Bored and blank stares? How two fundamental principles can make grammar interesting

Blank stares. Looks out the window.

You’re trying to teach grammar. But once again, they’re mindlessly bored and anything other than your lesson is more interesting.

Well, it’s probably fair to say that the majority of grammar lessons are completely uninspiring and sleep provoking. Not only can it be difficult for us to teach, but they can also be boring for the students. The crux is though that grammar is so fundamental to our language that skipping it entirely turns our students into cavemen “give me pen teacher”, “I go shop” etc.

So I’ve put together a quick post to showcase a couple of principles you should consider when thinking about your grammar lesson.

1). Relate the grammar to some of their interests:

This sounds so obvious, but so often teachers end up rambling endlessly about things that are totally irrelevant to the students’ lives. Maybe they aren’t interested because they can’t relate to any of the stuff you are talking about.

Getting right into the nitty gritty of the present perfect, and showing them timelines and the like, may help students who are interested in the technicalities of the target language, but what about the others who want to talk about things they are interested in with their friends? Technicalities are important of course, but that shouldn’t be the sole focus.

Teaching the past simple to young learners? Maybe play a clip of the new Marvel film and ask the children to retell what they saw to their partner.

Or maybe you’re teaching adults, who want to chat about their kids and what they did at work today.

Songs are also a great way to teach grammar points for any level. has put together a list for different tenses here, and you should definitely take a look if you’re considering what activities to include in your lesson.

Whoever the students are, the key is to tailor the subject of the lesson towards your learners’ interests then embed the grammar within the subject. That way it keeps them engaged whilst teaching them new things.

2). You’re teaching them non-practical, textbook English

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but textbooks aren’t the real thing.

Just as a starter, have you listened to the conversations in textbooks? The pronunciation, let alone the structure of the conversations, can often be so artificial that it makes listening to them academic rather than realistic.

There’s also the issue of what Scott Thornbury calls “grammar McNuggets”. Textbooks nowadays are filled with grammar points that aren’t relevant, are totally stripped down to their bare essentials, and so can’t be used in the real world where real life conversations are far more complex than just using the “present perfect” or whatever other grammar point you’re teaching.

Lexical lab made some great points about this in one of their posts. Take this for example:

“The apple tree at the end of our garden, which my grandfather planted 70 years ago, needs to be chopped down”

Think about this for a second – would you say this to your friend with the same cadence?

You’re far more likely to talk about it like this:

  • “Is that an apple tree at the end of the garden?
  • >Yeah – unfortunately it’s got a disease – we need to cut it down.
  • What a shame.
  • >It is. My grandfather actually planted that 70 years ago.
  • Oh no! Can’t you save it? …”

Try activities based around letting students express themselves with the knowledge they already have, and not strictly on learning relative clauses/present perfect etc. Although these are important to know, practising speaking English naturally, rather than in a McNugget form, seems far more practical and worthwhile for students in the long run. In turn, your students should be more engaged in the lesson because they are able to use everything they know, rather than a restricted section of the language.

Of course, it’s totally acceptable for students to communicate using the first example. But it’s a bit like having your English name as Tiger. When have you met someone from a native country called Tiger? Never. And so it’s also very rare that we communicate in textbook English – not only does using this kind of structure to express yourself sound very inauthentic, it’s also very stressful for the students to learn because there are very rigid rules that need to be met to communicate something. Maybe their boredom is because they’ve given up hope on learning the strict rules you’re throwing at them.

Of course, if students have school exams then knowing their present perfect from their past simple may be the difference between passing and failing.

I’m not suggesting ignoring their exams, but focusing on exams solely is probably boring the hell out the majority of your students.

So, what’s the solution?

One solution is to incorporate activities that promote natural practice. Board games, which ask questions related to real life situations, are a sensible option. This one on Busy Teacher is based on job interviews for example and is extremely practical.

Another solution is to tell true (or plausible) stories like you would to friends or family. Great stories that are true (or plausible) are not only engaging but more importantly, they embed many grammar points in a real context, to show how it’s used.

And even going back to point one – using TV shows, movies and songs can help show how English is constructed outside of the McNugget form in most textbooks. Busy Teacher has tonnes of activities centred around popular culture, and they are incredibly engaging for your students.

So what do you think? Do you agree? What do you do to teach grammar?

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