Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Teaching grammar

                 Teaching grammar like math
Picture taken from Media4Math website. Link here

I have always loved teaching grammar, I am in my element when it comes to grammar. On the other hand, as a student, I had an aptitude for math and although I did not choose to specialise in it, I have found a way to approach and present grammar structures/rules as if they were a math problem. It is my belief that, especially when you first learn a language, it is a good idea to know some general rules behind a structure or simply what goes with what.Now, fellow teacher, if you are rolling your eyes with the whole rules notion, please bear with me, will you? This post is not about whether grammar is or is not governed by rules nor is it about whether we should teach rules or not. It is just about a mathematical approach to presenting and teaching grammar. So, let's take one step at a time.

                                                   The grammar lesson

Provide context
Never, eva start your grammar lesson by giving them a grammar rule.  Provide context for whatever structure you are teaching. Say you want to teach comparative, show them a spot the difference picture. If you want to teach the conditionals, play a song with if clauses in it etc. etc.

Discovery methods
So, now you have provided the context, get your learners to use the information they have to form the rules. Scaffold and help when necessary but do not tell them the grammar, don't give them the rules (yet). Help them discover the rules.

Time for math
Now you have provided context and your learners have used discovery methods to figure out how the structure is formed. Great! This is when I bring in some math into the equation. I find that for many structures it is often the case of this+this=that and now before I move on I need to clarify a few points:
  • Of course, where there is a rule there is always an exception!
  • My mathematical approach cannot apply to every single grammatical phenomenon.
  • As a learner, I always liked learning things through tables, so it is only natural to teach the way I learnt because it is easier for me, as a teacher to explain things.
  • This post is not a post about how these phenomena are formed. I have used simple explanations of these particular grammatical structures. Of course, there are loads of stuff that are missing from my board examples : ) I am sticking to basics (grammar for let's say, intermediate level students).

         +/=/} symbols+tables= grammar(?)

You may now ask, "When do you use the mathematical approach?"  Very often. " Ummmm, ok! For what?"

  • Conditionals (the traditional 1st, 2nd, 3rd)

  • Wishes/if only

  • Inversion (some types)

  • Adjective Order

  • Passive Voice

This is what my board and my notes look like when I am presenting 'rules'. Of course presenting the 'rules' does not mean that they will actually learn the language. It may though give them an understanding of some grammatical phenomena. Does this presentation work with all learners? Nope. Some like it, others don't. So, then I start drawing or use another way to present grammar.

[(context + discovery methods) = introduction of a new point + my math presentation = grammar] + practice and production = new language
or something like that..... Remember, at the end of the day, I teach English not math : ) Coming up.... teaching syntax like math! Feel free to leave a comment in the comments section.
This post has been shortlisted for this month's Teaching English via British Council blog award. If you like it, go here and press 'like' on my post. Thanks for reading : D

You can download everything, here.
Adjective Order.docx

Till next time............


  1. I use this method too and my board looks very similar. I just make sure the students use the new structure in some communicative activity (pairwork or group work) at the end

  2. HI Joanna,

    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be making a post about it on today’s TeachingEnglish Facebook page, if you’d like to check there for likes and comments.


    1. Hi Ann : )
      Thanks for letting me know and for shortlisting my post!! : )

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