If you are reading this article, then you are quite possibly an ESL teacher (or thinking of getting into ESL) and you are worried about your grammar knowledge. First of all, don’t worry! It is perfectly normal to feel that you don’t know enough grammar to do the job well. My aim in this article is to give you an overview of what grammar you need to know as an ESL teacher and how to learn it so that you can teach it.
There are books written on this subject and they are loooong… so obviously this 2,000+ word article is probably not going to give you everything, but hopefully it can set you on the right track.
How much do you need to know?
The most important question to ask at this stage is: “How much grammar do you really need to know to do your job well?”
This will elicit a different answer from different people. I’ve been teaching ESL for 13 years and I’ve had jobs where grammar wasn’t important and jobs where it was utterly essentially. Here’s an overview of my career:
|Years||Job||Level of Grammar Required|
|2007-2010||Kindergarten in S. Korea||Almost none|
|2010-2013||University in China||Some intermediate grammar – basic tenses, passive, conditionals|
|2014-2018||A better university in China||Very high level of grammar. Extensive knowledge required.|
|2016-present||Teaching IELTS online||Extensive knowledge required.|
This is perhaps not surprising. When you teach kindergarten, the kids aren’t going to know what adjective clauses are in their own language, never mind a second one. All that you really need to be able to do, grammatically speaking, is model good sentences and correct bad ones. You need to teach them to say things like “I like apples.” They don’t need to know that this is SUBJECT + VERB + OBJECT.
At the higher levels, of course, you need to be able to tell students why they are wrong. This is really important. One of the things ESL teachers fear the most is having to say, “It’s just wrong because it’s wrong…”
The Importance of Feedback
I have written before about the importance of feedback for IELTS and ESL students, so I won’t go into much detail here. However, the key fact is: FEEDBACK IS ESSENTIAL.
Imagine you are teaching a class of ten high-level students and one of them asks you a question. She asks, “Why is it ‘They have visited London’ and not just ‘They visited London’?”
You panic. She is looking at you and so are the other nine students. You don’t know the answer to the question, so you are left with two choices:
- Make something up.
- Say something like “It’s just what we say.”
You certainly can’t do #1 because you have a responsibility to give correct and helpful information. #2 is not much better, to be honest.
But there is actually a third option:
- Tell them you don’t know but will find it out.
This is the best thing to do, but of course it is a little embarrassing. No teacher wants to seem as though they don’t know an answer. However, of those three options it is by far the best one. Students will respect you if you go and find an answer for them.
Still, the best thing would be to know the answer in the first place, and that’s why we are reading this article.
Isn’t it Enough to Intuitively Know Grammar?
One advantage that we native speakers of English have is that we intuitively know grammar. If I said to you, “John and James goes to play football,” you would immediately recognise that I have made a mistake. You would also be able to correct it for me: “John and James go to play football.”
We have all learned language through living in a culture where it is spoken, and some of us have read lots of books so we learn proper grammar and lazy grammar. However, unless you learn the rules, you will soon find it is hard to convert your innate knowledge to actual lessons.
The answer, then, is no – it is not enough to intuitively know grammar. A good ESL teacher must have some formal knowledge so that they can explain it properly to their students.
How to Learn English Grammar [for Native Speakers]
Grammar is intimidating and sometimes you may think that it is not important or that it is not worth learning. After all, you may have gotten through twenty or thirty years of life without bothering to learn it. I was twenty-five before I really started to make an effort, and it never bothered me. However, now that I actually know the rules properly, it is much easier for me to teach and my students learn much faster.
I would recommend picking up a good guide to grammar as well as watching some YouTube videos about it. There are many options for both of these approaches. When I was preparing to sit a CELTA course, I bought a copy of Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage and I would say that it is the best book I have personally seen. (This is true for native speakers. For your students, you will need something different.) I also sat through a few hours of grammar guide videos, which really helped.
It was not the most exciting thing that I have ever done, but I cannot deny the value imparted. I felt a little embarrassed, actually, watching people explain subjects and objects, verbs and adjectives. It started to stick in my head and the next time I had to teach grammar, it was easier. This happened slowly over many years, until I actually wrote my own grammar book and designed a grammar course.
What Grammar do you Need to Know?
Again, the level of grammar that you will need is completely dependent upon the level of your students, so there is no point in learning complex terminology for your next group of 5-year-olds. Even for upper-intermediate students, you probably don’t need to be able to list all the uses of a comma because this is quite frankly a difficult part of language that even 90% of native speakers misuse. (I made up the 90% figure, but based upon my observations that is a reasonable guess.)
Here are some approximations for what grammar you need to know in order to teach. By “know,” I mean that you should have a genuinely good understanding of it and be able to explain it clearly.
|Kindergarten||You should be able to speak English to teach this level, but you do not need to explain why anything is right or wrong.|
|Beginner||Again, an intuitive understanding is fine. You won’t help anyone by explaining much here.|
|Intermediate||This is where you really need to know grammar and be able to explain it. Important points: |
|Advanced||You need all of the above, plus simple but accurate explanations. At this point, it is worth knowing: |
(You should include these at int. level but at advanced level you should be able to explain them very clearly and explain why a mistake is a mistake.)
The Most Important Grammar for ESL and IELTS Teachers
Grammar is such a massive field that it is hard to really say what is important and what isn’t, but I feel confident saying that almost any ESL or IELTS teacher should spend some time learning the following:
- Verb tenses
- Sentence types
Honestly, when you build from this foundation, you make the process so much easier. These are fundamental. We can begin adding additional grammar on top. This would continue with:
- Clause types
- Passive voice
It is also worth knowing common mistakes because these are the problems you will most frequently have to explain.
Common Grammar Problems
To be honest, the most common problems will vary a little by region because of first-language interference. For example, in some countries (like Russia) you will see that articles cause an incredible amount of difficulty. However, in other places articles are not difficult at all. This is due to the similarities between English and the other language.
Overall, however, I find that these are the most common mistakes among ESL learners (in the intermediate and advanced categories):
- Article misuse
- Preposition misuse
- Incorrect tense choice
- Subject-verb disagreement
- Punctuation problems
- Comma splice
- Run-on sentence
Your job, as a teacher, is to fix these errors and if you do not fully understand them then you cannot do this very well. As such, it is essential that you know enough to do this.
Key Grammar Facts for ESL Teachers
If I try to teach you all the grammar necessary to be a good teacher, this article would go on for tens of thousands of words, and I do not have the time to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you a few things that I wish someone had told me many years ago. These are what I consider “key grammar facts” and knowing them really helps speed up the process of learning.
There are 4 types of sentence
Even though grammar seems really complicated, and even though there is a seemingly infinite combination of words possible, we only have four types of sentence in English:
|Type of Sentence||Construction||Example|
|Simple||1 independent clause||I like football.|
|Complex||1 independent and 1 dependent clause||I like football because it’s exciting.|
|Compound||2 independent clauses||I like football, but I don’t like rugby.|
|Compound-complex||(at least) 2 independent clauses and 1 dependent clause||I like football because it’s exciting, but I don’t like rugby.|
Even though there are many different functions of sentences, they all fit into these four categories. If they do not, they are not technically correct sentences.
There are 8 parts of speech
I like to teach my students the names of the parts of speech early on in a course because it means that later I can explain things more easily. For example, if my students make a mistake with adverbs and adjectives (a common error is to confuse them), then I can easily fix this by explaining the purpose.
For example, here is a conversation about a grammar problem:
TEACHER: You have written here “The price of corn rose rapid between 2005 and 2008.” Is “rapid” the right word?
STUDENT: Er… “rapidly”?
TEACHER: That’s right!
TEACHER: What kind of word is this? (Point to “rose.”)
STUDENT: It is a verb.
TEACHER: What kind of word modifies a verb?
STUDENT: Er… an adverb?
TEACHER: That’s right. When we give more information about a verb, we add an adverb. Often, this has “-ly” at the end of it, like “rapidly.”
There are 12 tenses… and they do have rules governing their use!
English is hard to learn because there are so many tenses. Native speakers often use very bad, lazy English and this is a problem now because the specific uses for our tenses get lost. When you are used to saying things the lazy way, it can be hard to go back to using them correctly.
You might have that attitude that affects some teachers: “But I speak good English. I just wanna teach my students to speak like me!”
Ok, that is fine and there is definitely a lot of value to that. However, your students will sit various English tests and the answers they give will be informed by what you teach them. If you don’t know the difference between using the present perfect and the past simple, then your lack of knowledge may hurt your student’s grades.
I strongly suggest that you take a grammar test and then see how you do. It can be embarrassing. About 8 years ago, I did one and got lots of answers wrong. I told myself that I had done the test too quickly and that I would have gotten it right if I had invested the time… but I don’t think that’s really true. In any case, I decided then to study grammar and I don’t regret it. For an English teacher, it is simply inexcusable to not know the reasons for each of the tenses, the construction of the passive voice, or the basic uses of commas. (No, you can’t put them before “because” or “that.”) If you are a native speaker, it really won’t take you long to learn, so hop on YouTube or Amazon and get yourself some good resources. It’s time to learn the language you were born to speak.