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?

Find Someone Who…

Find Someone Who (FSW) is a classic activity that most teachers come across when they’re still finding their feet in the classroom. The heart of this activity is interaction, getting students out of their desks and communicating with each other. Best of all, it can be tailored to almost any theme and ability.

FSW works best if it’s broken up into several stages, each of which is its own little activity. Let’s assume this is one of your first lessons in an elementary level teen or adult class. Typically, the first units of EFL books will begin with basic ‘getting to know you’ questions and answers. You’ve finished the material in the book and you think your students have got it. Perhaps the book already included a pair speaking activity where students interview each other with these questions. Great. Now let’s really get them using it.

STAGE 1:

Write on the board:

Find Someone Who...”                      Name:                                              

  1. was born in Beijing.
  2. is 25 years old.
  3. has 2 brothers or sisters.
  4. lives in Dongcheng District.
  5. has a pet.
  6. likes pop music.
  7. is a doctor.
  8. drives a car.

The first stage of the activity will be putting students into pairs and having them come up with the questions they’ll need to ask. Students will inevitably misunderstand this part of the activity and will immediately begin trying to ask and answer with their partner. It’s important to know they’re asking the correct questions, so make sure this part of the activity is solely focused on that. How can you make it clear that’s what they should be doing? Model it of course. Model the hell out of it. Write some of the questions on the board.

Teacher: “With your partner, think of (or perhaps write down) the questions you will ask. For example, number 1. ‘Born in Beijing.’ What question should I ask?”

Students will probably sit there in silence at first because they don’t really know what you’re asking.

T: “I want to know where you were born. What question should I ask?”

More silence, most likely. Start writing the question slowly to elicit the rest of it.

T: “Where…were…you…”

A smart student at this point probably understands what you’re driving at and will be able to complete the question.

T: “Where were you born? Very good. Now number 2. ‘is 25 years old’. What question do I ask?” Start writing it again. “How…old…are you? Very good. How about number 3?”

Don’t fret about modeling two or three times. The imperative thing is that students are clear about the intention of your activity, otherwise it’s a waste of time as some will get it, some won’t, and then you’ll have to walk around reexplaining what you thought you’d already made clear.

T: “Now work with your partner. Think of the questions you will ask.”

Depending on where you’re teaching, students may have a compulsion to write down every single thing that you put on the board. It’s important to break them of this habit because not only is it time-consuming, virtually everything you put on the board will already be in the book anyway. What you really want is communication.

Give students a few minutes to come up with the questions they’ll be asking, then elicit and write them on the board. If you’re lucky and you have a computer/projector, you can just open Microsoft Wordpad and type the questions to save time.

STAGE 2:

You have the questions written on the board so drill, baby, drill. Drill it a few times. Exaggerate the intonation. Be funny. Break them into different groups.

STAGE 3:

Tell students the point of the activity. That they will need to walk around asking questions until they find someone for whom the statement is true. Many students will misunderstand this part and just walk around asking questions instead of looking for one who answers ‘yes’. So how do you make the intention clear? That’s right. Model the shit out of it.

T: “You will stand up. Walk around and find someone. For example, number 1.” You ask  Student A, “where were you born?”

Student A: “Shenzen.”

T:  You ask Student B, “where were you born?”

Student B: “Guangzhou.”

T: You ask Student C, “where were you born?”

Student C: “Beijing.”

T: “Great!”

Write Student C’s name next to number 1. Then perhaps model number 2 if you think they’re still unclear.

STAGE 4:

The fun part. Students actually do the activity, but only after you’re sure they’re crystal clear on the instructions. At this point you can walk around, participate, or perhaps jot down some common errors that you’re hearing. Don’t forget to set a time limit. Six to eight minutes should be enough.

STAGE 5:

Feedback. Ask the class a few of the questions. “Who can drive a car? Who likes pop music?” What were those errors you overheard? Were they grammatical? Pronunciation? Now’s the time to fix it.

STAGE 6:

Extension. Don’t let a good opportunity go to waste. The students have collected data about their classmates so exploit it and turn it into a speaking activity. With a partner, they’ll report what they learned.

S1: “Chen was born in Beijing. Zhang Wei likes pop music.”

S2: “Li Wei can drive a car. Zhang Li lives in Dongcheng.”

Final thoughts:

There are a billion Find Someone Who topics and grids out there on the web, but a common mistake (made out of laziness or ignorance, both in your case) is to just print out a random topic, hand it to your students and say ‘go’. This isn’t good enough. Take your time. Exploit it. Make it relevant and make sure your students know what they’re doing before they do it.

The best FSWs are often made on the fly. Is your lesson dragging? Probably. You do suck at TEFL, so stop what you’re doing and think of a way to do a FSW; just try to tie it to the theme of your lesson. FSWs are a great way to get students up and active and actually using English. By breaking things up into stages, you have several built-in mini-activities, all of which encourage even more Student Talking Time and keeps the lesson flowing. It’s also possible to make it competitive by letting students race against each other to finish their list first. Be creative. Tweak it. Above all, make it fun and interactive.