Effective Grammar Practice

Learning a language clearly requires us to learn how the language itself works. Many people believe that grammar study can help and in fact is even necessary. Whether it is necessary is not something that I wish to explore here. Instead, let’s have a look at what you can do to practice it, so it can become a part of your own use.

Clearly just studying grammar will not of itself enable you to use it. You really need to use it for that to happen. Just imagine studying to ride a bicycle. That will not get you far, will it? The way you learn language IS important. If how you are learning merely stays as rules to understand and to memorise, your success will be limited. Language is primarily a skill, not knowledge, so we need to use it, practice it.

Becoming skilled at differentiating useful practice from useless practice is going to save you a LOT of time, effort and disappointment in the long run. That is what this post is all about.

What is Effective Practice

Just think of practicing any “simple” practical skill, like riding a bike, driving a car or cooking. The key is wanting to achieve a result and the result centres around performing some skill fluently and easily. We can readily observe from the skill areas just referred to that practice that approximates real live situations is the best.

Artificial practice in any of those areas, just seems counter intuitive. Applying that to language, we could say that practice of grammar based around sentences that are not based on your immediate reality and perception is not really going to be beneficial, especially at the earlier stages. Practice that requires “all” of you to be involved, not just your mental faculties is the kind of practice that works the best.

Effective grammar practice is not something that is usually done well in language classes, nor by many language learners. The reason for this is that despite the fact that a lot is known about what makes for effective learning of languages, this understanding and knowhow has not found its way into teacher training institutions or into many schools. Instead, “a lot of time is spent on repeating what was done before, with minor adjustments.

This is one reason why the rates of school age kids and adults picking up a second language are so poor world wide. It is still very common to see people practice grammar with such phrases like “I am going to; she is going to; he is going to; they are going to” etc.  Whilst this has may have some merit, the reality is that its usefulness for most is limited.

Our brain works best when

  • we can identify with situations
  • there are links made to what is already known  
  • we can build on what we already not just know, but can do
  • the whole person is involved in the activity, including perceptions, feelings, intellect and so on.So, instead of what most grammar books might give you as random examples based on life in the UK, France or Vietnam, fishing, business etc, it is a really good idea to always personalise the examples and make them as “alive” as possible. Doing that, for a start, makes you more selective. That already is getting your brain to user higher order functioning to prepare itself.

Examples of Useful Practice

Talking about your own experiences (past, present or future) is a useful place to start. That of course can include books you have read, stories you may have heard as well as your real life experiences. If you are, for example, intending to go to the movies with a friend of yours, Grace, some sentences that could come from that would be:

  • “I am going to the movies this afternoon with Grace.  
  • She is going with me.
  • We are going together.
  • We are going to take a bus and walk the rest of the way.
  • Rob and Jo are not going with us as they are busy.”
    and so on

Let’s explore another area, distinguishing what you say from other time tenses that may be confusing you might be idea to explore here.

  • I have gone to the movies with Grace so I can’t help my brother”
    It’s important to be very clear, even visualise, where & when are you saying this….and who are you saying it to.
  • I am walking to the movies with Grace so I can’t help you”
    Be careful to do the same as what I just said..be very clear of the situation. By doing this you are creating links in your brain which will help you to be able to use it when you need to.
  • I will go the movies with Grace so I can’t help you”
    Answering questions like “Who are you saying this to and why?” again will help you take your practice to new levels.

If you are not sure of the differences, you can get clarity about your problem when you are VERY clear what you are trying to solve. Like the above situation for example.  When you have very clear examples, you are able to be more pinpointed with your research. As long as you stay general in your enquiries, like when can I use the present perfect, it is difficult to achieve mastery. The clearer and more personal are the examples, the more clear you can be about what exactly you are needing.

Practice using Listening

Another suggestion I have is that you put up your antenna so that when you are reading or listening to people  you listen more carefully to what exactly they are saying, in terms of meaning. Alternatively you can be really attentive to the forms they use. Either way, you are looking for more clarity.  Be very observant of the context and listen very carefully to the meaning. This way you can become more effective in your grammar practice as the language you use attempts to be a reflection of what you feel, think, see and hear. Compare that to talking about the past! Very different perspective.

This way you are actively engaged in getting as a good a match in what you say to what you are thinking and feeling, at the same time as working on the forms of the language. This is making you work at the language is ways that can only help you to retain what you learn. Without memorising anything.

Of course you can check a grammar book, but learning to listen better (and the above are examples of focussed listening) and being more attentive will help you enormously in your quest to be able to use what you learn

If you want to look at other examples of how you could improve your practice there are other examples I have provided here as  well as in a post on I wrote on how you could improve your grammar by reading.


The important thing to remember is that to make your grammar effective you need to do a whole lot more than do the kinds of grammar exercises you see in most books or courses. You need to ensure that the language you are speaking is your own! You need to make it as personal as you can, that way you will involve more of yourself. Do that and you will see a difference in not only your results but the satisfaction you gain from your learning.

(This is a significantly updated and improved version of a post I wrote here some 6 years ago)