Teaching English Grammar to EFL Students (Part 1 of 4)

As teachers of English, it's our job to convey all aspects of this complex and, at times, confusing, language in a way that is understandable, meaningful and relevant in accordance with the needs of our students. The vast majority of us will be teaching people whose main purpose is to pass an exam that demonstrates competency in English at one level or another (and some of these may well be reluctant learners). However, no matter what the ultimate goal of studying the language is, one aspect of English is crucial to all students - grammar.

Generally speaking, grammar is immutable. The rules of formation and application simply have to be learned. Consequently, grammar is usually viewed as drudgery and far less stimulating than, say, developing listening or speaking skills. But the fact is that grammar is the framework around which all other aspects of any language must be structured if one is to achieve acceptable levels of ability. The challenge for us, then, is to take grammar into the classroom and make it interesting, motivating and accessible for all our students. If our students not only learn their grammar, but also enjoy their grammar lessons, we'll know we've succeeded!

The basic premise underlying much of our teaching technique is the idea of 'presentation, practice, production'. This article focuses on the 'presentation' of grammar - subsequent articles will examine methods of 'practice' and 'production'.


Straightforward presentation of verb declension (I am. you are, he is, she is, etc.), whilst a common starting point, isn't really the most engaging of prospects for language learners. Similarly, subsequent drill, whilst again widely undertaken, isn't the best way to help language learners move towards application of the learned grammar points in everyday usage. We could do worse than remember the old proverb 'Don't give your students fish, but teach them how to fish'. We need to give our students the tools with which they are able to examine and decipher grammar rules and patterns in a way that is personalised and meaningful to them.

Instead of starting with a list of rules for a particular grammar point, we could present the structure and help the students to work out the rules themselves.  In this way, not only does grammar become more of a challenge and less of a bore, but it also gives students some sense of empowerment - they have 'conquered' an element of grammar.

The best way to start any lesson - especially one dealing with grammar -is by engaging the students right from the start. This is an age-related thing, but for most school-age students you might consider, for example, using a cartoon strip or a common TV or film character as the basis for introducing a grammar point. Bring in pictures, cartoons, etc - or, where grammar books have incorporated these as an integral part of their text, use the pictorial presentations in textbooks as fully as possible. By virtue of dialogue in a cartoon or by discussion about a particular character, you can elicit discussion, give leader sentences and encourage students to build on or adapt these and steer the lesson around a specific grammar point. For example, use a cartoon picture of Scooby Doo (you can get an enlarged colour photocopy if you're not up to copy-drawing something) and either have him saying something ('I'm looking for ghosts.' 'I want a Scooby snack.' 'I'm frightened!' - depending on the grammar point you're teaching), or talk about the picture ('What is Scooby Doo doing?' 'Is Scooby Doo happy?' 'What will happen if he sees a ghost?' and so on).

Once certain grammar points have been introduced, these can be examined in more detail. You could write some key sentences taken from the preceeding discussion onto the board and ask students to try to find patterns in the sentences. Let's say your lesson is looking at the Present Simple tense - you might write the following sentences:

Scooby Doo wears a blue collar.

Scooby Doo lives with Shaggy.

Scooby Doo and Shaggy usually look for ghosts together.

Shaggy likes Scooby Doo.

Scooby Doo and Shaggy like food!

Your students, if they can identify the '-s for third person singular' rule in the Present Simple, will immediately begin to feel less daunted by the idea of learning a new tense because they have correctly pin-pointed one of the 'mysterious' grammar rules by themselves.

Whenever students can identify patterns in grammar in this way, instead of having to learn them 'cold', they are empowered by, and not disabled by, their learning; grammar becomes something they can handle and not something they are daunted by.

Use of personalised texts is another way of presenting grammar in a way that students can immediately relate to. As their teacher, you need to know certain information about your students in order to be able to structure lessons that are personally suitable - their opinions, attitudes, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears are all relevant in finding texts that will engage your students and capture their interest. Many of the texts in current textbooks have incorporated these features and will be of value as teaching tools; otherwise, find or even write suitable texts yourselves, using specific grammar points - and then use them in lessons. You can encourage your students to identify different grammatical structures within texts, for example to identify positive, negative or interrogative forms of a particular tense, to find sentences in the third conditional, or whatever. You can subsequently continue to work on the text, lifting sentences and encouraging your students to play around with them - changing them into positive/negative sentences, asking questions in the same tense/voice, using sentences as the basis for class or group discussion, and so forth.

The main thing to remember in presenting grammar to groups of learners is that in order  to be successful, your students must be motivated and involved - and routine declension and drill isn't likely to prove the best way of achieving this. Imaginative use of materials, and full involvement of the students at every stage is far more likely to produce the desired results. One final point - don't forget to use your self as a tool too in presenting grammar - your interest and enthusiasm, and your humour, will all convey a message to the students - grammar can be fun!