• How to lead ESL Students to Discover their Grammar Mistakes on Writing Assignments


One-on-one conferencing

Example of telling, not leading a students: “I see that you have a mistake in this sentence in your essay.  Instead of writing, ‘He was gave a reward,’ you should write, ‘He was given a reward.'”

All over the world and on almost every campus, there is a need for well-qualified teachers/tutors who understand grammar terms and who can “lead” ESL students to discover and correct their own mistakes, and by so doing, become better at self-editing.  Unfortunately, many teachers/tutors merely tell students what their mistakes are and how to correct them.  This approach has been proven to be ineffective at making students aware of their mistakes and at helping them become independent. The purpose of this posting is to give a brief introduction to an innovative and at the same time straight-forward techniques which teachers/tutors can use when conferencing individually with students about their writing assignments.

Overview of the teacher/tutor training

To better understand the teacher/tutor-training process, below I have included in this posting:

1) a description of the general steps in—and a brief sample of—a teacher/tutor-student conferencing session.

2) some sample teacher/tutor-training exercises from the Training Guide: Grammar Conferencing Techniques for Teachers and Tutors (by D. & P. Kehe).

3) some samples of supporting materials from the Handbook: Grammar Conferencing Techniques for Teachers and Tutors (by D. & P. Kehe).

To start with, there are two important points about ESL teachers and tutors regarding this process:

1) They do NOT need to be a grammar expert.  They do NOT need to be able to explain grammar rules.  They need only to know some common grammar terms that they can use when conferencing with students.

2) Their role is NOT to edit students’ assignments by directly tell students what to change.  Instead, their role is to lead students to discover their own mistakes by tapping into their (the students’) own grammar knowledge.

General Steps for Conferencing with Students about the Grammar in a Writing Assignment

To lead a student to the first mistake, the teacher/tutor would give a hint.  If the student can correct the mistake, the teacher/tutor then goes on to the next mistake.  However, if the student cannot correct that first mistake, the tutor gives a second or third hint until the student can correct it.  If the hints are not successful, or if the student seems frustrated, it’s acceptable for the teacher/tutor to then ask the student if it would be better for the tutor to directly explain what the mistake is and how to correct it.

In the art of conferencing, an important aim is for the teacher/tutor to say as little as possible.  ESL students often do not have the listening skills needed to internalize long grammar explanations, so it’s most effective if the teacher/tutor can lead students by asking short questions.

Sequencing of Hints  (Below, I will use the term “teacher” to represent what a teacher or tutor would say.)

After the teacher has read through the first paragraph . . .
Hint 1: The teacher tells which line, or sentence, has a mistake.
(If the student doesn’t find it, give Hint 2.)

Hint 2: The teacher tells what general grammar point the mistake is about. (e.g. “You have a verb tense problem;” or “Think about your verb tense.”)
(If the student doesn’t find it, give Hint 3.)

Hint 3: The teacher asks the student to identify all the words (or phrases) that pertain to the student’s mistake in the line/sentence. (e.g. continuing with the example in Hint 2, just above, “Underline the verbs.”)
(If the student doesn’t find it, give Hint 4.)

Hint 4: The teacher points to the specific word which is the problem is. (e.g. “Is the word “takes” present of past tense?)
(If the student doesn’t find it, give Hint 5.)

Hint 5: The teacher gives the student two options: The teacher can explain what the problem is, or the student can think about it and tell the tutor later.

Examples of Conferencing (with the teacher ‘s “script” in italics) about the essay topic, “My Family”

My family shot

my family ex 2 and 3

 Samples of teacher-training exercises from the
Training Guide

Part 1: Identifying mistakes

This part is for training purposes onlyIt provides an opportunity for trainees to discover, discover, analyze, and explain grammar mistakes.  This helps lay the groundwork for Part 2, in that it pertains explicitly to conferencing with students.

  • You can find an explanation of the grammar point in the Glossary of Terms in the Handbook. To cross-reference with the Handbook, a note is included at the end of each “practice” sentence.
  • If you are not sure where a mistake is in a “practice sentence,” you can find all corrected sentences on p. 21 at the end of this Training Guide.

(Note 1: Although in the exercise below, the directions ask the reader to explain what the grammar mistakes are, in actual conferencing sessions, this would not be included in the interaction with the student.)

Ex 1 prac sentences shot


Part 2 conferencing

Samples from the Handbook

The purpose of the Handbook is to give the teacher/tutor-trainees support while they are doing the exercises in the Training Guide.  To facilitate this, the information in the Handbook is coordinated with the exercises in the Training Guide in two ways.

1) For each item in the Training Guide exercises, the trainees are referred to “suggested” hints in the Handbook.

2) For grammar terms used in the exercises, trainees are referred to a “Glossary of Terms” in the Handbook.

Coordinating the Guide and the Handbook

This attachment shows an example of how the Training Guide and Handbook coordinate with each other. coordinating-guide-and-handbook

A video recording of a conferencing session

For an example of a tutoring session using these techniques, see the link to a YouTube video below:

Video of tutor conferencing a student

If you’d like a copy of the 35-page Handbook and 21-page Training Guide, send me a message through the “How to Contact Me” at the top, and I’ll send it to you as an email attachment.  I don’t charge for these.

To read about the most effective technique to use when marking grammar mistakes on students’ essays, see Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills

David Kehe.

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