Teacher, Teacher, please fix my grammar

As I strolled into the Haus der Wirtschaft I was immediately struck by two things: the gorgeous setting amidst statues and art pieces and the sheer quantity of English language teachers milling around.

Lindsay Clandfield: materials writer, author of the Macmillan Straightforward series, web contributor for OneStopEnglish, columnist for the Guardian Weekly, highly commended for the Duke of Edinburgh award was in the Haus, and man, us teachers were looking forward to a great training session.

Oh and I've a confession to make! Around three years ago when Macmillan asked me if I wouldn't mind being observed teaching by Lindsay and his editor, I had zero idea of who he was and said yes with barely a blink. Nowadays, knowing all he's done in his life, for teachers and the world of ELT, I'd be way too intimidated to do that again. Ha! Ignorance is bliss, eh?

It was a gorgeous German Friday afternoon in November. Lindsay, on tour with Hueber and Macmillan, was here in Stuttgart doing a workshop on how to make great grammar explanations.

Time to polish up those old rags and tune up the tools, guys!

He started off his intro' by telling us that good grammar teachers:
  • explain things clearly
  • make explanations memorable
  • are economic
There are different schools of thought on achieving this:
  • teacher-centered teaching (lecturing)
  • student-centered training (coaching)
You often see these reflected in textbooks along with these learning methods:
  • inductive - students get given the examples then work out the rules themselves
  • deductive -students get given the rules then apply them to examples
Which is best?

Well that depends on you: your teaching style, your philosophy, your students' learning styles and their needs. Sometimes, when it comes down to teaching grammar, inductive student-centered training is simply not economic.

Sometimes one, or the other, leads to frustrations for the learner and obviously, the teacher. Change tact when and where necessary.

Lindsay then opened up his toolbox and brought out:

The hammer
  • don't start with grammar
  • prepare
  • be brief
  • break your explanation down into stages and stepsHammer
  • give tangible examples: sentences clearly related to your students' lives, the context of the classroom - something, anything that your students can understand and practice using
  • use humor and imagination
e.g. we use since to say /the day/ when it started

Diagrams and board work

adverbsoffrequencyLindsay headed over to the flip-chart and sketched a line which he then broke up with slashes at the bottom, top and middle then called out "What's this?"

With barely a pause we yelled out "adverbs of frequency."

Did you do it too? We're such ELT geeks, aren't we!

After that we pooled our different symbols, signs and the sketchings we often use with our students. Given the setting, it wasn't really that surprising to find out there were a number of artists present.

Analyzing text

Lindsay discussed the use of written texts (authentic or not) - that's when you find a news article, a speech or a passage from literature and get students to do the work, to find examples of a specific structure and:

  • underline
  • circle
  • speculate why the author may have used that particular wording (e.g. modals)
or encourage them to use a text to look out for:
  • phrasal verbs
  • gerunds and infinitives
  • collocations
or perhaps to ask them to:
  • find examples, circle then underline the word which is being referred to (e.g. the, it)
  • find examples and change them (e.g quantifiers or a tense: make a past, present)

Life stories

One of the highlights of the afternoon came when Lindsay told us all a very personal family story entitled:

How Clanfield became Clandfield
or how our family name was changed
Lindsay Clandfiel, storytelling

We were engrossed as the story of his great-great-great grandfather's arrogance lost his ancestors an inheritance and how a man's pride can lead to an alternative legacy.

If Papa Clanfield hadn't tossed a ball of rags into a lake, we might never have had the opportunity to see great-great-grandson Clandfield in action - he'd be sitting in a posh manor instead.
It was highly entertaining, we had a good giggle at his expense but it was also serious grammar teaching - the story he used reviews gradeable and non-gradeable adjectives.

Do you have a story?

I just bet you do - I've got a list of them: 3rd conditional spills the beans on a man I once loved and lost to monsoon rains and oh, what could have been if I hadn't slipped; past perfect tells the day I met an orangutan in the jungles of Borneo and the events that had happened before this chance meeting; can&can't will reveal the sordid details of how I conned my way into a job on a yacht despite not being able to sail at the time; futures will invite you into my daydreams of one day becoming a famous film scriptwriter. Ah...

What are your stories and how do you use them in your classrooms?

Generative situations

After that, Lindsay moved on over to the whiteboard, took out a black marker and began sketching again.

He called out "What's this?"

We looked, a man, a face? "A man" we cried tentatively.

"Where is he?"


"What's wrong?"

"He has a broken...." Lindsay drew the cast. "leg."

Then he drew another circle.

"Who's this?"

"A woman."

Lindsay laughed and filled in her hair and eyelashes.

"What's her name, what's their relationship?"

And so it continued, Lindsay eliciting, getting us to supply the setting for a story, until:

"The window's closed but the man is hot, what does he say?"

"Could you open the window please?"

"The man is thirsty, what does he say?"

"Would you mind pouring me a glass of water?"

This simple concept, the idea of eliciting requests and offers can be adapted and changed by teachers simply drawing out pictures while prompting for grammar:
  • a memorable holiday (practice adjectives, past simple)
  • a sales representative and customer (present simple, conditionals)
  • planning a long trip (futures, reason clauses)

Of course one thing to note is that when explaining grammar, it can take up vital communicative, speaking-in-the-classroom time, so think carefully about how often you want to use these methods and focus on the ones that encourage the most response.

At the beginning of this posting I mentioned that there are three important steps to being a great grammar teacher:
  • explain things clearly
  • make explanations memorable
  • be economic
We haven't really talked about the economic part yet.


Straight translation is, as Lindsay said and I agree, the most economic method of all.

I confess to not doing much of this myself - English only classroom rules and all of that - however I do allow it as part of a post-task activity (my word for homework).

Basically my thoughts are, if the students have a very low level of English it takes up an extraordinary amount of in-the-class learning time to explain something and with some aspects of grammar perhaps a quick overview in their own language might be more effective.

If a structure is totally new, it should be presented most thoroughly in the maximum of methods and styles to ensure saturation of knowledge. The entire toolbox should be used. Being amusing, being personal, making it relevant.

With higher level groups my philosophy is that it is also important to go backwards, tune the machine, fix those rusty screws and set students back on track, wrenching them away from bad habits - the more entertaining the more likely it is that it'll stick - your explanation will serve as a bridge to what was actually taught.

Of course when there's one student in a group, with one particular area of stubborn weakness, the most economic path in my opinion, is sending him a quick link to Grammar 330 with the instructions of practice-practice-practice.

What do you usually do?
How do you feel about this issue?

And finally, I'll leave you with huge BREAKING NEWS:

Lindsay will be launching his own blog next year:
it'll be reflections and thoughts
you and the countries he visits,
the teachers, the materials,
the road
sssh - mustn't tell you too much, yet!

Many, many thanks go to Hueber for bringing such a dynamic professional over to train us here in Stuttgart, for free: you rock!


3 Responses to “Teacher, Teacher, please fix my grammar”

  • Anonymous says:
    January 09, 2009

    hi karenne! thanks for your comment on my new years post! my attempt at what you called here "tuning the machine"...

    your blog is fabulous, this post especially caught my eye...ive been thinking for months now of compiling a list of those short simple, super memorable "one-liners" we use to explain grammar stuff, as mentioned here...thinking of stuff like "you tell someone, you say something"...think i'll go on dave's and try to stir up some ideas...


    January 09, 2009

    Thanks Nicky, am glad you enjoyed this posting - grammar can be enjoyable ;-)

    By the way, Lindsay Clandfield's blog is up and running - actually focusing on lists, have a look at it over here:


  • Unknown says:
    April 29, 2010

    Thank you for this great post, now I do try to check all the grammar stuff I'm going to teach with these three points - if it clear, memorable and economic.


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