TESOL – Teaching Grammar in China

The teaching sequence presented here is thirty minutes of grammar from a two hour lesson for intermediate level academic skills students. The essay will first look at the context in which the sequence was taught, then review literature relevant to the teaching of grammar and finally present a rationale for the teaching sequence in terms of the literature reviewed.


The grammar teaching sequence is one part of one lesson of a 120 lesson course, over 2 school semesters. The course aim is to prepare Chinese students, in China, for university preparation courses, raising their IELTS score to 5.0. The course also aims to provide the necessary skills for further academic study in English, and communication skills. The course is Australian accredited, at Certificate IV level. The lessons must be approved by the head teacher, and must conform primarily to Chinese, but also to Australian, standards.

All lessons provide a mixture of the four macro skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking) as well as grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, tied together by a unifying theme. The previous two lessons focussed on reading passages using present perfect and past continuous verb tenses, and new vocabulary from those passages. This lesson then explained the grammar used in the previous two lessons, and allowed the students to use it in writing and speaking.

The students have been together in the same class for the entire semester, and so are familiar enough with each other to work in groups. They are all Chinese senior secondary school students, planning on studying abroad at the end of their high school studies.

I have three years experience teaching English and content studies to Chinese students in China, and gained my first teaching qualifications in 1997. I have fifteen years experience in education and teaching. As such, I feel confident with the material to be taught.

The classroom is adequate size. It has interactive whiteboard and all technology needed.

An eclectic approach, taking ideas from various methods, has been used in designing the teaching sequence, the lesson plan and the entire course. The specific method used is communicative language teaching, focussing particularly on task-based learning (Davies & Pearse 2000).

 Literature Review

English language teaching (ELT) practitioners in China need to be aware of the state sanctioned and enforced methodologies of teaching language, as outlined in Hu (2005). These include the Grammar-Translation Method (GTM), the Audiolingualism Method (ALM) and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).

GTM sees language as a system of rules for the construction of sentences, with writing considered to be the superior form of language (Davies & Pearse 2000). GTM also states that language is best learnt by memorising rules and vocabulary, and using them to construct sentences, primarily in writing (Davies & Pearse 2000).According to Hu (2005), the version of GTM practiced in China is characterised, in part, by systematic and detailed analysis of grammar.

ALM involves dialogue repetition and memorisation, and substitution drilling (Davies & Pearse 2000). ALM as practiced in China particularly emphasises accuracy as an outcome, strict control by the teacher and structure-based syllabus (Hu 2005). However, in China, it is generally only used at the lower levels of language learning (Hu 2005), as it is not a traditional Chinese method of teaching.

CLT differs from GTM and ALM in that it is a learner centred method of teaching (Davies & Pearse 2000), whereas GTM and ALM are behaviourist methods (Diaz-Rico 2004). Language is seen in terms of communicative functions and use of the language, and a wide range of formal learning activities can improve the learner’s progress (Davies & Pearse 2000).

The groundwork to CLT was laid by Hymes’ theory, which holds that knowing a language involves knowing the rules of language use (communicative competence), not just the rules of grammar (linguistic competence) (Spada 2007).The two areas of research that are central to modern understanding of CLT are Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis and Long’s Interaction Hypothesis, both emphasising the central role of meaningful communication in language acquisition (Spada 2007).

However, many of the things that are seen as benefits by ELT practitioners, such as self-expression and flexibility, are seen as constraints by the Chinese education authorities (Hu 2005).

Task-based learning centres around getting learners to acquire English in the process of doing other tasks (Davies & Pearse 2000), and task-based design aims that the context of the tasks should have a reason outside the discrete skills being learnt (Murray & Christison 2011).

Three principal phases exist in all task-based lesson designs (Ellis 2003). The pre-task prepares the student to perform the task (Ellis 2003). The during-task phase centres around the task itself, and includes instructional options, and is the only mandatory phase (Ellis 2003). The post-task phase is optional, and follows up on the task performed (Ellis 2003).

Syntax refers to the rules that make sentences, and grammar refers to whether the sentence conforms to the rules of standard English (Diaz-Rico & Weed 2002). Generative grammar refers to the practice of looking for the rules of syntax (Diaz-Rico 2004). Interlanguage is the language that learners use when they make errors in the syntax (Diaz-Rico 2004). Understanding how the rules of syntax of the first language affect the second language can help in correcting errors (Diaz-Rico 2004).

In teaching grammar, there are five types of form-focussed tasks that are commonly used for teaching (Nitta & Gardner 2005). Consciousness-raising tasks require learners to do an operation on some data, to understand a particular linguistic property of the target language (Nitta & Gardner 2005). Interpretation tasks help learners identify a form function, enhance input sio learners notice a target structure and compare similar items (Nitta & Gardner 2005). The other three are focussed communication tasks, grammar exercises and grammar practice activities (Nitta & Gardner 2005).

An eclectic approach to grammar can be achieved by students learning in a natural sequence. This involves using listening, speaking, reading and writing (Savage et al 2010).

It is also important to take a humanistic approach to teaching. Students who explore content that interests them, and feel positive emotion about learning will mature as positive people and better learners (Diaz-Rico 2004).

Rationale for teaching sequence

An eclectic approach was considered necessary to satisfy the requirements of the Chinese education system, and to ensure that Australian standards were achieved. As it is a grammar lesson this was quite easy to achieve.

As CLT is one of China’s preferred teaching methodologies, the selection of method was relatively easy. As CLT is eclectic, the incorporation of GTM and ALM was also quite easy.

The first step in the teaching sequence is to deal with the present perfect verb tense. The teacher displays the grammatical item’s name, when it is used, and the lexical rule for use. This is done for each of positive, negative and question forms. Example:

– Present perfect verb tense – Used when we want to connect the past and the present – Positive form: subject + auxiliary verb + past participle – Example: I have been to the library

This is done also for past simple, with the rules and examples for positive, negative and question forms explained. The –ed rule for past tense regular verbs is also explained, as well as some examples of irregular verbs, which need to be remembered.

Because rules are explained, it fits into GTM methodology. To further reinforce GTM, the teacher reads the rules and examples from an overhead projection, and the students then repeat it in unison. It is an example of a deductive presentation (Nitta & Gardner 2005), typical of GTM. The oral repetition of the rule incorporates ALM.

This, along with an example of each of the tasks to be completed, also serves as a pre-task activity.

The first task requires the student to identify the verb form from a list of sentences, and to write down why.  Example: (The student writes) The verb tense is past simple, because the action was in the past and is finished. This further reinforces the rules of grammar, and is typical of GTM. It is also an example of a presentation interpretation task (Nitta & Gardner 2005), typical of CLT. The sentences were taken from a reading text introduced two lessons previous, and also used in the previous vocabulary lesson.

The second task requires the student to choose the correct verb form from a pair embedded in a sentence, and give a written reason why they made that choice. This is reinforcing the grammar rule, which is typical of GTM. It is also an example of a presentation interpretation task (Nitta & Gardner 2005), typical of CLT. The sentences were taken from a reading text introduced two lessons previous, and also used in the previous vocabulary lesson.

The third task, writing down, in pairs, as many irregular verbs as possible, tests and increases vocabulary, as well as being a pre-task for the next task. This is an example of the presentation-practice approach (Nitta & Gardner 2005), typical of CLT.

The fourth task, matching beginnings and endings of sentences from two lists in adjoining columns, is a presentation consciousness-raising task (Nitta & Gardner 2005), typical of CLT.

Post-task reviews and reinforcement can be done as required, depending on the students’ responses.

The entire sequence then acts as a pre-task for the next two sequences of the lesson, which require speaking and writing using the grammatical functions introduced.


While I have attempted to cover all aspects of CLT, it should be remembered that in China, CLT has “Chinese characteristics” (Hu, 2005), which are vastly different from standard CLT as practiced in the west. In the Chinese version, “meaningful practice” is limited to the tasks described. GTM takes prominence, while ALM also has a considerable place as well. I intend to review this sequence to make it more suitable for delivery in an Australian classroom.


Teaching Sequence

Lesson: Present perfect and past simple

Aims: To identify the difference between present perfect and past simple verb tenses

Teaching sequence: Grammar

  1. Examples – Present perfect verb tense explanation – positive, negative and question forms
  2. Examples – past simple verb tense explanation – regular and irregular verbs; positive, negative and questions forms
  3. Exercise – identify whether a verb tense is present perfect or past simple from a list of eight sentences
  4. Exercise – select the correct verb form from a choice of two in a list of six sentences
  5. Exercise – work in pairs to write down as many irregular verbs as possible, in the past simple and past participle
  6. Exercise – match the beginnings and endings of pairs of similar sentences, selecting the correct verb tense

 Lesson Plan

Lesson: Present perfect and past simple

Duration 90 minutes

Activity and duration Teacher Students Language (or other) focus Materials
Introduction and review of previous lesson

Grammar (reading and listening) – 30 minutes

Speaking – 30 minutes

Writing – 30 minutes

Review of lesson and preview of next lesson

  Reading and Writing Focus Lesson

Present perfect and past simple
Present perfect and past simple

Present perfect and past simple

Vocabulary Focus Lesson

Worksheet, teacher talk and Powerpoint
Worksheet and White Board

Worksheet and overhead projector


Reference List

Clifton, J. (2006). Facilitator talk ELT Journal, 60 (2), 142-150.

Davies, Paul and Pearse, Eric. (2000). Chapter 12 : Development in Teaching English in Davies, Paul and Pearse, Eric, Success in English teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.185-204.

Diaz-Rico, L. T. (2004). Views of teaching and learning. Teaching English Learners: Stratgies and Methods. Boston: Pearson Education. Pp. 30-65.

Diaz-Rico, L. T. and Weed, K. Z. (2002). Chapter 3 : Language Structure and Use in Diaz-Rico, L. T. and Weed, K. Z, The crosscultural, language and academic development handbook, Boston: Allyn & Bacon, pp.55-71.

Ellis, Rod. (2003). Chapter 8 : The Methodology of Task-Based Teaching in Ellis, Rod, Task-based language learning and teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.243-278.

Hu Guangwei. (2005). Basic English Language Education in China: An Overivew in Kwah, P. F. and Vallance, M, Teaching English to Chinese ESL students: classroom practices, Singapore: Pearson Education, pp.1-29.

Murray, Denise.E and Christison, MaryAnn. (2010). Chapter 1 Planning curriculum in Murray, Denise.E and Christison, MaryAnn, What English language teachers need to know : Volume II Facilitating learning, New York: Routledge, pp.3-17.

Nitta, R. & Gardner, S. (2005). Consciousness-raising and practice in ELT coursebooks. ELT Journal 59 (1). Pp 3-13.

Savage, K., Bitterlin, G. and Price, D. (2010) Grammar Matters: Teaching Grammar in Adult ESL Programs, Cambridge University Press pp 1-45

Spada, N. (2007). Communicative Language Teaching: Current status and future prospects. In J. Cummins & C. davison (Eds.), International handbook of English Language Teaching. Vol. 15 (pp. 271-288). New York: Springer.


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