“I avoid grammar and vocabulary areas that I find difficult to teach. Should I feel bad?”

Open the contents pages of a few upper intermediate and advanced course books. Look through the grammar, vocabulary and functional language items. Are there ones there that you never actually teach?

Don’t beat yourself up

If there are items that you have never taught, it could be because you don’t like teaching them. There are probably two interrelated reasons for this:

  • they are difficult to teach (and possibly even difficult for you to understand)
  • you feel they are irrelevant

These points are interrelated because in reality if something is difficult to teach it is highly likely that it is not something that is used particularly frequently, and in any case could easily be substituted. For example, the grammatical use (not the actual meaning) of phrasal verbs is spectacularly difficult to teach … and in my opinion not even useful for students to learn. If there is something that is likely to confuse students, it is probably best not being taught.

So don’t beat yourself up if you are not teaching certain things. The key thing, in my opinion, is that students come away from the lesson feeling satisfied … not frustrated.

Of course there are some relatively complex grammar points that are worth teaching. For example, the present perfect has many uses, all of which are probably worth teaching even though they may be quite hard for students to understand.

Present Perfect 

As far as I know, there is no language in the world that uses the present perfect to say: I have been here for a month (meaning that you arrived a month ago and are still here now). Other languages use the present and students will come up with sentences like:

I am here since a month.

or worse (because it has a different meaning from the one intended):

I am here for a month.

This distinction is clearly very important:

I am here for … I arrived at some indefinite time and plan to stay for a / another month.

I have been here for … I am telling you how long ago I arrived here.

Other uses of the present perfect (e.g. I have seen this film before) tend to be more aligned to usage in other languages.

Guideline: trust your instincts

You need to decide what is and is not important to teach.

Students can survive perfectly well without ever using the Past Perfect Continuous or knowing the difference between try and do it like this and try to do it like this.

But students certainly do need to understand our use of the Present Perfect. They could confuse their listeners / readers if they begin a sentence with I am here instead of I have been here.

So my guideline would be: Can students live happily without me teaching them this? Am I likely to do more damage (i.e. by confusing them) than good by teaching it? If so, don’t worry if you have been avoiding and continue to avoid teaching it. And if it comes up in your coursebook you can legitimately consider skipping it.

Adrian Wallwork