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Five areas of grammar that give teachers a headache

Lindsay is a Canadian trainer, teacher and award-winning author. He is a tutor on our Trinity DipTESOL course and the Course Director of our teacher development courses. He’s the series editor of the Delta Teacher Development Series, the lead author of Macmillan’s critically-acclaimed coursebook Global and the force behind the popular blog Six Things.

When I teach language awareness on the Trinity Diploma course there are always a few areas of grammar which inevitably tie teachers in knots. The same happens in my work as a materials writer. English grammar is simple in some ways but can get horribly difficult in others. Recently I asked a group of practicing teachers and graduates of diploma level courses which areas of grammar they found the most difficult to deal with on the course, and in their teaching. Here are the top five.

Students working on their grammar skills.


I was curious about this one, because as a teacher I don’t find modals that hard to deal with. However, I suppose it can get tricky because of the subjective nature of modality. Explaining the difference between may and might, or between must and have to for example are often minefields for teachers. Plus there’s the concept that each modal verb has two possible meanings and different uses (permission, obligation, ability etc). Finally, the whole area of explaining a semi-modal also gets tricky. So I guess that’s why they give teachers a headache.

Key terms to know: modals, semi-modals, intrinsic and extrinsic meaning of modal verbs


The whole area of determiners as a word class can cause stress, partly because it’s not a term that we (materials writers and ELT grammar books) use that much. Every teacher is quite comfortable with the term articles, or quantifiers. We just don’t always know that those are in fact kinds of determiners (as are demonstratives like this, that, these and those).

The terminology area that causes a headache though is the confusion between determiners and adjectives, since both come at the beginning of a noun phrase. It doesn’t help that different grammar books call things different things either. What are words like my, your, his, her, our, their? Many teachers (and some grammar books) call these possessive adjectives. But other grammars prefer the term possessive determiners. The more I think about it, the more I’m in the latter camp since my, your and our don’t really behave like adjectives.

I should give a special shoutout to articles here. The basic difference between the use of the, a and an feels easy to teach at lower levels. But it’s all the other uses of ‘the’ and ‘a/an’ that can cause a simple question in class to descend into chaos. Try explaining the difference between ‘The lion is a noble beast’ and ‘A lion is a noble beast’ – you’ll see what I mean.

Key terms to know: determiners, articles, quantifiers, demonstratives, possessives

Cleft sentences

The mere appearance of this term is enough to send many an English teacher into a panic. What on earth is a cleft sentence? Why have I never heard this term? It sounds horrible and complicated!

Cleft sentences are structures like the following.

It was Brian who asked the question.

It’s money that we want.

It’s grammar that I have the most trouble with.

What you should do first is look up the answer. 

This grammar area generally comes up for the first time at C1, so if you never teach high levels you’ll probably never encounter it. We use cleft sentences when we want to take out an element of a sentence and emphasize it by putting it first. It’s actually not that hard to grasp as a concept, but because it’s unfamiliar to many teachers it can be hard to think of contexts or activities to teach it in. Cleft sentences can also be made with a What-clause (see the last example above), which also makes teachers nervous to explain.

Key terms to know: cleft sentence (!), relative clause, what-clause, emphasis

Passive Voice

Passive should be pretty easy. The form of the passive, and making the passive, are both straightforward. It’s when we have to explain why we use the passive in certain cases that it gets hard. Here, for example, are the uses of the passive explained at an intermediate level.

We use the passive when we are more interested in what happened than in who did it. This may be because:

  • we don’t know who or what did the action, or
  • it is not important who or what did the action, or
  • it is not necessary to say who or what did the action

Sounds easy, right? The problem is deciding which of the above applies in each case. Are we using the passive because it’s not important or not necessary? Do we really not know who did the action? These questions about the passive can lead to a teacher tying themselves in knots, many times unnecessarily.

Of course, the terminology of the passive can trip up teachers and learners. Test yourself on this question: What is the difference between the agent, the object and the subject of active and passive sentences?

Key terms to know: passive and active voice, agent, subject, object

Present Perfect

I left the worst to last. In terms of form, it’s quite easy to explain the present perfect to learners, except you have to break the bad news that they need to learn a whole bunch of new verb forms (the past participle). No, it’s the use of the present perfect that makes things fiendish. In part this is because many other languages do not have a perfect aspect that functions exactly the same way it does in English. Two key elements of the perfect aspect is that it’s prior, or previous, to another point in time and that it expresses a complete action. But both of these become really hard to explain, and for students to assimilate, as teachers well know.

Here are other ways we attempt to explain how we use the present perfect.

  • It’s used to talk about experiences in the past.
  • It’s used to talk about something in the past that continues up to now.
  • It’s used to talk about an action in the past that has relevance to now.
  • It’s used to talk about an event in the past when the exact time is not important.

Of all of these, perhaps the first is the easiest to explain. In my experience teaching and watching others teach, the other three explanations (while they may be true) often end up confusing learners. A good remedy is to have lots of examples on hand to contextualise, that’s all the help I can offer you right now!

Key terms: present perfect, perfect aspect

Astute readers will notice that I’ve written a bit about why they might be difficult and provided key terms for teachers to research in order to answer questions about these with confidence. Because these are tricky areas, they do require a bit of a deeper dive than a simple one line explanation! Consider this article as a check, and encouragement to learn more!

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