You are on page 1of 15

Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

How to Teach Grammar

Before we start to try to deal with grammar we need to get a fix on what we think grammar is
and how we think its functions. Because grammar is often equated with language, how we
approach the issue of grammar is of central importance to our teaching and our students

Lets take a simple survey to see how you think about grammar.

Thoughts on Grammar
1. What is the main goal of English instruction?
Grammar Fluency Receptive skills Productive skills Testing skills

2. How important do you think grammar is in understanding a language?
Extremely Very A bit A ton Not much Somewhat

3. How important do you think grammar is in producing a language?
Extremely Very A bit A ton Not much Somewhat

4. What aspects of language does grammar affect?
Words Sentences Between words Paragraphs Between paragraphs

5. How many types of grammars are there?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

6. Which type of grammar were you exposed to as a student of English language?
Descriptive Pedagogical Prescriptive Reference Theoretical Traditional

7. How effective do you think this was in making you fluent in the English language?
Some A little Not very Very much Extremely Not at all

8. Which type of grammar do you use in your own teaching?
Descriptive Pedagogical Prescriptive Reference Theoretical Traditional

9. How was grammar used in relation to actual language when you were a student?
Speaking in context In reading Lectures Spoken pattern drills Written pattern drills

10. How do you use grammar when you teach?
Speaking in context In reading Lectures Spoken pattern drills Written pattern drills

11. Do you teach grammar overtly or covertly?
Overtly Covertly

12. Is grammar your friend or your enemy?
Friend Enemy

Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

The Nature of Grammar
Here are a few points to consider about the nature of grammar.
-Spoken and written language differ from each other considerably.
-Grammar rules do not exist - There are only tendencies.
-Grammar is not separate from other areas of language or skill areas.
-Grammar is best taught from the point of view of meaning and use.
-Context is indispensable in the understanding of such meaning and use.

Reading and Listening-based Approaches
Reading and listening are often used as the first step in exposing students to a particular
grammatical structure. As far as acquisitional sequences go they are both good for developing

Awareness raising
The chief ways of raising awareness are overtly through presentations or covertly through
reading or listening.

Read the text below. Take notice of the highlighted words in the text. What role do they play
in supplying meaning in the text?

The important thing to realize is that grammar is EVERYWHERE. Any piece
of language we expose our students to is going to be infused with grammar
of one type or another. Based on this it might be better to start with the idea
of interest and build a grammar focus from there. The purpose of doing
grammar is to try to get the students to actively engage some of the
structural aspects of the language which they will need to fine-tune their
managing of meanings.
My family likes different kinds of food. To start with, dad is a
meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. How much meat does he eat every
week? A lot! His favorite dinner is steak with a lot of gravy and a
baked potato with some cheese on it. But mom makes him a little
fish and a few vegetables now and then.
Mom is a vegetarian. Shell eat anything that comes from
plants. Our refrigerator is full of oranges, bananas, apples, tofu, and
green leafy vegetables.
My older brother is a junk-food king. He loves doughnuts,
burgers, and french fries. But mom doesnt buy any fast food
because it contains a lot of fat. My brother doesnt care. He works at
Big Burger after school. There he can have as many burgers and as
much cola as he wants after work. As for me, Im easy to please.
(From: Brown et al. (1999). Voyages 1. Prentice Hall Regents, p.77)
Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

Read the following story. As you read, put a circle around the word in front of all the nouns
you read.

Some Partial Control
There are eight extra definite articles in the text below. Try to find them as you read through
the text.

Rosalyn Clark, bus driver
Ive always loved the driving. For some reason I find it relaxing, so driving a bus is ideal.
Some of the male bus drivers were a bit funny at first and I think it took them a while to get
used to the fact that I was a woman. I could see it in their faces that they were a the bit
shocked. Bus driving is very male dominated which did make me a but nervous at the first.
When passengers get on the bus, they sometimes look at me as if to say, Oh my
God, its a girl, whats she doing? but when they get off they usually say thank you. My
friends and family think its weird that Im a bus driver conductor - and sometimes they get
on as I live locally.
I like being in control of a big vehicle, perhaps its the power. I dont find London
traffic stressful, and I dont let anyone get to me. Ive learned to switch off when people start
being abusive.
7e |ad a wonderui day at t|e zoo yesterday, but o course t|e day was not aii
perect. A ew very interestin t|ins |appened. At irst everyt|in was normai, iike t|e zoo
usuaiiy is. l|e animais were aii in t|eir enciosures and we waiked around visitin t|em.
lirst, we saw t|e iaminos. lrom t|ere we went to see my avorite pymy |ippo. l |ave
ioved t|at |ippo since l irst saw it. lt iooks so cuddiy. l|e troubie started w|en we ot to
t|e Sout| America |ouse. lt is in t|e back o t|e zoo and |ard to ind, so t|ere are very
ew peopie t|ere. lt was eariy in t|e mornin and no one was t|ere. Ri|t at t|e entrance
we were reeted by a siot|. l|e siot| was sittin in a tree, doin not|in. 7e were very
s|ocked but t|e siot| was not movin so we decided t|at it must not be reai. 7e went
inside. 7|at a }oy, a deii|t, a mistake! l|e animais |ad aii escaped rom t|eir caes and
were runnin about t|e buiidin. lt was c|aos. l|e birds were sjuawkin. \onkeys were
swinin in aii t|e trees. lurties were piayin in a water ountain. Aii t|e crocodiies
sieepin, w|ic| was ood. One armadiiio was diin a |oie in t|e ioor wit| its s|arp
ciaws. At irst l wanted to run, but t|ey aii iooked so |appy we went inside. 7e
approac|ed a iant turtie and even manaed to ride on its back. lt was so |ue and stron
but so entie. Ater we |ad some un, we iet t|e buiidin and ciosed t|e door be|ind us. lt
was oniy ater we taiked to some zoo keepers t|at we reaiized w|at we |ad done was reaiiy
danerous. lt was un at t|e time, but it makes me a bit scared to t|ink about it now.
Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

I think Im quite a good driver, although the some days are better than others.
Switching back to driving cars when Im not working was a bit difficult at first - I kept
forgetting how wide the car was, but Im used to it now. I dont know too much about the
mechanics of the bus. We dont mess about with the engines or anything. Its not much fun
when it breaks down and I have to tell the everyone how to get off.
Ive had a couple of accidents, but fortunately nothing too serious. Ive never taken
the roof off the bus or anything. I clipped a BMW recently, as he was overtaking, but that
was his fault.
I dont work through the night, but we have to do the shift-work, so I might start at
4am and finish at 2am. They dont make any special allowances for the females, so
sometimes Im on my own at night. But we have radios which go straight through to the
police so Ive never felt too threatened. People try and get away without paying, and I
sometimes get abused, but Ive got the assault alarm, which usually gets rid of them.
I get the letters sometimes from a bloke called Alan, but then he writes to everyone,
specially the girls. He bought everyone the Easter eggs and Christmas presents.

Accuracy-based Practice
Fill in the blanks below with the correct form of the word in bold print above it.

(a) She works as a ____________________ in a hotel in Scotland.
(b) Ask for a ____________ when you buy something, in case you need to return it.
(c) I made several suggestions to improve production, but the management was not very
________ to my ideas.

(a) In that tense situation I found the good news very ________________.
(b) I felt rather___________, so I put a soft cushion behind me.
(c) She sat in terrible _____________ on the hard chair for over an hour.

(a) The _____________ between the two soon developed into love.
(b) In London she was ____________ by a rich woman who looked after her and helped her.
(c) The desert is a dangerous ___________ place.

Question Words and Phrases
Complete the questions. Put in these words and phrases: who, what, whose, where, when,
what time, what color, what kind, how often, how far, how long, and how many.
______________ is Melbourne? - in Australia
______________ is the Greek flag? - blue and white
______________ was the first President of the USA? - George Washington
______________ did the second world war end? - in 1945
______________ inches are there in a foot? - twelve
Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

______________ do banks open in England? - half past nine
______________ is a foal? - a young horse
______________ is it from San Francisco to Los Angeles? - about 400 miles
______________ home is in 10 Downing street? - the Prime Ministers
______________ are the Olympics held? - every four years
______________ of food is cheddar? - cheese
______________ is a game of rugby? - 80 minutes

Speaking-based Approaches
There are many different ways of getting sleepy, shy, or unmotivated students to speak up in
class. With a partner, or in small groups, discuss the different ways listed below. Speak what
is good or bad about each of them.

1. Direct Question and Answer
The teacher picks out students at random and asks them to answer questions in front of the
entire class.

2. Presentation
The teacher has each student prepare some sort of oral presentation on a topic. Students will
have to research and write about a topic and give a report on their topic in front of class.

3. Pair/Group Work
Students are put into pairs or small groups and try to solve some sort of problem or complete
an exercise. The idea is that they must only speak in English and use their own words in
communicating to solve a problem.

4. Dialogues
The students have to either write their own dialogues or fill in some missing words in a
model dialogue and then act them out in front of class.

5. Games
The teacher divides the class in half or into several groups and has the groups compete
against each other. The teacher can have the students draw pictures or act something out and
the team members have to call out the correct answers. Or there can be sentences with blanks
and the teams must decide which word best fits. This must be done only in English.

6. Role-Play
The teacher assigns certain students roles to play in a certain situation. The situations need
not be complex or lengthy, but the students have to use their own words when playing their

7. Information Gaps
This is usually done in pairs or in groups. The students all have some information about a
certain topic, but not enough to figure out what it is. Think of it as a kind of puzzle. They
have to ask each other the right questions to get the information they need to complete the
scenario in their minds.
Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

Spoken Sentence Completion
This is a sentence completion test. You will hear the beginning of 10 different sentences. The
sentences are not complete. Use your knowledge of English to finish each sentences as best
as you can, paying close attention to the grammaticality of the sentence you create. Now,
lets try an example.

John is ____________________________________________.

1. The plant stood ____________________________________________.

2. John gave _________________________________________________.

3. I promised _______________________________________________.

4. The weather bureau predicted ________________________________.

5. The police can easily be blamed ____________________________.

6. We wondered _______________________________________________.

7. James met the beautiful ________________________________________.

8. Me in school was _____________________________________________.

9. What did you _______________________________________________?

10. I got an A ________________________________________________.

Free Oral Practice
Ask the students to talk about one of these topics.

T What are you going to do over the weekend? How about your family and friends?
T Choose one person in the class. Imagine it is her/his birthday soon. Everyone is going
to give a present. Say to the class which present you are going to give and why.
T Look at the picture below. Try to say who the old man is and what he does.

Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

Use the following graphic to get students to compare and contrast different places across
different times.

World Weather Guide
Average temperature Average number of rainy days
July January July January
Day Night Day Night
Athens 33 23 13 6 2 16
Buenas Aires 14 6 29 17 7 8
Cairo 36 21 18 8 0 1
London 22 4 6 2 12 15
New York 28 19 3 -4 12 12
Tokyo 28 21 8 -2 10 5

Here is another graphic that can be used for a more complex comparison and contrast.

Using Drawings
Here are some pictures one can use for practicing conditionals.

Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

Writing Based Approaches
Using Controlled Writing
For beginning students, it is probably better to start off with a lot of controlled writing
exercises. Controlled writing, however, does not have to be easy. Here are a few simple

Gap Filling
Listen to the teacher, then write out the complete sentences.

Cats__________________________ dogs. This often __________ people

Re-ordering Words
Unscramble the words and write the sentences correctly.

1. the/chased/the/dog/tree/around/cat/the.
2. John/sponge/angry/a/sorry/with/hit/Mary.
3. day/the/over/sleeping/a/boy/one/young/tripped/man.

Ex: Ji-eun enjoys listening to rock music and eating rice and kimchee.

Now, write a true sentence about yourself.

Correct the facts
Rewrite the sentences so that they match the picture.

In my school I saw a light haired man standing by a desk.
He looked happy as if he didnt have a care in the world.
On his desk were a typewriter and a cactus as well as many

Revise details
You work for a newspaper and you have written this story when suddenly you hear that
Sandy is now believed by the police to be a woman. You have to change your story so that it
can be printed.

loiice are iookin or someone known oniy as Sandy. On lriday mornin a man waiked into a
iew York bank. He was wearin a biack }acket and a cap. Customers w|o saw |im said |e |ad
a t|in ace and |e iooked about twenty. l|e man said |e |ad a un and demanded money. As |e
was runnin out, t|e aiarm went o and surprised |im and |is cap eii o. lnside |is cap, t|e
name Sandy was written.
Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

Below you will find 10 sentences under each sentence are two incomplete sentences. Use
your knowledge of English to finish each sentences as best as you can, paying close attention
to the grammaticality of the sentence you create. You may add some function words if
necessary, but make sure you do not change the meaning from the sentence above. Below
you will find an example.

John is my best friend.
It is ___________________________________________.
My best friend ___________________________________________.

1. He should bake a cake.
Should ___________________________________________?
A cake ___________________________________________.

2. Tell me where the concert is this evening.
Where ___________________________________________?
The concert ___________________________________________.

3. The story was believed by the villagers
The villagers ___________________________________________.
Was the story ___________________________________________?

4. It is likely that John will go.
That John ___________________________________________.
Likely that ___________________________________________.

5. There lived an old woman in the house.
An old woman ___________________________________________.
In the house ___________________________________________.

6. Does he have any ice cream?
He ___________________________________________.
Is it ___________________________________________?

7. A lot of people saw the accident.
The accident _____________________________________________.
Was the accident _______________________________________________?

8. The president will invite me to his house.
Will ___________________________________________?
His house ___________________________________________.

Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

9. Youre thinking of taking a trip with whom?
Who ___________________________________________?
A trip ___________________________________________?

10. He doesnt want it to continue to be windy.
To continue to be windy ___________________________________________.
What he doesnt want is ______________________________________.

Writing Based on a Text
Read the text below.

Now write a paragraph about another town in Guyana, Isherton. Use these notes.

Isherton - small town - southern mountains
Winding, narrow streets - two churches - many bars
Most people - miners - look for gold, silver, minerals

Now, write another paragraph about your own hometown.

What difficulties do you think your students might have in writing such a paragraph? Is there
anything you could prepare to make things easier for them?

Writing Complete the Sentence
Below you will find sentences that have been begun but not finished. Please finish the
sentences as best you can, paying close attention to the grammaticality of the sentence you
create. Below you will find an example.

John was sure..________________________________.

1. The man wanted to ..________________________________.
2. Bob was walking toward Y.._____________________________.
3. The porcupine bit ..________________________________.
4. John was pulled ..________________________________.
5. Biff tried ..________________________________.
6. The student was hoping that her brother ..__________________.
7. John wanted to know ..________________________________.
8. It was the horrible dog ..________________________________.
Bartica is a small town in the north of Guyana, a small English-speaking country in
South America. It is located on the Essequibo River, not far from the capital, Georgetown.
The town has a wide main street, with a run-down stone church, the town hall, and a bar.
There is a large market in the town center, and many little shops and cafes. Most people in
Bartica work as sugar cane farmers, which is very hard work, indeed.
Stephen van Vlack How to Teach Grammar

9. Who do you think ..________________________________?
10. John ate the pizza in one .._____________________________.
11. Mary wondered ..________________________________.
12. She believed ..________________________________.
13. Mrs. Jones ate ..________________________________.
14. She is very ..________________________________.
15. The teacher believed the door .._________________________.
16. Whos the guy ..________________________________?
17. Was the accident seen ..______________________________?
18. For him to lie ..________________________________.
19. Mr. Smith believed that ..______________________________.
20. That was what the man had ..__________________________.

Sentences are taken from Rutherford (1998).

From Presentation to Practice
Here is part of a teachers lesson plan.

Whats next? What should the teacher do next? Think about the different possibilities and
what the good and bad points of each might be.

Aim: To teach students to make suggestions using Lets.........

1. Give a situation and example:
Youre sitting at home with a friend. You cant decide what to do.
You suggest different things. For example, you want to watch television -
so you say, Lets watch television.

2. Chorus repetition
Lets watch television.

3. Write the sentences on the board.

Meaningful Practice
Do each pair of exercises. How are exercises A and B different?

1A 1B
Ann likes tea but she doesn't like coffee. Say true sentences about yourself.
a) rock music/classical music I like tea or
b) walking/swimming I dont like tea
c) cats/dogs What about: a) coffee
b) cats

2A 2B
You are a stranger. You are a stranger.
Ask about places in town. Ask about places in town.

A caf: You want to see a film?
Is there a caf near here? Is there a cinema near here?
a) a grocers shop a) You want to buy some ice cream.
T: You want to play football?
Ss: Lets play football?
T: You want to go swimming?
Ss: Lets go swimming.
T: Lets play football.
Ss: Lets play football.
T: Lets go swimming.
Ss: Lets go swimming.


b) a cinema b) You want to post a letter.
c) a fruit stall c) You want to spend the night.
etc. etc.

3A 3B
Where are you going? Where are you going?
Im going to a gas station. Im going to the station.
a) cinema Because I want to buy a ticket.
b) zoo
c) river a) cinema
etc. b) zoo
c) river

Organizing Practice in Class
Below is an exercise practicing questions and answers with can.

Here is a possible idea for how to deal with this material.
What do you think about it?
With a partner, decide how it might be improved.

1. Ask the students to close their books. Read out the questions and answers, and ask
the students to repeat them.
2. Ask the questions, and the students reply, Yes, I can. or No, I cant.
3. Then, the students open their books. Student read out questions in turn and other
students answer.

Can you use any of these activities in your class? If you were to use any of them, how
would you organize them?

Now, answer the following questions:

What is the perfect number of students to have in class?

What is the hardest thing to get the students to do in your class?
Can you.......
Fly Yes, I can.
drive a car?
ride a horse? No, I cant.
speak English
stand on your head?

What is the best way to teach speaking?

Do you have much time to work on speaking in your classes?
Do you feel you should make time to work on speaking?

Lesson Preparation
- Choose a lesson which you will be teaching soon or find a lesson in a book which
includes structure practice.
- Look at the exercises in the textbook. Do they give enough practice? Is the practice
meaningful? Is it interesting? Do you need to improve on it or add to it in any
- Plan part of a lesson in which you will be teaching structure.
Make sure that:
- at least some of the practice is meaningful.
- at the end of the practice, the students have the chance to use the structure in
their own sentences.