What teachers should know about English grammar

This page contains links to various pages on the site where teachers can learn more about English grammar.


This is a short page for two reasons. The first reason is that there are numerous other pages on this site that deal with grammar in its various aspects. These pages are linked to below for any teacher interested in pursuing the topic.

The second reason is that mainstream teachers do already know an enormous amount about English grammar. This is the intuitive knowledge that they have acquired since birth.

So, while the average mainstream history teacher, for example, probably does not know what a determiner is, she will certainly know that Could I borrow pen? is ungrammatical because the determiner is missing.

The intuitive knowledge that has been acquired by a native or expert speaker of English is generally sufficient to give useful indirect feedback to the ESL student:

  • Of course! Here's a pen for you.

Giving grammar feedback is a topic on the more advice about teaching ESL students page. Click the button below to see the details.

Should I correct an ESL student's grammar mistakes?

Generally not. Students who answer questions in class are working hard to show what they know or have understood and so they are usually not receptive to any feedback on the grammatical accuracy of their message. Moreover, it would probably embarrass them to have their mistakes corrected in front of the rest of the class.

There are occasions however when the content of their message is unclear because the grammar is faulty. For example, a student who says: I am here for one year may mean I have been here for one year, or I will stay here for one more year. In these circumstances, it is acceptable to ask for elucidation and to help them if they do not know the correct way to express their idea.

An indirect way to give corrective feedback is to provide the student with a model answer. So, for example, if he says: Columbus find America in 1492, you could reply: Yes, you're right. That's when he discovered America. There is conflicting research evidence as to whether this kind of feedback is effective, so it's best not to overdo it.

As for written work, once again it is important that feedback is concentrated on the content quality of the answer rather than on its grammatical accuracy. It is discouraging for students who have worked hard to give a good answer to have their work covered in red ink for mistakes that are peripheral to the main purpose of the assignment. There is also the danger that they may get the message that surface accuracy is more important than conveying ideas or showing understanding.

However, written work can generally be corrected without causing the student embarrassment in front of his or her peers, and you may well wish to draw attention to one or two of the grammatical mistakes that could interfere with understanding. It is also not unreasonable, for example, to expect the verbs in a piece of writing about a historical event to be in the past tense.

Consider asking the student what kind of feedback he or she would like. Some students may welcome the chance to focus on their grammar mistakes with a view to eradicating them in future pieces of written work. Other students, however, will just completely ignore your corrections - and you can save your precious grading time!

In general, it is worth pointing out that errors are a natural part of the language learning process. Students who are made to feel that mistakes should be avoided at all costs are likely to become inhibited and learn less quickly.

Further reading

1. Teachers who want to know what a determiner is and other grammatical terms such as copula and finite can read language words for non-language teachers. This page also contains examples of the particular difficulty that ESL students may have with the various aspects of grammar explained in the glossary.

2. Those interested in the information and advice about grammar given to learners will find many pages in the English grammar drop-down menu on the English Language index. For example, here is an introduction to learning grammar via this site.

3. On the final thoughts about grammar page there are suggestions about using Google or question forum sites to get expert answers to your grammar questions. That page also has a link to a cartoon in which ESL student JM learns the sad lesson that grammar is not the most important thing about learning a new language.

4. The University of Ottawa has produced a web glossary called HyperGrammar . It has a list of language words with traditional explanations, together with some quiz pages.

5. Finally, you can read Descriptive and prescriptive approaches to grammar. The article includes a brief account of the influence of Latin on English and the 'language wars' between prescriptivists and descriptivists.


Pre-eminent British linguist David Crystal has written two excellent reference works on language in general and the English language in particular.

  • ^ 11 ^
  • ^ 12 ^

Specifically on English grammar terminology, I recommend:

  • ^ 0 ^

And for those mainstream teachers who are really keen to learn what it is that English language teachers are expected to know about English grammar and how to teach it, I highly recommend:

  • ^ 64 ^

Click the following button for a brief overview of the book:

Basically everything that ESL or EFL teachers of English to non-native speakers are expected to know about English grammar can be found in The Grammar Book - An ESL/EFL Teacher's Course by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman.

At the end of each chapter there is a section called Teaching Suggestions, which will give you an idea of what happens in the ESL/EFL classroom. Here are two suggestions in the chapter on the passive.

2. Form. Ask students to close their eyes. Change five things about the room. Ask students to open their eyes and to guess what changes have been made. For example: The lights have been turned off.

8. Use. Find a short article on science such as in Science News. Ask students to read the article, locate the passive sentences, and say why they think the author used the passive. Also, they should try to explain why an agent has been mentioned, if it has.

The Teaching Suggestions section in each chapter of The Grammar Book is followed by a set of useful exercises for teachers to "test your understanding of what has been presented". For example, the chapter Reference and Possession has this exercise:

  1. One of your students heard a native speaker say, "This prize was given to Edgar and I." Your student asks you if this sentence is ok. What will you reply?

The Appendix of the book has a section in which you will find answers to all the end-chapter exercises. The answer to the "What will you reply?" question above includes:

Native speakers sometimes do violate the prescriptive rules of pronoun use and use subject pronouns where object pronouns are called for. For example, … . You can explain to your ESL/EFL students that they won't be wrong in following the prescriptive rules, even though not all native speakers abide by them all the time.

Finally, each chapter ends with a bibliography, suggestions for further reading, and end notes.