TEFL for Newbs: Conjugation

This is part of a series on how to teach the basic points of English grammar and usage, for those just starting out in TEFL abroad. For the rest of the series, and the supplements about how to manage one’s classroom and how to summon glitter farts on command (read: host an ‘Open Door’ class), click here. 

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

by Coleen Monroe-Knight, M.A. Linguistics (UCL)

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
TODAY –> Conjugation
Verb Agreement
Teaching Writing

Conjugation sounds like some form of Medieval torture at first blush. To most language students encountering it for the first time, it surely is. Fear not! I’m here to make it slightly simpler and more straightforward. Let’s first get my totally non-scientific working definition:

Conjugation: The way(s) that verbs change in sentence according to a given situation. 

That sounds really confusing, but it’s the best I can do. Here is a more complex definition, for those of you who want the more technical-sounding, M.A. Linguistics-y one (thank you, Wikipedia):

In linguistics, conjugation (/ˌkɒnᵿˈɡʃən/[1][2]) is the creation of derived forms of a verb from its principal parts by inflection(alteration of form according to rules of grammar). Conjugation may be affected by person, number, gender, tense, aspect, mood,voice, or other grammatical categories.

In English, we tend to focus on the person, the number, the tense, the aspect, and the mood. In writing, we may throw the voice in there.

PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF YOUR STUDENTS don’t just throw that second definition up there when trying to teach conjugation. Even in an advanced class, it will overwhelm them. As always, change your language to suit their levels and needs. The things to pay attention to in English Conjugations can be more simply laid out by using questions:

Person: Who is speaking?
Number: One person or many people? Is the speaker included?
Tense: When are we speaking about? Past? Future? Is it hypothetical?
Aspect: Is the action complete?
Mood: How does the speaker feel about the action? Is this a command or a suggestion?

As a native speaker, these questions are all implicit. We don’t even think about it, but we use conjugations all day, every day. You need to consider how strange they may seem to your students based on their native language (L1). For example, my Chinese students struggle with tenses and number in terms of conjugation, because in Chinese these do not affect the verb at all. My students say thing like this all the time.

Yesterday, I go to the store. My mother is angry because she do not know where the milk is. 

There is some (rather dubious) evidence that the grammatical organisation of verbs in a given language may affect its speakers’ thinking, and if you want a decent explanation of one of the theories regarding this you can watch this TED talk.

Beyond that, a native speaker reading the sentence above is confused greatly. We convey meaning very precisely in English (as in all languages) according to the conjugations that we use.

Therefore, conjugation is a hugely important skill for your students.

But how to teach it without putting a dense definition up there and overwhelming them? My advice to you, newb, is to start very basic.

First, make sure that your students know what a verb actually is. Use the strategies in the Parts of Speech post to make them aware of the different parts of a sentence and their functions. This need not be more complicated than:

Verbs: actions! 

Write that on the board, and elicit some from your students. You can all act them out together if they don’t have a good sense of what verbs are. Use consistent hand gestures for indicating past, present and future (behind me, pointing downward, and pointing forward). Start simple; the most important one for students to master in English is the simple past tense. Eventually, you can branch out into a fuller conjugation table at some point. For your reference:

To eat – infinitive (no conjugation)
I eat. – present
I am eating. – present progressive
I ate. – simple past
I was eating. – past progressive
I will eat. – simple future

These are the main ones. If you are teaching students whose L1 has strong conjugation tendencies (Romance languages, perhaps especially), they will pick this up easily. For those with L1 grammar far different from English (Chinese and Korean in my own experiences, among many others), they will struggle. In addition, your students will be expected in their other classes and especially in the ubiquitous multiple-choice exams to know much more nuanced grammar. For example, what is the difference between the following?

If he ate pizza for dinner, he wouldn’t want to eat vegetables later.
If he eats pizza for dinner, he won’t want to eat vegetables later.
If he had eaten pizza for dinner, he wouldn’t have wanted to eat vegetables later.

That’s much more complex. This is where your colleagues will ask you why the ‘answer’ is one of these sentences and not another, and you will not know how to answer except by saying, “I have no idea what tense that is, but I know it’s A because that is what feels right.”

We’re verging into Conditional territory here, the bane of many a language student’s existence (including my own, in French especially). Conditionals are very confusing, because they express things that are not concrete or that include some inherent uncertainty. Within the hypothetical situations that one can express using these tenses, there is also something of a gradation of certainty. This is advanced stuff and very hard to teach to students whose L1 has no direct equivalent.

Luckily for you guys, I’ve been teaching a lot of Conditionals lately. I had to brush up on which is which, too. I suggest that you do this before class each time until you feel confident with them. If five years on you still don’t (like me!), keep checking it each time.

Zero Conditional: If I eat, I become full. (If + simple present + simple present)
First Conditional: If I eat, I will become full. (If + simple present + simple future)
Second Conditional: If I ate, I would be full. (If + simple past + modal)
Third Conditional: If I had eaten, I would have been full. (If + future perfect + modal perfect??? or something)

I simplify all that to this for my students, to help their heads not explode.

Zero Conditional: If and no changes (now)
First Conditional: If + will 
Second Conditional: If + would 
Third Conditional: If + would have

If my students are up to it, I add the following (a quick test! Which conditional is that?):

Zero Conditional: If and no changes (now)
First Conditional: If + will 
Second Conditional: If + would 
Third Conditional: If + would have

If you want a full conjugation of the verb ‘to eat,’ click here.

I use an activity called a Grammar Blast to help students sort the different forms of the verbs into their respective categories. This can be made for students of almost any level, and involves throwing about 25-30 bits of paper in the air and giving them time to figure out which sentences go where. They get good at noticing the differences quickly, and it’s fun if you put on a song while they do this.

Other ways to teach conjugation is a good old verb poster, with each person (I, you, we, they, he) and the conjugation on it. You can have the students make the different tenses different colours to help them remember.

One of the hardest things about teaching grammar in general is that students want there to be a single, simple rule. In many public schools, especially here in East Asia, this is precisely how English grammar is taught.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. It is very important to get students to let go of having a single ‘right answer’ when it comes to grammar, as much as possible. That way, they won’t get stuck in a single, largely incorrect pattern and limit themselves in terms of expression.

Give yourself and your students time when it comes to conjugation. It’s a long term project and not something that can be done quickly and easily. Hard, persistent work is the name of the game.

Next Time: Verb Agreement!

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