Language – meaning, pron and form – the big 3

It’s difficult to know where to start if you are new to teaching grammar. The first thing to know, is what you need to know about any given piece of language in order to help students use it properly for themselves.

The big 3 – meaning, pronunciation and form.

These are the three bare basics that need to be covered, for students to be able to start using a piece of grammar, a functional chunk, or some vocabulary to communicate.

Look at the following sentence;

“I’ve been teaching for eight years.”

 This is an example of the present perfect continuous. Let’s say that you are going to teach this tense. Answer the following questions;

  1. Can the student communicate an idea effectively using this language, if they don’t know what it means and what it is used to express?
  2. Can they communicate an idea using this structure, if they cannot be understood because of the way they say it?
  3. Can they communicate an idea using this structure, if they cannot choose the correct words in the right order?

The answer to each of these questions is a definite ‘no’!

So, we need to know about these things (MEANING, PRONUNCIATION and FORM), if we are going to help students with them.

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The meaning of the structure in the present perfect continuous sentence above (I’ve been teaching for eight years) is that an activity (teaching), started at a point in the past (8 years ago) and went on from then, up until now. The duration of the activity is emphasized. The activity probably hasn’t finished and may continue into the future.

If you, as the teacher don’t know this, then you cannot make sure students know it, and they won’t be able to correctly choose when to use this tense in their speaking or writing.

If we were teaching vocabulary, it should be no surprise to know that in order to teach the meaning of the word, we first need to know the meaning of that word ourselves. As with grammar, we may think we know what a word or phrase means (after all, we can use it correctly!) but that isn’t enough. We need to think about the meaning carefully in advance so that we can make it clear to students at their level. It’s surprising how difficult it is to clarify the meaning of something off the top of your head. The chances are you haven’t really thought about the meaning of the grammatical structure or the word you use on a daily basis. You just get on and use it!

Look at the underlined words below, and think about how you would define them, remembering that your definition needs to be very clear and simple. Suggested answers are given below.

  1. a rare steak
  2. a genius
  3. an antique
  4. to stroll
  5. oxygen



  1. a rare steak – when meat is cooked only a little bit. It is usually very pink in colour and you may be able to see blood coming from it.
  2. a genius – a person who is a lot more intelligent than everyone else. For example, Einstein.
  3. an antique – an object often found in a house such as a piece of furniture, that is more than about one-hundred years old.
  4. to stroll – to walk in a slow and relaxed way.
  5. oxygen – what we breathe in to live.

There are a number of ways you could actually teach these words (e.g. by using a picture, a mime or a quick story) and definition may not always be the most appropriate, but you would still need to be clear on the meaning yourself before teaching, regardless of how you chose to teach them.



The form of a structure (e.g. of the present perfect continuous) is a little bit like a recipe. If I want to make any present perfect continuous sentence, which ingredients in terms of language do I need?

If we look at the following present perfect continuous sentences;

I           ’ve       been   teaching     for eight years.

He       s         been   living          there a long time.

They   ve       been   waiting       for ages.

We can see that although they are different sentences, they are all the same structure (present perfect continuous) and they all have the same form (or the same grammatical ingredients are needed to make each sentence).

The form of the sentences, can be represented as;

Subject + have / has + been + verb-ing

With this form (recipe), we can make any present perfect continuous positive statement. If we want to make a negative statement, the form will change a little.

For example;

I                       haven’t                      been               learning         English very long.

She                 hasn’t                         been               doing             her homework.


Subject + have/has + not +  been    +   verb-ing

Now look at the following questions in the same tense, and try to work out the form. Answers follow.

Have you been waiting long?

Has she been going out with him for a long time?


So, the form of the questions is:

Have / Has + subject + been + verb-ing.



When teaching functions, we need to decide if highlighting the form would actually be useful to students. In other words, do the chunks of language for that function follow a grammatical pattern?

Let’s take the example of the function of asking for permission.

Look at three different ways of asking for permission that we might teach, and decide if you think there are any useful patterns in form we could highlight for students. The functional chunk is underlined.

Is it OK if I open the window?

Do you mind if I sit here?

Can I take this seat?

It would not be useful to grammatically analyse these chunks word by word as we did with the present perfect continuous, ( Do + mind + etc., wouldn’t really help students), but we could show them a useful pattern, as below. Using this form, students could create their own sentences with the functional chunks.

Is it OK if I

Do you mind if I               +    base form

Can I



When teaching vocabulary, the form is essentially what kind of word we are using. Look at the words from earlier. What part of speech are they? (e.g. noun, verb etc.)

  1. a rare steak
  2. a genius
  3. an antique
  4. to stroll
  5. oxygen



  1. a rare steak (adjective)
  2. a genius (noun)
  3. an antique (noun)
  4. to stroll (verb)
  5. oxygen (uncountable noun)



When we construct sentences and say them, we are doing things that don’t always come naturally to learners of English. It would be just the same for us, when learning a different language to our own. We can’t always get the sounds right. The words may sound different when said in isolation compared to when they are said in a sentence, and we may not know where to put emphasis. The voice may go up and down and we may have difficulty replicating this. We need to help our students with the same things when they are learning English.

Look at an example of the question form of the present perfect continuous:

Have you been waiting long?

Say the sentence, slowly and carefully, pronouncing every word separately, and clearly enunciating all the sounds. Now say it again naturally. The two sentences sound different. When we teach, we need to highlight how English sounds when spoken. So of course, we need to notice these changes ourselves, or we know what to point out for students.

As with grammar, if you are a native English speaker, the chances are you have never really thought about this. Below is an example of how we might represent for students all the things we do when we pronounce this sentence naturally.

The underlined words in the sentence are the ones that have the most weight, or stress.

Have you been waiting long?


These symbols below the words ‘Have you’ represent the sounds we actually hear, rather than how the words are spelled.

When teaching functions or vocabulary, we also have to analyse the pronunciation for teaching. Let’s look at the same five words we saw earlier. To help students we would highlight how the word is said, perhaps by using the phonemic alphabet, and we could mark the stress, to show the number of syllables in the word and where the main stress is placed. We could also record the form – for vocabulary this is information about the part of speech.

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(For more information about what any of these grammatical terms mean – see the terminology glossary.)

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