This post was written by Rachel Spillane

Is word order important in the ESL classroom? Do we need to teach our English students the grammar rules related to sentence structure – word order? Teachers, grammarians, linguists, high-school students and more importantly, the grammar-police (in various professions) have been arguing this for centuries. Do we teach rules or not? Do we need rules or not? Is this important for communication or not? One thing we know for sure – language learners want to understand and be understood!

Making a vocabulary mistake can be costly – mostly to your ego! Anyone who has learned to speak another language probably has experienced this. False cognates (words that look similar between two languages but have different meanings) are serious culprits! Anyone learning Spanish may have tried to say, ‘Yo soy muy embarazada!’ with the intended translation: I am very embarrassed! However, the actual translation is ‘I am very pregnant!’ So, as teachers, we teach, drill, correct and practice meaning (lexical items, sets and context).

What about word order? Syntax? Does it really make a difference? In English, syntax is important because the structure of a sentence gives it meaning. We rely on word order to make sense of what is being said. Without syntax, language would be a string of words put together that may or may not make sense. Syntax is intentional. Two sentences can be similar in the words they use, but the way the sentences are structured can really change the meaning.

Consider: 1) ‘the dog ate the food.’ The syntax is subject, verb, object. If word order wasn’t important to meaning, we could say, 2) ‘the food ate the dog,’ or, 3) ‘the ate food dog the.’ As English speakers, we really only recognize (understand the meaning of) the first sentence. The second sentence could be right…in a horror movie. So, by experience and word meaning, we know the syntax isn’t working! The last sentence doesn’t make sense to English speakers at all. In sentences 2) and 3), there is a sense that ‘something is wrong’ – there is incorrect syntax. In sentence 2), there isn’t SV agreement, since food is inanimate and can’t ‘do’ anything. Choosing the correct verb form relies on syntax (sentence structure rules). In order to have SV ‘agreement’ (meaning), we need to use passive voice verb forms: ‘the food was eaten by the dog.’

Consider: (set 1) Jack gave Jill the book. Jill gave Jack the book.  Or, (set 2) Jack hit Jill. Jill hit Jack. These are the same words, but they have a totally different meaning, especially in set 2! Even though we understand each word in each sentence, the order of ‘who did what to whom’ is critical (meaning)!

Consider: a toddler says, ‘Cookie!’ What are the chances that the toddler is simply saying, ‘oh look, there is a delicious-looking cookie on the counter, how nice’? I’ll tell you: slim to none. Because the mother understands English syntax (consciously or not), she can interpret what the toddler wants: ‘mommy, please can I have the cookie to eat right now, thank you.’ I’m sure as teachers we’ve had this experience with our beginner students!

As students move through second language learning stages and class levels during their English studies, they acquire more and more need to understand and (more importantly) use the rules of English syntax accurately.

Here are few quick tips for the classroom:

1. When teaching grammar points in class, remember to study meaning, pronunciation and form – syntax. Put a model sentence on the board and show sentence structures. For example, ‘the dog ate the food.’

S +   V +    DO

2. On a worksheet, give students a series of sentences on one side and the corresponding sentence structure (SVO, SV, SV+PrepPhrase, etc) on the other. Students match the sentence and the structure type. Make sure there is only one sentence per structure.

3. Put a sentence structure on the board (e.g. SVO). Students make sentences based on that structure. You can turn this into a spoken activity by then having students turn their sentences into questions to ask a partner.

4. Put sentences with specific sentence structures on a strip of paper. Then cut each strip into pieces (i.e. one word on one piece). Put all the sentence pieces in an envelope. In pairs, students must reassemble all the sentences.

5. The activity in #4 can be used for studying/practicing adjective word order, basic sentence structures (SVO, etc), adverb placement, prepositions/prepositional phrases, etc.