Activities for Teaching Similar Grammar Structures

Teaching grammar may seem fairly straightforward, but then you get questions like, "What's the difference between present perfect and past simple?" or "How can I choose between 2nd conditional and 3rd conditional?"

Activities for Teaching Similar Grammar Structures Activities for Teaching Similar Grammar Structures

When you teach similar grammar structures separately, they have nice, clean rules, and everyone's happy, but when things start to get confusing, what do you do? These activities for teaching similar grammar structures might help.

Whether you're working on verb tenses, types of conjunctions, conditionals, or the grammatical changes that take place in a sentence simply by replacing "hope" with "wish," you have to walk through a basic series of activities. Each activity builds on the previous one, guiding your students through forms, analysis and choice to a true understanding and ability to produce correct English.

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Study Forms

The first step in teaching similar grammar structures is to show the differences in how they are formed.

Learn the Word Order

You can use charts to show the correct word order for asking yes/no and "wh-" questions in each tense. These simply serve to show students the correct order of the words when forming these tenses. Using the charts for reference, students can then practice writing the forms themselves in controlled exercises:

  • Sentence Scramble - Mix up the words in simple sentences, and have students reassemble them correctly.
  • Fill-in-the-Blanks - Give students sentences that use ONLY ONE of the structures in question. They are not yet ready to decide which one is correct. However, they do need to practice writing the forms, and doing it in the context of a sentence is better than doing it in isolation.
  • Minor Changes (Substitution Drills) - Give the students a short, simple paragraph. If you're working on the differences between Present Simple and Present Continuous verbs, start the paragraph with "Every day," and write it in Present Simple. Now change "Every day" to "Right now," and have the students change the verbs accordingly. This is a great lead-in to the next step in the process, analysis.

Analyze Differences

Now that students are comfortable writing the two similar grammar structures, it's time to study the differences in usage.

A side-by-side comparison chart for Past Simple and Past Continuous is a good way to get started. Then, we need some practice activities. Tip: Check out the printable comparison chart below that has been prepared by YourDictionary.


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Give examples of the grammar structures in question used correctly, and ask specific questions to highlight the differences. If you're studying Past Simple vs. Past Continuous, you might give this sentence: "At 8:00 last night, I was folding laundry." You would then ask:

  • Which verb tense is used?
  • When (specifically) did this action happen?

If the action was in progress at a specific moment that is stated in the sentence, you should use Past Continuous. If the action happened in the past, but a specific moment is not stated, or the action did not take more than a moment to complete, you should use Past Simple.

Another activity to try is fill-in-the-blank sentences with specific questions to walk students through the process of choosing the correct grammar structure. Using the same sentence from the previous activity, you would give this sentence: "At 8:00 last night, I ________________ (fold) laundry." You would then ask:

  • Did this action happen at a specific time?
  • Did the action take only a moment to complete, or was it in progress at the moment stated in the sentence?

These questions will help the students determine which tense to use.

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Choose Your Weapon

When students have a handle on the thought process behind choosing the correct grammatical structure, they are ready to make their own choices. We still need to keep the exercises controlled, however, and limited to the similar structures in question. Don't go throwing in something from the past, and definitely don't confuse them by adding in curve balls you haven't taught yet.

Here are some ideas for activities:

  • Fill-in-the-Blank Sentences - If you're working on two different verb tenses, give students the base form of the verb for each blank, and let them choose the correct tense. For more of a challenge, give them a word bank full of base verbs, and they must put the correct verb in the correct blank in the correct tense.
  • Circle the Correct Answer - Give the students sentences with two choices in parentheses. Students must circle the correct choice to complete the sentence.
  • Multiple Choice Sentence Completion - Give students the beginning of a sentence, and they must choose the correct ending, A, B, C or D.

Edit for Correctness

When students have gotten pretty good at choosing the correct grammar structure for sentences and paragraphs, it's time to see how good they really are. Start with numbered sentences with structure underlined. Students must decide whether the structure used is correct or incorrect.

  • If it is correct, they do nothing.
  • If it is incorrect, they must correct it.

Then move on to paragraphs with both structures used, some correctly, some incorrectly. Students must find a specified number of mistakes in the usage of the structures being practiced.

Editing practice will serve the students well later on when they must edit their own work.

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Produce Language

Now your students are ready to start producing their own sentences with the two grammar structures they've learned. To get them started, you can ask them to:

  • Answer questions
  • Finish sentences
  • Write questions for given answers
  • Write short paragraphs
  • Write stories, letters or essays

There are a lot of similar grammar structures in English that cause confusion for ESL students. When you're introducing new ones, try to stick to a comparison of only two at a time. You could easily teach the differences between Present Simple, Present Perfect, Past Simple and Past Continuous; but, that could get very confusing very quickly.

A good place to start is comparing Present Perfect and Present Perfect Continuous, then Present Perfect and Past Simple, then Past Simple and Past Continuous. When students have a firmer grasp on each one, then you can mix and match.

Printable Study Forms

In addition to the study form above for Past Simple vs. Past Continuous, YourDictionary has prepared two other study forms for you to print and use with your ESL learners


View & Download PDF

View & Download PDF

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Interesting Activities for Teaching Similar Grammar Structures

These study forms are designed to support your various activities when teaching similar grammar structures. They provide helpful information in a chart format.