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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):


Ways to teach grammar


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