The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 5 – Clarifying Meaning of Grammatical Structures

On Day 5 of the CELTA, we looked at how we can focus on language in a systematic fashion through looking at Meaning, Form and Pronunciation (and Usage too).

In and amongst some genuine interaction happening between me and the trainees about the forthcoming weekend, I got them using the present continuous to talk about their weekend plans, and added a few of my own.

I then boarded,

“My friend is coming from Manchester on Saturday.”

“I’m staying home this weekend.”

“I’m finishing Season 7 of Desperate Housewives”

I asked,

Am I talking about the present, past or future?” (future)

Am I talking about something I have already arranged? Or something I have just thought of doing right now?” (arranged)

“What tense am I using to convey this meaning of an arranged future?” (present continuous)

Future arrangements…
Photo by @sandymillin

After writing the form of the present continuous (to be + -ing) on the board, we then established that we had covered the meaning and then the form of the language item. I elicited that we still had pronunciation to look at, and asked what the trainees thought might be pronunciation issues for the learners.

We looked at the pronunciation of the contractions and the pronunciation of the ‘-ing’.

We then agreed that although many people seem to be obsessed with form when dealing with grammar, it was the meaning that was the most important.

I then gave trainees a handout with a dialogue containing the following grammatical structures:

(a) I wish we hadn’t argued.

(b) She’s always complaining.

(c) If I were you, (I’d call her).

(d) If only we didn’t argue all the time.


Several sample CCQs were given with structure (a) and trainees had to decide whether they were useful CCQs or not. Here’s a taster.

Structure: I wish we hadn’t argued


CCQs: (1) Who did he argue with?

            (2) Why did they argue?

            (3) What does wish mean?

            (4) Did they argue?

            (5) Did he want them to argue?


I wish we hadn’t argued…

And here are the answers:

Questions (1) and (2) are more like reading comprehension questions than CCQs. They do not clarify the concept of the use of ‘I wish + past perfect’ and therefore are irrelevant.

Question (3) features one of the ‘taboo questions’ ‘What does ~mean?

Taboo questions fall into two categories.

One includes questions like Do you understand? and Do you know ~?

Unhelpful because many students would simply nod their heads when asked  perhaps because they are afraid of seeming stupid in front of other classmates, or because they think they have understood but actually haven’t, such questions do not really check for understanding of concepts.

The second category of ‘taboo questions’ include questions like ‘What does ~mean?’ and ‘Can you explain ~to the rest of the class?’

Perhaps more student-centred than the previous category of ‘taboo questions’, these questions show a recognition for the fact that it is better for the answers to come from students than have the teacher get into wordy explanations.

If so, then why are these ‘taboo questions’?

I once saw a trainee ask a pre-intermediate learner to explain the word ‘irony’ to his classmates. The learner froze and looked confused. The trainee assumed it was because he didn’t understand the word.

There is a difference between understanding a language item and being able to explain it. Most expert users and native speakers would struggle to explain a word comprehensively and satisfactorily enough for a class of learners without some teaching experience. They end up feeling put on the spot.

At the end of the day, don’t get your learners to do your job for you.

Instead, use guided CCQs, examples, and step-by-step inductive/scaffolded questions to get learners to the final destination.

(see yesterday’s post regarding CCQs for lexical items)

For more about these ‘taboo questions’, see Anthony Gaughan’s very interesting post: Is asking ‘Do you know what ~means?’ a waste of time?

Questions (4) and (5) get to the meaning and usage of the structure ‘I wish + Past Perfect’ and are the most appropriate CCQs to ask.


Trainees now have to look at structures (b), (c) and (d), and formulate CCQs to clarify the concepts.


Here are some suggestions:

(Please note: I have included the meaning sections for the trainees and am in no way suggesting that we give our students the lengthy explanation within those sections. CCQs coupled with a few contextualized examples should suffice to clarify meaning and usage to learners.)

(b) She’s always complaining.

Meaning: The present continuous is used here not to signify an action that is happening now, but an action that happens with regularity. However, the choice to use the present continuous and not the present simple suggests that the speaker wants to show annoyance and irritation at the action.

Look at the difference between ‘He always gives me money’ and ‘He’s always giving me money’. Can you sense the irritation?

CCQs: Does she complain all the time? (Yes)

Is she complaining right now? (Not necessarily)

Is the speaker annoyed that she complains a lot? (Yes)

Would you like some cheese with that whine?
Photo by Chia Suan Chong; Food by


(c) If I were you, (I’d call her).

Meaning: The tendency for some teachers is to look at this structure as a 2nd conditional. However, considering the function of the phrase, perhaps it is best to teach ‘If I were you, I’d + bare infinitive’ as a formulaic chunk used for giving advice.

CCQsIs the speaker giving advice? (Yes)

Is the speaker going to call her? (No) (Note: Students might see the ‘I’d call her’ and think it is the speaker who is going to call her.)

Who does the speaker think should call her? (The person that the speaker is speaking to…in the dialogue, this is Person B)

Who ya gonna call?
Photo by Chia Suan Chong

(d) If only we didn’t argue all the time.


Meaning: The ‘If only + subject + past simple’ is a structure used to show a wish for something that isn’t happening and might even be difficult to happen right now. Despite the use of the past tense, the structure is used to talk about the present e.g. ‘If only you were here right now’. This is one of the examples of how the ‘past simple’ is used to indicate psychological and hypothetical distance.

CCQs: Do we argue all the time? (Yes) (Note: Students might see the negative in that sentence and think the answer to this question is ‘no’)

Does the speaker want to argue all the time? (No)

Is this sentence talking about the past, present or future? (Present)

If only we didn’t argue…

After looking at the meaning, trainees then had to work in pairs noting down the form of the structures:

(b) – to be + -ing;

(c) – If I were you, + I’d + bare infinitive;

(d) – If only + subject + past simple)

…and the pronunciation:

Focus on the stressed syllables and prominence of each structure;

and also note the catenation happening with ‘If + I’ and ‘If + only’.

Now they are ready for Assignment 2 – Language Awareness.


Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

13 thoughts on “The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 5 – Clarifying Meaning of Grammatical Structures”

  1. Oh no – reading though your CELTA training series in one sitting I am left in an unexpected waiting-for-the-next episode state LOL
    It’s both extremely useful (I’ve been launched into more formal TT for the next academic year – and will be using whole chunks from your lessons as is :-0) and also so engagingly readable I’ve been left hanging 🙂
    Thanks a million as always
    bises et à bientôt 😉

    1. Elizabeth! Thanks for your lovely comments!
      I’m glad you’re finding these posts useful and hope they will continue to be.
      Do let me know which lessons you’ve found more useful and which ones you’ll use.
      It’ll be interesting to know which ones strike a chord with other teacher trainers.


  2. Didn’t know “Can you explain ~ to the rest of the class?” was one of the taboo questions. Is it really a no no? I think I ask it quite it a lot. Perhaps not as “Can you explain…” which may put a student on the spot but more of “Who can…” ? variety.

    1. Hi Leo,
      I think it really depends on how well you know your learners. If you know them well enough to know that they can definitely explain a lexical item, then fine. But what if learners can’t explain it? As an experienced teacher, you’d be able to jump in and clarify meaning swiftly and efficiently. That’s what we’ve got to get the Celta trainees doing well.

      The danger is getting dependent on your learners for explanations and not being able to clarify meaning for them without resorting to that. I’ve seen a teacher who only used ‘Who can explain ~?’ and ‘Can anyone explain ~?’ as the only source of meaning clarification.

      What makes it worse is if it is a concept that is very difficult to explain well, and if the learner explains it badly, the teacher needs to very skilfully acknowledge what the learner has just said, and top it up with a good clarification.

      At Celta level, it is best that we go straight into how to clarify meaning well and not foster a dependency on getting learners to explain.
      CCQs gets learners thinking and allows for eliciting the meaning from learners, but in a guided and supported way, without throwing learners into the deep end.

      Would you agree?


  3. I very much agree – especially in your CELTA training context. But on the other hand, we want to encourage learner-centredness and peer explanation and reduce TTT and all that – so it’s a fine balance…

    1. Totally, Leo. This is why we preach the ‘Don’t explain’ mantra.
      Efficient and effective CCQs encourage eliciting and reduces TTT…
      But I agree, it’s a fine balance, but at the end of the day, if the trainee can help the learners understand in a clear and concise fashion, I’m all for it!


  4. Hmm. wonderful. It reminded me my CELTA last month. It is a refresher course for me. Thanks for adopting such a catchy manner. Indeed, I can’t wait to see rest of the series.

    1. Thanks Suhall.
      Hope your CELTA experience was a good one.
      It’d be interesting to compare and contrast the experience you had with the ones I’m outlining.
      Of course, I’m only writing from the point of view of a Celta tutor. Do read Güven’s posts because he offers the invaluable insight of the Celta trainee.
      Would love to hear your take on how your Celta differs and what you think.


  5. I’m extremely glad to come across your blog.Just love it! I’m an ESL instructor who’s just returned to work after like 3 years break. Looking forward to more posts. your blog is addicting.phenomenal !

  6. Lovely blog! A great help. Thank-you.

    I’m currently in my 6th week of the CELTA course. It’s actually going better then i had expected.

    I do however have one problem… I have difficulty in analysing the pronunciation problems student’s may have.

    Ex. The film had started. Where would they have difficulty in pron? : /

    1. Thanks for your comments, Mary.
      Start thinking of pronunciation in terms of the different areas of phonology:

      Are some of the sounds difficult for students? Are there any diphthongs? Or consonant clusters that are difficult to pronounce? Are there sounds that students who speak certain L1s might have problems with?

      What about stress? (word stress and sentence stress) Where is the stress placed? Might students place the stress in the wrong places?

      Are there any features of linking (intrusion, catenation, elision, weakening, etc…) that are present in the target phrase/sentence? Would students have problems understanding the sentence if these features of linking were used in quick conversation?

      Are there any issues with intonation? Would the wrong use of intonation change the meaning of the phrase/sentence?

      Hopefully with those guidelines, you can better anticipate the problems students might have with pronunciation.


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