However, that explanation is exactly what our students expect us to be able to do when we take a job that requires teaching ESL grammar.
It’s like the blind leading the sight-impaired.
With my first job teaching adults here in the States, there was one problem initially, and it was of gigantic proportion. Like most people who grew up speaking English, I felt it in my bones when a sentence was off, but I didn’t have the slightest clue how to explain it. The grammar book I was to teach from used terms I’d never heard of. I didn’t even know how to begin explaining the simple grammar, much less the more complicated, upper-level grammar.
My students wanted to know why the past participle was used. I couldn’t explain that it was a passive sentence. I didn’t even know what a past participle was! My students knew more grammar terms than I did, yet I was supposed to be teaching ESL grammar to them!
How can you improve your ability to explain grammar?
Read grammar books.
I began reading textbooks written for ESL students as well as those written for teachers. Why not ones aimed at mainstream high school students or even university students? Those tend to overly rely on people having the ability to sense what is right and not need direct, explanations.
Read grammar nerd blogs.
I say that with the utmost affection as I consider myself to be somewhat of a grammar nerd. But, before my grammar-nerdness began to blossom, I depended on Google to point me towards English teacher blogs that had helpful hints. And I screwed up. A LOT. But I kept at it. I loved to teach. I wasn’t about to give up my dream job just because I didn’t know a gerund from an infinitive. If teaching ESL grammar were something I needed to be proficient in to continue doing what I loved, then of course I had to take the necessary steps to at least stay ahead in the lessons until I had a better understanding of grammar overall.
Complete the grammar exercises.
You know those exercises in those grammar textbooks? I did them. I did them because I wanted to improve my understanding of the concepts, and in some cases it did. However, while filling in all those blanks and trying to write sentences that incorporated specific grammar concepts, I discovered something. A lot of the exercises were boring!
The sentences were bland, there was little opportunity for creativity, and even the ones that required speaking with a partner were dry. Even worse, the explanations were all over the place, forcing one to flip back and forth through chapters, units, and sometimes the entire book, to see the differences and similarities between concepts. Trying to understand the concepts myself took up too much time when what I needed to teach myself was scattered all over. I noticed that my students were struggling with the same issue.
Synthesize it all
Eventually, I started synthesizing everything I learned and creating my own guides for teaching ESL grammar. At first, they were for me, and I used them for a quick review before teaching that very concept. You see, if you come up with a design that lays out the grammar concepts in a way you can quickly and easily review and understand them, you don’t have to worry about remembering it. It’ll be there for you to consult when you need a refresher. Plus, chances are that if it works for you, it’ll work for others as well. Consider sharing what you’ve made with your students.
That’s what I did when a student saw my “cheat sheet” and requested a copy. Before I knew it, the whole class wanted a copy. Then some of the new teachers who were teaching ESL grammar for the first time in their lives saw it and wanted a copy for themselves and to use with their students.
Knowing that our international students have limited time and limited funds to prepare for and pass an English proficiency exam to gain admittance to a university drove me to create the best supplemental material I could. It was no longer just about me and my needs. I started making worksheets to go with my grammar guides. I wanted my students to be engaged, intrinsically motivated, and ultimately able to teach themselves as much as possible about any given topic. Soon I wasn’t just making grammar guides, I was making linguistic investigations, digital presentations, task cards, and most recently, BOOM cards.
Read more about teaching adult ESL grammar
- 3 Fun Speaking Activities for Comparative Adjectives
- Conditionals Worksheets: 6 Quick Ways to Make Them FUN!
- Quickly Prepping for Grammar Classes
- 2 Fun Activities for Reviewing Prepositions of Time
- Guide Them into Understanding Coordinating Conjunctions
Now I’d like to share a grammar guide with you. It’s concise, ink-friendly, and you are free to share it with YOUR students if you’d like.