How can we teach grammar contextually?

Hello colleagues, What does it mean to you to teach English contextually? And what does this mean when it comes to a focus on grammar instruction? I'd love to hear what members think about these questions. You are invited to weigh in!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP 


Hello colleagues, Take a look at the text I've copied below from Breaking News English. What aspect(s) of grammar might we choose to focus on for a lesson from this text? 

Thanks for sharing your ideas!

<<Pan-African Heritage Museum 

A yet-to-be-opened museum in Accra, Ghana is getting people across the world excited. The Pan African Heritage Museum is set to open in August 2023. TIME Magazine said it will be among the top 100 world's greatest places to visit. TIME wrote: "It will house archives, exhibits, galleries, and a theater, [and will be] a key destination for visitors interested in connecting with Africa's history and its people's heritage." Ghana's president said the museum will "provide a natural residence and resting place for all the looted cultural artifacts of our continent, which are housed in foreign museums and which will be returned to us". A digital version of the museum was launched on May the 5th.


The man who thought of the idea for the museum is Kojo Acquah Yankah. He is a former newspaper editor, MP and cabinet minister. He said the idea came to him after seeing 5,000 people of African descent at an event for the 375th anniversary of the forced arrival of Africans in the USA. He said: "This inspired me to create the museum to unite Africans and people of African descent." He wants "to raise the self-confidence of Africans as a people with a rich history and heritage". He added: "The museum is special because it's the only one bringing all African heritage together under one roof." He said there are fewer than 2,000 museums in Africa, compared with over 30,000 in Europe and in the USA.>>

Cheers, Susan 


Hi Susan,

I'm looking forward to hearing how adult educators teach grammar in context!

The Pan-African Heritage Museum passage provides great examples of how to use quotation marks. Student writing also provides an excellent way to teach grammar in context. The TEAL Just Write! Guide explains:

“Research strongly suggests that the most beneficial way of helping students improve their command of grammar in writing is to use students' writing as the basis for discussing grammatical concepts.  Grammar instruction is most naturally integrated during the revising, editing, and proofreading phases of the writing process.  In writing conferences, for example, teachers can help students revise for effective word choices. As the teacher and student discuss the real audience(s) for the writing, the teacher can ask the student to consider how formal or informal the writing should be, and remind the student that all people adjust the level of formality in oral conversation, depending on their listeners and the speaking context.

“To help students revise boring, monotonous sentences, teachers might ask students to read their writing aloud to partners. This strategy helps both the partner and the writer to recognize when, for example, too many sentences begin with 'It is' or 'There are.'  After the writer revises the sentences, the partner can read the sentences aloud. Then both can discuss the effectiveness of the revision."

The TED talk, "The Danger of a Single Story," would be a great supplement to the Pan African Heritage Museum lesson too.

Susan, thanks for all you do for the ELA community!

Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Group 


Hello colleagues, To help me decide what component of grammar to focus on for instruction, I often do an analysis to identify which aspects of grammar are featured in a text.  In the text above about the Pan-African Heritage Museum, I noticed that there are several words that end with "-ed" and "-ing." As everyone knows, words ending in "-ed" and "-ing" are often verbs; however, some of the "-ed" and "-ing" words in this text are considered "verbals" since they are not working as verbs.

What is a verbal? According to the Towson University Online Writing Support site: "A verbal is a word formed from a verb but functioning as a different part of speech."

Just for fun, can you identify which of the "-ed" and "-ing" words in this text are verbs and which are verbals

(Just a note: With learners, I would almost certainly choose to focus on either the "-ed" words or the "-ing" words, depending on what we had studied previously.) 

Cheers, Susan 


Hi All,

This is a topic I love! Thanks for the wonderful ideas on using rich content, Susan and Steve, and looking for features in a text that can merit attention.

In my work with pre-service and in-service teachers, I have provided many sessions on how to contextualize grammar instruction. The grammar that we teach should derive from learners' need to communicate for meaningful purposes. I always start grammar lessons with an interactive activity that naturally prompts use of a particular grammar point. Students may not be using accurate language at this point, but that's okay. We generate abundant learner language that I can reformulate into language samples for analysis. Here's an example:

Step 1: Learners engage in an interactive activity at the start of the lesson

After the activity:

Step 2: Teacher elicits language forms used to complete the activity

Step 3: Highlight and check understanding of the linguistic feature(s)


Sample for high-beginning/low-intermediate 

Step 1: Learners engage in an interactive activity

One-question interview about environmental awareness and habits. Assign one question (on a question strip) to 3-4 students in class, for example, 

  1. Do you use plastic straws when you go to restaurants?

All of the time        Some of the time         Never         I don’t think about it.

  1. Do you bring your own bags to the supermarket?

All of the time        Some of the time         Never         I don’t think about it.

  1. Do you take advantage of your city’s recycling program?

All of the time        Some of the time         Never         I don’t think about it.

  1. Do you choose paper over plastic bags when given the option?

All of the time        Some of the time         Never         I don’t think about it.


Step 2:

After collecting data from class colleagues, learners with same question analyze data and create a graph.

Student are provided with useful language to talk about the data:

  • The majority of the class…
  • Some people…
  •  Half the class…
  • Three-quarters of the class…

 Next, learners present their bar graphs to others in class. Give them more useful language frames, such as:

  • We found that…
  • Our data show that…

Step 3: Now we circle back a look at all the rich language generated. Highlight the forms, ask further checking questions. 

What linguistic forms are generated and practiced with this task?

  • Simple present tense to talk about habits and routines
  • Adverbials of frequency
  • Quantifiers- words and phrases
  • Subject-verb agreement with complex noun phrases
  • Reporting with simple past (we found) or simple present (our data/results show)

You can choose to make one of these features the focus for further practice.

Also check out the New American Horizons video- Teaching Grammar in Real-Life Contexts ( with my MN colleague, Suzanne McCurdy.  

What do you think of the idea that grammar instruction should always derive from a learner's need to communicate for meaningful purposes? What are the benefits of this approach?



Thanks so much for weighing in on this discussion, Betsy. First, let me say that the New American Horizons videos, that feature real adult ESOL classrooms, are superb, including the one you highlight here on "Teaching Grammar in Real-Life Contexts."

The one-question survey activity you describe here has been one of my favorites ever since I learned about it. This activity engages learners in deeply meaningful authentic language as they collect their data, analyze the data, collaborate to create graphs to represent the data, and present their graphs to the class. This instructional activity is powerful for language development and at the same time fun.

Providing the sentences starters, as you suggest, gives the teacher the perfect opportunity to embed meaningful grammatical structures into the lesson.

Here's an example of a graph learners created in a beginning-level class.

Did you have a garden in your country?

This lesson focused on learners' interest in gardening. Other survey questions included: Do you like to grow vegetables? Do you like to grow flowers? Do you have a garden here? We learned that many of them enjoyed gardening and had had a garden back home, but do not have a garden here. We were able to share with the class about the local community garden where they could rent gardening space inexpensively. 

Cheers, Susan