Putting the magic into grammar

18 JULY 2014
Helen Hadkins (author of Interactive) explores how to teach language in context in the classroom.



One of the earliest meanings of “grammar” was “the writing of magic spells”. Grammar now sometimes has a reputation for being boring or difficult, so maybe we need to think more about making grammar ‘magical’, or at least meaningful and fun. With the right context for presentation, and activities which involve students, it certainly can be.


Present language in context

If you introduce new language in a teen-friendly context, you’ve won half the battle. If your students are engaged with the topic – something they find personally interesting, like music or sport – they’ll be more receptive to looking at the language used in the text. Often topics that are useful to them, e.g. connected with a school subject, also work. Help them work out the meaning from the context, then look at the form and the phonology.


Involving the students

Get students involved in working out grammar rules and patterns by making them think in different ways, through gap-filling exercises, true / false or matching activities for grammar explanations, as well as for grammar practice. In presentation and practice activities getting the level of challenge right is essential to keep students involved, i.e. making sure tasks are not too easy or too difficult. In a mixed-ability class – and nearly all teenage classes are mixed-ability – this might mean having different tasks prepared for stronger and weaker students. This will involve a bit more preparation time on your part – having easier / harder sets of questions or different amounts of support – but the pay-off is generally well worth it.

Personalise grammar practice when possible: one topic teenagers are usually interested in is themselves – questionnaires including the target language work well. Short on preparation time? Get the learners to write the questions themselves.


Make it fun

Using a variety of practice activities in the class will keep students interested: sentence transformations, questionnaires, dictations, translation activities, guessing games, whole class mingles, etc. Think about appealing to different learning preferences when planning activities, i.e. combining visual / aural / kinaesthetic elements in one lesson to appeal to different students.

It’s amazing how introducing even very simple game elements can turn an ordinary grammar practice activity into something motivating or even exciting. For example, try a snakes and ladders game: you just need a board (one per 3 / 4 students), dice, counters and cards with correct/incorrect sentences. When the students have a turn they pick up a card with a sentence on and have to say whether it is correct (and correct the incorrect sentences), otherwise they move back to where they started before they rolled the dice. The others in the group decide whether the student is right or not, and they can check with the teacher if necessary. With a large class it’s easier to put the correction on the card – with this variation the player whose turn it is asked the question by the student on his/her left and there’s no need to ask the teacher.

Another good game is the grammar auction – groups of students have a fixed amount of imaginary money and a list of correct/incorrect sentences. They have to decide how much money to “spend” on correct sentences, which they later bid for in a class auction. This works best if the teacher really dramatises the role of auctioneer, keeps up a fast pace, and shouts “Going, going, gone” etc.

Get students to play online activities and games and, if possible, compete with each other for the best marks or the shortest finishing time.


Acquiring grammar gradually

Talk to your students about the importance of a long- term approach to learning English. One of the best ways to reinforce grammar or acquire new language is through extensive reading or listening, so encourage your students to read graded readers, such as the Cambridge English Readers.

Many teenagers are addicted to TV series – get students to watch them in English. Even if they are also using subtitles in their own language, it’s still very worthwhile for language acquisition.


This article was originally published as part of the "Teaching teens" series on Cambridge Conversations (Cambridge ELT blog).

Helen Hadkins is one of the authors of Interactive.




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