Ah, correcting grammar. It is so easy to mess it up. Over-correct, students feel browbeaten. Under-correct, they get ossified grammar errors. So let’s start with a few basic guidelines that I know work.

First, be nice. Seriously. Errors are not irritations, they tell us what our students need to learn, how useful for both them and us! If there are no errors then they don’t need us. I used to have a sign up saying I LOVE GRAMMAR ERRORS! Don’t lecture, mentor. Remember, no one like to be told ‘you are WRONG!’ Better to say ‘,Hm, almost! Let’s fix it.’ When correcting students, don’t embarrass, humiliate or put them on the spot. Group corrections are always more palatable. Get all students, even the lowest level ones, involved in discovering, figuring out and playing with the grammar. And remember: There is NO excuse for a completely boring grammar class and the fastest way to demotivate is to teach from the book. No. Bad. Stop.

YOU know the grammar, start there, with you and the students having a fun time discovering and creating authentic grammar sentences. If you must, END with the book, saying “See? This is exactly what we did today. Here are some specific in-class techniques for having some fun correcting.

The Raised Eyebrow

Have a relaxed body gesture, like a raised eyebrow or a hand raised, to indicate that a grammatical error has been uttered, signaling to the student that they should monitor and revise. Do it with a relaxed pose and smile. This lets students self-correct, the whole point of grammar class.

Collecting Wild Errors

Have your students do a grammatical communicative grammar activity and walk around listening for errors but don’t say anything. Write down the errors you hear. If there are many that are similar, like dropping ‘did’ in a past tense Yes/No Question, they just collect a couple. When the activity is done, list them on the board without saying who made the errors. Let the whole class help fix them.

Grammar Races

Irregular forms really suck for our students. A fun way to drill is via team competition. Before teaching Present Perfect, this sort of activity prepares students for that past participle quagmire. Have a bunch of common past participle forms on cards of verbs that students have already had and then organize two teams standing in two rows, say the simple form of the verb (eat!) and then the team representatives, whose turn it is, have to say the three verb forms: ‘eat/ate/eaten!’ If they can’t, the other team gets a shot. Run it like a relay race. Each win is a point. This can be done for all sorts of forms, especially irregular ones.

Peer Correcting

Before I ever had a student offer to share his or her written work with the class I surreptitiously pair them up, weaker grammar student with stronger one, and I let them peer edit and correct. There are three rules: All must be done respectfully. The reasons for the corrections have to be explained and, finally, if they aren’t sure, they need to get the teacher to check. Then I do a wrap up on what the common errors were and ways to fix and remember the answers. It is relaxed, fun and students find it a real and useful in-context skill.

Board Game

Create a simple board game with all the targeted grammar represented as questions with errors. Game board templates are easy to download. Students play, land on a square (Ex; You work Friday?) discuss and correct it and then practice it with each other (Ex; Did you work Friday? No, I didn’t) I can just walk around and hear all the awesome grammaring and when done, we wrap up by having them tell me the forms and what the problems are. Sweet.

Slap

You need flyswatters and two teams set up in rows, the first person in each row has the fly swatter. This game is useful for all sorts of grammar points where there are choices, like count/noncount nouns or -er/-more- comparative adjectives.

The board is divided by the choices COUNT / NONCOUNT / BOTH. Then, the teacher yells ‘homework’ or another noun and students have to slap the correct choice. If both hit the NONCOUNT side of the board, the swatter at the bottom is the winner. Then review. There are many permutations of slap.

Memory

I have my students make memory cards targeting the grammar point, Ex: Present Perfect, Simple Past, Phrasal Verbs and so on. They have to review/remember/discuss all the grammar points we have done and get them on index cards in pairs or groups. Right away, this is good review.

Then, they all take a card (that isn’t one they wrote) and they have to write an authentic sentence on a new, differently colored card that shows the grammar and they underline the key aspect. Ex: SIMPLE PAST / I ate sushi yesterday. When done, we mix them up and play Memory with them. It is fun, they are motivated because it is their game, and of course there will be errors, so we correct them all together as we play, with no stress.

Rods

Yes, spare the rods and spoil the grammar, right? Cuisenaire Rods can be a grammar teacher’s best friend, especially for implicit grammar which often helps students acquire the grammar point better and faster. As a visual learner, I love them. While the full use of the colored rods to show grammar patterns is a bit too complex to describe here, they have another use worth noting, as a ‘reminder.’ Many use the small white rod for TO BE and the slightly larger red rod for DO/DOES/DID I’d add another, maybe the pink rod, to represent HAVE/HAS. We know students often leave these ‘helper verbs’ out. For example, a student might write ‘She not works yesterday’ or ‘You work yesterday?’ leaving out the DID because, let’s face it, where did DID come from anyway?! By leaving a red rod at each desk as a hint, students are reminded that often DID must be part of the form. Use rods as nifty mnemonic devices!

Mad Libs

I know, right? Still, students love the silliness and it is all grammar. It is easy to make up your own based on the level of the students and your targeted structures, but many ESL madlibs are online as well. Even beginners know when they are absurd and in wrap-up you can bring all the forms being practiced back to authentic examples generated by the students, thus teaching linguistic appropriacy. Yes, ‘He ate a blue pizza’ is absurd, but a discussion of what adjectives WOULD work is useful and leads to, hahaha! Collocations.

Colored Markers

The wonderful program called G.L.A.D. has glommed onto the rods/color concept by extending it to markers. This works great for low beginners. First, have a set handy, assign colors to forms and be consistent. For example Blue is nouns, red is verbs, purple is adjectives, pink is adverbs and so on. Give students a visual color code. When you write examples on the board, use the right color markers. Very quickly students ‘get’ the colors and the language and go from there!

When students make errors, especially syntax errors, use the colors to show them. They quickly learn the color patterns and it helps them to self-correct.

Scramble and Hangman Retooled

Scramble is simple. By putting simple, authentic scrambles sentences on the board, students get to puzzle them out. Ex: a e I d t e n i n r – under it write: _/_ _ _/_ _ _ _ _ _. Students puzzle it out and write: I/ate/dinner. Do four different forms for that tense (I ate dinner, I did not eat meat. /Did I eat pizza? / Where did I eat pizza?) and you have all that you need to talk about form, meaning and use of past tense and the students, as a class or in groups, really love figuring them out and asking for clues.

Hangman is the same Idea, don’t play it with words, but sentences germane to YOU that are will. Ex re: Modal WILL: _/_ _ _ _/_ _ _ _/_ _ _ _ _ _/_ _ _ _ _ _ _= I WILL COOK DINNER TONIGHT. Now do a negative statement, a yes/no question and an info question form with WILL and , again, you have all the forms you need to discuss the grammar AND students often don’t even realize they are working with grammar amidst the competition.

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M.A. History (Cross-Cultural Studies), Western Washington University; TESOL Certificate, The School of Teaching ESL. Denny is a teacher educator at S-TESL and delivers most of the 4-Week Intensives each year. Denny has taught ESL at ELS Language Center in Seattle and in Japan at Sundai Junior College. He worked at American Cultural Exchange in Seattle as Center Director and as Director of Marketing.