English grammar

Teaching grammar - problems and solutions

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Grammar is the framework that allows series of words to express meaning; it is a vital element of language learning, but one with which many teachers are not at ease. Why is this, and what can be done about it?


by Andrew Rossiter


Teaching grammar: the problems 


Index : The roots of the problem The solutions
► See also: Thematic exercise and classroom activity index for advanced English reading texts.


Why do many teachers have difficulty teaching grammar ?


There was a time - until a couple of generations ago - when grammar was generally accepted as being the bedrock of language teaching, whether first language teaching or in the teaching of second languages. As far as the English language was concerned, grammatical analysis meant the application of rules and principles that were originally derived from the grammar of Latin – which was logical enough in an age when anyone who studied languages began by studying Latin. Rules devised for the analysis of Latin grammar were easily adaptable to explain English grammar too, since English and Latin are both Indo-European languages, and all languages in this large family share many common features.
    Then along came "linguistics", a new scientific approach to the study of language and languages;  traditional grammar was thrown out of the window as linguists looked for more scientific ways of anlysing language, proposing a variety of approaches such as structuralism, generative grammar, cognitive grammar, transformational grammar and more. From  a relatively stable framework for the teaching and learning of English, grammar was taken over by linguistics,  a science for linguists and one about which there was constant disagreement. Not surprisingly, having dismissed traditional English grammar for its roots in Latin grammar, and having failed to find a new consensus as to what kind of grammar to teach in its place, the linguists responsible for curriculum design in schools and universities – most particularly in the English-speaking countries – decided that the best way to teach grammar was... to stop teaching it at all.
    By the 1970s,  in the world of first language teaching, grammar was falling out of school curricula in the UK, the USA and other countries, with nothing to replace it. In the worlds of EFL / ESL there was a good deal of resistance to this change, with many key coursebooks continuing to attach importance to grammar in order to meet the requirements of curricula in countries worldwide, where a grammatical approach to language teaching remained the norm, and also remained in constant demand from students.
    Yet by the 1990s the teaching of grammar had become a problem, even in the world of EFL / ESL. It was not that teachers did not see the need for grammar; it was increasingly due to the new reality that young teachers starting out in the late twentieth century felt unable or unqualified to teach grammar, having themselves come through school with little or no grammar training in the curriculum; this continued into the early years of the twenty-first century. And if there is one truth that underlies all teaching, it is that you can't teach something effectively if you have not yet mastered it yourself.

No confidence

    So the root cause of today's problem with teaching English grammar is not  that many teachers cannot or do not want to teach it, or do not see the use of doing so, but the fact that grammar is something with which they themselves do not feel at ease. And when teachers are not confident with English grammar, it is hardly surprising that they will either hesitate to mention it in the classroom, or else if they do so,  will pass on their own confusions to their students.
    The blame for this does not lie with teachers: while the teaching of grammar is making a comeback into school programmes in the UK and the USA, the jury remains out on the question of how best to teach it, and how to avoid passing on confusion to students when the teacher's job should be to provide clarity. The teacher who decides to brush up on English grammar by buying one of the great standard English grammars of the day, or the teacher who once majored in linguistics,  may be pardoned for concluding that teaching grammar is maybe not such a good idea after all. With Huddlestone & Pullum's Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and Quirk & Greenbaum's Comprehensive Grammar of the English language  both weighing in at 1800 pages or more, the reader can be excused for getting the impression (so often repeated in blogs and on social media) that English grammar is horrendously complex, and teaching it is a nightmare. From this it is a logical stop to conclude that teaching grammar is unlikely to improve the language skills of learners, and indeed is more likely to confuse them than to help them master English – which is one of the many arguments used by those who still oppose the formal teaching of grammar.
    Indeed, looked at in this way, the study of grammar or of linguistics, can rightly be considered as elitist, and something best left out of everyday language teaching. If teaching grammar is seen to mean explaining to baffled students the fine complexities of English linguistics, with all its quirks and exceptions, then most teachers will by definition struggle to do so effectively.
    So the real question for today's teachers is perhaps not actually How to teach grammar, but What do we mean by "grammar"?

Teaching grammar : the solutions


There are three essential rules to follow when it comes to teaching grammar effectively:
  1. Keep  it simple
  2. Teach grammar, not linguistics
  3. Use plenty of relevant and clear examples.
There is no universally accepted scientific definition of what grammar is. In short, grammar is what you make it, and if you make it too complicated for yourself or for your students, you risk not seeing the wood for the trees.    
    With too many details to learn and too many exceptions to understand, many students will give up on grammar, and  teaching it will be an arduous and uninspiring job, with unpredicatable results. At best this is grammar teaching for the elite, where the best students in a class may take it all in, but the majority of students will find it hard, if not impossible, to follow; at worst it will be largely a waste of time.
    It's the wood of grammar that students need to see, not the trees; in other words successful grammar teaching at all levels below ESL C2 or English degree level for native speakers, comes from concentrating on the main principles or rules of grammar, not on the oddities and exceptions, and from showing how simple the fundamentals of grammar really are, not how complicated grammar can be. And at heart, grammar is a simple system, and English grammar, with its very few endings and suffixes to learn, is simpler than many – which is one of the reasons why English has been able to impose itself as an international language with relative ease.

Keep it simple

    The first step towards successful grammar teaching is to present grammar as the relatively logical framework of language usage that it is. This means that the teacher must first of all be familiar with the basic fundamentals of English grammar, and then make sure that students understand that learning grammar is actually  not the hard and boring task that it is sometimes made out to be.
    To take a classic example of how grammar can be made to appear either dauntingly complex or relatively simple, look at tenses.  Almost all students in the world know that "time" is a dimension covering three areas,  present time, past time and future time, and that every action or process will be set in at least one of these time frames. Consequently, telling students that there are only two tenses in English, the present and the past (or in strict morphological terms the past and the non-past) will do nothing to help language learners. While the "two-tense" model may be the modern linguistic orthodoxy, it illustrates an approach to language or grammar that is quite inappropriate in the context of language teaching. Instead of helping learners by clarifying how English is used, it is more likely to do the opposite and convince more than a few students that English grammar really is something weird and incomprehensible.  This is not the result that any teacher should be aiming for.
    It is important to remember that the two-tense model currently favoured in the world of linguistics is only one among many possible ways of interpreting tense in English. Neither grammar nor linguistics are exact sciences, they are points of view, so a tense, just like grammar, is what you make it. The clearest way to explain tenses in English grammar is thus to go with an intuitive model that accepts that there are present, future and past tenses in English – a notion that most students will find relatively easy to understand. Fortunately, most EFL / ESL teaching materials prefer to present English as a language with either three or six tenses, depending on how they define the word.

Teach grammar, not linguistics

  Another key to the successful  teaching of grammar is therefore to avoid confusing grammar - which should involve a pragmatic or semantic approach to language - and linguistics, essentially a morpho-syntaxic analysis of language.  Part of the problem surrounding the teaching of "grammar" is the enormous confusion between the two terms that exists in so much writing and teaching, even at the highest levels... not to mention the different distinctions that are made by different linguists.
  I will therefore attempt to make a clear and simple purpose-based distinction between linguistics and grammar.
    The purpose of (theoretical) linguistics is to explain the inner systems of language; the purpose of grammar is to show how language is used.
  So while linguistics is a discipline for the initiated,  grammar should seek to describe the simple and largely intuitive set of rules and principles that are shared by most users of a language, from children upwards.
    Many language teachers, after having studied little or no grammar in school, subsequently took courses in linguistics at college or university; and while linguistics can help us understand how language works, it is not always helpful when teaching a language and its grammar, and may leave teachers trying to explain points of language through linguistic theory that is largely irrelevant to the aims and needs of language learners – such as the two-tense model just mentioned.
    Teaching grammar means essentially, but not exclusively, teaching  the rules of "standard" English – not forgetting that some aspects of this standard English may vary according to context, particularly when referring to spoken English. Take just the simple example of the expression "She has not". This is basic standard English, but it is not the only way of expressing a meaning which can also be quite correctly expressed as "she hasn't", or as "she's not", depending on context and style. In standard American English, acceptable variants might even be "she didn't" or "she did not" when referring to past time.

Use plenty of relevant and clear examples.

    When they first learn to speak a language, young children tend to do so by a process of listening, mimicry and adaptation; in other words they learn by example. They hear an expression, they deduce its meaning from context, and they repeat it; later they adapt the first expressions by changing or adding a words, in a process of trial and error that gradually develops their literacy. Nobody teaches "grammar" to young children, but they acquire an understanding of what works and what doesn't, and from that they learn how to express themselves in ways that others will understand. And while older children, students and adults do not learn a second language in the same way as children learn their mother tongue, the process of listening, mimicry and adaptation can be used as a model for the successful teaching of language skills with older learners.
    In place of listening, mimicry and adaptation, we may have reading, repeating and adaptation, allowing grammar skills to be developed through learning from examples that illustrate in a coherent way how English grammar is used .For the teacher, this means having access not to an 1800-page comprehensive treatise on English grammar, but on a much more concise or compact guide, such as A Descriptive Grammar of English, which concentrates on the fundamentals of English grammar, illustrating them with multiple pertinent examples.

    Grammar is not an optional extra in the teaching of English; it is a vital element of language learning, the framework that allows series of words to express meaning and do so without ambiguity; and when teachers are reluctant or uneasy with teaching grammar, students suffer. Concentrating on the essential rules and principles of grammar, and illustrating them with plenty of appropriate examples, the teacher can thus hope to develop students' use of English and grammar skills through a process that is natural,  intuitive and relatively painless.


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