Teaching Grammar in the ESL Classroom

Today’s post is another paper from the correspondence TESL course I was taking back in the Fall. This assignment was on the question of whether or not grammar should be taught explicitly in the ESL classroom. Any thoughts? Feel free to comment, especially if you’re a language teacher — or student, for that matter.


Grammar is an unavoidable part of teaching English as a second language. In any language, grammar is the “code” that helps us understand each other. It ties words together so that we can make sense of what someone is saying. If one is going to help another person learn English, grammar must be taught. The questions are, “How?” and “How much?”

Should ESL students be taught grammar explicitly? That is, do they need to know the names of all the different parts of the sentences and tenses? Do they need to learn all the rules of English grammar by heart? Or can grammar be picked up implicitly? Can students simply become aware of the patterns and rules of grammar through practice?

The answer, I think, lies somewhere in the middle. As Jim Scrivener points out in Learning Teaching, the kind of grammar an ESL teacher needs to teach is not the informational kind but the practical kind: “Scott Thornbury, in his book Uncovering Grammar, has suggested that we could open up our concept of ‘grammar’ if we start thinking of it as not just a noun (i.e. the information), but as a verb as well (i.e. the active skill of using language). It’s probably this ‘verby’ kind of grammar that we most need to help our learners work with in class.” (Scrivener, p. 253)

Our students don’t necessarily need to know all the names of the different tenses and sentence parts. If we are honest, most native English speakers – even ESL teachers — don’t know all of these aspects of grammar. For example, let’s look at this sentence: “Bob will already have taken the test when I arrive tomorrow.” Before I started taking this TESL class, I couldn’t have told you (without looking it up) that it is in the future perfect tense. However, I could have hold you what it means: Bob will take a test tomorrow. After that, I will arrive. Bob will be finished taking the test before I arrive.

That is the kind of practical grammar learning our ESL students need. They need to be able to hear or read a sentence and understand it. They need to be able to speak or write and be understood. How do we teach them this kind of “verby” grammar?

I would suggest what I would call “situational” grammar teaching. In other words, given a certain language context, certain grammar points naturally come up as teaching topics. For instance, a lesson in which you talk about “How I spent my summer vacation” would be used to talk about past tenses. Depending on the skill level of the class, you could talk about a number of different past tenses, in a situational, conversational context instead of a list of names and rules.

In part, what I’m talking about is teaching by example. Students learn a grammar point by seeing it “in action”. But it’s not enough to just hope that they pick up the pattern. There needs to be some explanation as well – but it needs to be practical and geared toward the skill level of the class. And it needs to be followed by a lot of practice.

In short, a brief explanation followed by plenty of practice would be preferable over a long, explicit explanation. Language is meant to be used.


2 thoughts on “Teaching Grammar in the ESL Classroom

  1. Learn English

    I studied in a bilingual school in Venezuela, and am now teaching English myself. My case is very particular… sometimes my students ask me why what they are writing is wrong and usually what comes to my mind is “doesn’t that sound wrong to you?”. Many times I can’t explain to them why their sentence is grammatically wrong, maybe because I learned English mostly by using it. Is it a bad thing? I don’t know, but what’s important is that they learn to distinguish between correct and incorrect, and most importantly, that they USE English correctly. There’s a site called Open English , that teaches english by context, using videos with real life conversations, interactive lessons with specific situations, etc. I believe learning by using is definitely the way to go. After all, it worked with me.

  2. Pingback: A nice blog post about teaching Grammar in ESL classrooms | Joe’s ESL Blog

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