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Explaining Grammar

Consultant Advice by Penny Ur

Explaining Grammar
Decide what to explain and what not
English grammar is pretty complicated: theres lots you can say about it. But for learners its best to keep the
explanation as simple as possible. Dont try to teach them everything you know about relative clauses, or
about the use of the definite article! - just explain the form and the most important and most easily explained
meanings. You may find sometimes that this means presenting something as a simple rule that in fact has
lots of exceptions. Dont worry. If the rule is true in most cases, itll be really useful for the learners now, and
theyll cope with exceptions later.

Keep it short
Dont spend too much time on explaining. As soon as youre fairly sure theyve got the main idea, go on to
practice in context. Talking about the language is useful only up to a point; the main learning takes place
when students are actually languaging using what theyve learnt to create and understand meanings. In
most cases, keep the explanation to less than five minutes. Aim to keep the basic explanation to less than
five minutes though with more advanced classes and grammatical points you may need more.

Use the students L1


If the students share a first language which you know, then its often a good idea to do the grammar
explanation in the L1. The language you need to explain a grammatical structure is often more difficult than
the structure itself, so to do it in English may be very difficult to understand and take a long time. Its often
clearer and certainly quicker to do it in L1, thus saving time which can then be used to provide more
examples in English and start practising the target structure in context.

Use simple terminology


For adult and more advanced classes its really useful to teach and use grammatical terminology. But limit
this to the simple and most essential items. They are helpful when youre explaining grammatical features,
but they dont contribute much to the students vocabulary used outside the classroom (think of words like
conditional, definite article how often might they need these for general communication?). For younger less
advanced classes, try to teach as much as you can without the terminology just use a and an instead of
the indefinite article, for example.

Get students to explain if they can


Sometimes its good to elicit explanations from students, based on examples, thus creating an inductive
process. Students are likely to learn better, if theyve discovered the rule for themselves. The question is:
Can they? If you feel your students are capable of working out the rule alone, and would enjoy the challenge
of doing so, then go ahead and invite them to suggest explanations. If not or if you try and find that they
are explaining wrongly or in ways that confuse the rest of the class then do it yourself.

Explaining Grammar

Give lots of examples


Start off with an example of the grammar in context perhaps taken from a text the class has studied, or
from an amusing or dramatic quotation or saying youve found online the more memorable the better. Then
base your explanation on this, adding further examples as you go on. Later, students can be asked to
suggest further examples of their own.

Examples dont have to be full sentences: for many points of

grammar, a part of a sentence or even a short phrase is enough to illustrate.

Contrast with L1
If you know your students mother tongue then this will help you decide which grammatical features need
more teaching, because they are different from or even non-existent in the students L1. And it often
helps a lot if you can explain to students how the grammar being presented differs from their mother tongue.
If they know, for example, that English uses a present perfect progressive with since, for (Weve been
waiting for hours), but their L1 in the same context uses the present, this will help them avoid errors later.

Get them to learn examples by heart


Its really useful even for advanced learners to learn by heart sentences or even longer passages in which a
grammatical feature they are learning is contextualized. For younger learners, use dramatic dialogues,
rhymes, songs or chants; for older ones use proverbs, quotations, or poems. This is good for all students, but
particularly for those who dont relate so well to the theoretical analysis of grammar explanations and prefer
to learn through examples and analogy. Drills, which get students to produce variations on samples learnt by
heart, although severely criticized in recent years, can be helpful, and need not be boring (see the earlier
Tips on keeping students interested).

Go straight on to practice
Immediately youve finished explaining, go into a simple practice activity. This doesnt have to be the
traditional gap-fill; it can equally well be a brainstorm, requiring students to think of as many examples as
possible. If youve taught the modal can/cant for example, ask students for as many things as they can think
of that a rabbit can or cant do, or a baby, or a computer, or whatever. The main point is to elicit plenty of
examples of the target grammar and help students to feel that they are in control of it, and can use it
themselves to make meanings.

Review the explanation later


Keep an eye open for examples of the grammar you have explained in texts or interactions in later lessons.
If you come across it, and if you are not in a hurry to continue, stop for a moment, draw students attention to
it, and remind them very briefly or ask them to remind you about the explanation. Often a single
introductory explanation is not enough and its important to refresh students memories later.

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