Three Strategies for Teaching Grammar in ESL

Grammar can often be frustrating for ESL students, partly because many grammar texts contain exercises that use the “drill” method with sample sentences out of context. While the drilling method can be very helpful for students who are in beginning stages of learning English, it may become difficult for more advanced students to apply the structures in their own writing. To help students incorporate their newly learned grammar skills into their writing, teachers can ask students to practice specific skills in a paragraph. As students re-write drafts, the teacher can ask students to focus on another skill. This way, students will not feel overwhelmed or frustrated.

Showme has helped me to cut down on the time I spend lecturing on grammar structures in class. With the Showme tutorials, students can watch at home what they do not understand. In class, I can focus more on using the structures in context by asking students to write their own pieces. It is not completely “flipping” the class, but it has made a huge improvement in the way I structure my class sessions; they are no longer just grammar lectures with a bit of time to practice at the end.  I would like to share three strategies that I find successful in the ESL classroom.

First, it is important to collect errors unique to the cultural group(s) a teacher works with. For example, Chinese students tend to have trouble with articles because their language may not have a need for them, while Saudi and some Middle Eastern students tend to have difficulty with Subject-Verb-Object order. As teachers collect work samples, it is wise to also make a list of all the common errors. By using lists of these common errors, teachers can point them out to students so that they become aware that they are incorrect. I normally explain a grammar structure, and after the students have practiced it independently, I often make a list of errors made by previous students and ask them to correct them. Error-correction helps some students understand certain structures better. Creating Showme tutorials for common errors helps students to review them independently.

Second, use a lot of self-talks. This means that as I correct an error on the board, I talk out the steps: “First, I check that my subject and verb are correct; then, I see that the pronoun is “she” which is third person singular, and I see that this needs a third-person-singular‘s’”. I often ask students to do this at the board along with self-talks. Because they are ESL students, they have to internalize these steps. By speaking them out loud while they analyze, their brain has another chance to remember the steps. Of course, the structure of self-talks will depend on the students’ level. I have successfully done this with beginning, intermediate, and advanced English level students, both children and adults. I model self-talks in my Showme tutorials and have noticed that the students who watched them at home often use self-talks on their own in class.

Third, guided note-taking can help students who don’t have the best note-taking habits or lack note-taking experience. How does one take notes for grammar? In addition to what I post on the board and students’ individual notes, I ask students to circle, underline, and draw arrows just as I draw them on the board in their independent homework assignment. I have, over the years, noticed that students who practice this will also do it on an exam, and those students tend to score higher because they caught an error they made and erased it (this also takes years of collecting samples). A teacher will also be able to easily see which students are struggling with a concept because they will often circle or underline incorrectly. Note-taking helps to reinforce students’ memories. The Showme tutorials often show my own underlining and circling which helps encourage students to try out sample exercises the same way.

 After all these strategies have been practiced by the students, I often show a video clip and ask students to write a summary using specific structures from a unit (i.e. parallel structure, adverbs of time, etc.). I like to use Mr. Bean clips or Wallace and Gromit. They are short, funny, and usually have no complicated dialogue, so they’re ideal for any level (writing activities should be tailored accordingly for beginning levels). Finally, this is what Showme has enabled me to do more! I used to never find the time to show a video clip, but now that students get to review common errors in my Showme tutorials, students look forward to writing those summaries! Who would’ve thought? Many of my students used to groan whenever I mentioned a summary. With a video clip, they have something concrete to write about and although the class writes about the same clip, I end up with very original samples that students are proud of!