David Petrie: Doing grammar – the evolution of a teacher

At first, when I started teaching, I was afraid of grammar. I was petrified.

I kept thinking I couldn’t teach the language without Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage right by my side. I was sitting up all night making sure I didn’t get it wrong. But eventually, I think I learnt how to get along.

And I think that point, where you do learn to get along, is when you start to realise that it doesn’t really matter. That “Grammar Teaching” is mostly a pointless exercise demanded by traditionalist viewpoints of language learning, very often parents of students or politicians who know very little about either (a) language or (b) teaching. Or even the students themselves – one of my students said in class the other day “I just think that if they put it in the book there should be a rule about it that we can follow” – this was as part of a conversation on speaker choice.

When I first started teaching I mostly followed a PPP approach: present the language, practice it and then give the students an opportunity to produce it. I still use this approach sometimes – very often it is how the coursebook has been designed, though my bugbear with coursebooks is that they very often forget the final “P”. Mostly I use it because it is easy and it is an excellent way of “covering” the material. Though, as Scott Thornbury points out in his excellent book Uncovering Grammar, covering is not the same thing as learning and just because you do it in class doesn’t mean anyone understands it. Equally, the problem with PPP is that final “P” – why do we expect students to produce something we’ve only just told them about? We probably shouldn’t. So once you realise that, the success or failure of a PPP type lesson is no longer important, because unless you phrase your aims very, very carefully you’re always going to fail.

As I got a bit more experienced, I started trying to use a Task Based Learning cycle. Again, this is still something I do, mostly with adult classes, very often with short courses where I’m not tied to a specific book and I can pick and choose what we’re doing. What I tend to do is bookend the input with communicative speaking activities related to the language point. This might not be strictly speaking TBL (certainly not in the Prabhu sense) – if there is an easily available model to use for the input I will use that and have on occasion made my own models by recording colleagues doing the same task that I ask the students to do and then getting the students to compare what they did with the recording. Often though the input is more an analysis of feedback from the first task with reactive language input on anything that came up.

As an example: The first task might be a speaking task based around the present simple from the Reward resource packs. The input might focus on language errors to do with the present simple and a quick review of Use, Form and Pronunciation. If I think the students need / want it, here is where I would add a controlled manipulation activity (e.g. a grammar practice task from English in Use). Finally a similar task to the first speaking task, but probably taken from the Cutting Edge Teacher resource packs for the same language point.
So what do I do now? In all honesty, it depends. Mostly it depends on how much time I have to prepare the lesson, how the material is presented in the coursebook, whether I know of any supplementary resources that exist or if I might have to make them myself. As I said above I use PPP and my version of TBL (which is sometimes more like TBPPP).
These days though, my view of language has changed and I see it more as a self-organising system. This is still an idea that is in fledgling state for me and I’m trying to find time to read up on it a bit more, but essentially it’s a theory on how and why language evolves. Within this concept though, we have the idea of emergent language. The brain looks at the picture of language and sees the patterns within it – the patterns emerge out of the picture. It would be absolutely fascinating to see whether an ability to recognise visual patterns correlates with language learning ability as this theory would suggest.

The role of the teacher here changes. Correction takes a lesser place to extension and reformulation. Particularly true with young learners, when the message is more important than the medium, correction of the medium probably won’t be recognised. So, again, an example from my class of intermediate 12 year-olds:

  • Joao: Teacher, do you know what is illuminati?
  • Me: Yes. Do you?
  • Joao: Yes. They is secret group.
  • Me: Well, sort of. They’re a secret society but we don’t know if they’re real.
  • Joao: Why are they banned (pron: ban ED) ?
  • Me: I have no idea why they’re banned (pron: band). What do you think?

Now this conversation went on for a while! But within it my correction of Joao’s utterances is implicit, not explicit, and in at least one instance, he picked up on the feedback and incorporated it into his next utterance. This doesn’t always happen….

It also means that for the students to see the patterns they need a large amount of input, which again, is where the teacher comes in. This is the part where I struggle, but fortunately many coursebooks provide texts that you can work with, that are very often loaded with examples of the target item. The next trick is to help develop students noticing skills, to make them better observers of the patterns.

The best way to describe my current approach, or at least what I try to do as often as possible, is to borrow from Scott Thornbury again:

“An emergent pedagogy … is one which is characterised by the following features:

  • the teacher talks to learners (but not only that…)
  • the learners talk to the teacher (but not only that…)
  • the teacher listens to the learners (but not only that…)
  • the teacher and learners interact (but not only that…)
  • the content of the lesson is largely based on the interaction between teacher and learners, and between learners and each other.”

(Scott Thornbury, 2001, p76)

The difference, for me at least, is where the emphasis of the class goes. Instead of focusing your attention on the materials, or the coursebook, or the language point – focus your attention on the learners, who they are, what they are saying – and find a way to help them say it better.


Prabhu, N.S. (1987) Second Language Pedagogy, Oxford University Press

Swan, M. (2005) Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press

Thornbury, S. (2001) Uncovering Grammar, Macmillan Heinemann

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crab_Nebula.jpg

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