Helpful Strategies for Teaching Grammar to English Language Learners

English teacher with long blonde hair and bright smile wearing a beige sweater and white tshirt sitting at table with three international language students for Helpful Strategies for Teaching Grammar to English Language Learners by Suzanne Marie

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Teaching English grammar can be a formidable challenge, particularly when students are mastering the language. English language learners bring their distinct needs to the classroom, demanding specialized techniques for success.

Join us on an enlightening journey in this blog post as we delve into the history of grammar and unveil research-backed teaching strategies tailored for English language learners.

Discover how these techniques can bridge the gap and empower your students to conquer the intricacies of English grammar confidently.

Creating the Learning Environment for Teaching Grammar

Here are some tips for creating a positive and successful learning environment for your ESL students:

  1. Pre-Assessment
  2. Practice
  3. Build Context
  4. Collaborate
  5. Assessments

Pre- Assessment

Before introducing a new topic or concept, assessing each student’s existing knowledge is vital. Pre-assessment helps to set goals for learning outcomes and teaching and learning strategies.

Here are five ways to get started with pre-assessment for teaching grammar:

  • Develop an understanding of students’ level of proficiency.
  • Build on prior knowledge when creating lessons.
  • Design lessons tailored to student needs.
  • Encourage students to share what they already know about a topic.
  • Use edtech tools like translating devices or apps to link mother-tongue language to English.  
  • Explain differences in grammar structures between languages.
  • Use visual aids to link grammar examples to images, objects, or videos.

Provide Opportunities for Practice

Repetition is one of the best ways for ESL students to learn and retain new information.

  • Repeat words, phrases, sentences, and concepts over and over until they become comfortable with their use.
  • Additionally, provide plenty of opportunities for independent practice.
  • Finally, have your students complete activities allowing them to apply what they learned.

Practice helps students gain confidence in using their English skills in real-world situations.

Use EdTech and Visual Aids

Visuals, such as graphs, charts, illustrations, and photos, are great for teaching ESL students since they provide a visual reference to go along with verbal instructions.

Additionally, making use of audio resources can support comprehension and pronunciation. For instance, playing recordings or listening to music in the target language are great tools for exposing students to the sounds of spoken English.

Apps for creating flashcards like Quizlet are helpful for students to review and practice between classes.

Visual aids provide context for students to see examples of how the English language is applied in real-world situations.

Encourage Collaboration

Facilitating practice and conversational skills among English language learners by encouraging collaboration gives them extra practice and feedback.

Here are three examples of how to set the tone for collaboration in classes:

  • Set the tone for collaboration through projects requiring students to work in groups.
  • Discussions and group conversations allow students to practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing with their peers and build confidence when speaking in the target language.
  • Activities such as role-play, discussions, debates, and interviews provide valuable communication opportunities for gaining confidence in practical contexts.

Assess Student Mastery and Comprehension

There are various strategies to assess language proficiency among students.

Supplementing tests focusing on grammatical accuracy with other assessment methods help students build confidence in learning grammar.

Here are three tips for basic forms of assessing grammar:

  • Tasks requiring students to engage creatively with a topic or carry out complex tasks involving more than one language skill are helpful.
  • Observation and informal conversations in the classroom.
  • Feedback from peers.

Assessments help students to gain insight into how well they understand the material. They also help them apply their knowledge in real-world contexts.

What is grammar?

Grammar is a system of rules about how we form words, how words are formed into sentences, and the meaning and use of these words and sentences.

Grammar includes three elements: form, meaning, and use.

Theories of Grammar

Theories of Grammar Infographic

Traditional Theory of Grammar

Traditional grammar refers to the grammar theories that originated in ancient Greece and Rome and became popular at the end of the 18th century.

The values of Traditional grammar are embedded in the old grammar model. The old grammar model emphasizes the written language more than the oral language.

The parts of speech are an essential element of traditional grammar since patterns of inflection and syntax rules depend on a word’s part of speech.

Although systems vary somewhat, typically, traditional grammars name eight parts of speech.

  • Noun
  • Common Noun
  • Proper Noun
  • Adjective
  • Verb
  • Adverb
  • Preposition
  • Conjunction

Grammar Translation Method

The Grammar Translation Method directly influences language teaching from the Traditional Grammar Theory.

This explains the characteristics of this method:

  • Language teaching aims to read materials such as foreign classics with minimal emphasis on oral language skills.
  • Since there needs to be more emphasis on verbal language skills, students often need help speaking the language even after years of study.
  • The classroom environment is predominantly teacher-centered, where teachers do all the talking, and the students merely take notes and listen.
  • Teachers mostly use their native language to teach grammar.
  • There is an emphasis on translation exercises.

Structuralism Grammar

Structuralism is an approach to linguistics that stresses the importance of language as a system. It investigates the place linguistic units such as sounds, words, and sentences have within this system.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is regarded as the father of Structuralism.

Saussure distinguished linguistics between:

LANGUAGE: A socially shared system that makes production and comprehension possible.

There are two points of importance:

  1. It is a social institution, and each language as such is something external to all speakers so that no one speaker can change it.
  2. A system of signs forms a structure; each character is defined by its relation to other network elements.

PAROLE: This is actual speech production. However, it also involves the speaker’s mood and tone.

Differences Between Traditional Grammar and Structuralism
Traditional GrammarStructuralism
Written language is very important.Spoken language is important.
Grammar is prescriptive, and language must follow grammar.Grammar is descriptive, and thus, language must first be described if we want to learn it.
Classifies language into different levels according to its closeness to Latin.Denies this and values the languages of all countries.
Traditional Grammar and Structuralism
Two Schools of Structuralism
European SchoolAmerican School
Saussure represented the European school. He claimed the meaning of words is to be understood through their relation to each other. He also distinguished between Parole and Langue, Synchronically and Diachronically.Leonard Bloomfield represented the American school. Bloomfield invented Immediate Constitute Analysis (IC Analysis) to dissect a sentence into small parts.
European School and American School in Structuralism Grammar

Grammar Research

Research about conceptual change theory for a languaging visualization method for grammar teaching has ideas of conceptual change theory.

They used this theory to establish new grammar teaching strategies with languaging and visualization.

Languaging

Languaging is a teaching method where students express their thinking through speaking or writing.

In this study, researchers focused on languaging and visualization to prompt learners to clarify meanings and express their own grammatical thinking.

Students demonstrated different language skills, such as speaking, writing, and drawing.

“Languaging as I am using the term, refers to the process of making meaning and shaping knowledge and experience through language.”

Merrill Swain (University of Torongo, Professor of Second Language Education)

Swain’s description of the study explains students learn a language by thinking and talking through it.

Additionally, students develop language through experience, and verbalization is an effective second-language teaching strategy. 

These are two key findings:

  • The languaging method shows performances with highly developed conceptual grammatical knowledge and problem-solving skills.
  • Evaluating the level of conceptual grammatical knowledge and students’ awareness of their misconceptions is an effective assessment form.

Conceptual Change and Socio-Constructivist Theories

Expanding Swain’s research from conceptual change and including socio-constructivist theories, researchers did an exercise with languaging combined with an exercise in visualization in a virtual learning environment.

They discovered that combining categories of grammar structures and charts with hierarchies helped students capture the differences between grammar structures.

Research Methodology

In this study, students completed exercises with written and verbal explanations by languaging.

Student mistakes were found because they were confused between adjectives and adverbs or chose a concept from the wrong category.

So, they gave students exercises with visualization. The result was students had a reduction of confusion.

This experiment explained the confusion with adverbs and adverbial modifiers. The confusion emerged because the adverb was not presented in written or drawn answers. It is used as a sentence component during oral communication.

Also, conceptual knowledge consists of four concepts: noun, numeral, verb, and adjective. Adverbs as a word class are unknown, and applying or explaining concepts is difficult for students.

In addition, mistakes are difficult to correct if students are taught only portions of linguistic categories with vague definitions of concepts.

For example, in a textbook, simplified and reduced forms like ‘subject is a person’ and ‘verb describes doing’ will produce misunderstanding and a failure to learn difficult words.

Research Findings

To summarize the research, the solution designed in this research was the combination of languaging and visualization methods for grammar teaching.

  • The method of languaging and visualization combines concepts from constructivism, sociocultural learning theories, and conceptual change theory.
  • Teachers gain a deeper understanding of students’ knowledge of grammar by following the students’ languaging processes. 

Summary

Teaching grammar to English language learners requires an effective and appropriate teaching strategy.

Research-based practices such as languaging and visualization help students develop their skills, making the experience of learning English more productive and rewarding.

With thoughtful instruction tailored to the needs of English language learners, teachers provide a rich learning environment, seeing students using English fluently in no time!

Thanks for stopping by!

Until next time,

Suzanne

Related Topics

Further Reading

Empowering the Language Learner

Complexity Theory and its Implications for TESOL

Syntax

References

(2021). Amazonaws.com. https://platform-user-content.s3.amazonaws.com/activity_resources/ConceptualChangeTheory.pdf

(2011). Amazonaws.com. https://platform-user-content.s3.amazonaws.com/activity_resources/TheoriesofGrammarandInfluence.pdf

(2021). Excelsior.edu. https://owl.excelsior.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/09/grammar-389907_1920.jpg

What is grammar and how does it work? (n.d.). Courses.eslbase.com. https://courses.eslbase.com/courses/68968/lectures/1022364


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