Student-Generated Grammar Rules

As ESL instructors, we often learn at least as much from our students as they do from us. But that truism was borne out in an unexpected way recently in my beginners’ evening ESL class as we wrestled, in time-honored fashion, with the simple past.

My students had gamely participated in a number of tried-and-true communicative activities designed to help them practice one of the trickiest skills: forming questions in the simple past. Avid futbol fans, they had interviewed each other about the 2014 World Cup results using prompts that I had helped them generate: Did Brazil lose? Did Germany win? Did Argentina beat the Netherlands? What was the score? We had listened to one student describe a recent trip to Hong Kong and students took turns asking her questions about her experiences there. I transcribed the discussion, and students worked in pairs to correct their errant grammar.

But after several weeks of practicing how to pronounce “-ed” endings and searching authentic texts for irregular verbs, these beginning students were still having a very hard time remembering not to use those “-ed” endings or the irregular form of the simple past in questions. Left to their own devices, they continued to ask each other questions such as “Did Colombia lost?” or “Did Monica went to Hong Kong?”

Until, suddenly, the light went on for one student. Excited, Esther exclaimed, “You need to put the past one time!” We all wondered what she meant. She said it again, “Is clear now. You need to put the past one time.” Still mystified, I asked her to come to the board and explain what she meant to the class. She pointed to the two sentences I had written on the board:

  • Monica went to Hong Kong.
  • Did Monica go to Hong Kong?

Rapping her knuckles on the word “did” in the question, she said, “Did is past. You need only one past.” In other words, to say “Did Monica went to Hong Kong?” would involve using the past “two times”: “did” and “went” are both “the past.” And that would violate Esther’s self-generated “put-the-past-one-time” rule.

I have studied X-word grammar, and introduced it in some of my classes. I have used the “Question Hand” to remind students of how to formulate questions in English. But for my money, Esther’s clear explanation—“You need to put the past one time”—tops all other mnemonic devices for teaching the question form of the simple past.

Have your students come up with a simple and elegant way to remember a grammar rule that you’d like to share?


About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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4 Responses to Student-Generated Grammar Rules

  1. Volkan says:

    Thank you for this illuminating article. Student correction is great. It is the best way to understand whether your students have understood your input or not.

  2. Cathy Kaye says:

    Thanks! This is wonderful! I love your description of what happened in your class, and I love the simple explanation your student discovered on her own. Thanks so much for sharing this! 🙂

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Dear Cathy: Thanks for your enthusiastic response! I’d love to more about what mnemonic devices your students use. Best, Alexandra

  3. Marci Daugherty says:

    I also liked a student-generated SVA rule for present tense: ONLY ONE S!

    Generally, there is either an “S” on the subject (plural) and therefore not on the verb, OR there is an “S” on the verb, and therefore the subject is singular. Of course, there are irregular plural nouns (embedded “s” maybe…) but this rule really seems to help my ESL students get it.

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