How changing the way you think about grammar can improve your language learning

Some of my students enjoy grammar exercises. It’s often the engineers and lawyers – people who want to know how things work, or to know the rules so that they can work within them.

Actually, I was one of those students too – I’d much rather do a grammar exercise than a free speaking exercise. They made me feel safe, and understanding the rules gave me something to help against my dreaded enemy – making mistakes!

However, a lot of students say that they hate learning grammar. There are many reasons for this.

Maybe grammar lessons at school were boring. Who wants to do something that will be boring?

Maybe the explanations never made sense. One of my students read me something out of her grammar book the other day. The information was correct, but there are much easier ways to say it, and the book made it sound more difficult than it actually is, relying on a good knowledge of grammar vocabulary to be able to understand the explanation.

Maybe the student struggles with grammar in their own language. They can speak and write it well enough, but have no idea what an adverb or a possessive pronoun is. Sometimes people don’t want to admit that.

Maybe the student doesn’t think it’s important – after all, isn’t being understood more important?

The problem is that I work with a lot of people who use English in a business context. Being misunderstood could cost them or their business in terms of a lost opportunity, an embarrassing situation with a client, or just the fact that people don’t realise how good the product or service is, because they keep focussing on mistakes in the email or conversation that they had with a representative of the company.

People do make judgements on what they see and hear, and according to this research carried out by Global Lingo found that 59% of those asked would not use a company that had grammatical or spelling errors on its website. Most of these people said that they wouldn’t trust the company to give a good quality service, and as a result, they would choose to take their business elsewhere! So like it or not, grammar does actually matter!

When it comes to doing grammar exercises, I’ve found that when the students changed the way they thought about it, it helped them to see the tasks in a more positive way, and also to see the benefits to their language learning.

1. Grammar is like an instructions manual for the language

I’m not saying you should read the instructions manual from cover to cover, but if you have something that isn’t working, isn’t it quicker to find out why, with easy steps on how to fix it, rather than to try and figure it out yourself or just not to fix it?

2. Old habits are hard to break

If you’ve been doing something incorrectly for years, it’s harder to remember to do it the right way. It’s much better to get into good habits at the beginning of your language learner journey, than to keep guessing your way through sentence building and then have to fix the problems later.

3. Knowing grammar rules helps you to avoid mistakes

This was my big motivator when it came to learning grammar rules. I don’t like making mistakes. Of course we all have to make mistakes if we want to grow and learn, but some of them are avoidable, and if I could find a way to avoid incorrect word order or verb endings, I took it.

4. Getting grammar right could be good for business

As we saw from the research quoted above, people really do take notice and however great your company might be, if you don’t communicate your message well, people might see that as a reason not to trust you.

5. Sometimes it really does make a difference

When I arrived, the meeting had already started = you missed the beginning of the meeting.
When I arrived, the meeting started = your colleagues waited for you to arrive before starting the meeting.

If my meeting finishes early, we can meet for a coffee = maybe we will meet for coffee.
If my meeting had finished earlier, we could have met for coffee = the meeting isn’t going to finish until later, so there’s no time for coffee.

Sometimes things just don’t make sense and confuse people:
I buy the tickets on Thursday = this is wrong, but does it mean
I bought the tickets on Thursday
I will buy the tickets on Thursday

6. It doesn’t have to be complicated

I think I would have got a headache if I’d been using my student’s book! Books like that are fine for looking up the finer points, but if you want to learn the basics, find something that’s clear and easy to understand, preferably with examples. There’s nothing wrong with learning about grammar using a book or website in your own language if that helps you to get the rules straight in your mind before attempting to put them into practice!

7. Understanding the reasons

I think some people get frustrated with grammar because they do an online test, find they got 4 out of 10, but don’t understand why. That’s demotivating. Some online tests give explanations on how to get to the right answer, but if you don’t understand the explanation, you’re no closer to the answer.

I write my own grammar exercises, but I don’t just put them up on the website or sell them. I want to go through them with the learner to make sure that they understand exactly what they’re doing, because that will help them when they come to build their own sentences in the future. 10/10 won’t help you if it was just luck or guesswork that got you there.


So, if you’re someone that thought grammar was boring or unnecessary, I hope this has helped you to see it in a different way – as something that can be useful to you.

Try to find some resources that you like – for example, I often recommend the The Englisch-hilfen website, which has a lot of explanations and examples.

Also, I sometimes put grammar exercises in my newsletter, and subscribers have the opportunity to email me back with their answers. If any are wrong, I explain why (in English or German).

For anyone who is looking for one-to-one help with grammar, I also have a paid grammar course – students can either do the whole course or put their own course together by choosing the most relevant modules. This is where you can find more information about my grammar course.

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Kirsty working with students

Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

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