Making grammar more interesting for students is one of the great challenges any EFL teacher faces.

Whether teaching from a course book or from other sources, it is inevitable that you will have to cover some English grammar. The way that teachers tackle grammar varies a great deal and there is no real right or wrong way to do it. At the beginning it’s a case of trying several different approaches to see which ones are most effective for you and your students. Here are some points to consider when teaching grammar.

Metalanguage (linguistic terms)
Do you need to use the linguistic terms? Do students need to know that if they say “I’ve lived here for ten years” that the tense they are using is called the present perfect?

  • In some cases students do need to know the terminology as their other teachers or their course book may use it and they will need it as a point of reference. Therefore don’t be afraid of using the terminology but try to introduce it as late on as you can, when the students already have some idea of the concept and the form.

    For example, rather than starting a lesson saying “Today we’re going to do the past continuous”, start by asking students, “What were you doing yesterday at 3 o’clock?” and get their mind set ready for understanding the concept. When they have been introduced to the use and the structure, it may be appropriate to ask, “does anyone know what this tense is called?” or just to tell them yourself.

    Some learners may feel more secure if they know the metalanguage.

Think of real contexts
Before going into the class where you will be covering some grammar, spend a few minutes to think about when and why you use the structure or grammar point. Try to think of some real life situations when native English speakers would use that type of language.

  • These situations can be used to create role-play situations for students to practice the structure or they can be used for you to introduce the structure or grammar point in a natural way.
  • With higher levels find some authentic texts, such as a paragraph from a book you’re reading or a chunk of an article from the internet. Pick out real examples of the grammar point you are dealing with. This helps to bring the language to life.

If you are using a course book which features lots of random characters who nobody in the class knows or cares about, try to bring some of the activities to life by using members of the class’ names and some personal information.

  • You could use the book as the first stage of the class then personalise by the students writing a similar text or some similar sentences about themselves.
  • This week I’ve been doing modals of deduction with one of my groups. (Must, might, could and can’t ) The book was rather dry, so I delved to the bottom of my bag and found some evidence from how I’d spent the last weekend! I gathered together a couple of cinema tickets, a restaurant bill, a train ticket, some bicycle clips, a sweet etc. After looking at the grammar point in the book I got my random items out on the table and asked the students to do some detective work and have some guesses about my weekend. They had to use the modals of deduction to say things like, “You must have gone to the cinema on Friday and you might have gone with your boyfriend. That means you can’t have watched the film on TV…” etc. etc. They were interested in the task and they got to practise the modal verbs in a different way.

Time lines

When teaching different tenses it can be really useful to draw a time line on the board. For example, when looking at the present perfect it can be useful to draw a time line like this:

1999 ______________________________Now - - - - - - ?
“I’ve been living in Barcelona since 1992.”

Or to show the past continuous:

3o’clock 4 o’clock 5 o’clock 6 o’clock 7o’clock

______________( _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ )_______________
“I was playing tennis at 5 o’clock yesterday”

The dotted line represents the action. You could draw a stick figure playing tennis within the brackets to show that you started playing tennis at around 4.30 and you played until 6.45.

Time lines are a great help for visual learners.

Splash in some treats!
If you are obliged to plough through a course book and you don’t have time to adapt it all or are lacking in ideas of how to spice it up, try to vary the work from the course book with some lighter activities. If you are teaching a certain tense you could find a song that has some real examples of the tense being used. This will not only help the class dynamics but will serve as a reminder to students that the grammar they are learning is useful and ‘real’.

Alternatively, negotiate with the students and offer some games when they have finished the grammar practice activities. With older students and higher levels it is sometimes worthwhile asking them how they like to go about learning grammar. If they have been learning English for many years they may be able to tell you what works and doesn’t work for them. I did this recently and was surprised to find that the majority of the group actually liked going through the grammar rules in the book as it gave them a sense of security about later using the language. Try as many different ideas as you can and see what you and the class are happiest with.


By Jo Budden