Structuring a grammar class…and five top practice activities

Grammar lessons sometimes get a bad press. Perhaps that’s because in the past the lion’s share of the grammar class has been devoted to an explanation and mechanical practice activities. Those things are necessary, but redressing the balance with more meaningful communicative activities can lead to our students coming to our grammar lessons with more of a spring in their step…and they’ll learn the grammar better too!

In the blog post we’ll consider a procedure to teach grammar (Part 1) and move onto five top activities to practice the grammar taught (Part 2). Let’s begin!

Part 1

A grammar lesson might look something like this:

  1. Contextualise grammar structures in a short reading text  (story, review, dialogue, blog etc), in a video or perhaps in a personal story.
  2. Present grammar rules (deductive approach) with examples from text above or have the students infer the rules using examples in the text (inductive approach).
  3. Students do mechanical / closed practice activities with one right answer (multiple choice, gap fill etc) to work on form and meaning.
  4. Students do freer practice activities, using the grammar structures to transmit their own meaning with more oral work

A word on the stages:

1.  Giving language a meaningful context before starting off with an explanation can help understanding and makes the language point more ‘real’. If we’re using a text, it makes sense to keep it short, as we don’t want our grammar lesson becoming a reading lesson. A short video (with accompanying transcript for form) can exemplify the language even further. Here’s an example. Can you work out what the grammar point being presented is? (*Answer at end of post)

2. Do we present the rules (deductive) or get our students to work them out (inductive or ‘guided discovery’)? The first is quicker, the second gets our students to think more as it’s more active. The second option usually includes support (‘guided’ discovery), so it may be that we give our students the rules with a few gaps to be filled in, as is the case here:

Exam Focus 1

Here’s another example on future forms:

Real World 4

In this case the use of each future tense is given: making this more ‘inductive’ could include a match up of the sentences and the uses in brackets.

On the point of A) making students ‘work for it‘ and B) just giving them the rules, it’s worth bearing in mind that most good courses come with a grammar reference section at the back (just giving them the rules) – these can be set as pre-lesson reading or consulted in class.

When presenting grammar rules, I found a clear PowerPoint presentation with examples to be useful. Here is an example:

3) and 4) Controlled practice and free practice. Our students will need 3) to go onto 4) so we consider 3) to be scaffolding. Normally our page in our grammar coursebook will include both of these types of activities. There are usually extra closed activities to be found in our workbook (students usually do them on their own at home), whereas if our course has extra photocopiables to be used in class, these tend to be of the more communicative nature. We can use these materials to supplement our classes based on what we think our students need more of. My personal view here is that mechanical activities are important, but that getting our students up and about practicing the grammar is even more so (using language in meaningful, personal contexts is how you remeber it) and that students can do more mechanical-type activities at home (we’ll look at a digital possibility to do this later).

Part 2 

Here comes the practical bit! Five activities to practice grammar.

  1. Musical chairs

A bit like the party game, but with language! We have five (give or take) chairs in a circle facing inwards. The number of students is n+1 (n=number of chairs). One student stands in the middle, the rest sit on a chair. The person in the middle says a sentence. Everyone for whom the sentence is true has to stand up…and sit on a different chair. The person in the middle has to sit on a chair too. There aren’t enough chairs for everybody! Whoever is left is in the middle, has to say a sentence and we continue.

Now, you can play the game as described above or prescribe a language point (we’re talking about grammar today). So I’ve played it with the present perfect, eg “I have never + past participle” though you can use any language point really. So students have to use the structure in a personalised way, get a lot of practice and have a lot of fun. I’ve played this with young learners to adults and had success. What’s interesting is that students start to use what they know about their peers so they can get them to stand up (and if they don’t know the language, they’ll ask you!).

2. Find someone who

A great mingle activity to practice a grammar point is ‘Find someone who’ – it gets students practicing asking and answering questions with whatever the language point may be. In the example below it’s verb patterns. As prep for the speaking mingle we can check our students can ask the questions they need to and as a follow-up (perhaps for homework) we can get our students to write a paragraph with what they learned about their classmates.

3. Grammar auction

Getting students correcting common grammar errors (which perhaps occur due to L1 interference) and to discuss why they’re wrong is mainstay of our grammar lessons. Gamifying this activity can help make it more popular and a grammar auction is one way to do this.

Students are provided with a list of phrases, with some correct and some erroneous. They need to come to a decision about whether each sentence contains an error and if it does, correct it. Then, they need to assign points to the sentence from 1-10, based on how sure they are of their answer. If they are are ultimately correct (eg. correct in spotting the error of identifying that a sentence is correct), they win the number of points played. If not, they lose those points.

Getting students to work in pairs helps provoke discussion and collaboration here and the game-element adds healthy competition. Once our students have finished they swap sheets with another pair and we go through the answers. Which team has got the most points?

4. Pair oral gap fill

A Liz Beer special , this activity is a great way to extend closed practice grammar activities. Once students have completed an activity and we have corrected it together our students work in pairs. They take turns to read out the sentences omitting certain words. Can their partners (who have their book closed) fill in the gaps?

This activity is great for getting our students recalling the right form and we can get some mileage out of it by getting them to repeat the same sentences, omitting an extra word every time. How far can they get? When preparing our students for this task, we can also check they know what the ‘target grammar’ is and instruct them to miss words from this out first.

5. Guess the lie

Students use whatever grammar structure is being studied to write sentences about themselves, with one being a lie. Five is a good number. With different partners, they read their sentences to each other and guess their partner’s lie by asking a question. The guessing element here adds fun and students get to know interesting details about one another. There will inevitably be a humour element too, as students come up with outlandish sentences.

Preparing for this game can also include question formation, ie. can the students formulate questions for each other’s sentences. So if one of my sentences is ‘I can’t stand listening to adverts on the radio’ and my partner thinks it’s a lie, they’d need to ask ‘Can you not stand listening to adverts on the radio?’

We can also make this activity a mingle (so students do it with lots of different partners) and add points – you get four points for guessing right first time, three points for guessing right second time etc. At the end of the allotted time (for example, ten minutes) our students add up their points.

Here’s my example. This is the grammar point I’ve been working on:

And here are my sentences. Which one is a lie? The answer’s at the end of the post.**

  1. I can’t stand listening to adverts on the radio

2. I don’t mind eating Spanish food all the time

3. I hope to learn a new language one day

4. I’ve decided to become a vegetarian

5. I plan to travel a lot when the pandemic is over

Closing statements…

The above activities bring a bit of fun and real communication to grammar learning and they build on closed practice. Of course we can set our students further closed practice to do at home, to free up some time for more communicative practice in class. A workbook will include plenty of this, but an alternative is doing them on a digital platform: this way students get immediate feedback on their answers and can keep a record of their progress (and so can the teacher!).

The screenshot above is from MyEnglishLab. Notice how the students answers have been corrected and wrong answers include hints to help the student when they hit the TRY AGAIN button.

So, all that remains is the answers to the questions we posed in the blog post:

*Present simple: interrogative and answers

** ‘I’ve decided to become a vegetarian’ was a lie. I need to cut down my meat consumption!

Materials in this blog post taken from:

Real World – a course for teens which develops not only the ability to communicate well in English but also the skills and confidence to participate as educated citizens in the global community.

Exam Focus – a media-rich course that prepares upper-secondary students to succeed in the University Entrance Exam while at the same time building their language and real-world skills.



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