New Series: TEFL grammar for newbs abroad

Most TEFL teachers abroad don’t have deep knowledge of grammar and usage when we first begin. True, we have a crash course Teaching English as a Foreign Language Certificate from an online or classroom course, often required by law for our work visas. True, we are generally native English speakers who went to school in English (and hopefully some of what we learned in school stuck). True, we are at a significant inherent advantage to our collegues who come from an L2 background, with our implicit knowledge of grammar.

You will, as a new teacher, eventually be asked something like this:

Collegue: What? If you get points, you win the game???? I was always taught that if there is ‘if’ in the sentence, then you have to use ‘will’ in the second part. Is this right?

Native Speaker: Sorry, what?

Collegue: Is it ‘If you get points, you win the game’ or ‘If you get points, you will win the game?’

Native Speaker: Um….either?

Collegue: ????????????????? Is it first conditional or zero conditional?

Native Speaker: ?????????????????????????

This happened a lot to me in Korea, Chile, and China. It’s an occupational hazard of being an L1 (native) speaker in a TEFL office; you are the barometer by which the students’ grammar is apparently supposed to live or die.

That’s a messy job, considering that the vast majority of native speakers have no idea what the hell a conditional is when starting out (then later you find yourself on Wikipedia five minutes before class saying, “There is more than one of them??? OH CHRIST, NO….”). I always felt uncomfortable giving an answer, especially since sometimes in Korea my co-teachers would have a pirated copy of that year’s multiple choice test in their hands and were expecting me to help the kids memorise the correct answer. 100% or nothing, you know.

Fear not, newbie TEFLers. I’ve made a short list of grammar and usage points that are hardest for young learners for you to brush up on. If you Google (or in China…Bing……………….ew) these basic topics, there is a TON of information about them and millions of ideas for how to teach them. I thought it would be helpful to start by putting the ones that trip up most new teachers abroad in one guide, since it’s harder to know what you don’t know when starting out until you have the conversation above. Now you know what you don’t know, you can know what you need to know. Right? Right.

Basic, Important, But Tricky Topics in TEFL Grammar and Usage (2016 Edition)

by Coleen Monroe-Knight, M.A. Linguistics (UCL)
<–That is the very first time I’ve used my master’s letters! Wheeeee!

In this series for new TEFL teachers abroad who have no previous experience with prescriptive grammar and usage other than that time in Language Arts class in like, 1997:

Phrasal Verbs
Parts of Speech
Verb Agreement

When I’ve covered all these topics, I will excerpt the main points for a single crash course post, which y will be able to find here.

1. Phrasal Verbs

Do you know what a preposition is? If you don’t, look that shit up on Wikipedia right now. This will not make sense if you don’t know that category of word. (Hint: in, on, over, under, out…)

Phrasal verbs are a highly typical Englishism, and they trip up students of all ages and levels. I have found that my highest-level students occasionally use a long and complicated word in place of these fuckers, simply because phrasal verbs are irritating.

“No, Jimmy…the lake did not exactly desiccate in the video game….it just dried up. Good word, though.”

The basic formula is this:

Verb + Preposition = Phrasal Verb

For Example:

Go + Up = go up
Get + over = get over
find + out = find out
open + up = open up

The two words together form a single unit of meaning, which is often very different from what they mean on their own. or the phrases verb may have one literal and one figurative meaning, totally unrelated to one another. Complicating matters, some phrasal verbs can be separated by an object and some cannot.

Now, try to count how many of these words you use in a single hour of class. I’ve tried and I bet you couldn’t do it. It’s almost every other sentence in English. Especially in informal speech. Constantly.

The trickiness about this particular grammatical anomaly is twofold; this is relatively uncommon in world languages and the prepositions can change the whole meaning of the Phrasal Verb in weird and unpredictable ways. Consider the following:

Get down =/= get on =/= get off
WARNING: Don’t try to explain in detail to your young learners why exactly the phrase, “The man got off on the bus” is making you blush in class.

The example above illustrates a further problem with these tricky groupings of words. Sometimes, a phrasal verb is actually a complex of verb and multiple prepostitions. Think about the difference between, ‘look down on’ and ‘look up to.’ Why should down and on go together, anyway? It is totally natural to native speakers and automatic, but there is not a precise reason why exactly any of the prepositions ought to go with a verb.

Prepositions are a beast in all the languages I’ve studied, in part because they change depending on the random ways that humans have decided to divide up space (Why in the hell does one say, ‘I have a bag at the hand’ in French and not ‘I have a bag in my hand?’ Can anything be ‘at’ my hand in physical terms? What about the figurative? Ugh…..). It’s a really fun exercise to get together a group of people with many different native languages and start asking basic preposition questions. The arguments that ensue are not on yours truly!

This stumbling block is a big one for most new TEFL teachers, but luckily it is relatively easy to teach. Trust your instincts as to what is correct or incorrect, and go with that. This is a general rule for TEFL.

I like to review parts of speech on the board (Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Prepositions, etc.) and then write the verb ‘to get’ in a circle. Then I ask for as many prepositions as the students can think of and cover the whole space with them. Then we practice using each combination in sentences (and I specifically avoid elliciting the word ‘off’ whenever possible).

Send me your questions about how to teach English! What do you find to be tricky for all your students? What was hard for you as a newbie TEFLer?

Next time: Parts of Speech

One thought on “New Series: TEFL grammar for newbs abroad

  1. Nice post! Love the Master’s letters!

    Couple typos:

    When I’ve covered all these topics, I will excerpt the main points for a single crash course post, which y will be able to find here.


    The trickiness about this particular grammatical anomaly is twofold; this is a relatively uncommon in world languages… ^^


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