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Why K–12 Teachers Need to Know About ESL Grammar Issues

Keith Folse addresses the fact that the focus of traditional teacher training will not suffice in preparing teachers for the increasing numbers of ESL students in U.S. schools. See "An Interview With Keith Folse," Essential Teacher, October 2009.

K–12 teachers have taken extensive coursework in math, language arts, science, or other content areas and received training for working with elementary, middle, or secondary students. However, these two traditional teacher training areas will not suffice in preparing teachers for the large number of English language learners (ELLs) in K–12 schools in the United States. Today's teachers have a new responsibility—providing English input for ELLs—which means that all teachers in U.S. schools should know about aspects of English, including grammar, that impede ELLs. If teachers are to serve as models of English for ELLs, then they must know the types of problems ELLs have and be able to address them. This article presents information on English grammar that ELLs need to be taught—by default—by their non-ESL-trained teachers.

What Is ESL Grammar?

No area of second language learning has been the subject of as much practical interest as grammar teaching (Borg & Burns, 2008)—but what is ESL grammar and how is it different from the grammar that native speakers study in school?

Native speakers of English already speak the language fluently, but they study the formal rules of the language. For native speakers, the term grammar is often synonymous with learning labels, such as predicate nominative or fragments, as well as lists of errors to avoid. Thus, native speakers learn the eight parts of speech, the difference between lie and lay, and the meanings of lose and loose. They also learn not to say it don't, me and you are, or you should have went. (Correct forms are it doesn't, you and I are, and you should have gone.)

ESL grammar is different. Just as ELLs have a pronunciation accent when they speak, their English also has a grammar accent, that is, a set of grammar usages that do not sound like English spoken by a native speaker. Some errors are easily corrected, whereas others may take years to fix. Some errors are minor, and others render the ELL's message incomprehensible. Here are eight examples of common grammar errors that ELLs make (Folse, 2009):

1. She was born on 1988. (prepositions)

2. I have lived in Paris from 2000 to 2005. (verb tenses, especially present perfect)

3. There is no game today because the coach called off it. (phrasal verbs)

4. How many homework do we have? (count and noncount nouns)

5. Many parents avoid to give sweets to their children. (gerunds vs. infinitives)

6. She should helps you. (modals)

7. Siberia has a substantial number of nature resources. (word forms)

8. Where were you when the accident was happened? (passive voice)

Native-English-speaking teachers can easily correct these errors, but they usually have no idea how to explain why these incorrect structures are not possible. This inability is normal because native speakers never make these errors and are therefore never taught any rules for these structures. Test yourself now: Why do we say in 1988, not on 1988? (Explanations of this and the other seven errors are provided at the end of this article.)

ELLs have heard on Monday, on my birthday, on June 12, so on 1988 is a logical extension. If an ELL asks, "Why do you say in 1988, not on 1988?" native speakers typically give diversionary answers such as "It doesn’t sound right" or "We don’t say that in English." Neither of these explanations exemplifies good teaching because neither gives a reason—considering that the ELL specifically asked why. At times, native speakers often resort to the emergency answer "It’s an exception" until the student replies, "Which one is the exception: in or on?" Clearly, most native speakers are not prepared to explain these English grammar structures to ELLs.

Native speakers acquire their language through years of exposure and natural practice, and if ELLs had extensive time for English exposure, they would pick up English naturally, too. However, most do not have that time. They must function in English soon, with some ELLs even taking a high-stakes exam within a few months. Many ELLs are not exposed to English at home, and when they are in class with other ELLs, exposure to native speaker English may be limited. By default, classroom teachers are often ELLs' main providers of English input, and the language in a kindergarten song or a science teacher’s explanation becomes an important source of English input.

How Lack of ESL Grammar Knowledge Affects K–12 Teachers and ELLs

When teachers do not know ESL grammar issues or how to explain them, it can have negative consequences for ELLs. In assessing an ELL's paper, for example, a teacher may circle mistakes, commenting, "Pay attention to your English," "Too many errors," or worse yet, the trite and useless "Awkward." These frustrating comments explain nothing and exemplify poor teaching. Telling students to pay attention to their English when the teacher in fact cannot explain the error fails to help students learn anything useful.

Teachers may be so distracted by these errors, even though they are a natural and predictable part of second language acquisition (Ellis, 1994), that they cannot accurately assess a student's knowledge of content because the ELL's grammar accent hinders the comprehensibility of his or her answers. Teachers who have become more aware of typical ELL errors are better able to focus on content—science, history, math—and not be negatively swayed by grammar errors. However, teachers can only ignore these errors if they first know about them. ELL grammar errors can, but should not, impact ELL assessment in content areas. For example, an ELL’s answer on a science test should be judged by its science content and not its verb errors or incorrect article usage.

In my teacher training courses on assessing writing, I give preservice teachers a short example of a passage written by an ELL to practice assessing ELL writing. They are first instructed to circle all the errors. They are then told to cross out errors that they cannot explain. Unfortunately, the result is a paper with most of the circled areas crossed out. Most teachers cannot explain the errors, and because teachers teach what they know, they therefore never teach ELLs about pertinent grammar issues. After making these mistakes repeatedly, ELLs who get no negative feedback or effective error correction will eventually assimilate, or fossilize (Ellis, 1994), these incorrect structures, so lack of teacher intervention—teaching—can have serious consequences.

Another example of the importance of knowing ESL grammar involves judging the level of a reading passage. Teachers frequently ask about the grade level of certain reading material. Although this calculation is not difficult to determine for native-English-speaking readers, it is quite a messy determination for ELLs. For native speakers, the factors taken into account when calculating the reading difficulty of a passage include the number of sentences in a paragraph, of words in each sentence, and then of syllables in each word. However, this emphasis on counting, especially the number of syllables in a word, does not work as well in determining ELL readability. With this system, for example, the wordtolerate would be judged more difficult than its equivalent put up with, which is an idiomatic phrasal verb. However, my experience is that an ELL, especially a Romance language speaker, would have few problems with tolerate but struggle with put up with. Because the three words in the phrasal verb put up with are frequent, basic, and monosyllabic, this verb would be judged easier to read for native speakers. Yet the meaning of put up with is not equal to the meanings of the individual constituents put, up, and with.

If these criteria are not sufficient for judging readability, then what is? I recommend examining the vocabulary and grammar of the passage. Teachers familiar with ESL grammar points can scour a passage to examine its ESL grammar. There are many aspects of ESL grammar that contribute to the readability of a passage, but three typical areas are verb tenses, phrasal verbs, and reduced forms.

Verb Tenses

Beginning-level passages tend to use present, present progressive, and past tenses because the forms and usages are easier. Passages of intermediate difficulty might include present perfect tense, especially when irregular verb forms such as have written or have lit are used. Present perfect is one of the most difficult parts of ESL grammar because both the form and usage are complicated. ELLs know have as "own or possess," not as an auxiliary verb, and the requisite past participle forms can be confusing (I've gotten a new pet is not the same as I've got a new pet). In addition, present perfect tense can be used for a past event (I have lived in Japan before), a current event (I have lived here since 2007), and a future event (After you have lived here for a month, you can get a driver's license). ELLs are rightfully confused by a verb tense that can seemingly be used for any time: the past, the present, and the future. More advanced passages might contain past modals such as must have gone or shouldn't have taken, which are especially problematic because the meaning of past modals does not always overlap with that of present forms.

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs consist of a verb and an additional part (called a preposition or particle): call off (a meeting), look up (a word), take over (a company). Common verbs in phrasal verbs are bring, come, get, look, make, and take, which may combine with particles such as up, down, in, out, on, off, away, back, and over. (For more detailed info on phrasal verbs, see Folse, 2004, pp. 5–8; Folse, 2009, pp. 210–223.)

There are three reasons that ELLs may have trouble deciphering the meaning of a sentence with phrasal verbs. First, phrasal verbs are often idiomatic. ELLs cannot deduce the meaning of a phrasal verb by studying its individual constituent words. For example, the meaning of come up with (an answer) has no connection to the meanings of come, up, orwith. Second, a phrasal verb may be separated by a multiword object: The coach called all seven of the season's games with tough Division Three schools off. In answering the reading comprehension question How many of the games were played? ELLs have to know that call and off are actually one unit for meaning even though they are separated by 11 words. (Phrasal verbs can be separated or not when the object is a noun: She called off the meeting or She called the meeting off. However, separation is obligatory when the object is a pronoun: She called it off, never She called off it.) Third, phrasal verbs are usually polysemous, so ELLs have to consider multiple meanings. For example, take up can mean "collect" (she took up the exams), "begin something new" (I took up tennis in 2000), "discuss" (We’ll take that up tomorrow), "shorten" (He took up my pants), "defend" (My brother took up for me), or "occupy space" (The car takes up most of the garage).

Reduced Forms

Advanced passages are replete with reduced forms that native speakers have no problem deciphering, such as Coins minted in Denver bear a D. To ELLs, minted looks like the main verb because it occurs just after the subject and ends in –ed, a common verb ending, but the complete sentence is Coins that are minted in Denver bear a D. (The ESL grammar rule is that the combination who/that/which + be may be dropped in English without altering meaning.) Advanced passages also have sentences that begin with reduced adverb clauses that originally meant "because." For example, with Distraught from his company's performance, the president resigned, the original sentence was Because he was distraught from his company's performance, the president resigned. Native speakers have an easier time understanding these reductions than ELLs do, yet most native speakers cannot explain why these reductions are allowable. (For an overview on full and reduced adjective clauses, see Folse, 2009, pp. 193–209.)

Logically, teachers teach what they know. For K–12 teachers to teach ESL grammar issues, they must know what ESL grammar is and which areas of English grammar are especially problematic for ELLs. This new knowledge can empower K–12 teachers to be better sources of English input for all ELLs, leading to better teaching and better learning.


1. We use in with years and on with days. 2. We use simple past tense for a past completed action and present perfect for an action that began in the past but still continues. 3. Noun objects of phrasal verbs may or may not be separated (called the game off; called off the game), but pronoun objects must be separated (called it off). 4. Noncount nouns have no plural form and use much, not many. 5. The verb avoid is followed by a gerund (–ing form). 6. Modals (can, could, should, will, etc.) are followed by the simple form of the verb. 7. The adjective form of nature is natural. 8. Happen is intransitive and therefore has no passive voice.


Borg, S., & Burns, A. (2008). Integrating grammar in adult TESOL classrooms. Applied Linguistics 29, 456–482.

Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Folse, K. (2004). Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Folse, K. (2009). Keys to teaching grammar to English language learners: A practical handbook. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Keith Folse ( is a TESOL faculty member in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Central Florida, in the United States.