Bridge Graduate Coleen Monroe previously taught English in South Korea and Chile. She has since gone on to earn her Master's in Linguistics from University College London, and is currently teaching English in Vietnam. As a seasoned teacher, we asked Coleen to again share her expertise– this time on how to teach part of speech. This post also appeared on her personal blog, Reverse Retrograde, about travel, TEFL, and more.  

Today’s topic: How to Teach Parts of Speech

Okay, so you’ve realised that grammar is a thing and that your new job as a TEFL teacher requires you to know something about it. Good start! But you won’t get far unless you are able to label the parts of the sentences that you use in daily speech and especially in writing. The parts of speech are a foundation for all the other skills you need as a teacher in an ESL classroom.

I made it a goal to teach my elementary and middle school level students the parts of speech in every lesson. For the past few months, at some point in the lesson, I choose a nice colour and write “Parts of Speech” on the board. Under it, I write the following:

• Noun – a person, a place, or a thing
• Verb- an action
• Adjective- describes a noun
• Adverb – describes a verb (-ly)

That’s basically all you need to know about the parts of speech as well. You don’t need to know about how they interact syntactically or the theoretical implications of a silent pronoun and inflectional interference on theta roles (all that convoluted and largely inaccurate M.A. linguistics jazz) to effectively teach this.

If necessary, you can add more complicated parts of speech:

• Prepositions: Where?
• Pronouns – not name (Coleen –> she)
• Articles – a, an, the

Write each word in a different colour if possible to emphasise that they are not the same. After a few weeks, all but the youngest students should be able to tell you the names of the parts of speech and their basic functions. When eliciting the words, give examples for each.

Teacher: What’s a Noun?
Students: ?
Teacher (pointing to trash can): Oh, look! A noun! (Pointing to a chair) Oh, look! A noun! (Pointing to self) Oh, look! A noun!

Reward them for guessing! Students will be able to give more examples, and often will have a good understanding of the concept in their native language.

Grammar is heavily weighted in Korea, China, and many other parts of the world for the purposes of multiple-choice tests, but most of my students throughout even the highest levels are unable to talk about basic grammar in English.

This is why teaching them the names for the parts of speech in English is so important. Many students end up studying English in a multi-lingual environment at some point in their lives, where the only common language is English. They need to be able to talk about grammar questions using the correct terms, and they cannot and truly should not rely on their L1 in that context. If students are bored or act like this isn’t an important lesson, you can always tell them this.

Once they have a working knowledge of the parts of speech, make sure that you reinforce this knowledge by using them in the lessons. I often put sentences on the board and ask the students a string of questions: “Where is the verb? Where are the adjectives? How many nouns?”

Don't be afraid to do this with relatively low-level students. Even with the youngest, this simple grammar lesson sticks. The key is to be consistent and do it every time you see them. Don’t give a huge amount of details or long-winded explanations of what any of the parts of speech are.

A key skill that most new TEFL teachers lack is the ability to ‘grade’ their language to make things easily understood at any level. A good motto is this: say more in fewer, simpler words.

Look at the examples below:
Low-level, elementary class: “Verb? Hmmmmmmm, oh! Running, jumping, swimming, fighting” Act out the actions and then say, “Oh, okay! Actions!”

Mid-level, elementary class: “What’s a noun?” Remind them with the trash can point. “A……” And wait for them to answer you with “person.” As they get more comfortable, ask for the full simplified definition (“a person, a place, a thing”). Reward guessing.

High-level, middle to high school class: “Who can give me an example of a verb? Okay, good…now can you conjugate it in the present tense, please?”

For the love of your sanity, don’t say the last one to most classes! They will give a look like you just transformed into a grammar alien and pointed a death ray between their eyes. The key is not to overwhelm the students with too much information that they don’t need.

Great activities can be found all over the Internet for teaching and cementing parts of speech in English. In my experience, two work the best.

The first is a coloring sheet with a ‘Paint by Numbers’ scheme based on words and their part of speech. This works really well for getting students to work together and makes a nice project to show parents, too! Just be aware that some English words can play many roles in a sentence. For example:

Dream
A dream: Noun form
To dream: verb form
dream job: adjective form

This is a good opportunity to remind your students that English grammar is not a precise science and that ‘rules’ they learn in their school may or may not actually hold up in real life. The ambiguity may cause their little heads to temporarily explode, but I promise it’s better for them in the long run (“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, THERE ISN’T A RIGHT ANSWER???” Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”).

The second activity is to make simple sentences and cut them up. Have the students unscramble them in teams and race to write them correctly on the board. The winning team has to label the words with the parts of speech, or the other team can steal the point.

There you have it. The basics of parts of speech for TEFL.

Would to read more about the methodology of teaching English grammar? TEFL instructor, Ann Leonard, shares a classroom technique to increase student engagement and retention: Teaching English Grammar with Guided Discovery.