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Concourse 2

Teaching and learning grammar


This guide will assume that whatever structural or grammatical target you have for a lesson or series of lessons, you at least have done the research and have mastered the area.  There isn't too much point in going on if you haven't.
There is a more practical guide on this site for some ideas of how to teach grammar.  Here we are more concerned with the underlying theory and principles.

wood and trees

Grammar and Structure

seeing the wood for the trees

The distinction between grammar and structure is not a simple one.  However, for the purposes of this guide we'll make the distinction like this:

Grammar is the overarching formal nature of a language.  It consists of:

  1. Syntax: the arrangement of words in phrases, clauses and sentences to make properly formed strings of language
  2. Morphology: the ways in which words are formed and changed to make new words or to show, number, case, tense, aspect and so on
  3. Orthography: the nature of the language's spelling and writing system and it relationship to how words are pronounced
  4. Phonology: the sound system of the language
  5. Semantics: the study of meaning

To that list some might add etymology, the study of the origins of words and their development through time, but that is usually only tangentially relevant to language teaching.  When it is relevant, however, a knowledge, however sparse, of the origins of words can be extremely helpful in a range of grammatical areas.

Structure refers to individual elements of grammar.  It is easier to define what we mean by example:

  1. Syntax
    1. Tense structure
      English has a number of ways to talk about the past.  For example:
          I went
          She was going but hadn't yet decided when
          They had gone before I arrived
          We used to go often but haven't been for ages

      That is a description of the syntactical structures used to signal time and the relationships between events.
    2. Interrogative forms
      To make a question in English with an auxiliary verb, we reverse the order of the subject and the auxiliary so we convert, e.g.,
          She can see it
          Can she see it?
          She has arrived
          Has she arrived?
      If no auxiliary is present, we use the appropriate form of the verb do before the subject, followed by the base form of the verb, as in converting
          I went
          Did I go?
      That is a description of the main syntactical rules for forming questions in English.
  2. Morphology
    To make the noun from happy, we convert the y to an i and add the suffix -ness.  To make its antonym, we insert the prefix un- and so form unhappiness.
    That is a description of one type of morphological structure and also, in passing, of an orthographic structure to do with the spelling of the language.
  3. Phonology
    The word and in a phrase such as fish and chips is often reduced to /ən/ and the whole phrase transcribed as /fɪʃ ən tʃɪps/.
    That is a description of a common phonological structure in English to do with the rhythm of connected speech.
  4. Semantics
    The lexeme bank can be both a noun, as in:
        I went to the bank and took out the money
        I went to the bank, sat down and started fishing

    and a verb, as in:
        The plane banked sharply to come in to land
        I banked the money

    In both cases, the word has two distinct and unrelated meanings so we are dealing with homonymy.
    That is a description of a particular semantic structure in English.

In a classroom, then, when teachers refer to 'grammar', they are usually talking about syntactical structures and references to other elements of grammar are referred to as, e.g., word formation, pronunciation, lexis and spelling etc.
In this guide, we will be referring to the teaching of any of the formal elements of the language and including all five of the areas listed under grammar above.  The main focus will, however, be on syntax because that is what many teachers understand by teaching 'grammar'.

steam engine

Isn't grammar teaching a bit old fashioned?

There are some who will aver that just as the internal combustion engine and electrification doomed steam transport to the status of a museum item, so the advent of communicative, natural and lexical approaches to English language teaching removed the obligation to teach grammar, and, indeed, the rationale for teaching it at all.
This is partly a matter of fashion and, like the width or trouser bottoms and the height of hemlines, fashions swing in regular cycles.  Currently, we are enjoying, or enduring, depending on your point of view, the anti-grammar swing but there are indications that the pendulum is on its way back to the pro-grammar side.
At least part of the reason for these shifts in focus is the fact that nobody is at all sure how much effect the explicit teaching of grammar actually has and whether it is worth doing at all, however one does it.
The view which underlies what follows is that some explicit focus on grammar and structure is important for these reasons (which are in no particular order):

  • Exposure to rich and comprehensible examples of the language in use is no doubt very helpful in terms of acquiring language and being able to notice important features.  However, in many parts of the world, where English is not the first language of the environment outside the classroom and classroom time itself is very limited, learners need explicit teaching of grammar points, some of which are hard to learn.
  • Learners expect and are reassured by some explicit focus on structures.
  • Accuracy is important.  While an obsession with accuracy in the classroom is counter productive (because it often leads to teaching and re-teaching trivial points), there are many situations in which people are judged by their ability to handle the core structures of English to a reasonable level of competence.  This is especially true for learners who need to use English in the workplace.
  • Examination boards are keen to point out (usually) that their tests measure the ability to use English in 'the real world' but, as a glance at the content of many examinations will reveal, much of the testing is of accuracy in one or other of the five areas of grammar listed above.
  • Theories abound about how children learn their first languages (for more, see the guide to first and second language acquisition).  None of the theories suggests that they do so by having grammar rules explained, exemplified and practised.  However, there is no unequivocal evidence that the learning of a second language should parallel the experience of learning a first language.


Ways to teach grammar

  • Inductive or Deductive?
    If you have followed the guide to how learning happens, these terms will be familiar.  The difference is this:
    • Deductive approaches are those in which the rule is presented and exemplified and then applied to the data by the learners.
      For example, having been told and shown that function words such as for, and, to, at etc. are reduced using /ə/ instead of the full vowel, learners are required to practise the forms in connected speech, monitoring themselves and being monitored by the teacher to be sure they are producing /ənd/, /fə/, /tə/, /ət/ not /ænd/, /fɔː/, /tuː/, /æt/.
      That is progression from knowledge of the rule to production.
    • Inductive approaches are those which rely on the idea that people are good at seeing patterns and working things out for themselves rather than being told the rule.  It is often averred that the effort of doing so makes the information more memorable.
      For example, when presented with a number of adjectives which in end in -y, such as happy, nasty, friendly, shaggy, shabby, cosy, greasy etc. and a few derived nouns such as happiness, nastiness and friendliness, learners are led to noticing the pattern (replace -y with -i- and add -ness) and can then produce parallel constructions such as prettiness, ugliness and so on.  If they are later presented with adjectives which do not form nouns in this way, such as sunny, funny, messy, they can then amend their rule to take account of those adjectives for which there is already and noun available and from which they are themselves formed (sun, fun, mess).
      That is progression from example to rule formation.
  • The as-and-when approach
    This approach to teaching grammar relies on the teacher's judgement concerning the importance of the grammar point in question and the possibility of teaching it as and when it surfaces as a problem in the learners' efforts to communicate.  In other words, it means interrupting the flow of the lesson to tackle an issue when it arises before getting back on track.  There are two ways to implement the as-and-when approach:
    • With no explicit grammar syllabus in mind, the teacher adapts the teaching programme to take account of and integrate grammatical instruction into a communicative approach when the need is apparent.  Whether the structure in question is presented and practised inductively or deductively is immaterial.  Approaches such as Dogme and other conversation-based lessons rely heavily on this focus on emergent need.
    • With a specific focus in mind, the teacher deliberately creates a task or communicative activity which will demand grammar just beyond the learners' current competence and then plans to deal with it when it arises.  The theory is that the learners will recognise the gap between their ability and their needs and be motivated to fill it.
      Approaches such as task-based learning and lesson structures like Test-Teach-Test rely heavily on this focus on emergent need.
  • Noticing
    There is a guide to noticing on this site.  Here, it is enough to note that such an approach to teaching grammar relies on the learners noticing two important phenomena:
    • how their own production differs from that of a model (noticing the gap)
    • how their first languages differ in terms of the structures of English (noticing the difference)
  • Explanation
    Whatever form the teaching of grammar takes, there is likely to be a time when the teacher needs to explain an issue.  The starting point has to be that the teacher knows and understand the area.
    Explanation needs to be:
    • sufficient to allow the learners of whatever level to understand the essential point.  Adding superfluous data to an explanation in an effort to be complete is rarely helpful.
    • accurate insofar as what is said is not wrong (although it may not be the whole truth).  This is a pedagogic exercise, not an exercise in detailed language analysis.
    • couched in language the learners can readily understand.  If this means using the learners' first language to explain a grammatical point of some kind, that is entirely acceptable, especially at lower levels.  It is not language which is being taught at these times, it is information about language.
  • Use and usage
    use usage
    This is a key point which affects all grammar teaching.  The distinction is:
    • Usage is the form of the language independent of its meaning.  For example, we can explain to learners and exemplify the fact that I am going to have lunch now refers to a present intention regarding the immediate future.  That is its significance as an utterance.
    • Use is the real communicative purpose to which the language is put.  For example, we can explain and exemplify the fact that I am going to have lunch now can be used to explain to a colleague why it is not possible to discuss something immediately.  That is its value as an act of communication.
  • Exemplifying
    The rise of computer-based, corpus linguistics to identify natural uses of language has been very beneficial in allowing teachers to see what native speakers are likely to say and write and how they typically use lexis and syntax.  The down side is that it has led to the false assumption that examples must be authentic at all times so we are sure to have an example of use rather than mere usage.  This can lead to drowning our learners in detail.
    It is obviously important to avoid examples for which no possible communicative purpose can be imagined (Whose leg is that?  It's Maud's leg. is a famous, usage-only example).  However, exemplifying in a way that is both natural and lacks the obscuring detail that often comes with an authentic instance of the language is also a legitimate aim.
    For example, presenting the use of may have been to express doubt about a past action could be done using an authentic example plucked from the web such as:
    ‘I’m turning into a bunny boiler’: Charlotte Crosby admits she MAY have been a bit too full-on with Geordie Shore co-star Gaz Beadle' (metro.co.uk 4th May 2016).
    It would arguably be more effective to set the scene and then exemplify the syntax with something like:
        He may have been driving too quickly to avoid hitting the bus.
    To be avoided, however, is a usage-only example such as:
        John may have been a postman when he was at school.
    which is grammatical flawless but communicatively valueless.
  • Practising
    Here we need to distinguish again between use and usage but a focus on usage can often be helpful because it narrows the learners' field of view.  This is particularly important when the target is either complex inherently, such as the English language's tendency to string auxiliary verbs together in clauses like:
        This car should have been being serviced today but ...
    or when the target item is very different from the learners' first languages and requires a more or less fundamental re-thinking of an issue.  Examples might be teaching prepositions in a setting in which the learners' first language using post-positions or teaching articles to learners whose first language does not have an article system at all.
    In these cases, it is often advisable to have exercises which focus on the mechanics of getting the language right and the words in the right order without the distraction of trying to communicate something important.  Gap-fill, sentence re-ordering, skeleton sentence tasks and so on are all legitimate if unexciting ways to target the nuts and bolts of a structure before asking learners to deploy it for communicative purposes.  The drilling of pronunciation of particular rhythmic patterns or difficult (for these learners) phonemes falls into the same category.


Where next?

The next obvious step is to focus on a structure which falls within the definition of grammar used here and plan a way to teach it.  The process might work something like this:

teaching grammar

If you would like that diagram as a PDF document, it is available here.

For help with the explanation part of this process, use the guides on this site.

Related guides
teaching grammar for a guide which focuses on practice
noticing for a guide to an important element of teaching grammar and structure
how learning happens for more on inductive vs. deductive learning
first and second language acquisition for more on some background theory
sentences and clauses for the index to the initial plus areas concerning syntax in particular
syntax for the index to this area in the in-service section