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What is the ‘grammar’ exam of the Trinity Diploma and how do I pass it?

Lindsay Clandfield 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 lead author of Macmillan’s critically-acclaimed coursebook Global, and the force behind the popular blog Six Things. Has written numerous books for learners and specialist books for teachers in addition to being a frequent speaker at international conferences for English language teachers. In this blog post he provides some of his tip for passing the unit 1 written exam of the Trinity DipTESOL course.

The Trinity LTCL Diploma TESOL is an internationally recognized qualification for experienced teachers of English. Every year, many teachers around the world take this exam or its equivalent, the Cambridge DELTA, in order to improve their knowledge and teaching skills, develop professionally and boost their career. The Trinity LTCL Diploma TESOL (which I’ll call ‘the Dip’ from here on in) consists of different parts for assessment. This post deals explicitly with the part of the exam that tends to strike fear into most teachers’ hearts: the section of the unit 1 written exam which deals with grammar.

What is the grammar exam of the Trinity Diploma exam?

Strictly speaking, there is no grammar exam. It’s a bit broader than that. Unit 1 of the Dip is the written exam. It’s divided into three sections. Sections 2 and 3 are essays that relate to learning and teaching and professional development. Section 1 relates to Language. It’s part of the language awareness requirements of the syllabus. This section covers everything relating to language awareness except phonetics and phonology (which are covered in other parts of the syllabus).

What do they mean by language awareness?

Language awareness in section 1 covers the following areas:

  1. the morphology of English (for example word classes, how words are formed)
  2. how lexis is organized (for example, collocations and other relationships between words)
  3. the syntax of English (word order and sentence structure, punctuation)
  4. the discourse of English (text structure, grammar of texts and the grammar of language in use)
  5. the semantics of English (what words mean, how meaning can change, the relationship between form and function of language)
  6. rhetorical and cultural conventions of English (register and genre)
  7. the grammar of English (for example, tenses and modality)
  8. the pragmatics of English (how we use language to ‘do’ things)

So, as you can see, it’s a lot more than just grammar! But people often use the shorthand ‘the grammar exam’ as many of the questions deal with that.

How many questions are there?

There are a total of five questions, but you only have to answer four. You can always leave out one question that you don’t want to answer. In fact, you really should leave out one question as answering the extra one will not gain you extra marks (and in all likelihood the examiner will mark the first four you answer, and not select the best four).

Why is this part of the exam so important?

It’s because you have to pass this section to pass the whole written exam. You can’t rely on your good essay-writing skills in the other two sections to help you through this one. Even if you got a distinction score on each essay, and failed this section, you would fail the whole written paper. This is why this part of the written exam can cause so much stress. It’s important to do well in it!

What could come up on the exam?

When teachers ask me this question, I often draw the comparison between this exam and something like the Cambridge First Certificate. If you are preparing a student for an exam like that, you know that almost ANY grammar at that level could come up, but it won’t be anywhere near to ALL of it. It’s the same here. Anything could come up from those eight areas mentioned above.

That being said, there are often trends in the kinds of things that come up. There’s always a specific grammar-related question. There’s almost always a question about lexis, too. And all the questions have a part which relates to the teacher’s practical experience.

What is the structure of the questions? What are the assessment criteria?

The questions often have two or three parts:

  1. asking you to explain or clarify your understanding of a language point. This could mean distinguishing between grammatical terms. It could mean analysing a sentence, or talking about differences in meaning between lexical items. Or it could be correcting learner errors.
  2. asking you for other similar examples, or to explain a pattern if you haven’t already done this in 1.
  3. talking about how you relate this to your teaching. This could be by asking you to explain how you would teach the above point, or discuss typical difficulties your students may have with it, or provide concept check questions.

The questions are assessed for accuracy and completeness of responses. Accuracy refers to the accuracy of content in the answer. Completeness refers to the overall answer in terms of answering what is asked. Each response is awarded 10 points, divided evenly into these two criteria (accuracy and completeness).

How long should an answer be?

According to the Trinity guidelines, answers ‘should be focused, concise, specific and relevant to the question asked’. Trinity does not specify how long the answer should be, but we estimate that most questions can be effectively answered in 200 to 350 words. Perhaps a more important barometer should be time. Since the overall exam is three hours, and is divided into 3 sections, you should aim to be able to answer four language awareness questions in one hour. So, fifteen minutes per question.

The good news is that you don’t have to write huge long-winded responses. Clear note form is acceptable, and you can include diagrams in the answers where appropriate (an example of this would be including a timeline in a response about how you teach a certain verb tense).

What does a good answer look like?

Here is a question and sample answer from a past candidate that we scored full points for. Note how concise the sentences are, and how they are all backed up with examples. Including examples is especially important and helpful in making your answer more clear.


  1. a) Provide, with examples, six different ways of forming the plural of nouns with regard to their morphology.
  2. b) Describe some of the learner problems which arise when you deal with plurals in class and suggest ways of dealing with this area of learning and teaching.


  1. a) Nouns can have regular and irregular plural forms.

Regular: Most countable nouns have a plural form that ends in –S or –ES. We add –ES to the nouns that end in the following letters: -ch, -s, -x, -sh, -z, and –o (e.g. potatoes, wishes, etc)

If a noun ends in –y, we change ‘y’ into ‘i’ and then add –ES (e.g. stories)

If a noun has ‘f’ then we change ‘f’ for ‘v’ and add –ES (e.g. wives)

Irregular: Irregular nouns have a completely different plural form, and may not include an ‘s’ at the end at all. Irregular nouns do one of the following.

  • They have a change in the main vowel (e.g. man – men)
  • They have a completely different form (person- people)
  • They have preserved the Old English inflection –EN (e.g. ox-oxen, chil-children)
  • They are borrowed, mainly fro Latin and Greek (e.g. criterion- criteria, medium- media)
  1. b) As soon as learners learn the rule (add –S or –ES to the noun to form plural) they start over-applying the rule and we frequently face examples like: childs, childrens, persons, mans, etc. Another problem is the spelling (e.g. y-i and f-v).

Most course materials tackle the first problem by introducing the most frequent examples of irregular plural alongside with the regular ones. (e.g. men, children)

What I can do further on (for both of these difficulties) is to practise the plural with ‘restricted use’ activities (e.g. gap fills and matching exercises) and later to expose the learners to quite a number of these examples actively used in ‘authentic use’ materials, like stories and songs. A good context will help as well, for example making shopping lists and discussing preferences (e.g. I hate horror films. I enjoy comedies. My children like scruffy jeans and T-shirts with slogans.)    

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But I’m terrible at grammar! What should I do?

Based on what previous participants on the diploma course have told me here are three things that can help:

1) start making grammar more prominent in your lessons if you’ve avoided it in the past. With higher levels check things with your students.

2) find yourself a “grammar tutor” – someone who has a better grasp on it than you do now. Schedule regular grammar meetings, and get them to quiz you. It’s best if this person is also a teacher, so you can discuss teaching ideas, typical mistakes and tips.

3) review regularly. There are several good grammar books for English teachers. You should really be using one of these and not just grammar books for students. I’ve included a list of our favourites below (these are also all on the Trinity Diploma reading list).

Other than this, there is no magic pill really for getting down and learning it. Many people at Certificate level tell me that they think they will NEVER remember all the verb tenses or be able to identify them. Well, if you remember that feeling then you’ll know that after some time you DO remember them, and can actually teach them well! It’s the same thing with this.

Are you thinking about your next challenge in ELT? Advance your career and prove to employers that you are serious about your profession by taking the Trinity DipTESOL course. Next course starts: October 7th 2019. Contact us for more information or apply here.

Recommended language awareness reading for teachers

Batstone, R. Grammar. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1994.

Carter, R., Hughes, R. and McCarthy, M. Exploring Grammar in Context. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000.

Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. A Communicative Grammar of English (3rd edition). Longman: London, 2002.

Parrott, M. Grammar for English Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000.

Swan, M. Practical English Usage. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1995.

Thornbury, S. About Language. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2017 revised edition.

Willis, D. Rules, Patterns and Words: Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching.

Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2003.

Yule, G. Explaining English Grammar. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1998.

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