Grammar, Anyone?

A recent resource on the LINCS website, Adult Education and Immigrant Integration: Networks for Integrating New Americans (NINA) THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK, 30 September, 2013, says the following on page 21:

“For beginning level ELLs (not exclusively non-print literates), research points to some effective instructional strategies as key to successful English language acquisition. For example, the What Works study on ESOL literacy learners in 38 ESOL classes identified three effective instructional strategies that yielded measurable learning gains for adults with limited formal education: connecting teaching to students’ everyday life; using students’ native language for clarification in instruction; and using a variety of modalities and high levels of student interaction. Consistent with the findings of the What Works study, another study also found that the use of authentic materials from adults’ daily lives in literacy instruction increased the learners’ use of literacy skills and knowledge in their lives outside of the classroom. Therefore, a network of organizations that also touch the daily lives of immigrants needs to be mobilized to accelerate language acquisition using their content and context for language learning and practice (e.g., parent engagement, voting, workplace safety, community issues). (”

I have been doing a lot of traveling around the country these past several months training practitioners and administrators working with adults learning English. I have found that many programs are dedicated to contextualization, to using authentic materials, and to connecting instruction to the learners’ lives. At higher levels, however, some programs are still providing grammar-based classes.

Here is my question: Is there a place for grammar-based instruction/classes at the higher levels for adults learning English? When and how? Why?

I would love to hear from you on this topic.

Miriam Burt (SME, Adult ELL Cop)


I agree that contextualized instruction is key for having adult students engaged in English class.  Grammar is still important but more as a means for structuring what you want to convey.  Grammar gives students a structure for how to put words together and it's important to be able to pick out the different parts of speech when breaking down and building sentences.  The most success I have had in teaching is when we look at a structure i.e. I have a car (pronoun, verb, direct object) and then students use that same structure to create sentences about themselves.  What do you have?  What do you like? What do you want?

All contextualized lessons should contain some kind of language structure that the students can then manipulate and replace with different words. Although it isn't as important for a student to express sentences perfectly, I do think that students appreciate and want to know the correct way to say something.  Teachers should take care not to correct grammar during conversation practice where the goal is fluency of expression as opposed to accuracy.  Students need to be able to express themselves and convey meaning without being shut down because they have made mistakes.


This is an interesting discussion--- in the learning centers I promote and train about, grammar is implicit and taught through extended practice with specific structures ( e.g. learning to ask a Do you____? question by playing Go Fish and asking repeatedly, " Do you have a 7? "  Many a teacher has reported with amazement that students gradually self-corrected and then were repeatedly producing correctly formed questions in the context of the game, which is the WHOLE point !!!)) 

On the other hand, I have taught high-level ESL writing and conversation classes at community colleges in which we wallowed in formal grammar instruction with the intention of improving the grammatical accuracy of academic writing, and of improving the comprehensibility of students in their other classes.   I am a FIRM believer in the noticing theory --which posits that a language learner must notice an error and then consciously correct it, so I do not subscribe wholesale to the belief that students should not be corrected in the course of an oral communication.   When asked about this, my students most often replied that they were IN English class to get corrected and learn better English and felt disappointed when they were NOT corrected (and indeed culturally, some expect to be corrected for mistakes and are mystified when the teacher does not do that)  .  My stance is that they spend all the rest of any given week speaking fossilized, unstructured, undiscipliined English and indeed, they DID come to English class in the hope and intention of making their English better, so a big part of my job is to help them notice what they are doing.  

This makes me think of a story a teacher told me a few years ago about a student who had been at her ESL school for several years, working her way through the various levels.  The student was telling the teacher something informally and said   " She eat.....:   the teacher, in a typical knee-jerk reaction we should ALL recognize, corrected quietly, " She EATS"-emphasizing the --/s/ -- and the students stopped talking and stared at her and said,  "What did you say?  Did you say EATS??"  And the teacher said yes, she had.  The student then said, "Do you mean there is an S on eat?  It is EATS??"  "Yes," said the teacher/  " You mean," said the student, "There has ALWAYS been an S on EATS and I never HEARD IT???"     (This last line always makes me groan as I think how many times I have made that correction.....)

This story prompted me to place much more focus on helping students HEAR critical sounds and minimal pair sounds that "embody" -- or constitute--grammar ( eat/ate; walk/walked, he's/his etc. ) BEFORE I try to do any grammar lesson on that point.  What good is it to do an entire lesson-- which I am sure most of you reading can recite in your heads-- about the s on the third person singular --when it makes no meaningful difference in a student's oral production, as it did not for the student in the story above??  

And that in turn makes me think of the wisdom of a great friend who is a fantastic ESL teacher, who says, when a student makes a mistake there is always a reason, it is just not the RIGHT reason.    Like the student who earnestly told me that she says "he have" and "they has" because the s is for plurals and "they" is plural..... 

So, often it is worth figuring out WHY the student is making the mistake-- is it because he or she doesn't hear the correct form yet, or because he or she has constructed a rule that governs that particular structure, or because he or she just cannot suppress the structure as it is in the first language??

Grammar definitely has its place, but to me, must be approached very carefully!!







  I loved this story!  I am working with a woman who has a job in an early head start class.  She comes to learn/improve her English every day during her lunch hour (we work in the same building).  Just last week she asked me, "Why so many words for toilet?  Why say to children party instead of toilet?"   She is Russian and has worked in a children's university there.  I was instantly aware that to her EAR, potty and party sound the same!  I try to be aware of my own diction when teaching her because I am southern, and have quite the accent even though I have not lived in the south for years!  This, however, was coming from her job! At a regular meeting with her supervisor, I told her this story.  She made an immediate connection with my ESL student and very young children.  Her response was that THIS was a perfect example of why consistancy with children - especially in language - was critical.  I had never thought of it, but it is so true!  We had a similar incident when she first started the job - it is really too funny not to share!  She and I often laugh about it now.  The director of her department came to check on her progress in the classroom and asked her for her shot record.  My ESL student's immediate response was, "I have never shot anyone."  In America, we use the term shot record for immunization record all the time!  I immediately pulled out my picture dictionary and showed her a picture of syringe and said the word immunization.  So very often we forget that words have multiple meanings and can be very confusing to new ELL's!  

Thanks for sharing!

Yep-- pretty much from Providence, RI to Ft. Kent, ME, potty and party are homophones.....:)))   Soon afer moving from DC to Boston a few years ago, I heard a lady in a store near Boston tell her rather large son to hurry up because he had to go to the "potty"--- I was stunned-- until she continued, saying it started at 4 PM and she didn't want him to be late....

Also, where I live now, Don and Dawn are also homophones-- it is often pretty confusing....:!

 These stories are very funny, Fawn and Robin. I think we need to remember to be very careful when working with English language learners that we notice when we are using words in a different way then they are often used. To a native speaker, the phrase "shot record" would be no problem to process. However, to an English learner, shot means something else entirely. This learner might understand vaccination as it is both a cognate and the more technical term that might have been previously learned. So using the word shot for vaccination is a great teaching opportunity.


Grammar is a tool we use for expressing ourselves clearly to others in the world around us - whether we are expressing fact, opinion, idea. This is very important - just think about expressing to your doctor what the symptoms are, when they started, how they changed over time, effects of any medications, etc. It is also important for those students who want to participate in further training or higher education. Lessons can be grammar-based - teaching people how and when to use this particular tool - but still contextualized because we use language (and therefore grammar) - the tool - in contexts.