A Communicative Approach to Teaching Grammar: Gain Regular Students

Adopting a communicative approach to teaching grammar may change the online teaching game for you, forever. But first, let me ask you some important questions.

Are you having trouble retaining or attracting new students? Is there something you can do to make yourself more marketable? Are you content with your students’ language skills? 

If you have awesome students who are okay with regular conversation, move to the next blog post. 

If you only want to do PHs, then also move on. 

But, if you want your students to keep making reservations, then maybe I’ve got something that might interest you. If you meet great students who need more than just a game of “Would You Rather,” then definitely keep reading! 

Why great conversation is not always enough

My students range from high beginner to advanced. My high beginner student can read but has low comprehension and low fluency. 

The difference between my intermediate students and advanced students is their level of fluency. To me, fluency means the ability to communicate with ease. 

In my honest opinion, you can’t increase fluency without increasing accuracy as well. To elevate the rhetoric of your students, you have to adopt a communicative approach to teaching grammar. 

What is rhetoric? It’s the art of speaking or writing effectively. It’s what takes an ELL from “I need to study” to “If I study really hard, I will get into a good school.” 

I’m a native speaker, so of course, I can teach grammar, right? 

Not true! 

We benefited from complete immersion, so as children, we just absorbed the English language in school and at home. 

When I was getting my TESOL certificate, I took a course called Structure of Language, a course on teaching grammar. It was so hard for me because I had to learn the grammar rules and all the exceptions that go with the rules. We also had to do grammar homework like an ELL.

In the beginning, I had the mindset of a native speaker, and I justified my answers with, “it just sounds right to me.” This explanation does not work in a classroom setting if you are the teacher. 

Now you’re probably thinking, “Okay, Connie, you’ve got a point.” 

Why is it important to have a communicative approach to teaching grammar?

Contrary to other methods of teaching grammar, a communicative approach to teaching grammar is built on the idea that language is best learned through communication. 

The communicative approach to teaching grammar throws all memorization techniques and archaic forms of teaching out the window. 

The communicative method of grammar teaching led to a shift in learning and providing instruction to our students (and for the better). Teachers have realized that students learn in a more relaxed environment, where rules are not the king. 

Instead, students learn better when taught grammar in sequence to communication methods such as reading, speaking, and listening. After all, students will always be more impressed with how well they can hold a conversation in English rather than list all of the grammar rules of the present tense. 

So, a communicative approach to teaching grammar actually has higher rates of fluency! Yes, focus on grammar, but more communicatively and engagingly. 

How do I choose what grammar topics to teach? 

Listen to your students more than you speak. 

What do you think they need to work on? Make your lessons student-centered. 

Recently, I did a lesson on Ever, Never, Already, and Yet. I chose this lesson because one of my students kept saying, “I have ever…” and I knew it sounded wrong, but I didn’t know the rule to explain why it was wrong. 

So I made a note, researched it after class, and created a lesson that focused on grammar, but with a communicative approach.

As I explored Ever’s uses, I decided that Never, Already, and Yet should also be part of the lesson. 

If one student needs to learn a grammar topic, I create a lesson that I can adapt for all levels. Adapting doesn’t mean changing the lesson; it means spreading the lesson over a more extended period because they need to process the information in small amounts. 

My more advanced students take a long time to finish a lesson because there is always a lot of discussion. If they tell me they have not eaten dinner yet, then I ask questions like, “When do you plan on eating? What’s for dinner? When do you normally eat?” 

And that’s how you make grammar instruction more communicative, folks!

My goal is always more STT! 

Should I jump right in and start lecturing about tenses and gerunds?

It’s like exercise. First, you have to warm up. For adults, you have to tap into their critical thinking. 

You want them to connect to the content of the lesson so that they can retain the material. When I taught my “Ever” lesson, I began my lesson with a pre-activity. 

My pre-activity uses the grammar topic, but it doesn’t explain the usage. 

Here’s a clip of the questions we asked each other: 


…made a pizza by yourself? (I have…./I have never….) 

…eaten leftover food from someone else’s table? 

…used your sleeve as a napkin? 

…needed a toothpick right after eating? 

…cooked rice in the microwave? 

…baked brownies in a toaster oven? 

…ordered a coffee from Starbucks?

We began by asking each other questions.

I almost always go first to model the activity, then my student and I take turns asking questions. I always lose my place, so I ask my student, “Where are we up to?” because I need my students to pay attention. If they don’t know a word, I will act it out for them. 

And as I mentioned earlier, many of the questions lead to a short discussion. 

For example, the last question I have is, “Have you ever ordered a coffee from Starbucks?” And the student answers, “No, I have never ordered coffee from Starbucks because I don’t drink coffee.” 

From that, we talked briefly about why he doesn’t drink coffee. 

The actual pre-activity had 20 questions, and it took about 10 minutes to create this. Notice that it’s not fancy at all. 

The pre-activity took about 30 minutes, and the next lesson we began with Ever. 

Below is what the beginning of the lesson looked like: 

Ever: (adverb) at any time, used with present perfect 

In questions 

Have you ever been to England? I have been to England. I haven’t been to England. 

Have you ever met the Prime Minister of Japan? I have met him. I have never met the Prime Minister of Japan. 

Have you ever eaten durian? I have eaten durian. I have never eaten durian. 

Have you ever been to Beijing? I have been to Beijing. I have been to Beijing many times! I have never been to Beijing.

My student read the sample questions and answered the questions in both positive and negative. I typed the answers as they said them.

Then I asked them to make up a couple of questions using Ever and answer them.

The next part was this:

In negative questions 

Haven’t they ever been to Europe? Have they ever been to Europe?

Haven’t you ever eaten Chinese food? Have you ever eaten Chinese food?

I asked them to read the questions and then asked if they noticed the difference in the questions. If they need a hint, I read the questions to them and exaggerate my tone. Next, I asked them to make up a couple of sentences using this structure. 

How long does lesson planning take, and are we paid for it? 

No, we do not receive payment to plan lessons. 

But I’m not reinventing the wheel here! 

I went to google and typed in “Ever oesl,” and many websites popped up. I quickly scanned through a few of them, picked one that I liked, and copied and pasted parts of it into a Google document. The Google document allowed me to type during the lesson so that my student could see the words as they were talking. 

Some tutors do not believe in working without pay. However, I like to come prepared with a lesson simply because I want to be a master on the topic I’m teaching, so I choose to put in the time to understand it myself.

I don’t want to create my own lesson plans. What else can I do? 

As a teacher, you should know your strengths and weaknesses. 

What are you good at? Listening? Watch a video together. 

Reading? Pick a book or a text for your student to read. 

Speaking? Practice conversation and model correct grammar. 

The only downside with these fluency activities is that you have to limit your corrections. When you are doing a grammar lesson, your corrections are based on the accuracy of your student’s responses. The student expects you to correct their mistakes when it’s an accurate activity. 

To make these fluency activities effective, you have to make them an active exercise. 

For example, a student watching a video is a passive exercise. A student watching a video a couple of times with a list of comprehension questions makes it an active exercise. 

Having a communicative approach to teaching grammar allows the student to explore which method of learning is best for them.

I’m still not convinced that I should teach grammar. I think basic conversation is enough.

Well, how do your students feel? 

The beauty of Cambly is that each class can be whatever the student wants. 

If they only want conversation, then that’s all you need to do. But being able to teach grammar in a communicative way is a big plus on your Cambly profile. 

Any tutor can have a conversation. There’s even a random question generator if you don’t want to come up with your own questions, which is totally fine. 

Check out some free resources that will help you with grammar and conversation here!

One of my students enjoys our discussions on current events. He doesn’t want to learn grammar. Okay! I can do that!

However, if you want to attract new students or retain regular students, you need to add more value to your students’ English learning. 

In NYC, the classes that teach grammar and other language skills are taught by a paid instructor and cost a lot of money. The conversation classes at the library are free of charge and run by volunteers. 

So it’s up to you. I enjoy learning more about the English language, and I love sharing my knowledge with my students. 

Ugh! Alright, alright, I’ll try it. When do you find time to plan a lesson? 

We all get no-shows and cancellations, right? 

Even super tutors get those! Even my most dedicated regulars will miss a lesson here and there. It happens. 

How about when you are available from 5:00 – 6:00 and someone books a 30-minute lesson from 5:15 – 5:45? Take advantage of that extra time and learn some grammar. 

You do not receive payment, except for the 10 minutes of waiting time for a no-show and $0 for a cancellation. 

So instead of going onto Facebook to complain about all your no-shows, be productive! Think of this as a long-term investment. 

You could fill a cancellation or no-show with a PH, but in the future, how are you going to retain students that you meet on these PHs? 

Final words on a communicative approach to teaching grammar

Think about when you had to learn a foreign language. What were your beginner classes like? 

I learned French grammar from 7th-12th grade. I didn’t have a class without grammar instruction until I was in college. Grammar takes time. 

Mix in some reading, free talk, writing, videos, and you’ve got a varied and dynamic approach to teaching English. 

Good luck with your grammar lessons, everyone!

Remind yourself that you are creative and intelligent! Show your students that you are that tutor who can offer them so much more than just a great personality and conversation. 

About the Writer
Connie is a SuperTutor on Cambly who was born and raised in New York City. She loves tutoring so much that she tutors seven days a week. Connie loves meeting new people and discovering what makes us the same and how we are different. She loves laughing with her students and believes that one of the reasons students keep coming back to her is the strong rapport she builds with each student.

Check out this other blog that Connie wrote about being a stay-at-home Mom while working with Cambly.

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