Grammar for Beginners

The ‘beginners’ in the title refers more to you, rookie teacher, than your students. We both know that you know absolute dick when it comes to grammar. You know when it’s right or wrong because you’ve been using it your whole life, but can you explain to elementary students exactly why ‘you suck at teach’ is wrong? Hint: gerunds after prepositions. You do know what those are, don’t you?

All snark aside, grammar scares the hell out of a lot of budding new teachers. They don’t remember learning the rules (if they learned them at all), and their greatest fear is being put on the spot: ‘Teacher, what is simple past?” Imposter syndrome runs deep in the veins of noobs, as it should, because let’s be honest, that piddling TEFL certificate didn’t make you a teacher.

Imposter syndrome

The good news is that rules have very little place in the classroom when it comes to actual teaching. Nothing is more yawn-inducing or drool-congealing than seeing a board filled with rules. Students aren’t going to remember them, at least not in the time you have to teach. What will likely happen is they grab their pencil and start mindlessly writing down what doesn’t need to be written down. That’s what their books are for.

So, all of this is to say that, yet again, the enemy here are words and explanations.

Here’s the dictionary definition of simple past: “The simple past tense, sometimes called the preterite, is used to talk about a completed action in a time before now. The simple past is the basic form of past tense in English. The time of the action can be in the recent past or the distant past and action duration is not important.”

Yeah, fuck that noise.

So how do you teach it? Here comes a dead horse to beat…

beat a dead horse ‘Do you like that, Ed?’ ‘Nay.’

Show. Don’t tell.

Write this on the board: “Yesterday, I go to a restaurant and eat rice.”

Ask your students what’s wrong with it. Typically there will be one or two or even more that already know the rules anyway. Elicit from them. Use your students’ collective knowledge. It’s more memorable than explanation.

Now fix the mistake. “Yesterday, I went to a restaurant and ate rice.”

T: “Why ‘went’ and ‘ate’?”

Ss: “Because ‘yesterday'”

T: “Yesterday is past, present or future?”

Ss: “Past.”

T: “Very good. We have to change the verbs for the past.”

Now show them a timeline. Ask them to identify where our sentence should go.

simple past timeline

Now elicit a few more past time expressions and write them on the board. “Yesterday, last night, two days ago, last week, in June.” Start using these time expressions wrongly and have them correct you. “Last year I fly to Thailand on holiday.” “I have eggs for breakfast this morning.”

Students should begin recognizing that verbs in the past much change. They didn’t need a rule to tell them this. They came up with the rule themselves through pattern recognition. This is the difference between ‘revealing’ them the answer and ‘telling’ it to them. Again, show. Don’t tell.

Think they got it? Awesome. Now reinforce it with an activity. Tennis, anyone?

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