From the ESL Grammar Files: Everything You Need to Know about Teaching Gerunds

From the ESL Grammar Files: Everything You Need to Know about Teaching Gerunds

Are you ready to tackle the subject of gerunds in your ESL classroom?

Here is everything you need to know to teach these verbish nouns to your students.

What Is a Gerund?

Simply put, a gerund is the –ing form of a verb acting as a noun in a sentence. A verb is a noun. Not confusing at all, is it? Maybe not for a native speaker (although many would beg to differ), but it’s not so easy to understand for ESL students. When a verb is in its gerund form, it refers to the activity rather than the action. The process of doing something rather than the actual doing. Gerunds can function as subjects or objects in a sentence. Take a look at the following:

Swimming is a good form of exercise for the elderly. (The gerund is the subject of the sentence and refers to the activity of swimming not a specific person’s action of swimming.)

She enjoys swimming in the ocean. (The gerunds is the object of the verb and refers to the general activity rather than a specific moment of movement.)

What Is an Infinitive?

Gerunds are often taught in conjunction with infinitives. Infinitives are also verbs used as nouns, but infinitives are the simple form of the verb preceded by the word to. Infinitives can also be used as the subject or object of a sentence which is why the two are often taught together.

To live is the greatest gift. (Infinitive as subject)

I want to live life to the fullest. (Infinitive as object of the verb)

Check These 3 Tips to Differentiate Gerunds and Infinitives

  1. ESL students can become confused between gerunds and infinitives because they are both verbs acting as nouns in a sentence – they are two forms of one word serving the same purpose in English (verbs acting as nouns). When you teach the difference between gerunds and infinitives, it may help to point out that gerunds refer to specific, concrete, and/or real actions. Infinitives, on the other hand, expresses actions that are unreal, abstract, or those that might happen in the future. Most often, giving your students examples will be the biggest help in seeing how gerunds and infinitives work, but you can also help your students differentiate the two with these three tips:

  2. 1


    While both infinitives and gerunds can be used as the subject of a sentence, gerunds tend to sound more natural.To copy is the greatest form of flattery. (sounds stilted and formal). Copying is the greatest form of flattery. (sounds more natural)

  3. 2


    There are certain verbs that take gerunds as objects (admit, consider, deny, discuss, dislike, enjoy, keep, quit, miss, mind, practice, and understand) and others that take infinitives (agree, ask, demand, deserve, forget, happen, learn, manage, need, prepare, want, and wish). Other verbs can be followed by either (begin, can’t stand, hate, intend, like, love, plan, prefer, and remember). You will have to teach your students which verbs take gerunds and which take infinitives, and your students will have to memorize these, but don’t teach them all of them at once. Try starting with two or three verbs from each list, defining each and using them in spoken and written English. Then introduce a few more the next day and so on until you have covered all of the words on each list. As you teach each word, try writing two or three separate lists on the board and having your students copy them down or try giving your students sample sentences with each verb along with its object and having them create their own takes-a-gerund and takes-an-infinitive list. The act of writing will cement the lists in your students’ minds more than just handing out a printed list.

  4. 3

    Only Gerunds Can Function As the Object of a Preposition

    They were talking about going to New York City. (Not: they were talking about to go to NYC.) She won an award for cleaning up the city. (Not: she won an award for to clean up the city.)

Gerunds and the Progressive Tenses

Your students have been learning verb tenses throughout their English studies, and they have learned to associate the –ing form of verbs with the progressive tenses. This can cause confusion for students who are learning how to use gerunds. Their minds automatically associate –ing words with actions in progress.

When you teach gerunds to your students, take a few minutes to review the progressive tenses. Point out, even though it may seem redundant, that when the –ing form is used as a verb, it is a progressive tense. When the –ing form is used as a noun, it is a gerund. The two are mutually exclusive. You should also point out that the –ing forms for gerunds and progressive verbs appear in different areas of the sentence. You might want to give your students a few sentences which use the progressive tense as well as a gerund and have your students identify the function of each –ing word in the sentence. You can use sentences such as the following:

  • Su-Jan is planning on studying all weekend.
  • He was enjoying swimming at the lake.

Of course, you’ll also have the –ing form showing up in the simple future as well. (e.g. I am going to study tonight.) You might also give students examples of gerunds in a sentence with the simple future.

  • Memorizing is going to be the key to passing this test.

For a real challenge, write a paragraph with as many –ing words as you can and have your students identify the function of each in the paragraph.

Practicing Gerund Use

Give your students a chance to practice using gerunds. In fact, give them many chances. Try giving them an exercise in which they have to complete a sentence with either a gerund or an infinitive. Have them write sentences that use multiple –ing words and exchange them with a partner who should then identify the role of each –ing form in the sentence. You might also challenge students to a gerund writing competition. Give students five minutes to write a paragraph which includes as many gerunds as possible. Have students exchange papers to proofread and identify the gerunds and then see who included the most in their paragraph.

Keep in mind that gerund use is a struggle for many ESL students

. Be patient in your instruction and correction. Encourage your students to ask questions, and don’t expect them to learn everything all at once. Above all, remember to encourage your students that they will learn this successfully and that all the work they put into it will make a difference.

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