learning grammar through context

putting grammar into context. Recently I’ve been struggling (not for the first time, obviously) to find some nice way to teach/ revise a grammar topic, and by “nice way” I mean something different from exercises (which are great, but mostly as a homework) and videos featuring the grammar usage (which are good too, their drawback being that they showcase a structure but don’t make a student use it). The topics high on my list now are gerund/ infinitive and passive (different tenses). In all cases I was dealing with one-one students, hence not much opportunity for all those great speaking activities that would more or less naturally involve using passives or gerund/infinitive structures.

The way that seems to have worked for me and my students is very much personalised, which I know is not always good (at least, it can’t be easily copied, it wouldn’t necessarily work for all the others out there if it had worked for one or 2), but at least I’ll just share what I did, and if you think it’s worth it, you could try and do the same for a different context.

Anyway, here is what I did:, 2 cases:

  1. the student: a young woman, a co-owner of a company delivering farm goods to people. Is keen on everything to do with food and nature. I thought an idea of a wastED restaurant could interest her, so I

a) compiled a short text describing Dan Barber’s initiative (here are a lot of picturesque examples http://www.wastedlondon.com/scrapbook , and in “press” section there are a lot of good texts too)

b) asked my student to share her thoughts about the initiative (which could be quite controversial, too)

c) offered her a list of gerund/ infinitve phrases to complete, with regard to the WastED story:

Dan Barber…
  • tries
  • makes people
  • suggests
  • enjoys
  • decided
  • looks forward to
  • thinks there’s no point in
  • wants people to stop
  • wants us to remember (not)


    • The WASTed restaurant lets
    • Such projects make us not forget / remember
    • A lot of people don’t mind (e.g. eating “reusable food”)

2) the student: a male working for Russian search giant, quite fluent, but not too accurate. At our previous class we both noticed he was making a lot of errors in Passive Voice usage, and it was quite logical to revisit the topic, even though he’d definitely studied it in the past. For that reason, we needed smth more sophisticated than the usual (exercises, talks about how this or that process is usually carried out). As our recent topic has been Open Source software, and he’d introduced me to Google’s Open source site

So I just rephrased a couple of sentences from their main page so that each of them used different passive structures, but wrote the grammar parts in Russian (see the brackets for the English versions):
  • Thousands of open source projects используются в Google to build scalable and reliable products  (are used in Google)
  • Millions of lines of code уже были выданы Гуглом under open source licenses for others to use (have already been released by Google)
  • A healthy ecosystem используется for the sustainability of open source for all these days (is being used)
  • At Google open source всегда использовался to innovate (has always been used)

This short exercise made my student think (!), remember the appropriate structures, think again and in the end, get it right, which was just what I wanted him to do. To wrap it ip, I also asked him to watch a short video featuring TensorFlow (Google’s Open Source library)  and then to comment on how/where it can be applied, how it was developed, how long it has been used etc, using the Passive Voice again.


Surely, both tasks are not very easy for students, and they should be something that follows (a lot of) controlled practice and a great deal of memorising and checking (especially in gerund/infinitve case). All in all, however, this approach proved to be a good one for revisiting the topic and putting the grammar into active usage.

About Svetlana Urisman

I am an ADOS and an English teacher (and materials writer) in a language school in Moscow. I have been an ADOS and a teacher trainer for a couple of years and a teacher for about 10 years. I am keen to share some ideas and materials I've developed in order to take them further and not to lose them. You are welcome to use any materials represented in this blog, and I will be happy to get your feedback afterwards if you take them to your classroom! ;-)
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