The NEW ESL TEACHER’S road to understanding GRAMMAR


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When someone enters the profession of ESL teaching, they usually do a course. It can be a short course or even a longer course, but whichever course they do they will never be taught the grammar. This is something that simply has to be worked on over time. The only thing that they will learn or should learn is the teaching techniques, management and theories of learning.

So in comes a new teacher – TEFL certificate under the arm, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ready to teach a class. They are given a class and bang! They hit the grammar wall.

What is the grammar wall?

It’s that realization that though you are a native speaker you actually have no idea what you are saying grammatically and why.

The grammar wall is common for almost every native English speaker. It manifests itself in moments of extreme mental atrophy when a student asks a question beyond the current grammatical concept. How a teacher deals with it is critical. The last thing the student wants is to know that the teacher doesn’t know the grammar.

How does a new teacher deal with the grammar wall?

Once a new teacher starts hitting the wall there will be many evenings spent going through the grammar concepts online or in textbooks to understand the concept the student asked.  I would say that (though everyone is different), this is a bit time wasting. I would recommend that you (the native speaker), sit down with the lowest level grammar textbook you can find and actually do all the exercises and read the way the concepts are taught. Then work your way up to the higher levels. This is because to try to understand a higher level grammar concept without knowing the lower level one is disastrous.

The other thing is that if your school is using a particular textbook, e.g. headway or cutting edge, these textbooks are put together in such a way that allows for a natural progression of understanding, particularly when it comes to the grammar. The best thing for a new teacher to do is to ask their school to give them the lower class levels first so that they can make sure they nail the grammar for each level.

At our school that is a must, every new teacher only gets the elementary classes for the first six months, after that if they feel confident they can move onto the higher levels.

What should you say if you get a grammar question you can’t answer?

If you know the grammar you can say – that is something you will learn more about in a couple of months time, but not now.

However, if you are new, you really don’t know when they will be learning this, because you are not familiar yet with the grammar progression. This is where you need to be a good actor.  You can throw it back to them and they may or may not see it as a good thing, they may see it as the truth – you don’t know the answer. Another option is for you to say, that ‘that concept is a bit more complicated than what we are learning now – let me take some time tonight to find an exercise for you tomorrow that will help you understand it and practice it.’ That lets you off the hook for now, but you will need to do the work that night and deliver something simple tomorrow and don’t forget to talk to your DOS on strategies to deal with it.  If the student still insists the next day that they want to know more, then you can say – that isn’t covered in this month and won’t be in the test, so don’t worry too much about it. That usually keeps them quiet, if you mention the test, that is often the only thing they are worried about, so if it’s not in the test, problem solved.

Once the new teacher has done 3-5 months of teaching the lower levels and if possible the chance to teach the same level a couple of times, they will find that there will be a succession of light bulb moments going off in class with you as you realise all the links that you didn’t quite make before. These will happen while you are teaching and during an explanation. You may even find yourself explaining something in a way that you have never done before and it is absolutely perfect and the student will thank you for it. There will be a moment in you also when you will feel a flash of brilliance and know you just learned something yourself.

Such is the beginning of the teaching life.

Any more thoughts?

4 thoughts on “The NEW ESL TEACHER’S road to understanding GRAMMAR

  1. As you say, even for a native speaker, grammar is hard. We know what we should say, but so often not why we should say it! I think your advice about sitting down with a grammar book is excellent. No teacher should ever think they have nothing left to learn; on the contrary, teachers should be the ones most invested in learning! And actually studying the grammar yourself is one of the best ways to avoid those awkward not-knowing moments in class!

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