How to teach grammar: Three Golden Rules

There are three golden rules for successful grammar teaching. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are. So instead, let me offer a few personal opinions. I'll try to be brief: I've spent the last three years writing a practical grammar course that's moving towards publication, and I've got so much in my head that it's hard to sum it all up.

There's a lot of theory around, much of it contradictory. It can be valuable, but I sometimes feel, to quote Mark Twain, that "the researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it". My rather unhelpful view is that it all depends. Learners vary greatly in their response to grammar teaching: some get a lot out of it, some very little. Learning contexts and purposes also vary greatly. And 'grammar' means so many different things that it's extremely difficult to generalise about how to teach it.

In general, I have little sympathy with people who are hostile to giving students rules. Explanations of how things work are often useful. They do need to be clear and simple, though: the whole truth can be counterproductive, in language as in life. I get uneasy if an explanation in a book for learners takes up more than two or three lines of text. They should be in the mother tongue if possible. Some points can be usefully learnt through an inductive 'discovery' approach, others probably not.

Good realistic examples are vital, but they don't replace explanations – an example on its own never tells you exactly what it's an example of. Suitably chosen authentic material – advertisements, cartoons, songs, poems, etc – can make examples memorable and fix them in students' minds. I've often found it helpful myself to learn examples by heart – they act as a sort of template for generating similar phrases or sentences – and I think this is true for many learners.

Variety is really the key. There's nothing wrong with mechanical exercises – gap-filling, sentence transformation and so forth. These can help learners to grasp the form of a complex structure at the outset without having to think too much about the meaning. But it's important to move on to activities where the structure is used in more interesting and realistic ways. I like structure-oriented problem-solving activities and quizzes, games, picture-based work, text-based work, role-play, exercises that get students using the structure to talk about themselves and their ideas, exercises that combine grammar practice with vocabulary learning, and internet-exploration activities, to name just a few approaches.

supplementing the coursebook
The coursebook (if there is one) generally won't provide enough work on key points. More practice will be needed in class, using groupwork and pairwork. Out-of-class work (corrected or self-access) using good grammar practice materials can also help a lot. 

The real problem, of course, is getting learners to carry over their grammar learning from controlled practice to spontaneous real-life use. They get their tenses all right in the grammar exercises on Tuesday morning, and all wrong in the discussion on Friday afternoon. Up to a point, we have to live with disappointment: foreign-language learners don't get everything right. We certainly need to keep coming back to key grammar points, revising them, practising them in semi-controlled speaking and writing activities, and correcting mistakes by whatever approach we find most useful, but we won't get anything like complete accuracy. (My basic view of grammar teaching is that if we teach some grammatical structures to some students, some of them will get better at using some of those structures some of the time. Definitely.) I think we also need to respect students' decisions. If they have learnt when to use third-person -s, have had plenty of practice, have had their mistakes corrected, and still go on dropping it – well, that is their choice, and we shouldn't waste any more time on the point, or beat ourselves up because we haven't got the students to do what we want. Life is too short.

I'm afraid this has ended up too long for a blog and too short for a useful article. Sorry, I should never have started on it. Anyway, that's it for today. Questions, comments and disagreement welcome.



Michael's now finished his period as our Guest Writer - many thanks to all of you who contributed to the discussion on his blog.


Hi michael. I liked your methods which you use to teach the grammar. Useful exercisesyou use in your methods. If anybody weants to be a good teacher surely, I suggest your three golden rules to them. GOOD LUCK

Hello Michael,
I've always felt terrible when teaching grammar and had to give students all the rules that must be followed but after reading your opinion on the matter, I think I've been doing the right thing...
Thank you

don't be sorry cause the length of the article or any kind of write-for-help pieces not considrable and can be usefull even more than what you expected ...
actually according to my experiences and teaching time ..I think we have  many different ways to use as the number of people around the world  and it depends on their intelligences and their interests to that field we can grab one of those ways and continue it till achieving what we want  ..I had many students(Ss) who had  kind of mental problem ..those who are great in visual and horrible in audial ...even the weakest one can get the examples through  the way that they are good at ... sounds and musics for the one who has ineterst or even more powerfull intelligences in  ..or the other one may catch the same info much easier by touching the words (something like Montessori) ...and million other instances .I have written an article which i will DL  here for the very first time wish u help me to be better on this matter ...enjoyed ur blog and will continue reading ur precious  writtings...
Pajand Soleymani

Greetings Sir,
I started teaching English (Language) only recently and have been trying to get a handle on how to teach Grammar to young and adult learners effectively without making it too dry. So you can imagine my delight when I came across your article.
I have benefited much from your discussion of how to teach Grammar. I have one question though at this moment and it is not directly connected with your article but is somewhat connected to it.
Recently, I bought a book on Grammar and was surprised to find that the authors strongly emphasised the fact that there is no such thing as 'good' grammar and 'bad' grammar, but it was only a matter of appropriateness. This then caused me to wonder if this were to be true then what really are we suppose to teach. And, do we even need to teach grammar at all then.
I will be grateful to you if you could share your thoughts on this issue.
Thank you,

[quote=jlshylla]Recently, I bought a book on Grammar and was surprised to find that the authors strongly emphasised the fact that there is no such thing as 'good' grammar and 'bad' grammar, but it was only a matter of appropriateness. This then caused me to wonder if this were to be true then what really are we suppose to teach. And, do we even need to teach grammar at all then.[/quote]...............Linguists, who consider themselves to be scientists, believe they cannot possibly distinguish accurately and consistently between "good" grammar and "bad" grammar. As scientists, they can only describe language that people actually use and the situations in which they use that language. "Good" and "bad" are simply opinions, though a very, very large number of people may share the same opinions on certain language points.As an example, I live and work with a large group  of people who often express their intentions in English by using the imperative form. For example, they say 'Go home!' when they happily tell the world they are about to leave the office, or they say 'Eat dinner!' before going out to dinner. They feel this language is VERY good and it usually receives very positive and enthusiastic responses. Linguists would not say this is bad simply because  I would never do this. (I admit being a bit disappointed that linguists do not value my opinion over the opinion of these other people.) Linguists would be more interested in finding out how often this happens, what typical responses are, and why this variation in language came about in the first place.As an English teacher, I've tried to teach these people what I consider to be more "appropriate" language, but even the people in this group who hold the title "English teacher" do not think it's necessary to change what is, to them, a wonderful, concise style of language. Hmmmm... maybe they have the right idea. It's late now. Go to bed! Well, it doesn't seem right for me, but I will go to bed now.

Thanks, everybody: a very useful discussion, I thought. Jacob, it certainly does make sense to talk about 'good' and 'bad' grammar, or about 'correct' and 'incorrect' grammar; but the difference is not always a simple matter. Let's look at four sentences: - I did not say anything.- I didn't say anything.- I didn't say nothing.- I didn't said nothing.  The fourth is quite obviously incorrect. It has a past form instead of an infinitive, so it doesn't conform to the rules for negative formation in English, and no native speaker would produce it except as a slip. The first two, on the other hand, are clearly grammatically correct in principle, but they are not equally correct in the same contexts. The second, with the contracted didn't, would be considered inappropriate or incorrect in a piece of formal writing.  What about the third? Multiple negatives are normal in many varieties, but not in standard modern English (though they were common centuries ago). In my London primary school, the following conversation was typical: teacher: Michael, what did you say?me: I didn't say nothing, Miss.teacher: No, Michael. You mean 'I didn't say anything'. 'I didn't say nothing' means 'I said something.' Don't you know that two negatives make a positive?'me: Sorry, Miss. What I should have said, of course, was 'All right, Miss. I didn't say nothing to nobody. That's all right, isn't it, because three negatives make a negative.' But I didn't think of that until years later; and anyway she would have smacked me. It's often better to ask not 'Is this correct?', but 'Where is this correct (or appropriate)?'  'I didn't say nothing' is certainly incorrect (in the sense of 'I didn't say anything') in standard English. On the other hand,  it is quite correct in cockney, and if you wanted to learn cockney you would have to learn the rules for multiple negation (just as you have to when you learn French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese). Inside standard English itself, there is a lot of variation.When native speakers talk about 'bad grammar', they are often condemning a usage which is actually perfectly correct in the appropriate context. A common example is the use of 'me' in double subjects, as in 'John and me saw a good film yesterday'. This is often criticised as 'incorrect', but it's not; it's common in informal standard Englsh speech, and is perfectly correct in this context. On the other hand, it would be quite incorrect in formal writing. The same goes for 'I' in double objects, as in 'Between you and I' (which comes in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice: 'All debts are cleared between you and I').Thanks againRegardsMichael          

Thank you so much for your comments...
Soon I'll be teaching the future - will, going to, pres continuous - it usually raises a lot of doubts in the students, so when the time comes I'll let you know with real examples (from them) to see if you can help me out.

Hi Michael, thank you for your article, very interesting and agreeable.  I would be very interested in seeing/using your completed grammar lesson plans in the future when you've published them

Greetings again,I am overwhelmingly grateful, and I say that because you took all that trouble to provide examples and to discuss at length the mechanics of grammar. I am now at ease knowing that I would not have to unlearn all the grammar I have learnt so far and not have to start all over again. There is always room for improvement no doubt.Thank you once again for helping me out on this one.Jacob 

This is my second year in teaching,so lemme say that I'm a novice teacher and reading articles like this is really useful for me and I'm sure for all teachers.
What you've said is so true but TES "teaching English as a second language "is a very tough job to do.I myself teach in the middle school and I find problems in explanation especially with abstract things.Concerning grammar,I know that with the CBA we should teach it implicitly ie,not directly explained but when I came across the passive voice I was paralized I couldn't do be implicit I was obliged to be explicit and more than that use my mother tongue,eventhough,it's not recommended to use the mother tongue in teaching English ,so please do you have any solutions or pieces of advice to enlighten me with.
Any help is highly appreciated