English grammar exercises for ESL students

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №11 - 2019

Author: Kamzina Zhannur , Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

Teaching grammar in a way that enables students to use grammatical structures correctly in their active use has always been one of the intricate tasks for most teachers. There have always been many arguments about the best way of teaching grammar. Different methods and strategies have permanently waxed and waned in popularity. Richards and Schmidt defined grammar as a description of the structure of a language and the way in which linguistic units such as words and phrases are combined to produce sentences in a language [1]. It usually takes into account the meanings and functions these sentences have in the overall system of the language.

Nunan distinguished two types of grammar, namely prescriptive grammar, which refers to rules concerned with right and wrong, and descriptive grammar which deals with the ways people actually use language [2].

According to Richards and Schmidt, in the past teaching language in general and teaching grammar were synonymous. A number of methodologies have emerged with regard to teaching grammar, one of which was the audiolingual method replete with usually monotonous and mechanical drills [1].

Two recent trends have emerged: focus on form and consciousness raising. Spada defined form focused instruction as "any pedagogical effort which is used to draw the learners' attention to language form either implicitly or explicitly". Consciousness-raising according to Larsen Freeman does not require students to produce target structures. Instead, students are made aware of the target grammatical item through discovery-oriented tasks [5].

Brown postulated that whether you choose to explain grammatical rules or not depends on your context of teaching. If you are teaching in an EFL context in which students share the same native language elaborating on grammatical minutiae will not be an activity in vain. On the other hand, in an ESL setting explaining grammatical rules might overwhelm students and will not prove an efficacious strategy. The first technique employed in the present study was dialogue practiced through role-plays. Literally, according to Brown, "Role play minimally involves (a) giving a role to one or the other members of a group and (b) assigning an objective or purpose that participants must accomplish." Brown suggested role play can be conducted with a single person, in pairs or in groups, with each person being assigned a role to accomplish an objective [4].

Also as Larsen-Freeman pointed out, role-plays give students the chance of interacting and practicing communication acts in different contexts and because of this they are of primary importance in language teaching [5]. The second technique experimented in this study is unfocused task. Historically, task-based learning seems to have initiated and to have gained popularity since 1996 by the publication of Willis work: a framework for task-based learning. According to Skehan tasks are a series of activities which concentrate on meaning as a primary focus. He then contrasted between task-based learning and PPP, "a PPP approach looks on the learning process as learning a series of discrete items and then bringing these items together in communication to provide future practice and consolidation. A task-based approach sees the learning process as one of learning through doing-it's by primarily engaging in meaning that the learners' system is encouraged to develop." Elsewhere Prabhu recognized that acquisition of grammatical input isn't an immediate, one step procedure and claimed that language acquisition is a process which is subconscious through "the operation of some internal system of abstract rules and principals". When the primary focus of the learner is on meaning, task completion, not language [6].

Finally, Ellis offered a definition for tasks consisting of four main principals:

1) The primary focus should be on meaning (learners should be concerned with processing semantic and pragmatic meaning of utterances);

2) There should be some kind of gap (i.e., the need to express your idea about an issue or infer meaning from a given context);

3) Learners have to make use of their own linguistic and non-linguistic resources to do an activity;

4) There are crystal clear outcomes which are the main focus of the activity other than the use of the language. (The language is a means of achieving your goals which in this case refer to achieving learning outcomes not as an end in its own right).

According to Ellis unfocused tasks provide the learners with the opportunity to use language in general as a means for communication. Focused tasks on the other hand, are designed to provide communication opportunities for the learners while the primary focus is on a linguistic structure, but still in focused tasks the linguistic structure is hidden. In other words, learners aren't told explicitly what the feature is, thus, there are still discrepancies between the focused task and 'situational grammar exercise' because in the latter students are told explicitly what features they are going to be focused on, while in the former, they are not informed about the linguistic feature they are going to work on. The third technique is game. Games have always been used in education to give students motivation [7].

According to Malone there are three main ways through which players are motivated: fantasy, challenge, and curiosity [8]. Many researchers and educators have rendered definitions for games. For example, Crookall, Oxford, & Saunders presented a definition of the games that distinguished them from the other types of the activities such as simulation. They posited that the difference between simulation and games lies in the fact that simulation is a representation of the real world system; they contain rules and strategies that allow the simulation to evolve. By contrast, according to Crookall, Oxford, and Saunders games do not present any real world system. They are 'real' by their very own nature. As has been postulated in literature, games possess certain types of characteristics which make them efficient. Several studies have been conducted on the three techniques employed in the study. One of them, by Fotos and Ellis's, explored on using tasks for teaching grammar [7]. This study specifically explored the use of a communicative, grammar-based task in the college EFL classroom. They questioned whether the task being experimented successfully contributed to processing linguistic knowledge of a grammatical point and whether it promoted the kind of interaction expected. The grammatical point used in the study was the placement of the indirect object. The teacher's task was to write two different sentences on the board and ask students which type of placement they thought was correct. There are generally three types of placements. For instance, we can have indirect objects either after the verb or as a prepositional unit at the end of the sentence (I gave her a pen; I gave a pen to her). A grammatically judgment test was administered to students as a means of language proficiency the students were required to listen to some sentences and mark them as correct or incorrect. After the treatment students were given a test to measure their long-term learning. The results revealed that EFL learners were able to boost their grammatical knowledge by completing the grammar task. Second, although the grammar task produced a large number of interactional turns, the nature of the exchange was mostly mechanical. That is the answers were enough for accomplishing the tasks only. Like ready? Yes / Alright? /Han / one more time? etc. In another study which was undertaken by Redington and Charter (1992), a guessing game was used to teach students grammar. These researchers believed that in a guessing game, students reconstruct a sequence by surmising each successive element from a set of several but finite alternatives. The game was a simple game of memory; students were presented with some words that consisted of M, R, S, V, and X. they then were asked to choose the most appropriate string for following the sentence in a correct grammatical way. The results confirmed the fact the students exposed to the strings displayed knowledge of letter transitions allowed by grammar. (Students were expected to make transitions in letters as far as the grammar allowed them). In another study undertaken by McQuade, he taught junior and senior students who appeared mainly to be college-bound. The focus was on teaching parts of speech and basic sentence structures to students. The major focus was on "agreement", reference, parallel construction, tense, case, and subordination" and the task of finding errors in sentences. Although the parents and students were deeply satisfied with the program, when students were assessed on mechanics of writing, the results weren't satisfactory. All in all, this method for teaching grammar had no considerable effect on students' writing ability.

The present study was carried out to assess effectiveness of three instructional techniques namely, unfocused tasks, games, and dialogues practiced through role-play. In comparison to the other studies carried out in the past, this study has some new dimensions. First, unlike the other studies which have concentrated on efficaciousness of only one instructional method, this study assessed effectiveness of three methods. Second, this study is focused on two grammatical patterns which share some similarities since; they both refer to the hypothetical situations. (Conditional type 2 and wish structure). Third, there was no use of explicit intentional instruction of grammar in any of the groups. As all of us know, for many decades it was a rampant belief that grammar should be taught using deductive methods in which students' attention was deliberately drawn to the grammatical structure of the day. Sometimes students dealt with boring kinds of exercises and drills.

One of the grammar exercises are drills. Drill exercises are based on composing sentences or phrases according to a certain model. Drills are preferably used in whole classes when teachers want to practice some grammatical items. Drills are quick and efficient and allow teachers to correct any mistakes straight away. It can help students commit grammar patterns to memory and provide them with practice in pronouncing new patterns, helping them to become comfortable articulating the target language forms.

Drills fall into three categories:

- mechanical;

- meaningful

- communicative [9].

Mechanical drills require minimal comprehension of content on the part of students and serve only to reinforce patterns. In a "backward build up" drill, for instance, the teacher leads and students usually respond as a whole group.

In contrast, meaningful drills require students to understand the language in order to respond correctly, but the activity is tightly controlled because only one answer is possible.

Communicative drills encourage students to connect form, meaning, and use because multiple correct responses are possible. In communicative drills, students respond to a prompt using the grammar point under consideration, but providing their own content. For example, to practice questions and answers in the past tense in English, teacher and students can ask and answer questions about activities the previous evening.

According to G.V. Rogova drill exercises are more completed as they require reproduction on the part of the students. In learning a foreign language, drill exercises are indispensable. The learners cannot assimilate the material if they only hear and see it. They must reproduce it both in outer and inner speech. The more often they say it the better they assimilate the material. Drill exercises are also subdivided into 4 groups:

Repetitive drill;



Answering the teachers' questions [9].

In the repetitive drill students pronounce the sentence pattern after the teacher, in imitation of the teacher, both individually and in unison.

For example:

Teacher: They are dancing in the park.

Class: They are dancing in the park.

In such exercises attention is drawn to the correct pronunciation of the sentence pattern as a sense unit, as a statement (sound, melody and stress).

In the substitution drill students substitute the words or phrases in a sentence pattern.

For example:

The children are walking in the street.

The children are walking in the park.

The children are walking in the garden.

In such exercises a student substitutes a phrase, the rest may say unison. Then they may replace the verb in a sentence with another verb. There is one advantage in performing this type of exercises - students consolidate the grammar item without thinking about it. They think of the words, phrases, but not of the form itself, therefore, involuntary memory is at work. Substitution drills are used to fix grammatical material and develop automaticity in using various grammatical structures in similar situations, this type of exercise is responsible for the formation of very flexible mastering skill all forms of the given grammatical phenomenon.

In the completion drill students complete the sentences the teacher utters looking at the pictures he shows.

Example: Teacher: Look at the picture.

Mike is?..

Student: Mike is getting up.

In this exercises attention should be given to the use of "is".

Answering the teacher's questions is characterized in asking questions by a teacher using active vocabulary or the grammar phenomenon is taught. Example:

Teacher: Is Mike is getting up?

Students: Yes he is.

We have already mentioned that grammar exercises may be done both orally and in written form. Among oral exercises G.V. Rogova suggests recognition and creative exercises. Recognition exercises are the easiest type of exercises for students to perform. They observe the grammar item in structures and sentence patterns when hearing or reading. Since students only observe the new grammar item, the situations should be natural and communicative. Recognition exercises are indispensable, as students retain the grammar material through auditory and visual perception. Auditory and visual memory is at work.

Creative exercises are the most difficult type of exercises as it requires creative work on the part of the learners. These may be:

Making statements either on the picture the teacher shows, or on objects. For example, the teacher hangs up a picture and asks his pupils to say or write three or five statements in the Present Continuous.

Asking questions with a given grammar item. For example, pupils are invited to ask and answer questions in the Past Indefinite.

Speaking about the situation offered by the teacher. For example, one pupil gives commands to perform this or that action, the other comments on the action (actions) his classmate performs.

Speaking on a suggested topic. For example, a pupil tells the class what he did yesterday.

Making dialogues using the grammar item covered orally

Dramatizing the text read. For example students read the text in persons.

Telling the story (read, heard).

Translating into English.

Participating in free conversation in which students are to use the grammar item they have learned. Through these questions students are stimulated to use item they have learnt [9].

All the exercises mentioned above are designed:

to develop students' skills in recognizing grammar forms while auding and

reading English texts.

to accumulate correct sentence patterns in the students' memory which they can reproduce whenever they need these patterns for speaking or writing;

to help the students to produce sentences of their own using grammar items necessary for speaking about a situation or a topic offered, or writing an essay on the text heard or an annotation on the text read.

Among written exercises sentence transformation exercises are also very helpful. It is an exercise where learners are given one sentence and need to complete a second sentence so that it means the same. The second sentence usually has a prompt.

The following is an example of a transformation question:

Call me immediately he arrives Call me __________ he arrives (soon)

Answer: Call me as soon as he arrives.

In the classroom sentence transformation exercises involve learners in consciously manipulating language patterns, and can raise their awareness of structure. They are a common test item, where they are used to test discrete items of language, usually structural. Sentence transformation exercises help you expand your usage skills through testing various ways of stating the same idea. The ability to rewrite sentences so that they have the same meaning as the original is often required for many English ESL exams such as Cambridge's First Certificate, CAE and Proficiency. This skill can also help you prepare for the TOEFL examination (Test of English as a Foreign Language). It is also an important skill which can help you improve your understanding of similar English expressions and vocabulary.

Transformational exercises provide an opportunity to develop students' skills of combination, substitution, shortening or widening a set of grammatical structures in speech. This training method is actually merges with the method of using the assimilated grammatical material in speech. In practicing these exercises, teacher should keep in mind two interrelated objectives first of all, to provide memorizing the grammatical material is taught and secondly, to provide development of relevant skills and at the same time open to students a clear speech outlook of using these skills. In this relation even the smallest grammatical exercise should be constructed so that students can immediately feel the benefits of the effort, not only in the knowledge of linguistic theory but in practical use of a foreign language [9].

Another written type of grammar exercises are multiple-choice exercises, where the aim of students to choose the answer that they think is right from several possible answers that are listed on the question paper. The role of multiple choice exercises in the formation of knowledge and skills is very high. They form students' ability to differentiate similar but not identical grammar phenomena and make them think motivating by choice of the right variant, intensify the work of students and attract interests not only to teaching material but also to the process of cognitive activity in solving grammar issues. The use of multiple-choice tasks can be effective only in those cases when students are ready for this work, it means that all selected variants should be reviewed and the students need to know the differences.

One of the wide spread written exercises are gap-filling exercises. In language teaching gap filling is an exercise in which students have to replace missing or a suitable words. In the classroom gap-fill exercises are often used to practice specific language point such as items of grammar.

Translation exercises are also widespread type of exercises. Translation may be done from a foreign language into the mother tongue or vice versa. It is important to make students become conscious of the similarities and differences between the mother tongue and a foreign language, since with this knowledge they will be able to acquire the FL in an easier way. The roles of translation exercises in the foreign language classroom are many: first, it helps students to see the link between language usage and use; secondly, it encourages students to see the similarities and differences between L1 and L2, thirdly, through a comparison of the target language and the students' native language, most language learning difficulties are revealed [9].

Analyzing all possible types of grammar exercises and having considered that grammar exercises may be done both orally and in written form we defined the following oral grammar exercises: role plays, creative and recognition exercises. Written grammar exercises are: sentence transformations, gap-filling and multiple-choice exercises. Drills and translation exercises may be done both orally and in written form.

During recent years there has been focus on pumping students up by teaching them grammar using more innovative ways. With regard to these facts, the present study was an attempt to show usefulness of using different instructional techniques on learning grammar. The last reason behind carrying out such a study was that we usually hear students complaining that although they are familiar with a vast resource of grammatical minutiae, they cannot use them appropriately in their speech; in other words, in the process of making efforts to learn grammar in a good manner students eventually possess what we usually refer to as passive knowledge of rules but, when it comes to transforming this passive knowledge in to active or procedural knowledge that they can use in communication most of them fail to do so.


1. Richards, J.C. & Schmidt, R. 2002. Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Essex: Pearson Education.

2. Nunan, D.2003. Practical English language teaching. New York: MC Graw- Hill.

3. Spada, N. 1997. Form Focused Instruction and Second Language Acquisition: A Review of Classroom and Laboratory Research. Language Teaching, 29: 1-15.

4. Brown, D. 2001. Teaching by Principals: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. San Francisco: Addison Wesley Longman.

5. Larsen-Freeman, D. 2001. Teaching Grammar. In M Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. (pp. 251-266). Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

6. Prabhu, N.S. 1987. Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

7. Ellis, R. 1995. Interpretation Tasks for Grammar Teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 29: 87-105.

8. Malone, T. 1981. Toward a Theory of Intrinsically Motivating Instruction. Cognitive Science, 4: 333-369.

9. Рогова Г.В. Методика обучения английскому языку (на английском языке): Учеб. пособие для студентов пед. ин-тов по спец. иностр. яз. – 2–е изд., перераб. и доп. – М.: Просвещение, 1983.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №11 - 2019

About journal
About KAFU

   © 2022 - KAFU Academic Journal