Grammar Grief

boredwithgrammarWhat do you do with a problem like grammar?

I’m teaching two sections of a Preparation for College English course.  These courses are designed for students whose first language is not English, and whose level of written English is too poor for them to manage in a 101 course.

At the end of the course, in addition to other assessments, they need to complete a grammar test involving mostly error correction.  We therefore need to spend time doing grammar exercises.

Now, I like grammar exercises.  To me, a grammar exercise is as much fun as a crossword puzzle, and much less cryptic.  During the years I studied French in university, I never resented having to do grammar work.

But I don’t really believe that doing grammar exercises is the best way to improve one’s writing.  I’d rather be integrating the grammar work less obtrusively into more holistic reading and writing activities. However, beyond doing writing exercises that apply the rules we’ve been studying, I’m not sure how to do this.  What’s more, the grammar test looms large, so they have to have practice doing exercises, because they will be tested on their exercise-completing skills later.

Regardless of how much I enjoyed studying grammar, I did have some terrible grammar teachers, and some good ones; when I first started teaching ESL years ago, I strove to be one of the good ones, and I thought I had succeeded.  I lectured energetically and humourously on grammatical rules.  I demanded active student participation and encouraged debate about complexities, exceptions and oddities.  In time, I had an enormous wealth of grammatical knowledge and was able to communicate it in ways that got through to students.  And we applied the principles by playing games and doing writing exercises that were not only enjoyable but effective.

This semester, it all seems to be falling flat.

One of my classes is quiet and diligent.  They always seem to have their homework done and they participate without hesitation as we work our way through the lectures and exercises.  All but the most polite, however, have glazed eyes.

In the other class, grammar time is snore time.  Half the students sleep openly on their desks as soon as I flick the lights off to show an overhead projection.  I literally have to wake them up to get them to read out a sentence or write on the board.  They make no bones about telling me that they haven’t done the homework and so “can’t write the answer;” I reply that if they know the material so well that they didn’t need to do the exercise, then surely they can just answer on the fly; they groan and write something, anything, in order to return to their seats.

Some of the students know some of the material pretty well already, and they do fine on the tests (although they don’t necessarily apply the principles well in their own writing).  But some of the students really need to do this work, because they’re struggling.  Some of these struggling students are attentive at grammar time, but some of them are not.

How can I make grammar, if not necessarily fun, at least engaging and challenging?

Image by sanja gjenero


9 thoughts on “Grammar Grief

  1. Hey Siobhan!

    The Domestic Goddess, a.k.a. my officemate, and I have talked about how to make grammar more “fun” for our students, and one idea that I have yet to implement, but would love to try, is flashcards with a twist.

    The first time we talked about this game, the context was sentence structure – I envision each student with a card, on which is a single word: a noun, a verb, an adjective, etc. When the instructor blows the whistle, or stops the music, or what have you, students must find enough classmates to form a complete sentence, then stand in the correct word order. (I hope that makes sense, explanation-wise.)

    Today we revisited the idea for prepositions. Not entirely sure how it would be implemented but I’m pretty sure we can think of something.

    Anyway, it seemed to me that the exercise might be useful because (a) the students are moving, and interacting, so they’re more likely to stay focused and alert, and (b) it really is collaborative learning – they have to communicate with each other, discuss what they think is a correct sentence, etc. Clearly it needs a little more shaping, but I may indeed give it a whirl next semester!


  2. The thing I have done, somewhat successfully, is to make my overheads into a PowerPoint, and create a corresponding exercise/note sheet, so students are interacting with the presentation instead of just passively watching. You could do something like that, and tell them you’ll collect the sheets after the presentation to check their responses, perhaps.


  3. Hey Maggie! That flashcard idea is great, and I may try something like that out when we get to sentence structure.

    I have a game that I’m going to do next week, when I pick common errors out of their writing. They form teams and each team draws a flawed sentence from the communal envelope. Then one person runs to the board and writes the correct sentences. The team who finishes first (and correctly) gets a point. Then we review all the sentences together. I’m never sure whether they actually learn much from this exercise (we do it again at the end of the term and they don’t fare a lot better) but it’s certainly fun, and gets the blood moving.

    I’ve also thought about your PowerPoint technique on occasion, and I may give it a whirl. I have found that notetaking worksheets are always helpful…


  4. I am just agonizing over this subject this weekend. I would love to have sets of engaging grammar Powerpoint presentations — I have a concept but no time to do it. I am like you — I enjoy grammar but how to get my students to enjoy it? Anyway, an excellent post.

    One thing that helps me somewhat is to separate “speaking/writing for accuracy” and “speaking/writing for other purposes” in my mind. Then I know when I need to be focusing on grammar or not.


  5. Betty – you might want to check out the OWL at Purdue; they have a large collection of PowerPoint presentations. I have used one or two directly and used bits and pieces to supplement my own (always with credit, of course!).

    I tried to find a complete listing of their presentations, but the best I could do was this:

    While the presentations don’t typically come with corresponding note-taking pages, there are notes built into the presentation itself. You can also export the presentation to Word, then build your own note-taking spaces around it.


  6. If you have access to the internet, has some fun exercises with cool “prizes” like Cyber Cars and donkeys, depending on whether your answer is correct or not.

    Also, one of my friends created a Grammar Jeopardy game and turned the class into teams. Each team had to answer in order, so first person, then second, etc. She did it with a computer program, but you could do a similar thing just using the board and drawing or poster paper.

    Another friend had an overhead (She didn’t have a classroom computer.) and she put up an essay with the types of grammar errors they had been studying. Then she asked the students to identify the errors. She made the essays goofy “Why I Ate Lizards” and the students loved them.


  7. What about having the students research a particular grammar concept (if you have books/internet access), then creating their own presentation. Put the teaching of the concept in their hands, and maybe require that they do something interactive like the PowerPoint activity mentioned above?

    I’ve also had students do webquests based around grammar, where they have to seek out the answers to questions about things like comma usage, etc. I’m not sure they thought it was “fun” per se, but a little more interactive at least…


  8. Try this one on them: ghoti spells “fish” phonetically.

    gh=f in laugh
    o=i in women
    ti=sh in nation

    Gets em laughing and wondering every time. Then tell them how grammar is cool like that.


  9. There is a little game that students usually like. Have a few sentences with mistakes on a sheet of paper. Next to each of the sentences the students have to bet a certain amount of “money”. They all get the same amount when you start the game. They will correct the mistake and bet money on their correction being right. The amounts will vary according to how confident they are in their work. After you correct them all and they see how much money they make, you’ll have a winner!

    Another activity I used to use a lot is the jeopardy game. You can have a jeopardy board with “smaller” activities with different difficulty levels. The harder it is to do what is asked, the more points they get. Students can work in small groups or individually.

    If your students are at least a little bit competitive, they will enjoy these games.


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