One question I get all the time from my students is, “How do I know if it’s who whom or that?” (or some variation depending on the grammar topic we’re reviewing). In the course of having to find different ways to answer the questions and explain the grammar points, I developed a unique way to give my students a hands-on experience with the grammar so that they could assimilate the grammar rather than simply memorize it. This assimilation process leads the students to true fluency of language. So, let me tell you how it works.

Download Your Free ESL Quick Tips Look Book:

Before we delve into today’s topic, take a minute to download your free copy of the Who Whom or That edition of the ESL Quick Tips Look Book (my gift to you) so that you can see just how much this can help you or your students master their English fluency. Just click here or the photo below. It’ll only take a sec.

What’s the Difference Between Fluency & Accuracy?

Many people confuse the terms “fluency” and “accuracy”. The understanding is that if one is accurate in the foundational elements of a language, then one is fluent in that language. This is why we do so many memorization drills. Well, let’s think about this a little further for a minute.

Accuracy’s core ingredient is careful precision. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who prides himself or herself on how well they know their grammar? It can be tough because, oftentimes, the person is so focused on the construction of his or her sentences that it makes it impossible to enter into the human side of the conversation. The fear of stepping away from the rigid grammar stops the natural flow of words and the feelings and emotions connected with those words. The missing ingredient here is fluency.

Inherent in the definition of “fluency” are the concepts of effortlessness, eloquence, and fluidity. Fluency takes into consideration the developmental, regional, cultural, social, and emotional aspects of the grammar and vocabulary that make-up the other fluency components.

So, as important as memorization and accuracy are in the process of becoming fluent in English (with so many exceptions to the rules, sometimes you just have to memorize stuff), you cannot forget the living, breathing aspect of the language which is critical to your success with fluency.

Why is Fluency Important?

Now that we have an understanding of the difference between “fluency” and “accuracy”, imagine what it would be like if all our conversations and communications with each other were filled with strict accuracy. Let’s try it. Try speaking the following conversation exactly as written (remember, precise and correct pronunciation is all part of “accuracy”):

            “Good morning, Margaret. How are you today?”

            “I am well. Thank you, Benedict. I hope you are well also.”

            “I am not well. I am ill at ease. Thank you for asking.”

            “I am sorry, Benedict. What is the cause of your ill-being?”

            “The cause of my being ill at ease is my wife’s health. She gave birth last night and suffered complications. The doctors are worried for her.”

As you can see, this critical, emotion-filled situation is stripped of its emotion and urgency when the focus is strictly placed on grammatical and vocal correctness. Keep in mind that, often, when we try to be exact in our grammar, we also tend to focus on correct manners as well – another barrier to the easy flow of words and emotions in many conversational situations. Let’s try the same conversation with the addition of the aforementioned living, breathing aspect of language – fluency.

             “Good morning, Margaret. How are you?”

             “Hey, Benedict! I’m great. How are you?”

             “Not great.”

             “I am so sorry. What’s wrong?”

             “My wife gave birth last night. There were complications. The doctors are worried. I’m a mess.”

This is a much different conversation. It flows with the situation and expresses the emotion and urgency involved. Fluency is all-encompassing, taking on not just the accuracy of the rules (which were developed for a good reason and are necessary), but also the ebb and flow of the human lives involved in the communication process, adding depth and texture along the way.

How Can Adult ESL Activities Help?

"Engaging all the senses is a sure-fire way of giving fluency meaning."

So, clearly, the difference between fluency and accuracy is more of a big deal than we realize. Right about now you might be asking, “That’s great, Cathleen, but if fluency is so important, why is this article about a simple solution to mastering English grammar?”

Well, as I mentioned, grammar is still an inseparable part of being fluent in a language. In my last post, I said that spoken and written language are

“…merely sounds or symbols that we use in a particular manner to represent particular thoughts.

In order for these sounds and symbols to have significant meaning to another person, Mankind developed a series of patterns for the sounds and symbols of our communication that would always represent the same type of information, thereby would always communicate the same type of message.”

So, we have to learn what those patterns are, what they represent, and how to use them correctly so that others will be able to understand what we are trying to communicate. Hence, the need to truly internalize these patterns and the understanding thereof.

Now, everyone has their own way of taking knowledge in, processing it, and putting it into some sort of order that they will be able to know how to retrieve it when they need it, in other words, we all have our own way of learning. Sometimes we need a little help making sense of the knowledge we are given so we ask for help. That’s where adult ESL activities and my simple solution come into play.

I created a series of foldable books for my students that gave them, not only the grammar rule for areas they were getting stuck on, but I also included the explanation of why people have trouble with it, common situations of when they will encounter it, examples of how they will encounter it, and tips on how to remember how to use it in its various situations. On top of that, I included lots of practice exercises so that they can make sure they are using the grammar correctly in many different situations.

These foldable books are designed specifically for adults learning English so that they can have a portable, ever-changing study guide for English grammar; one that they can stick in their pocket and pull out when they need help or have a few minutes to study on their way home on the bus or while waiting to pick up their children from school for example.

The flexibility of these books is fantastic. They can be used as flash cards, in groups or as a self-study aid, in the classroom or anywhere at all. These books, when clipped together with a binder clip, can be added together and switched around as your learning needs change. This particular adult ESL activity can help in so many ways to dramatically improve your fluency in English. 

Watch the full product walk-through

Follow These tips for English Grammar Mastery

Tip #1: Don’t just memorize the rule, understand the rule.

The Blog at @CathleenElise who whom that

I did mention this in my last post, but it bears repeating here:

According to Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development, humans make sense of the world around them through two separate but interconnected processes – Accommodation and Assimilation.  

Accommodation is the process of taking new information that does not fit into any box of information we have already processed (and made sense of through our experiences with our environment) and creating a new box into which we place this new information in order to expand our understanding of our environment.

Assimilation is the process of placing new information into the boxes of information we have already processed, the ones that already make sense to us based on our experience with the world at large.

The process of assimilation is the most likely candidate for helping you to internalize the new information you acquire when learning a new language although, some languages do not have any reference for some aspects of English so you may find yourself having to accommodate more often.

BONUS TIP: Be patient with yourself during the accommodation process as it requires more work from our brains and can make your progress feel slow. This slowing down of the learning process can make you feel stupid. Take a breath. Remember that you have conquered harder things than this in life. You are smart. You can do this.

Here are some suggestions to get you started with the process”

  • A wonderful exercise to help you internalize language is to paraphrase, as I just did with the information about Accommodation and Assimilation.
  • Putting concepts into charts, as I did in the design of the ESL Quick Tips Look Books, is super-helpful for those of you who need to see things in neat and tidy boxes. Think of it as organizing your language pantry so that you always have the ingredients you need to communicate.
  • Putting concepts into songs or rhymes, creating stories that help connect ideas, or designing a game to teach it to someone else are all highly effective ways of internalizing language concepts.

Tip #2: Teaching is a Great English Grammar Checker

The Blog at @CathleenElise who whom or that

One of the true benefits of the ESL Quick Tips Look Books is that they give you plenty of guided practice with the specific grammar point so that you know that you are using it correctly in all its variations. Plus, these exercises encourage you to take the exercises beyond the book and into your everyday life.

The best way to be certain that you have mastered the grammar point is to teach it to your teacher so that corrections can be made. Then, teach it to others who are learning English and are having trouble.

Tip #3: Conversation is the perfect adult ESL activity.

The Blog at @CathleenElise who whom or that

During this coming week, in order to develop your fluency of language, find at least one person who speaks English at a higher level than you and have a conversation in English.  A small group of English learners at different levels can be even more helpful to everyone, but the point is to use the language often in its natural state. Take it from me, who has learned from experience, if you do not use the language, you will lose it.

The funny thing about learning English, or any language for that matter, is that both accuracy and fluency are dependent upon each other in order to bring out the very best that language and the process of communication have to offer. Think of “accuracy” as the cake (fine and palatable on its own but often lacking something) and “fluency” as the icing or the sauce that pulls the whole dessert together and balances out the flavors so that you have the perfect balance of sweet and spice, of mellow and bold, of instant recognition of the predominant flavor and the delicate revelation of the depth and texture of the complimentary flavors.


“As we are learning on our journey together, day by day we take another step towards our goal. If we average one step each day, we will have taken 365 steps this year towards becoming fluent in the English language.”

Please share your insights with the community by leaving a comment below or send a message through the contact page. Don’t forget, Sharing is caring so share this with everyone you know who will benefit.

Don’t forget to download your free copy of the Whom Whom or That edition of the ESL Quick Tips Look Book to finally get a handle on ESL grammar. Click on the photo to download your copy now.

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