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.

theory
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.

 explanations
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.

examples
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.

exercises
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. 

'carry-over'
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.

Regards

Michael


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

Comments

Hello Michael,
Have to admit that I don't like teaching grammar per se. Currently, I live and teach in Mexico and I have found that by the time most students get to my class, they have been grammar-translationed to death. They can barely speak nor can they write correctly, often after years of study, which is a sad commentary on English teaching where I live.
Believe me, I don't claim to have all the answers, but I have found that for basic level learners, the Communicative approach works for me. I realise you find that anathema. However, given that the students I receive have just been taught grammar and little else, it helps to encourage them to improve their self-confidence. Once, they are no longer afraid to speak, we can work on improving both their spoken and written English. In addition, the vast majority of learners have difficulty with their listening skills because many times their teachers don't speak to them in English.
It is my belief that when starting to teach another language, we need to do a lot of inductive teaching of grammar as opposed to out and out explanations which often confuse the learner. Many learners want hard and fast rules and formulae, which in many cases don't exist. Many of my students get tongue-tied, not only because they don't have the vocabulary, but also because they are trying to remember whether they must use present simple or present continuous according to the rules they've learned and they are desperate not to make a mistake.
This does not mean I don't believe in teaching grammar. It means that it needs to be more natural (shades of Krashen!) and when the learner begins to ask "why", we can start to provide more formal grammatical explanations. I have found that usually happens when a person reaches a level of language where they want to go beyond the plateau - from say an intermediate level to a more advanced level. Of course, there are always exceptions to this. This said, if a student asks for an explanation, of course, I give it. 
Therefore, in my opinion, your suggestions are excellent for teaching those who have reached a stage where they want more. I suppose explaining the grammar rules in the native tongue is alright for those who are starting to learn the language at an older age, but I have a fundamental dislike of using L1 in a language class. Probably my Communicative approach teaching education.
Thanks for the great blog/article.
Roberta King

 Thank you, MichaelI have appreciated your discussion about teaching grammar because it has been a great feedback for my long experience as a EFL teacher. In my classes I have been spending a lot of energies (also physical! ) to let the ss realize how important is the "appropriate context" when you talk or write in English.  Students sometimes can write "correct" sentences without telling "anything" !But I think that your Grammar Books have helped me a lot and I hope they will be good companions of my teaching for long.RegardsM.Grazia

Hi
Thank you for this great sharing. ''They get their tenses all right in the grammar exercises on Tuesday morning, and all wrong in the discussion on Friday afternoon....... '' I try to revise it in the class but class time is generally limited to revise all of the things we covered in class. I have fast learners and slow learners in the same class. If ı deal with slow learners the other students get bored. Any suggestions? My students are teenagers and they generally don't want to do their homeworks. I don't want to threaten them with low quiz marks.

I found the article useful, especially Michael's comment that the course book often needs supplementing in terms of extra practice for grammatical points introduced.  I though it was just my syudents who needed this!

Hi Michael,
Actually, to me, "I didn't say nothing to nobody" means "I said something to somebody"! Haha.
Seriously though, I find that the majority of students actually like learning grammar; grammar provides them with a sort of comfort zone: they need to know why something is this way and not another. The problem is that a lot of teachers, especially native, aren't very comfortable with teaching grammar because they don't know the rules! This is why your book, Michael, remains a bible to many of us. It's true; I find that, generally, non-native teachers have a better grasp of grammar.
What students, especially the younger ones, don't like are repetitive written exercises because they find them boring. Whenever I've got students to do my online exercises (in the form of quizzes and games), I find that their level of enthusiasm shoots right up.
Kind regards,
acLiLtocLiMB

Open minded, humorous, focused. That's the approach of a good teacher!Thanks for reminding

I don't ever really remember the grammer classes from school way back when, but I do remember that I really enjoyed reading and I always enjoyed writing.
Some years later and much more matter in these matters I was fortunate enough to be able to do a year long French course and having to learn the grammer.  Iwas amazed because it was only than that I realized that at some point in school I must have learned all this in English.  I still remember our French instructor emphazing the "subjunctive". 
I do think a lot of kids especially boys get turned of in school when it comes to grammer because the teachers don't make it fun or sometimes they're learning it as they go themselves and that can be stressful.
I am going to try and do the TESOL crse this year because I would love to have the chance to teach English as a second language.
If you have any hints on how I could accomplish this I would be grateful.  Some people say you need a degree, which I don't have and some people say you don't need a degree.
 

Firstly, I'd like to express my gratitude and pleasure to meet you on TeachingEnglish
Then, my point is :
I'm confused when I come to teach a " Tense " . Because some grammar books tell me to start with the structure  then the use then some time expressions relating to the tense. Then I end with some examples and exercises. Some other books advise me to start with examples and try with my students to get the rule and use and together we generate examples and exercises.
Should I tell students that " Today we will learn about the Present Simple Tense. It's uses and formation" ?
Or instead " Today we will learn how to talk about habits, routine and everday actions" ?
 
Which one should I rely on ?
 
Thank you 
Kamal Nabil

Hi Michael,
 
The moment I saw the title of your blog I had to read all of it.  I don't think it's all that lengthy, but honestly and I am sorry to say this but I don't think there was much to chew on.  With due respect, it's not your fault, but it is just the subject of 'grammar'.
I believe that grammar rules are not to be taught.  If one wishes to know the rule, sure go ahead and read about it, but for sure it is not going to help you to understand how to write or speak better.  Yes, you will know the rule and you will be able to regurgitate the rule.
Many a time after completing a grammar lesson, how often do you ask yourself, "How much of what I have taught will be rememberd by the students and how much will be reflected upon for actual use when speaking or writing?"
Good grammar comes with exposure (reading, reading and reading) and using the language regularly.  Grammar should be taught with exposure to different usage and meaning of phrases, sturctuires and word patterns.  That has been my experience
 
Cheers             
 
 
 
 

Greetings Sir,
Your method of teaching is amazing.Is it possible to make the students to understan by giving mere examples without rule?

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