Small words that make a big difference

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IH London teacher Melissa Lamb shares her experience of dealing with the reoccurring 'to' and 'for' question in class, with a little help from Scott Thornbury…

This month I’ve been teaching a lower intermediate class, a level somewhere between pre-intermediate and mid-intermediate. They’re a lovely class, quite strong in terms of fluency, and they are generally looking to increase their range of vocabulary and their accuracy of grammar.

On about the third day of the course, a perennial problem raised its head when Anastasia asked me, “When do you use 'for' and when do you use 'to'?” Not being something that can be dealt with on the spot, I decided to go away and prepare something for them.

What was interesting to me was the idea that 'to' has a forward looking sense to it, except in fixed expressions, and 'for' tends to look backwards over a duration of time.

I took a paragraph from Natural Grammar by Scott Thornbury:Natural Grammar by Scott Thornbury

Thornbury, S. (2011) Natural Grammar, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p.165
Reproduced with permission from Oxford University Press


Stage Rationale 
 Prediction and gist task – typical teenage problems  To process text for meaning
 Exploration task – inserting examples of 'to' that had been taken out  Initial diagnostic, learners using existing language knowledge and recognising gaps in this knowledge
 Hypothesis building – students work together to see if all the examples fit the ‘looking forward’ meaning  To clarify meaning and use of 'to'
 Focus on forms – students complete a spider diagram by searching for examples in the text that take a similar pattern  To establish the most common patterns used with 'to'. Generate more examples to test the pattern
 Response to text – students write a response providing advice  To focus on meaning and provide an opportunity to use the language in an authentic way
 Consolidation – Students use the sentence headers to create interesting questions to ask classmates  To encourage fluency and automaticity with the patterns. To give students opportunity to experiment using the patterns with different verbs and question words
 Notebooks – Students share and record the different patterns in their notebooks  To encourage recall

The students were very satisfied with this focus because most course books do not help learners categorise patterns. As a result students can be in very high level classes and still not be able to use key words such as 'for' and 'to'.

Students like patterns more than rules

I find Natural Grammar a really helpful resource for identifying patterns with the top 100 most frequent words in English.

Learners tend to find patterns helpful because unlike rules, they are generative. They were most interested in the fact that there was an overriding sense or meaning to 'to' and that there are certain verbs and nouns that are more likely to collocate with 'to' and that these can be categorised by their meanings.

The next week we went on to look at 'for' and we were able to contrast this with 'to'.

Obviously it’s difficult to say whether they are more accurate now but I would argue that by doing tasks like this you can raise awareness and if the learners are at the right developmental stage foster intake.

I also recommend looking at chapter 7 of Rules, Patterns and Words by Dave Willis (CEP, 2003).

Have a go, and let me know what you think.


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1 Comment



July 17, 2014 01:56

Hi there! Really like the way you approached sts with the subject which sts tend to take for granted when applying the lgg.
Thanks a lot for the tips.

View all comments by Daniele