I started teaching in 2008 and for three years I basically taught young children the absolute basics of the English language. I would point to a picture and tell them, “This is an apple,” or ask them, “How’s the weather today?” To do this sort of job, you need many things – patience, energy, a little teaching theory – but you don’t exactly need to be a genius at grammar. It’s pretty rare for a three-year-old to ask, “Teacher, how do I form the third conditional?”

ESL teaching with elementary students
A young me teaching in South Korea.

When I moved to China, I took a job in a university and suddenly my textbooks were filled with pretty unfamiliar ideas. I had to teach things like the passive voice and the present perfect tense. There were conditionals, participle clauses, and transitive verbs… but it wasn’t a huge problem for me at the time for two reasons:

  1. Chinese students seldom ask questions.
  2. The book told me most of what I needed to know.

Nevertheless, I always lived in fear that one day a student might ask me something that I couldn’t answer and I would look like an idiot in front of my class.

Is Your Grammar Good Enough?

I grew up reading lots of books and then went to good schools, where I ended up with an MA in Literature. Somewhere along the line, I got into writing and editing. It would be natural to think, then, that I knew the rules of English grammar like the back of mind hand.

Alas, I did not.

Like most native speakers, I knew English grammar intuitively from hearing and reading it as a child. I just knew something was right because I had heard it so many times. I had very good English skills and excelled at writing because I read so much… but I still didn’t know why we said certain things. I knew that a dangling participle was a mistake, but I didn’t know what it was called or how to explain that it was wrong.

Nonetheless, I was a pretty good teacher and I did study grammar before each class that I taught. I prepared excellent lessons and my students learned quickly. In other words, my lack of formal grammar education did not prevent me from doing my job.

It probably won’t prevent you from being a good ESL teacher, either, but it depends on exactly what you are teaching. If you teach young kids, then there is absolutely no reason to know the names of the different components of grammar because you will just baffle your students. At that age, they are able to copy you and learn just from absorbing language. If you are teaching at university, you might need to do some studying…

How to Improve your Grammar Skills to Teach ESL

It was in 2014 that I somehow managed to get a job at an excellent university and needed to teach academic writing to hundreds of students, some of whom had questions about the ins and outs of the language. I realized pretty quickly that it was time to start educating myself.

In the past, I had read up on the different tenses before a lesson so that I could explain them well to my students, but I quickly forgot because it was not exactly interesting to me. In 2014, however, I decided to teach myself English. I sat down and watched hours of YouTube videos that explained the different clauses and tenses and voices. I made copious notes and then studied them later. It wasn’t terribly exciting, but it was useful. It made me a better teacher and even my own writing started to improve. Whenever I wrote something, I asked myself whether it was grammatical and why I knew that. I found that many things I had previously done were wrong, and I began to change.

At some point, I decided to write a book on grammar. As a writer, it was an interesting challenge. Over several semesters, I built a course for my students from own ideas and observations, and I started to put my lessons into chapters of the book. The result was Grammar for IELTS Writing:

grammar for ielts writing

Honestly, the process of writing the book was probably the most informative for me because, in order to actually put the ideas into words, I had to really, really understand them. I couldn’t rely on a textbook to help me.

Of course, I don’t recommend that everyone goes out and writes a whole book about grammar. It’s a long and arduous process. However, it was very helpful to study grammar and then try to explain it as clearly as possible.

How Important is Grammar in ESL?

I managed to get along fine as a teacher for many years without really understanding English grammar. If a student asked, “Is this right?” I could easily tell her yes or no and then maybe give some examples to help her understand. However, it was always slightly embarrassing that I didn’t know the right words to explain it.

Nowadays, I have no problem with that. I spend most of my working life telling people what mistakes they are making, why it is a mistake, and how to fix it. This works for me as I am now very well-versed in the rules of grammar.

But is it really important?

As I said before, if you are teaching young kids, it is not that important. If you are teaching spoken English, it may not even be that essential. However, it is always helpful to know. Even in my conversation classes, I like to show my students that they have made an error called “subject-verb disagreement.” It’s not important that they know that phrase, but I need to be able to articulate it to them and it does help to be educated in such matters.

You can be a fine teacher without such knowledge, but you’d be a much better one with it. As such, I’d strongly recommend you get a book or a series of videos and then put some time into learning it. Let’s face it – you’ve got most of the knowledge in your head already. You absorbed it simply by growing up around English speakers. Now you just need to know the rules that make it that way.