Is grammar knowledge important when teaching English?

Before we address the main question it is best to first give a brief outline of the different types of class levels that English language classrooms adopt around the world. Although there will be different names used for the different levels taught in some countries, the five standard teaching levels indicated by the main resources books available (Reward, New Headway, etc) are:

  • Starter (or Beginner)
  • Elementary
  • Pre-Intermediate
  • Intermediate
  • Upper-Intermediate

Now that we have established the general language levels of our students, we can now look at the four skills of the English language.

The four skills

As an ESL language teacher it is vital that we are aware of the four skills required by any student who wishes to become fluent. Reading and listening (receptive skills) and writing and speaking (productive skills) are all as important as each other when it comes to learning a language effectively. As well as addressing particular areas of grammar and vocabulary, every lesson should also feature some amount of all these skills where possible.

Typical topics studied at each level

Beginner/Starter

Absolute beginners will first need to learn the Roman alphabet before moving on to more complex subjects. After this, the main focus at starter level is simple vocabulary and basic sentence structures. New vocabulary items are usually presented via groups of objects such as shapes, colors, machines, clothes, etc.

Elementary/Pre-Intermediate

The aim at this level is to increase the student's vocabulary and to introduce certain parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. Other sentence structures and tenses such as present simple and present continuous are also introduced at this stage. As the students reach pre-intermediate, the simple past and future forms are also included in the curriculum.

Intermediate/Upper-Intermediate

At the higher levels the students should be aware of all the tenses, as well as more complicated grammar topics such as direct and reported speech, transitive and intransitive verbs, and conditionals.

ESL exams and correspondence of levels

When it comes to measuring the English language level of individual students, the most commonly used measurement system is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Using this method we can grade the language level of a student on a scale of A1, A2, B1, B2, Advanced, and Expert.

These ratings match the previously stated levels as follows:

  • Starter = A1
  • Elementary = A2
  • Pre-Intermediate = A2/B1
  • Intermediate = B1
  • Upper- Intermediate = B2
  • Advanced level is C1 and Expert level is C2.

The vast majority of ESL classes are pitched between A1 and B2. The knowledge and understanding required to reach the higher levels is typically beyond the level of most native English speakers.

For students learning English in order to enter university or to work abroad, other exams such as IELTS or TOEFL might be required. If you find yourself teaching students working towards either of these qualifications, it is worth remembering that it could involve C1 level teaching. Whatever job you are applying for, it is important to discover what level your students will be at and how much time will be allocated to each different level. If it turns out that most of your lessons are at a B2 level or beyond, you will need to spend a lot of time planning and preparing your lessons.

Summary

Unless your teaching career is going to be focused only on kindergarten or very young learners, it is quite clear that a sound knowledge of English grammar is important for both the teacher and the learner. If you end up working with students who are working towards some form of examination, they will have to demonstrate considerable grammatical knowledge in order to pass. In terms of the teacher, your own grammar knowledge will need to be higher than the highest level you have to teach.