Grammar and the TEFL teacher

How much grammar does a student need?

Grammar is a sort of linguistic highway leading to fluency with plenty of signposts to show you the way but also with enough potholes, side roads and bumps in the road to keep you awake.

When I was at school English grammar was a subject that went almost untouched. We certainly didn’t miss it! 

Why TEFL Teachers Need to Know Grammar 1

The Latin and French teachers gave us enough grammar in those languages and escaping learning about English grammar seemed like a good thing.

After school I did a bachelors then a masters degree in English Literature and Language where, perhaps amazingly, grammar still didn’t feature that much. I did get a brief (and I mean ‘brief‘) introduction to English grammar when I did a post-graduate TEFL certificate but even then the emphasis was on teaching the English a student would use to buy a sandwich rather than on how the sentences were constructed. My reasoning was that if that was the way my tutors said it went down, it went down that way for me. After all, even the word ‘grammar’ seemed to have an odour of dusty books, dryness and incomprehensible rules for sticking together mechanically what we all say naturally.

It was on my first extended work-travel trip to Europe that I learnt that a TEFL teacher will run into grammar pretty quickly in the ‘real world’ of teaching.

I was in Geneva and fronted up for a teaching job in a local language school. I was feeling pretty confident given my bundle of degrees and certificates and thought the job was in the bag. So when I was given an ‘on the spot’ test of how I would teach the Present Perfect I was left speechless with my degrees now looking no more useful than cleaning rags. I cobbled some rubbishy explanation together about the ‘communicative approach’, ‘realia’, ‘role play’ etc. but failed to impress the school’s director with any of it. Fortunately, I was given the chance to go away with a borrowed grammar book and to come back again the following week for another test. So began my exploration of English grammar!

It was a little like being a cowboy and suddenly finding out just how useful a saddle is! Once you get past your own prejudices and preconceptions about the nature of grammar you find you’re sitting on something incredibly useful and interesting. Grammar is a sort of linguistic highway leading to fluency with plenty of signposts to show you the way but also with enough potholes, side roads and bumps in the road to keep you awake.

It is an invaluable skill for an English language teacher.  Knowing how English is put together and how you can put it together more effectively and then explain how this is done to a group of students in a simple and clear manner.  Grammar can underpin a communicative and functional approach to language teaching and becomes a primary tool in your teaching ‘toolkit’.

As a teacher you will have a far better understanding of English and be able to explain and answer students’ questions with more clarity and precision.

As a TEFL teacher you will find that many of your students, coming from language learning backgrounds where grammar teaching is still a dominant pedagogical approach will ask you direct questions about how particular grammatical subjects are formed and function, how they relate to other grammatical subjects and why weird exceptions to the rules exist in English. You’ll find that these students, some of whom may find it hard to adapt to communicative approaches, will thrive on your grammatical explanations.

If your knowledge of English grammar is not as deep as you would like it to be there are hundreds of really good sites online where you can learn more about grammar and plenty of excellent books written specifically for the TEFL teacher. 

In my next few posts I will be gathering up some of these resources for you and listing them here on TEFLpost.


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