Tips for Teaching Grammar to ESL Students

Tips for Teaching Grammar to ESL Students
The SHARE Team November 10, 2012

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Grammar is often the most feared aspect of the English language. Teaching grammar to ESL students is one of the toughest tasks faced by most ESL instructors, and for good reason. Many of us do not even fully understand our own grammar rules. Even when we do, conveying them in an understandable format for ESL students can be challenging.

Regardless of difficulty, grammar rules must be understood to grasp the language. As an ESL teacher, it’s your duty to make sure your students both understand how grammar works and how to use it. The following tips will get you on your way in teaching grammar to ESL students in an effective, fun way.

Teach yourself grammar before you teach others

Chances are, if you grew up in an English-speaking environment, you learned the rules of grammar without even being aware of it. While this does make you a natural at speaking the language, it can present some problems when it comes to teaching it.

It is often argued that it is impossible to effectively teach something you yourself do not understand. To put it another way, who would you want to be taught by? Someone who understands a subject intimately, or someone who is just faking it?

This is perhaps the most challenging step to become a solid instructor of grammar. Take the time to learn how your language works so you can teach it to others. This will allow you to pick up on the types of mistakes your students are making and to easily correct them.

Learn the difference between inductive and deductive teaching, and how to use both

Depending on the background of your ESL student, teaching inductively could prove far more effective than teaching deductively.

Inductive learning is also known as the bottom-up method. Students, especially those without recent educational backgrounds, such as adult learners, often learn more quickly using this method. To use it, you teach grammar through a discovery process, allowing students to discover how the rules function over the course of various exercises.

In a great example of an inductive teaching exercise provided by Kenneth Beare at, students begin by going through a reading exercise that describes what various characters do up to a certain period of time. After the reading exercise, the teacher asks students various questions about when each character did something. To address things like the simple past and present perfect, the teacher asks about when things happened at a specific time in the past versus in a person’s general experience. By allowing English learners to go through this process, they discover on their own how grammar functions when discussing time.

In contrast to this is the deductive approach. This is the more standard teaching style, where the teacher begins by explaining the exact rules governing each aspect of the grammar lesson. The teacher explains the rules, then goes on to give lessons that use those rules. The deductive method is certainly tried and true, but it is also arguably less effective. Take the time to try both and observe the results.

Plan your ESL lesson

Far too many first-time ESL instructors go into the classroom without taking the time to plan properly. Just because you can speak the language does not mean you can wing it. Proper planning will allow you to avoid a lot of undesirable situations such as giving an example off the cuff, only to discover it does not work as perfectly as you thought it would.

English grammar is tricky, and there are more exceptions to many rules than we would like. You do not want to find yourself at the mercy of one of those exceptions while up in front of the class. Planning will allow you to map out the course of your lesson beforehand, including all pertinent examples, so you will have a foolproof course to navigate with your students.

Continuous learning and ESL professional teacher development

There is no doubt that teaching grammar to ESL students is challenging, but it can also be rewarding. If you take the time to observe and implement the above tips, you will certainly improve your lesson. That being said, you should not stop there. Continue learning about grammar, and take some time to research all the various approaches to giving an effective grammar lesson to ESL students. You will only get better with practice.

You can also develop your knowledge of teaching ESL students in a master’s degree program for teachers. You will discover:

  • How to develop curriculum materials in ESL and ESOL.
  • Applicable techniques to better connect with your students.
  • Theories about first and second language acquisition processes and their interrelationship with the teaching/learning process.

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