5 reasons focusing on grammar isn’t helpful for beginning level language learners

As a language teacher, I love grammar. I geek out on Grammar Girl podcasts and have been know to get lost for hours in Cambridge’s Encyclopedia of the English Language. When I was learning Spanish, I’d pour over grammar texts and drills about minute rules for prepositions and irregular verb forms. It would not be out of line to call me a grammar geek. However, as I complete my second decade of language teaching, I’m finally grasping the reality that in my classrooms, most of my students are simply not cut out of the same cloth as I am.

While debates over explicit grammar instruction among language teachers can grow quite heated, I believe this is a discussion that must continue if we want our jobs to stay relevant. Colleges and universities across the world are increasingly eliminating or optionalizing once stringent foreign language requirements, often under a logic that states, “I studied xx language for 4 years and I still can’t speak a word of it.” Clearly, the world outside the language teaching community isn’t benefitting nearly as much from the grammar rules as the teachers are.

As I see it, there are five primary reasons not to deliver much explicit grammar instruction in the early years of language education:

1. Language teachers like grammar, but students generally don’t get it.

I remember the day I proudly created a beautiful verb conjugation worksheet to help my students learn some basic Spanish verb conjugations. I color coded and tabled the heck out of those verbs and proudly presented the masterpiece to my students ‘for reference’. Then, we sang songs about tener, ser, and estar, practiced drills, played games and did worksheets. “They are ready for the test,” I told myself. So I gave them the test. Almost all of them failed.

“I don’t get this, Señora. It doesn’t make sense,” they claimed. Even after my elaborate dog and pony show, it was like I hadn’t taught them a thing. When asked what grammar-loving teachers should do with this reality, my current department chair is known to respond, “Respectfully speaking, they need to get over themselves.” This is the crux of the issue, I suppose, for all teachers – do we teach what we love or what the students need to flourish?  

I must insert a caveat here before the grammar-nazis angrily click off my post: there is a place for explicit grammar instruction, but it is not at the beginning levels of language teaching. In order for students to understand the grammar rules, they need to have the context of spoken language for the rules to make sense.

2. Early language is not acquired through the formal study of grammar rules.

Ask any parent if explaining the difference between the past perfect progressive and subjunctive tense helped their 3-year-old learn a first language was helpful. Their answer will surely be, “Huh?” First language is acquired through continuous repetition and modeling accurate language, and second language acquisition does not differ that much. Beginner level classrooms should be filled to the brim with opportunities for students to listen and speak without getting bogged down in the details of grammar rules.

3. The primary purpose of learning language is communication, not accuracy.

When learners are allowed to speak freely without fear of correction or mistakes, they grow in confidence to try again. In our globalized society, the primary purpose of language is to communicate. Secondarily, language can also be learned for academic purposes, for special professional purposes, etc., but the masses simply need the ability to hold a conversation.

4. It’s more fun to have conversations than to conjugate verbs.

With language classes becoming increasingly optional in the high school and university level, one significant influence that will increase our course enrollment is being interesting and engaging. When language teachers require students to spell, conjugate and pronounce every-last-word correctly, it sucks the joy out of language learning. Techniques used in Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS) like MovieTalk and reading level-appropriate novels help pull students into active language learning without boring them to tears.

5. There’s no need to speak language perfectly.

I know, I know… I’m walking on thin ice with prescriptivist linguists here, but we have to consider the ultimate goal of language learning in our modern world. Must I wait until I’m completely fluent and can speak Mandarin perfectly before chatting with my Chinese neighbor around the corner, or is friendship built in our broken attempts at communication with one another? A hyper focus on grammar communicates an expectation of perfection in language rather than the need for communication and relationship.



Some great maps to use with English language learners

A key component to increasing communication in the language classroom is using content that students want to talk about. Given the global nature of ESL classrooms, these maps are great tools for facilitating discussion:

The Best Job Markets for College Grads Now

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 Where are the hardest places to live in the US?

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The World of 7 Billion: Where and How We Live

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40 Maps they didn’t teach you in school

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Like these? Check out more on my Pinterest Board.

A Twitter worksheet for engaging language practice

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 10.13.49 AMClassroom activities using social media platforms engage today’s tech savvy students. I use this Twitter worksheet in class as a tool to help students practice the language we’ve been practicing in class. I’ve intentionally left this copy blank so that it can be used in an language classroom.

I just recently used this worksheet as a follow-up activity to the Pixar short La Luna and had students write tweets from the people in the boat. They were really creative and had a lot of fun with it!

A few instructions to accompany the worksheet:

  • Students draw profile pictures in the boxes of the people delivering each tweet
  • Students write short sentences (<140 characters) summarizing a reading or other topic studied in class.
  • Students include a hashtag related to the tweet.

Click here to download a full sized version: Twitter WS

Enjoyed this activity? Click here for more social media worksheets.


Beyond Rosetta Stone: Online websites for language learning

While Rosetta Stone holds the biggest market share and name recognition, I’ve never enjoyed using it.  I actually find it a bit boring to tell the truth.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I located a whole bunch of other great programs out there!  There’s no reason to pay hundreds of dollars for Rosetta Stone when there are programs of higher quality available for free (or at least much less!).

Here are a few of my favorites:

Mango Languages

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Mango is often available free through your public library (you can check if your library has it here) and offers courses in ESL and 15 other languages.


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Livemocha is an interactive language learning site that rewards users helping each other in the language learning process.  Rosetta Stone owns LiveMocha, and this site shares a lot of similar features to Rosetta Stone’s software.  It’s free, and is available in 8 languages.

USA Learns (for English only)

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USA Learns is a government supported site designed specifically for adult English language learners.  It includes a full curriculum for students to work through.  Since it doesn’t start with the very basics, students should have know English in order to use this program.


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Memrise offers courses in a wide variety of languages as well as subjects like arts, maths, and geography.  It’s very easy to navigate and uses a points system that gives users access to exercises.

If you’re looking for language learning program, be sure to check out this article reviewing language learning software as well.  (It ranks Rosetta Stone as #9!)

Designing high quality activities

When teaching, it’s important that the materials you design not only solid have solid content, but they also need to be graphically designed in a way that facilitates understanding.  Here are some tips on how to create activities with excellent content and visual appeal:


  • Use SmartArt to create graphic organizers.
  • Leave plenty of white space.
  • Make the title is specific and easy to find.
  • Use bold, italics, font sizes, etc. to help draw the eye to what’s most important on the page.
  • Try to repeat the same design style for the repeating components (like directions).
  • If you use graphics, make sure they support the text.
  • Make sure the language AND tasks are written at a level accessible for the intended students.
  • Vary the type of exercises you include.  Try to match the difficulty of task to the level of student.
  • Make language as simple and straightforward as possible.

Online dictionaries for language learning

While dictionaries have always been crucial in the process of language learning, online dictionaries are introducing a whole new world of accesible information!  Complete with forums, idioms, thesauri, and even encyclopedias in a variety of languages, these sites are a one-stop shop!

Here are a couple of my favorite that are particularly useful for English language learners:

The Free Dictionary

My favorite feature of The Free Dictionary is it’s industry specific dictionaries – it has medical, legal, and financial dictionaries.

Word Reference

Don’t let it’s plainness fool you – this is a powerful tool!  With dictionaries in 15 languages, this is great for a multilingual class.  It’s language forums are also very useful in dialogging about word meanings with native speakers.