Welcome, David Kehe! Discussion on Teaching Grammar

Welcome, David Kehe!

We are pleased to have you with us this week to discuss teaching grammar to English learners. I've been familiar with your work for a long time, and I've learned a great deal from you -- as well as from your partner and collaborator, your wife Peggy Dustin Kehe. I was excited to discover your blog not long ago, and it was through your blog that we made contact. I know you'll be sharing the link to your blog and to a number of practical teaching resources archived there. I'm delighted that you are willing to join us for a week-long discussion on this relevant topic. I know our members are eager to hear from you and will have many questions, too.

I have a few questions to get us started.

1. David, you use the word “inductive” to describe your approach to grammar teaching. Can you explain what you mean by that and give us some examples from your practice? How does this approach compare to what we might call a traditional approach?

2. When working with immigrants and refugees, adult ESL teachers are well aware that individuals have varied educational backgrounds. Many come to us with limited formal schooling and may not be familiar with grammar terminology, e.g., noun, verb, adjective, in the primary language let alone in English. It’s important for all of us to be aware of the educational background of the learners we are working with. Learners at the literacy level who are still learning the basics are probably not ready for the kind of grammar instruction we are discussing this week. Our focus this week will be on learners who have a basic foundation in English, even if their educational experiences may be limited.

  • What are your thoughts about the importance of grammar terminology in teaching grammar?
  • If grammar terms are important, what are some ways to teach this terminology in meaningful and learner-centered ways?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

David Kehe's Bio:

David Kehe has been teaching adult English learners and coordinating programs, doing teacher training and mentoring for over 35 years at colleges and universities in four countries including in Africa with the Peace Corps. He has co-authored nine textbooks, including the award-winning Conversation Strategies. He has an MAT from The School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont.  Currently, he is a Coordinator and Academic ESL Instructor at Whatcom Community College, in Bellingham, Washington.

David has taught many international students but has also worked with many learners who are immigrants and refugees attending ESL classes at the community college.


Hi Paul, Susan, & All,

My strategy for teacher/student role reversal came about many years ago when I asked my upper level students to translate vocabulary words, phrases, idioms, etc. whose concepts were difficult to understand in English Only. When I began teaching ESL, my enrollment consisted of all Hispanic adults who could assist one another with comprehension even though sometimes their dialects were different. They came from Central/South America/Europe: Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Spain, etc. Little by little, I learned bits and pieces of their language by asking them (as Susan remarked in an earlier post) to give me the Spanish word for...the months of the year, for example. The outcome of this strategy was that I began to note a display of confidence in some otherwise shy, passive & introverted students as they helped me to pronounce words in their language. As I awkwardly made attempts, for instance, to roll the "r" in Enero (January) & Febrero (February), I laughed at myself and observed the students intensely making sure I got the pronunciation correct. From that point, I would sometimes mispronounce a phrase or sentence intentionally just to prompt them to "teach" me again & again & again. My reasoning was twofold: first, they had to provide instructions to me in English in order for me to understand the Spanish translation; second, they got the chance to see that teachers are not omniscient and that we make mistakes as we learn new things, also. Shortly thereafter, I began to enroll students from various cultures - China, Russia, Haiti, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc. Eventually, that led to my strategy of offering class sessions every 4-6 weeks in which we practiced role-reversal. One or two students voluntarily became the teacher(s) and I became the student with the rest of the class.

To this day, I practice this strategy on an informal basis and extended it by giving students the freedom to "teach" their language, their culture, their traditions, or their own personal story of immigrating to America. I keep the process simple and encourage them to bring handouts, magazines, maps, menus, movies, or whatever they choose to support their presentation. The volunteer student(s) show me their intended lesson plan for approval & guidance. Then, we schedule a specific date for the presentation. I have found that this approach increases self-esteem, provides a safe way for students to share information on their terms, and inevitably strengthens rapport among the classmates. Ultimately, we all get to feel like world travelers as we learn about other cultures.

Victoria - great!!! Could you please add this to the topic I started on Multi-lingual classes? Perhaps we could get a discussion going. I think with an inventive approach like yours, the students gain a lot of confidence and feel very welcome in the class. 

Thanks, Paul

Hi Paul and Victoria, I think all teachers understand the essential nature of first language support. We are fortunate to have cell phones that can quickly help with translations. Of course, if we have students who share the same language, they are always interested in helping each other.

Having students teach each other words in their language is a great way to honor and respect the languages learners bring with them to our classrooms. Here's an activity that has worked well for me when teaching a multilingual class. Right now, we are studying words for feelings. When I want to be sure students understand a word, I will often go around the class and ask the students "How do you say -- e.g., worried -- in your language?" It is so interesting to hear how various languages say words! This quick check also helps me better understand if the students comprehend the new vocabulary.

Thanks for sharing your practices with us here!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

Susan, I think it is great that you are incorporating L1 in your lessons and making use of smart phones. There are many bilingual or multi-lingual websites available for free in addition to Pumarosa, such as DuoLingo.  I recommend providing at least 10 laptops in each class so that all the students can learn how to make use of technology. 

Do you use textbooks, CDs and Videos? These are also very helpful. 

For those students who do not own a computer, there is a program called Computers For Families in some cities which consists of providing low-cost or free refurbished computers to low-income families. If there is no internet available, DVDs and CDs can be used, and teachers can also create their own lessons to put on a ThumbDrive. 

I just started to include all of the above in my class and a lot of new people are registering for the class. My classes are "Non-formal", with no attendance requirement, etc. It can be called a Blended/Distance Learning program. 

Maybe we can start a new deiscussion about all of this. I am sure lots of people have ideas to share.


Hi Dave,

I would like to know how you approach teaching spelling.  I can help students when I conference with them, but how can I help them to retain?  I have some students at the low intermediate level who have difficulty spelling even basic words. I even have some at higher levels who have pretty good grammar skills, but make the same spelling errors over and over. I have tried spelling notebooks and partner spelling tests among other things, but I wonder if you have some ideas?



Hi Patti,

This has proven to be effective for some students.  Bring a fair-sized cake pan to class and spread out a thin layer of uncooked oatmeal or rice so that the bottom of the pan is covered.  Then have the student use a finger to spell out the word in the grains.  After that, he/she can “erase” the word by smoothing out the grains and then repeat the process until he/she feels satisfied.

(This is an optional final step:  They can then cook the oatmeal or rice and eat it just before going to sleep.  That will help them truly internalize it.)—Just kidding about the optional step!

Happy spelling!


The first thing to do for adults with spelling problems is to teach them to use a spell checker. When they are not writing on the computer, they can use their smart phone to check spelling. Spell checkers are very helpful, but students need to learn to use them. First, they need to know that the spell checker will miss about 1/3 of their errors - because the error happens to be a real word, e.g., 'form' instead of 'from' and homonyms. So they still need to proofread. Second, they also need to know that some proper nouns will show up as errors; this one is not difficult to deal with as long as students are aware of it. Third, students with serious spelling problems, and accompanying reading problems, may not be able to pick out the correct word from a list of options. To help, some spell checkers include text-to-speech; or they can check the meaning with an online dictionary. Fourth and much less common, for some really badly misspelled words, the spell checker will not suggest the intended word; they can then try spelling it phonetically which usually works to generate the right word. BTW, this list of problems to teach about comes from our research with students with learning disabilities, not ELs, so there might be other issues as well.

Another idea, for students who consistently misspell the same words, is a small notebook with a personal dictionary of these words. One of those old fashioned pocket phone lists with alphabetic tabs works well for this.

In the long run, if you work with students in a class setting, it may be worth teaching spelling systematically. English spelling is complex but does have predictable patterns. We designed and tested a curriculum for teaching decoding and spelling in ABE, which is available free on LINCS -- https://lincs.ed.gov/publications/making_sense.

Charles "Skip" MacArthur

Hi Patti and all, Recently there was a lively thread on teaching spelling in our community. This thread includes many practical ideas for teaching spelling (check out the post on the Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check technique) and some useful recommended resources, too -- including several that are available in the LINCS collection.

Additional suggestions for what works when teaching spelling are welcome here!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

David, I want to express our gratitude to you for sharing your expertise with all of us in this online community of ESL practitioners. I know that everyone who has participated in this discussion, including those who were active posters as well as those who were quiet lurkers (there have been over 1,100 views), is taking away so much.  Your inductive approach to teaching grammar is one that resonates deeply with me personally.  You have offered us so many excellent practical ideas that can be implemented right away in classrooms. I especially appreciate the many concrete examples you shared.

I know I will continue to visit your blog, and I'm betting many of our members here will as well.

Thank you for being with us!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

Thank you, Susan, for inviting me to exchange ideas with the LINCS community.  Several years ago, a colleague asked me, “ESL!  Is that all you and your wife think about?”  My answer then and still is now, “Yes, pretty much so.”   There are so many stimulating aspects to our field that are a part of our everyday teaching,  like culture, psychology, interpersonal relations, current events, geography, writing, and, of course, grammar. 

In recent years, I’ve had relatives and friends who happened to have had their first encounter with a non-native English speaker tell me that they could now imagine just how much fun it must be to teach these types of students every day.  I’m sure most of the LINCS community would agree with me that there could be nothing more enjoyable and stimulating.

No doubt, this past week with all of you will be a highlight of my professional career.

Onward and upward!