10 Biggest ESL Grammar Mistakes and How to Keep Your Students from Making Them

10 Biggest ESL Grammar Mistakes and How to Keep Your Students from Making Them

Whether they are beginners, who are just starting to grasp the basics, or advanced students who can speak quite fluently, ESL learners make grammar mistakes.

That’s right. At any level, any stage. Most repeat the same kind of mistake again and again, and if these mistakes are not nipped in the bud, they will continue sprouting up. Although some mistakes don’t affect our students’ ability to communicate, we should always strive for increased accuracy. Some mistakes are so common, they are made the world over by ESL students from a variety of backgrounds. Here are the 10 biggest mistakes.

10 Grammar Mistakes ESL Students Make

  1. 1

    Choosing the Wrong Tense

    I have been to New York last summer.

    In this case, the student fails to see that because he/she is referring to something that happened at a specific moment in the past, he/she should use the Past Simple, not the Present Perfect. Students may remember the correct form of the verb (and remember the correct past participle for a specific verb, for example); the problem is that they simply use the wrong tense to express themselves.

  2. 2

    Using the Wrong Preposition

    What happened with you last weekend?

    Happened with, to or on – prepositions are one of the most confusing aspects of learning English grammar, as there are rarely clear-cut rules.

  3. 3

    Confusing the Infinitive, Gerund or Base Form of the Verb

    I must to buy a new English book.

    Students often use the infinitive with modals like must, when they should simply use the base form of the verb. Others use gerunds when they should use infinitives (I decided going to the park).

  4. 4

    Omitting Articles

    I bought new car yesterday.

    Get the feeling something’s missing? Well, ESL students are not as intuitive. Whether it’s the definite or indefinite article, they sometimes seem to avoid them like the plague.

  5. 5

    Misusing Adverbs and Adjectives

    I want to speak English good.

    If your ESL students want to speak English well, they’ll need to make sure their adverbs and adjectives are in tip top shape.

  6. 6

    Subject-Verb Agreement

    People is coming to my party tonight.

    People are people, but ESL students in particular often need to make sure the verb agrees with the subject of their sentence.

  7. 7

    Wrong Word Order

    Is corrected the test?

    There are several ways for a seasoned ESL teacher to tell that a student is thinking in their native language. And this is one of them. Because I can also speak Spanish fluently, I can tell you that this is the word order we’d use to ask the same question in Spanish.

  8. 8

    Incorrect Plural Nouns

    I have three childrens.

    Childrens, gooses or womens… ESL classrooms are filled with them!

  9. 9

    Incorrect Comparatives

    It is more cold in my country than it is here.

    The comparative form of some adjectives seem to confuse students more and more… more bad, more good and more easy.

  10. q

    Sins of Omission

    I English student.

    It can be a verb, preposition, article or noun - any student at any level may omit a word from a sentence. While some omissions may go unnoticed and hardly affect the flow of communication, others may seriously hinder fluency.

How to Help Your Students Stop Making These Mistakes

In my opinion, there are two essential steps when dealing with grammar mistakes. The first is correction and the second is practice. Let’s look at each individually.

Naturally, we correct students when they make mistakes. But have you asked yourself why they keep making the same mistakes, despite the fact that we keep correcting them? In most cases, corrections are made quickly, while students are speaking and have their minds on what they are trying to say. In most cases, they simply don’t register the correction. How can we effectively correct students so that these types of mistakes don’t go unnoticed? First, we need to really draw their attention to them.

  • The Comic Relief Strategy: Say you have students who always say childrens instead of children. Try making an exaggerated face as soon as they say the offending word. Or shout out, “You saw what in the park?” with a shocked expression. The exaggeration and the over-the-top acting helps them zero in on the problem while at the same time relieving the tension from being corrected.
  • The Self-Correction Strategy: There are numerous ways to use self-correction in the ESL classroom, but whichever one you use, you can bet the student’s attention will be focused on the problem he/she has to solve. Try writing down the sentence on the board with a blank space for the mistake and have the student fill in the gap with the correct answer. Or write what the student says, and ask, “What’s wrong with this sentence?” Of course, you can’t do this every time a student makes a mistake, but it is a great strategy for those mistakes students repeat over and over again.

Nothing beats hours and hours of practice. If you identify something that students seem to have real trouble with, like choosing the wrong tense, give them extended practice to help them overcome this particular difficulty. Games, drilling or worksheets, anything and everything helps, and you will definitely see the improvement.

Years ago, during a particularly chilly winter, I had a student who started every single class by asking me, “Do you have cold?” What he really wanted to know was if I was cold (he was wondering if he should turn up the heat). I corrected him and encouraged him to ask, “Are you cold?”, but the next day he asked me the same wrong question: Do you have cold? One day, I answered, “No, actually I don’t have a cold. I’m feeling quite well, thank you, but if you’re wondering if I am cold, I’m fine, thanks. No need to turn up the heat.” At first, he looked bewildered, then, he understood his mistake; he confused be cold and have a cold. For several days, we went through the same routine; he asked me the wrong question, and I gave him my very long-winded response. One day, out of the blue, I walked into his office, and with purpose and a certain gleam in his eye, he asked, “Are you cold?” The very long-winded answer drew his attention to the mistake, whereas a quick correction would have fallen through the cracks.

Some mistakes must not be taken lightly.

They must be conscientiously and purposefully corrected. It is the only way your students will get past them.

What are the mistakes ESL students typically make in your country? Share them below!

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