A Simple Guide to Teaching Young ESL Students About Syntax

Soccer. Ice cream. Happy. Syntax. Cool.

Which one of those five words would you never expect to hear from a young person?


Children, not to mention children learning English as a foreign language, have no idea what syntax is.

Heck, there are plenty of adult native English speakers who have no clue how to define it! It is, however, an important skill to teach young learners, even if it doesn’t actually involve teaching the rules of grammar.

Syntax refers to sentence structure; it’s the order of the words in a sentence that makes it understandable to native English speakers.

There may be multiple ways to write a sentence while maintaining the rules of grammar, but younger ESL students require a set structure for the simple sentences they learn. These youngsters certainly don’t need to learn how to express the same idea in active and passive voice until they’re older.

Why Should Young ESL Students Learn Syntax?

It’s important that young ESL students recognize word order and sentence structure. As students get older and progress with English, it becomes more difficult to correct syntax problems. In many cases, older students translate their native language directly into English without considering the word order that changes between languages. A common mistake among Spanish speakers is to place the noun before the adjective, and that mistake becomes more difficult to correct with older students. When the structure is reinforced at a younger age, ESL students will develop a natural inclination to use correct syntax.

Native English speakers learn syntax through repetition before they learn the parts of speech and rules of grammar. Young ESL students generally have no or little understanding of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. in their native languages, so there isn’t a reason to teach them that the adjective must precede the noun. The students will, however, notice that colors come before objects in a sentence through recognition of repeated sentence structures. As this concept is reinforced through classroom exercises, the students will utilize the structure when creating their own sentences as they continue learning the language.

Many children begin learning English by memorizing words and phrases; it’s your responsibility as the teacher to ensure the students understand the meaning and usage. Be sure to include more vocabulary than what’s available in a child’s textbook, and instruct students how to alter sentences to fit different situations. Just because a student knows a word doesn’t mean he or she knows how to use it in a sentence.

A Simple Guide to Teaching Young ESL Students About Syntax

Incorporating Syntax in an ESL Lesson

The first step toward reinforcing syntax in a class is to review the vocabulary and phrases from the curriculum. In many textbooks for young learners, the lessons will have similar phrases and sentences with substituted vocabulary. The ability to replace one or two words in a sentence helps reinforce the structure of the sentence through basic memorization. Many students will focus on the word or two in each sentence that changes, and see the remaining words as a less important large group.

If the sentence in the textbook is “I have a red notebook,” the students should already know how to switch the colors and objects in the sentence (“I have a blue notebook” and “I have a red pencil,” respectively.) Depending on age, the students may also be able to change the subject of the sentence. If the students have difficulty replacing such words in a sentence, you should review this process to ensure better comprehension of key vocabulary.

But what happens when the sentences are altered by more than just one or two words?

Writing a sentence with words that are out of order forces students to think about each word in a sentence rather than only memorizing an entire phrase without understanding the importance of structure. After repeating each word in a sentence individually, students should recognize where each belongs. Therefore, when presented with a jumbled sentence, students will know that something is wrong and attempt to correct it by putting the words in the correct order.

It’s a common practice for ESL teachers of all ages and levels to deliberately make mistakes to see if students will notice. Of course, some ESL teachers will unintentionally make mistakes and play it off as an exercise for the students when the mistakes are pointed out by eagle-eyed students. This exercise reinforces that the students are paying attention and learning the material.

Activities That Reinforce Syntax in an ESL Classroom

There are various methods for presenting such a lesson to the students in a class, and the effectiveness of the activities depends on the size of the class. The easiest method is to write the sentence with the words out of order on the board and ask the class if it’s correct. Instead of writing, “I have a red notebook,” you can write “I red have a notebook.” After the class agrees that it is incorrect, ask one or two students to go up to the board and write it correctly.

This method can be made easier by using laminated flashcards for each word stuck to the board; this saves on chalk or whiteboard markers, and can be reused for multiple classes. It is still more effective to have the students write the correct sentence rather than rearrange the cards, but both acts of correction can be used. After the volunteers rewrite the sentence, ask the class if the sentence is now correct. If the sentence is still not correct, ask another student go up to the board and write it again. Be sure to point out the differences in the correct and incorrect sentences.

Turn the syntax activity into an ESL game

For this game, the students can be split into at least two teams (I have had large enough classes to split it into four teams of five students). The game should take 15 to 20 minutes in classes of about 20 students.

  • Choose a student from each team; choose students that are at a similar level to make the game more fair.
  • Show the students the incorrect sentence to rewrite.
  • The first student to correctly write the sentence earns a point for his or her team.
  • Go through this process until each student has had an opportunity to participate.
  • If none of the students rewriting the sentence gets it correct, ask one more student from each team to help out, but tell the original participants to write the correct sentence.

For students at a lower level in the class, choose easier sentences to improve their confidence. For more advanced students, choose more difficult sentences to offer a challenge.

A second syntax activity for the whole ESL class

If your goal is to better gauge the class’s overall comprehension of the material, it’s better to give everyone in class the same opportunity to correct the same sentences. This activity should take about 10 minutes to complete.

  • Write a few sentences incorrectly (words out of order) on the board.
  • Have the students rewrite the sentences correctly in their notebooks.
  • While the students are rewriting the sentences, you can walk around the room and see how each student does with the activity, while providing some one-on-one instruction before moving on to the next student.
  • After all the students complete the exercise, invite volunteers (or appoint students) to rewrite the sentences on the board.
  • Review each sentence with the class to ensure that everyone understands the corrections.

ESL sentence scramble activity for small groups

You can turn the scrambled sentences into a group activity, with groups of no more than five students (three or four in a group usually works best). You will need laminated word cards that are smaller than what you would use for class lessons. Place the card sets in reusable bags. This activity should take about 15 minutes.

  • Split the class into groups of three or four students.
  • Hand out a bag of cut up sentences to each group.
  • Have the students rearrange all the words into correct sentences.
  • Groups raise their hands when they have completed the activity.
  • Check students’ progress during the activity, providing hints for groups that are struggling.

This activity works best with a greater variety of sentences rather than with substitution exercises; it can work when reviewing multiple units at one time. Ensure one student in each group will take the lead and keep the rest of the group on task.

As with the previous methods, invite students to write the corrected sentences on the board and review each with the entire class. You can also go around the room and ask students to read the sentences aloud.

These activities can be used as a warm-up exercise to review previous lessons, or as an end-of-class review. It can also be used as a transitional exercise, depending on the length of the class.

These syntax activities will add variety to class while reinforcing sentence structure that will benefit students as they progress through ESL programs.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe