MEC clinic 3: A grammar confession


ELT author and teacher trainer, Jim Scrivener, writes:

Jim Scrivener

My confession is … I don’t know how to teach grammar. (Which is a bit worrying as I’ve written more than one book that claims to tell you how to teach grammar!)

Worse still, I’m not really sure that anyone knows – whether they are a new teacher, an experienced teacher, a trainer, a coursebook writer, an academic researcher or a random person in the street.

I’m not saying that I don’t know how to teach an interesting lesson that contains something about grammar as part of its content, perhaps using a coursebook or some exciting online material.  But does it all make any substantial difference? Do the students really learn the grammar being taught – or is the learning mostly illusory? Do both learners and teacher leave the room thinking ‘we’ve had a grammar lesson?’ whereas the truth is that they have mostly just been passing the time? When they return after one day for their next lesson, will they be able to use any of the features I have worked on with them? Is what I do teaching grammar – or just ‘entertainment’?

The real learning of grammar comes slowly and in much more uncertain ways over months and years.  It requires, I think, (1) a lot of exposure to spoken and written language (2) an enquiring mind to notice and pick out things that are going on within this language (3) help – of various kinds – to draw attention, summarise, explain and clarify (4) a good memory (5) lots and lots of practice (6) … until slowly a new item becomes integrated with all the other language that the learner knows and becomes something that the learner can use fluently and freely at will to express meanings they want to convey.

All of this takes time – and it doesn’t seem possible to speed it up very much. I think that students learn the items they need to learn when they are ready to learn them – and that outside interventions make relatively little difference to this process – if they don’t come at appropriate moments.

Yet – somewhere in the middle of my students’ long-term learning process, I stroll in and give a 50 minute presentation on ‘used to’. What are the chances that this will be the piece of grammar that my students need right then? What are the chances that my students will be able to learn a language item in one meeting? Can I possibly squash that whole exposure – noticing etc process down to 50 minutes? Clearly hopeless! 

So – is it really possible to teach grammar at all?

I’d say ‘Yes-ish’ – but only in passing! We do it best by providing an environment that exposes students to lots of language and encourages them to engage with it and helps them to use it. And around Pre-Int and Int levels, I suspect, we do that least when we have those very lessons that we think of as ‘grammar lessons’.

Jim Scrivener


  • Thanks for this. I had two new students in my class last week, and they were complaining that they wanted grammar, as I bring grammar into its contextualised setting rather than teach it explicitly (going along with your idea that exposure to language is better than rule forming). In fact I tried to convince then that we were using the grammar in the class, rather than learning it out of a grammar book. I had them walk out this morning and it has been on my mind …am I a bad teacher? well clearly the other 15 students didn’t walk out, so that says something. I feel I am only going to be competent in the classroom if I produce an environment where we are able to help students notice the grammar…and allow them to see what they are learning as we go along… on earth is anyone supposed to learn a language without a recognisable context, and a forum to allow mistakes to develop….surely this is better than following the grammar book format. If a student wants to learn grammar there;s a copy of Murphy’s English Language in Use in the library.

    Posted by Jason Searing on February 28th 2008
  • Interesting story, Jason. I wonder what students mean when they say they "want grammar". It possibly means "grammar lesson such as we have had before" (whatever they were). For many students, their main experience will have been an intensive "heads-down" focus on written exercises and rules. I’m sure there is some value in such an explicit focus on grammar – but if it is at the expense of being able to use the language to DO things, we have to question it as an exclusive approach. In a situation like the one you describe, it may be valuable to discuss students’ previous experiences and their expectations – and to argue for your own position a little. Alternatively, one thing I have done when students ask for something like "rules and exercises" is to do exactly and only that for a few hours – and then, when they are exhausted (and bored) ask again if that is really the most useful way to study. This can provoke some lively discussion!

    Posted by Jim on March 05th 2008
  • So true. Honesty and eveytirhng recognized.

    Posted by Regina on July 03rd 2011

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