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Councourse 2

Strand 3: Teaching grammar


The mistake the innovators have made is to assume that a conscious understanding of grammar is a prerequisite to acquiring communicative competence.  That such an understanding might be helpful in some situations for some students is not in question – that it is a prerequisite for all students is patently false. (Krashen and Terrell, 1983: 16)

... language learning is essentially learning how grammar functions in the achievement of meaning and it is a mistake to suppose otherwise. .... A communicative approach does not involve the rejection of grammar.  On the contrary, it involves a recognition of its central mediating role in the use of and learning of language. (Widdowson, 1990: 97/8)


Where do you stand?

Presumably, if your interest is in developing the ways you teach grammar, you are in Widdowson's camp.  If you were asked why you think teaching grammar is important, what would be your response?  There are 9 reasons (taken from Swan in Richards and Renandya, 2002) here.  Swan cites 7 bad and 2 good reasons for teaching grammar.  Can you identify them?  Then click on the eye open to reveal some quotations from Swan's article.

Because it's there eye open
The grammar points in the course book may not all be equally important for a particular class.  It is important to choose grammar points relevant to our students’ needs, rather than blindly going through the syllabus from left to right.
It’s tidy eye open
Grammar can be presented as a limited series of tidy things which students can learn, apply in exercises, and tick off one by one.  Learning grammar is a lot simpler than learning a language.
It’s testable eye open
It is time-consuming and difficult to design and administer tests which really measure overall progress and attainment.  On the other hand, grammar tests are relatively simple.  So grammar is often used as a testing short-cut; and, because of the washback effect of testing, this adds to the pressure to teach it.  So we can easily end up just teaching what can be tested (mostly grammar), and testing what we have taught (mostly grammar).
Grammar as a security blanket eye open
The ‘security-blanket’ aspect can lead students and their teachers to concentrate on grammar to the detriment of other less codifiable but equally important aspects of the language.
It formed my character eye open
Many foreign-language teachers spent a good deal of time when younger learning about tense and aspect, the use of articles, relative clauses and the like; they naturally feel that these things matter a good deal and must be incorporated in their own teaching.  In this way, the tendency of an earlier generation to overvalue grammar can be perpetuated.
You have to teach the whole system eye open
People often regard grammar as a single interconnected system, all of which has to be learnt if it is to work properly.  This is an illusion.  Grammar is not something like a car engine, where a fault in one component such as the ignition or fuel supply can cause a complete breakdown.  It is more realistic to regard grammar as an accumulation of different elements.
It empowers me eye open
A teacher may have a worse accent than some of her students; there may be some irritating child in the class with a vast vocabulary of pop-music idiom or IT terminology of which the teacher knows nothing; but there is always grammar to fall back on, with its complicated rules and arcane terminology.
You need grammar to communicate eye open
Knowing how to build and use certain structures makes it possible to communicate common types of meaning successfully.  Without these structures, it is difficult to make comprehensible sentences.  We must, therefore, try to identify these structures and teach them well.
Grammatical accuracy is often required eye open
In some social contexts, serious deviance from native-speaker norms can hinder integration and excite prejudice – a person who speaks ‘badly’ may not be taken seriously, or may be considered uneducated or stupid.  Students may, therefore, want or need a higher level of grammatical correctness than is required for mere comprehensibility.

Swan's contention is that the first seven in this list are bad reasons for teaching grammar but the last two are justifiable positions.  Like Widdowson, he asserts that grammar is part of communicative competence (and, in fact, that this competence cannot be achieved without grammatical competence) and that our students will often be in a position where the accuracy of their grammar will be judged, regardless of communicative effect.
For the full reasons why Swan judges the other seven to be poor reasons for teaching grammar, go to his website.

Right, now we know why we teach grammar (and some reasons why we shouldn't) we can get on to improving how we do it.  Click on any of these statements for more:

If you have another issue with teaching grammar that you would like some advice about, contact ELT Concourse and we'll see what we can do to help.

If there's a particular language point that you need help with, you can search the whole ELT Concourse site for some ideas.

Krashen, S.D. & Terrell, T.D. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom, London: Prentice Hall Europe
Swan M, 2002, Seven bad reasons for teaching grammar - and two good reasons for teaching some, in Methodology in Language Teaching, ed. Richards and Renandya, CUP 2002, pp.148–152
Widdowson, H, (1990) Aspects of Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press