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An Investigation of Grammar Problems Facing English Language Learners

Eman Elturki, United States
Eman Elturki is a doctoral candidate in the Language, Literacy and Technology program at
Washington State University. She is an ESL teacher at the Intensive American Language Center
of Washington State University. Elturki is interested in corpus-based research, SLA, and ELT. Email:

Literature review
Discussion and implications
Appendix A
Appendix B
Grammar is one of the most difficult aspects of a foreign language to master. It is defined as “the
rules that govern how a language’s sentences are formed” (Thornbury, 2000, p. 1). English
grammar has been traditionally viewed as “a system of syntax that decides the order and patterns
in which words are arranged in sentences” (Close, 1982, p. 13). It is argued that mastering
grammar is a complex process that requires “making a series of decisions about when and why to
use one form rather than the other” (Celce-Murcia, 2002, p. 121).Making the right decisions
when speaking or writing in the second language (L2) requires grammatical proficiency.
Shanklin (1994) suggested that “grammatical proficiency is both an important pedagogical skill
and an important part of target language proficiency” (p. 147). What Shanklin means by
“grammatical proficiency” is “the ability to make judgments about the acceptability and
appropriateness of an utterance with specific reference to grammatical notions” (p. 148).
Shanklin distinguished between the grammatical proficiency that native speakers (NSs) have
versus the one that nonnative speakers (NNSs) acquire. NSs’ knowledge of grammar is implicit;
they are competent in grammar but they do not necessarily know the different rules behind the
use of grammar. NNSs, on the other hand, build an explicit awareness of how the different
grammar rules are formed. Generating this awareness of grammar knowledge is not an easy
process. The variety in forms and usages confuses English as second/foreign language
(ESL/EFL) learners. They learn new grammar rules every day, but they have difficulties applying
them when they speak or write in English. Shatz and Wilkinson (2010) argue that second
language (L2) learners “often cannot express complex thoughts because of their inability to
construct complex sentences showing complicated relationships” (p. 165). Shatz and Wilkinson
also highlight some of the common grammar problems that face English language learners
(ELLs) such as the misuse of prepositions, articles, past tense, and the third-person singular.
Nonetheless, it is necessary for ELLs to master grammar in order to be competent in the four

Therefore. the researchers stated that the largest number of errors were related to prepositions comprising 26% of the total errors followed by morphological errors 24%. In a more recent study (Abushihab. methodologies. propositions are one of the most difficult aspects of English grammar to master by NNSs and “they account for a substantial proportion of all grammatical errors by ESL learners” (Chodorow. 2011) that investigated the most frequent grammatical errors in the writing of 62 Arab EFL learners enrolled in a paragraph writing course at a private Jordanian university. Greek.3 as cited in Shatz& Wilkinson. Vietnamese. Additionally. listening. Moreover. 2010). or reading (Savage. 2009). errors related to prepositions were accounted by 29% of all the errors that were detected in the writing of 53 post-intermediate ESL learners. the researchers used writing compositions. Bitchener.36. The analysis was undertaken to determine the most frequent errors in the writings of students from diverse L1ssuch as Chinese.23% of all errors. Literature review Different studies have been conducted to determine and analyze students’ grammatical errors. advanced NNS students may have difficulty with the conventionalized uses of tenses. articles 21%. a grammar test. verbs 11%.In the study of Bitchener and colleagues (2005). writing. For instance. Dalgish (1985) analyzed sentences taken from the Writing Skills Assessment Test and in-class essays of 350 ESL students enrolled in a writing course at an American university.45%).Moreover. p. p. In another study that examined the effect of teacher error feedback on students' self-correction ability. wellstructured. teachers should be able to identify the most common grammar problems and try to adapt their teaching. aspects and the passive voice in written academic discourse” (p. Bitterlin. Employing the correct grammar helps ELLs create “clear. among 27 grammar topics. 164).3% of the 102 participants expressed that they have serious problems with grammar which negatively affected their writing (Alghazo. 5). p. were prepositions which occurred 29. & Abu Qbeitah. Russian. 2007. The researchers found that the three most recurrent grammatical errors. Hinkel (2004) claims that “even after many years of L2 learning and use. Accordingly. the past simple tense (11. this paper aims at mainly determining the most common grammar problems that upper intermediate ELLs have. Young. El-Omari&Tobat. A secondary goal is to provide some applications to ESL teachers that might help students overcome these issues. & Price. . and tenses7%.language skills because incorrect use or lack of understanding of grammar might hinder communication either in speaking. in order to investigate the type of corrective feedback that results in the improvement of students’ writing. and Polish through applying computer-assisted analysis. These recommendations are based on studies. A substantial number of the errors were related to the misuse of prepositions followed by subject-verb agreement. and a questionnaire with a total of 102 participants enrolled at a Jordanian university. 2010. 1999. active and passive8 %. and Cameron (2005) had to locate the most frequent grammatical errors in the first writing drafts of 53 adult post-intermediate ELLs to be focused on in the study. and theories in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and English Language Teaching (ELT). unambiguous sentences” (Derewianka.96%) . and the definite article which (11. Tetreault& Han.5). Bani Abdelrahman.

Taiwan. it can be seen that most of the work done to determine students’ problems with grammar was through error analysis (Abushihab et al. 2003. and age. United Arab of Emirates. 147). Chodorow et al. There were four sections of grammar 4 taught by different teachers. p. Korea. Second. 2009. Knowing about these challenges would help in “making principled decisions in the classroom concerning the types of skills we wish to impart and the method of imparting them” (Shanklin. they were asked to identify the most challenging grammar points by rating each one on a 1 to 5 Likert-Scale (1 indicates being ‘Very easy’ and 5 ‘Very difficult’). Little. Lastly. through reviewing the literature. they were asked to check one choice that describes their use of grammar in writing and speaking such as Always. about 57% of the participants have been learning English between 1 to 5 years while about 43% of them between 5 to 10 years.The questionnaire (Appendix A) was designed by the researcher who was also one of the teachers of the four grammar class sections. All the participants were enrolled in a level 4 grammar class in the aforementioned language center.. Instrument A questionnaire was the main research instrument. 2007). p.. nationality. This language center is specialized in teaching English for students age 18 and above who plan to study towards their undergraduate or postgraduate degrees in the United States. except for some studies that looked at students’ attitudes toward explicit grammar teaching (Ikpia. The questionnaire asked the respondents to. However. 2011. and curriculum designers have a better understanding of the linguistic areas where ELLs have the most difficulty.17 grammar topics were listed with examples in case the respondents were not familiar with the technical names. 1994. xiii). and 2 participants were from Colombia. and Egypt.. China. 21 from Asian countries. Additionally. Usually.From reviewing the literature. Libya. there has not been much done on students’ attitudes toward different grammar topics. and Japan. Oman. Using questionnaires is assumed to be “one of the most common methods of data collection in second language research” (Dörnyei. first.Hence. Saudi Arabia. Alghazo et al. or Never. 2007. . The 61 students who participated in this study were upper-intermediate EFL learners. provide background information about their gender.38 of them were from the Middle East. The reasons for self-designing the questionnaire were (1) there were no questionnaires available in the literature that meet the objectives of this study. Bitcheneret al.. and (2) it allowed the researcher (or the teacher) to adapt the questionnaire according to the grammar topics covered in level 4 that all the participants had been exposed to. The center can be characterized as heavily academic and intensive. this study aims to answer the following questions: (a) what are the most common grammar problems facing upper-intermediate ELLs? and (b) how can teachers help students overcome those problems? Methodology Participants The participants of this study consisted of 61 EFL students who were enrolled in a language center for teaching English to international students in the West Coast of the United States. Somewhat. The ages of the participants ranged from 18 to 39 years old. 2005) which can be considered significant in helping researchers.Consequently. 75% of the participants were males and 25% were females. Kuwait. teachers. this paper attempts to acquire some understanding about the grammar topics that students find challenging.

the analysis focused on the grammar topics identified as ‘Difficult’ and ‘Very difficult’. and analyzed by the researcher. coded. For the purpose of this study. Each level 4 grammar teacher was given a stack of the questionnaire to be distributed to the students and filled out at the beginning of the class. The participants were asked to rate the grammar topics that they had studied on a 1 to 5 Likert-scale. This was done to determine the most common grammar problems faced by upper-intermediate ELLs and to provide recommendations to English grammar teachers. Table 1 Overall Percentages of the Grammar Topics Rated as ‘Difficult’ or ‘Very Difficult’ Difficult Topic Very difficult Past Perfect Past Perfect Progressive Past Modals Reported Speech Reported Speech (Commands) Reported Speech (Yes/No Q) Reported Speech (WH Q) Passive Stative Passive Causative Passive Present Real Conditions Past Real Conditions Future Real Conditions Present/Future Unreal Conditions Past Unreal Conditions Infinitive Gerund 5% 7% 13% 16% 13% 11% 18% 14% 16% 13% 11% 11% 8% 18% 21% 16% 13% 7% 8% 8% 8% 7% 10% 7% 8% 5% 7% 7% 7% 10% 26% 23% 3% 5% . Findings Data was collected through a questionnaire offered to 61 students enrolled in a level 4 grammar class at a language center in the U. The questionnaires were then collected. The responses to the questionnaire were analyzed using descriptive statistics.Procedures On the last week of the course and before the final exam. The questionnaire revealed the findings displayed in Table 1 and Figure 1.S. the questionnaire was distributed in the grammar class. The teachers explained the purpose of the questionnaire and then left the class to have the students complete the questionnaire and to avoid answering any questions that may affect the participants’ responses. This was done in order to ensure that all the topics listed on the questionnaire were covered in class and students had enough exposure to these topics.

The percentages of the use of grammar in essay writing . and reported speech (Yes/No questions) were rated ‘Difficult’.Figure 1. past unreal conditions.The most difficult grammar topics identified by the respondents It can be seen from Figure 1 that present/future unreal conditions. Figures 2 and 3 summarize the participants’ responses to how often they apply the grammar topics listed on the questionnaire when they write essays and when they speak. Figure 2.

1993).For instance. understand the rule and be able to apply it. In order to help benefit the most from grammar classes.Thornbury (2000) asserted that the pro-grammar teaching researchers claim that through CR “learning seems to be enhanced when the learners’ attention is directed to getting the forms right. 160). of the 61 participants.Fotos. English teachers need not only to explain the rules but also to make them meaningful and applicable for the learners. 2007).Figure 3. the researcher sheds light on an approach to explicit grammar teaching the can be used by EFL/ESL teachers of grammar. or by providing examples and then students arrive to the rule. 24). For instance. which is referred to as deductive reasoning. 160). and when the learner’s attention is directed to features of the grammatical system” (p. 2000).Ellis (1997) defines a CR task as “a pedagogic activity where the learners are provided with L2 data in some form and required to perform some operation on or with it” (p. grammar is taught explicitly either by presenting the rules and then giving examples. which is referred to as inductive reasoning (Thornbury. she found that having the students work .Then. 1995. In classes that are designated for teaching grammar. in a study conducted by Fotos (1994) with EFL Japanese college students to examine the effectiveness of CR grammar tasks. 26% rated present/future unreal conditions as difficult and23% considered past unreal conditions as difficult as well. some communicative based tasks might be used to practice the rules (Andrews. He added that the purpose of a CR task “is to arrive at an explicit understanding of some linguistic property or properties of the TL” (p. Understanding and mastering such rules is a daunting task to ELLs. One of the examples proposed in the literature for explicit grammar teaching is the use of consciousness-raising(CR) grammar tasks (Ellis. English conditionals have different forms and can express real and unreal conditions. as was shown in the results.The percentages of the use of grammar in speaking Discussion and implications It can be seen from the results that students in such ‘pure’ grammar classes are overwhelmed from the different complex grammatical features that they need to understand and apply.

See (Appendix B) for a sample activity of CR grammar tasks with explanations adopted from (Willis. K. in addition to a questionnaire.. First. M. Moreover. . 12(1). 3.TESL-EJ. from http://tesl-ej. Abu Qbeitah. 543-552. This would allow for more reliable results in order to compare. prepositions. A. A. 145-159. this paper had also touched on CR grammar tasks as an approach to grammar teaching that focuses on generating awareness of grammar rules and at the same time developing communicative competence. It was limited to ELLs from level 4who studied at the same language center. El-Omari. Andrews. for example. the grammar topics listed on the questionnaire were limited to the topics covered in level 4 in this particular center. Other grammatical points were not on the questionnaire such as prepositions and articles which may still pose some difficulties to even proficient EFL/ESL students. 20(4). To conclude.. for a future study.The effect of different types of corrective feedback on ESL student writing.Journal of Second Language Writing. on improving ELLs’ communicative competence through interacting with each other in different tasks to discover and practice the rules. reported speech. Finally. &Tobat.European Journal of Social Sciences. 1996). K. (2007). (2009)..together to analyze and discover the rules was effective in generating accurate understanding of the grammatical structures and in using the target language. Also. In order to assist ELLs in classes that require explicit grammar teaching. The population was not randomly selected. Alghazo. M. S. (2005). Young. another research instrument such as one-to-one interviews. Retrieved March 3. S. the questionnaire responses to students’ writing samples or answers in the one-to-one interview. core grammar topics such as articles. students’ responses to the questionnaire might not be enough to determine the most challenging English grammar topics because some respondents marked all the listed grammar topics as ‘Very easy’. The findings revealed that unreal conditions. (2011). this paper tried to gain some understanding of the grammar topics that upperintermediate ELLs find challenging. References Abushihab. it can be understood that grammar CR does not only focus on developing awareness of English grammatical features but. M. I. and pronouns should be included as a part of the questionnaire. Second.BaniAbdelrahman. The effects of implicit and explicit instruction on simple and complex grammatical structures for adult English language learners. and passive voice were among the grammar topics that participants identified as difficult. or a grammar test can be utilized. students’ writing samples. & Cameron. a random selection for the participants should be taken into consideration to yield more generalizable findings. the researcher recommends the following. A. 2012. European Journal of Social Sciences..html Bitchener. h. Z. The effect of teachers’ error feedback on Al-Hussein Bin Talal University students’ self correction ability. Accordingly. 11(2).. J. The findings of this study might not be generalizable because of some limitations. also. D. L. Accordingly..An analysis of written grammatical errors of Arab learners of English as a foreign language at Alzaytoonah private university of Jordan.

. 1-13. (2007). 147-174).TheattitudesandperceptionsofnonnativeEnglishspeakingadultstowardexplicitgrammar. L. Derewianka. S. Consciousness-raising activities in the language classroom. (Eds.Why it makes sense to teach grammar in context and through discourse. (2000).. SEAS. Consciousness raising and noticing through focus on form: Gram-mar task performance versus formal instruction. 29(1). G. Tetreault JR. Thornbury. Tense. London: Pearson ESL. T. and Willis. D. D. (2010). SLA research and language teaching.Applied Linguistics. 5-29. V. (2004).Computers and Composition.TESOL Quarterly. The communication of grammatical proficiency. Hinkel. 14. Ellis. 25-30.Language Teaching Research.A. Ellis. In Willis. .Dept. Bitterlin. ELTE. Fotos. 386. of Linguistics. aspect and the passive voice in L1 and L2 academic texts. (1985). Fotos. (2002). Challenge and change in language teaching. Ikpia. J. London: George Allen and Unwin.). E. Close. (1999). Shanklin. (1995). (1994). (1993). D.. I. Interpretation tasks for grammar teaching. Savage. NJ: Erlbaum.). 323-351.In Proceedings of the 4th ACL. Integrating grammar instruction and communicative language use through grammar consciousness-raising tasks.407. Han NR (2007). Chodorow M.SIGSEM Workshop on Prepositions. Dalgish. R. 8(1). 28(2). Fotos (Eds.Grammar matters: Teaching grammar in adult ESL classes.. In E.Australian Journal of Language and Literacy.The education of English language learners: Research to practice. R. L. London: Heinemann. 22-25. K. Hinkel& S. Willis. 22(1). In Varga L. (1996). USA: Cambridge University Press. Detection of Grammatical Errors Involving Prepositions.Humanities Review Journal. M. An editorial footnote.How to teach grammar. 2(4). New York: The Guilford Press. 5. M. Shatz. R.Computer-assisted ESL research and courseware development. (1982).C.G.(Eds). S. B.Oxford: Oxford University Press. 119–134). (1997).TESOL Quarterly. 87-105.Celce-Murcia. M. (2010). Lowercase: Detection of grammatical errors involving prepositions. & Price. (1994). S. English as a foreign language. Mahwah. New perspectives on grammar teaching in second language classrooms (pp. 45-62. The Even Yearbook (pp. & Wilkinson.

Appendix A QUESTIONNAIRE: GRAMMAR PROBLEMS FACING ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS Level: 4 Gender: Male [ ] Female [ Native Language: _____________ ] Age: ________ Nationality: __________ How long have you been learning English?__________ INSTRUCTIONS I. Past Modals 1 2 3 4 5 E.wsu.g. I had done my homework before I met my friends. The teacher had warned his students not to cheat on the exam. Your answers will be kept confidential and in no way will affect your grade or performance in the class. Reported Speech 1 2 3 4 5 E. I had been doing my homework when I was interrupted by a phone call. Please rate each grammar topic according to how difficult or easy it is for you on a 1 to 5 scale: 1 = Very easy 2 = Easy 3 = Neutral 4 = Difficult 5 = Very difficult * The purpose of this questionnaire is to find out the most common grammar problems facing intermediate English language TOPIC Past Perfect SCALE 1 2 3 4 5 E. His wallet must have been stolen.g. Rana said that she was going to walk to the store. Past Perfect Progressive 1 2 3 4 5 E. If you have any questions regarding this questionnaire please contact Eman Elturki at eman. Reported Speech (Yes/No Questions) 1 2 3 4 5 . Thank you for your cooperation.g.g. Reported Speech (Commands) 1 2 3 4 5 E.elturki@email.

The student asked who the teacher was.g. Reported Speech (WH Questions) 1 2 3 4 5 E.g. . Passive 1 2 3 4 5 E. The room is being cleaned by Joseph. She asked him if he had an extra pen.E.g.

1996)) C-R activities based on a written text Auto-pilot The flight ran several times a week taking holidaymakers to various resorts in the Mediterranean.g. Past Real Conditions 1 2 3 4 5 E. Always Usually Somewhat Little Never 2) I apply most of the grammar points mentioned above when I speak. II. Always Usually Somewhat Little Never Appendix B (CR grammar task activities adopted from (Willis.g. If I had enough money. I would be a new car. Please check ONE choice that describes your use of grammar in writing and speaking in English: 1) I apply most of the grammar points mentioned above when I write essays. On each flight. If you heat water to 100'. Present Real Conditions 1 2 3 4 5 E. my parents were proud.g. Infinitives 1 2 3 4 5 E. the captain would put the jet on to auto-pilot and he and all the crew would come aft into the cabin to greet the passengers.g. Unfortunately on this particular flight the security door between the cabin and the flight deck jammed and left . Past Unreal Conditions 1 2 3 4 5 E. He admitted stealing the money. I advise you not to drop out of school. Causative Passive 1 2 3 4 5 E.g. to reassure the passengers all was well. I got me watch fixed. If I had been born in the 1970s. my life would have been different. If I got high grades. The windows are broken.g.TOPIC SCALE Stative Passive 1 2 3 4 5 E.g. Gerund 1 2 3 4 5 E. If I have some free time tonight. Future Real Conditions 1 2 3 4 5 E.g.g. it changes to steam. Present/Future Unreal Conditions 1 2 3 4 5 E. I will call my friend.

What word occurs in nearly all these phrases? Why? 2 What does would mean in the second sentence? 3 What about ran in the first sentence? Would used to run give the same meaning? What about jammed and left in the second paragraph? Could used to be used here? 4 Cover your original text. However on this flight the security door between the cabin and the flight deck jammed. 1 List all the phrases to do with aircraft and flying. would is the past tense of i) ii) will. in spite of efforts to open the door. despite efforts to open the door. to reassure the passengers that everything was all right. Find sentences in which would is used as a conditional. From that moment. the fate of the passengers and crew was sealed. From that moment.the captain and the crew stuck in the cabin. 5 Would: Review Here are some sentences with would which you have seen before. On every flight. I would think so. iii) would means `used to'. How many sentences are left over? a If you were designing a poster which two would you choose? b Yes. leaving the captain and the crew stuck in the cabin. . the captain used to put the jet on to autopilot and he and all the crew used to come aft into the cabin to greet the passengers. the fate of the passengers and crew was sealed. How has it been changed from the original? Auto-pilot The flight ran several times a week taking holidaymakers to resorts in the Mediterranean. Read the rewritten version of the text below.

yes. g Would people in your country talk freely about these things? h Then we said that we would play hide and seek. . Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website. yes. i Often there would be a village band made up of self-taught players. and it would slow the ship down. j Some would write their own songs or set new words to tunes. I would agree with that certainly. My parents wouldn't allow it. k What advice would you give to a young person leaving school or University? 1 That's right. Would he get caught in the propeller? o This brief report would best be understood by a listener who had read the earlier story. Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary Teachers course at Pilgrims website. m I never had the light on. n But now a new fear assailed him. f Not the sort of letter I would like to receive. `Oh your mother spoils you.c My brother would say.' d Would you like to ask us anything about it? e Yes.