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TEFL Turkey: Teaching Grammar and Pronunciation

  • 6 min read
  • Turkey

Whatever age group you teach in Turkey, your students’ previous ESL learning experiences ignored the communicative aspect of the English language and focused only on memorizing the rules of grammar. ESL students in Turkey are used to a routine in which teachers give a particular rule using a lot of technical terminologies and ask students to solve mechanical and monotonous exercises. Grammatical structures are taught out of context and proficiency is measured through gap-fill worksheets. The lack of meaningful context results in English students developing fossilized errors that are unique to Turkish language interferences. 

This OnTESOL Graduate blog focuses on the challenges that Turkish students experience with English articles, prepositions, relative clauses, verb tenses, and pronunciation. ESL teachers who understand their L1 interferences are able to recognize them when they occur and develop ways of helping students overcome them. 

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Teaching Articles

Turkish language has an indefinite article but no direct equivalent of the definite the. Correct use of the definite article is a long and painful process for Turkish students. Turkish students get upset at their failure to master what they perceive as a basic aspect of English, despite the actual complexities of article use. Whenever articles come up as a grammar point in an ESL textbook, a good approach is to take your time and add extra practice activities that reinforce the grammar rule being taught, such as the use of the with rivers and oceans but not, generally, with cities and countries.

Teaching Prepositions

This is another aspect of English that perturbs Turkish students who perceive it somewhat difficult to get to grips with. The problem lies in the fact that there is one preposition in Turkish that serves the role that inon, and at doing in English. Therefore, there is often confusion about which one to use and you can expect to see them mixed up. As with articles, take it slow and steady, supplementing with extra activities that give more chances to practice. Work steadily and regularly on prepositions of place and time in particular.

Teaching Verb Tenses

The structural approach to teaching grammar leads to many problems. These often derive as much from misunderstandings or misinterpretations from past lessons as they do from factors such as mother tongue interference. While many of the verb tenses we see in English have equivalents in Turkish, there are variations in the way they are used. Standard errors that you are likely to encounter are;

‘I am living in Istanbul.’

‘I am playing football every Sunday.’

The Turkish equivalent of the present progressive tense is much more widely used in everyday speech, leading to errors such as those above, in which a general state or a regular habit is not expressed using simple present.

‘I was go to Izmir last summer.’

The auxiliary verb to be has no equivalent in Turkish verb tenses and its appearance causes frequent confusion and overuse.

‘I was knowing that you couldn’t come.’

The idea of state and action verbs are alien to Turks and, even though there are present and past progressive tenses in Turkish, you will often see state verbs used as in the example above.

‘I have seen that movie last year.’

‘I am living here since 2005.’

One verb tense that has no equivalent is the present perfect. Consequently, you will see students try to use it with simple past time phrases such as ‘last year’, or you will see ‘for’ and ‘since’ used with present progressive, as it is done in Turkish.

One TEFL strategy for teaching verbs that I learned during my 120-hour online TESOL / TEFL course with OnTESOL is to focus on function as much as form. While students will need plenty of work in mastering the structures of verb tenses, looking at the way they are used to express meaning can be a great way to get them using tenses correctly. Unlike some other languages, all time phrases like ‘for 10 years’, ‘since 2010’, ‘right now’ and ‘last year’ have direct equivalents in the Turkish language, although they are sometimes used with different tenses. Focusing on these time phrases can be a great way of getting students to use the right tense.

A good way to deal with verb tense errors when used in speaking or when correcting written work is to ask leading questions such as, ‘Is the action happening now or is it a general habit?’ or, ‘Did the action start in the past and still continues in the present, or was it completed in the past?’ Such questions will highlight that an error has been made without causing the student to lose face in class. Doing this regularly will lead to students self-correcting their errors quite quickly.   

Teaching Relative Clauses

The subject-object-verb structure of Turkish means that the way relative clauses are constructed in English is totally alien to students. When you introduce these clauses in grammar classes, you will find that students will work through the exercises and then never use them again unless really pushed to do so.

After teaching relative clauses, look for opportunities to return to this grammar point as frequently as you can later on in the course. Take simple steps to ensure regular review of relative clauses. For instance, ask students to find examples in any reading text you do in class. Alternatively, ask questions that require the use of a relative clause in the answer. For instance: ‘What’s the name of the person who did a certain action in the text?’ or ‘What’s the name of the country where this took place?

Read: Communicative Activities for Teaching Relative Clauses

Teaching Pronunciation

There are sounds in English that have no equivalent in Turkish. Unfortunately, these appear in some of the most common words. The /θ/ and /ð̠/ consonants, for instance, do not naturally appear in Turkish and cause constant problems with words such as through and the.

Another issue is that /r/ is always pronounced in Turkish, leading to seemingly over-pronounced Rs when speaking English, such as waterrr and doctorrr. Conversely, /w/ does not appear in Turkish, leading to confusion of the pronunciation of words containing either /v/ or /w/ in English.

Consonant clusters, such as spr-, rarely appear at the start of Turkish words, making vocabulary like spring a pronunciation nightmare for students (typically you will hear something like si-prink). Turks nevertheless place great importance on correct pronunciation, so activities using the phonetic alphabet go down well.

Read more: Have Fun Teaching Pronunciation! 


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