The essential sentence grammar toolkit for ELLs

If I could have one wish granted for my teaching practice, it would be that my students could recognize when they’ve written a complete sentence. I think not being able to note when a sentence ought to start or finish is one of the most important problems facing young writers, and it’s a particularly acute problem for English Language Learners.

Grammar rules are a bit of a paradox. Some would argue that these rules are fixed and should be reinforced, even enforced. This position is called the prescriptivist position and it’s easy to debunk in its essentialized form because language changes. For example, it’s become more acceptable to use contractions, like can’t, and don’t, in formal writing. Today a question like Whom did you give it to? is as pretentious as it gets. Even the most popular translations of the Bible have moved away from the thees, thys, and thous of yesteryear. Did you even know that yesteryear was a normal word before?

The opposite position of the prescriptivist one is the descriptivist position, which holds that language is what language does. Using this view it’s easy to explain the evolution of language. Language rules are true in so far as they’re widely accepted. This is nice and true, but it’s not particularly useful, especially for language teachers.

Teachers know that all knowledge must be hung on something even if extreme relativists argue that something is just a mental construction. Teachers and language learners need rules that are true enough. They need rules of thumb that work.

So, it is true, as the descriptivists posit, English punctuation and standard rules of grammar are ultimately conventions that have emerged and are reinforced in schools, universities, publishing, and the business world. But they can sometimes take for granted how important it is to be aware of them and that we should want our ELL students to master them. Ultimately, the students most acquainted with standard norms of writing will have more options in their futures in terms of career choices and societies within which they wish to participate.

Many of us English as a first language speakers attended schools where grammar was barely discussed. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I left university without ever having used a semicolon and not knowing that am, are, and is are forms of the verb be. And that was just the very beginning of my ignorance. Any grammar I did know, I had acquired from my studying of French. The fact I didn’t make more connections to English is especially bewildering because I spent a lot of time in high school conjugating French verbs.

It is also true that a widespread lack of understanding of formal grammar has not caused the world to collapse. This is a world where friend was only a noun a mere decade ago, youthquake can be chosen by the Oxford English Dictionary as the word of the year in 2017, and the President of the United States can invent corrupted English words by tweet fiat. We’re still doing alright, but that’s the descriptivist in me speaking.

And I’m doing alright, too. Even daring to putting out a blog, where every sentence can come under public scrutiny for adherence to standard conventions. Or not.

And kids can turn out fine.

But with ELLs we shouldn’t be so laissez faire.


ELLs are at a disadvantage compared to learners whose first language is English because they have often have fewer opportunities to encounter English and develop an “ear” for correct grammar. This is especially the case when students are learning English in a country where English is not a national language.

When many English as a first language people write, we write according to what ‘sounds’ correct. Throw in some rules of thumb, a foggy memory or two from our grade school days, and presto, we’ve got a version of standard grammar that might only be noticed by some grammatical pedantic boor.

ELLs can’t always “hear” what’s correct, though younger learners have a better chance to rely on this “what sounds right” strategy than older ones. And of course, the more exposure to correct English, the better their “ears for English” can develop.

So if you have a gut feeling for what’s correct grammar, and it generally corresponds to expectations of standard grammar, then you’re in good stead. But if you can articulate why your sentence is correct, or why you can manipulate it in a certain way, you’ll be even more empowered. The cliche of Picasso spending most of his painting career to learn how to paint like a child is true. Learn the rules before you can break them.

Making sure our students in general, and our ELLs in particular, have some grammar knowledge is also a question of equity. It’s one thing to “deprive grammar” from monolingual English students in language environments where they have many opportunities to “hear” what’s correct. It’s quite another to take away grammar instruction from students in multilingual settings, whether or not they have strong literacy in their first languages.

I’ve taught English for more than 10 years in non-English environments, and I’ve found that amongst all my students, the strongest writers are the ones who are most aware of the functions of the words and parts of sentences, whether 8 years old or 22. These writers are also the most likely candidates for learning how to effectively break the very rules they know. Consequentially, they have the most options.

So what are the essential rules.

I propose that all students, ELL or not, in addition to developing an ‘ear’ for correct grammar through regular exposure to oral and written content, should be able to identify the following:

  • The subject of a sentence. (The Montreal Canadians lost again!)
  • The predicate of a sentence. (It is a depressing time of year.)
  • A simple sentence. (Fahad likes blue.)
  • A compound sentence. (Fahad likes blue, but Jessica likes red.)
  • A complex sentence. (When I feel drowsy, I will drink some coffee. Drinking too much coffee is not good because it disrupts my sleep.)

They also need to be able to identify the following errors.

You’ll notice that sentence fragments can be quite easy to identify, and if students regularly practice fixing them and practice redaing out loud their work, they’ll become more adept at avoiding them.

Run-on sentences are trickier because they often can sound correct, but if you ask students to read them without pausing, they’ll often see the problem. Explain that they need to have a word that joins each group of subjects and predicates, and they’ll soon be able to systematically identify those errors.

Research shows that ELLs benefit from direct grammar instruction, but this instruction must be done within context. Students must also be provided with many opportunities to practice. One way you will know your ELLs are making progress is when they can correctly manipulate sentences and they can explain why.

Let me know your thoughts in comments below, or send me a message on Twitter. If you want an overview of each of the essential parts of grammar I mentioned, you can browse the following posts: the subject, the predicate, the simple sentence, the compound sentence, the complex sentence, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences.


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