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.


Mr Swan, currently i am researching the way to adopt a portfolio model to teach English tenses and tense shift to EFL writers, i.e, native ARABs. Would pls help me with any advice or document. I wld be grateful!

Michael Swan.. such a great grammarian and linguist. I can't wait for your newly heralded masterpiece. Honestly, when anything goes wrong, I turn to Practical English Usage for comfort and good read. One thing though still remains there unresolved to me: there has always been denying of the influence of the 'verb phrase structure', or sometimes you just call things in the (present perfect simple) - well, Mr Swan, when it is perfect, it cannot stay simple any further, innit?

it is true that grammar seems sometimes to be very boring during classes. But if we choose to cover it in real-life situations then our students certainly can cope with it easily. Your article is very useful for all the teachers and types of grammar lessons, but at a certain point we have to become aware of the class' particularities in order to get our grammar structers learnt.

Mark Twain: "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". 
Just to add more darkness, I find it useful to "conceptualise" grammar. This is where the Ss often go "Ah! Now I understand". An example would be to place various "expressions of politeness" or "modals of obligation, probability, or ability" on a scale entitled "degrees of ...." Or tenses on an XY diagram etc. etc.
Regarding this I find that a lot of ESOL course books (e.g. English File) seem to be integrating techniques taken from "Relational Frame Theory" (RFT) i.e. tapping into the students innate ability to learn from derived stimulus relations.
My question: Does anybody know anything about this or where I can find out more?
Any help much appreciated

Dear Mr swan,
I am really doubtful whether teaching of grammar helps the acquistion of language in the initial stages.It may be helpful in the higher stages when a student is knowing about a language. 
It may help him to pass an examination or write better but never help him speak fluently.I think grammar canot be taught for the sake of should be internalised through real life situations.
JVL Narasimha Rao
Andhra Pradesh

Dear Michael,Thank you for your article on How to Teach Grammar.  I found it enlightening.  I guess grammar is "my thing" too.  I have also enjoyed your presentations in the past (TESOL-France).  Please let us know when your practical grammar course book appears as I want to hear more!  

When I was about three weeks into my career as a TEFLER, I asked my Director of Studies (Alf Crosby if anyone remembers him) how to teach grammar.  I had been plunged into teaching grammar to an Intermediate class in my first week and struggled through until the third week when I sought help.His answer was:  Put it into situations and demonstrate it with that.  I don't remember if he actually gave me any concrete examples of what he meant but I know it didn't really mean much to me.  A little later, he and Robert O'Neill (of Kernel Lessons Intermediate and English in Situations fame) started a little project to put onto video (the original Sony reel to reel home video machine) demonstration lessons of *putting it into situations*.I was the lucky one, after offering to operate the camera, by being able to observe Robert O'Neill in action, with a small group of students demonstrating situational vocabulary and grammar teaching.  From then on I became a grammar teacher and I really started to enjoy my job.  I got the confidence to tackle any topic at any level, although I was always happy to go back to teaching complete beginners.  When stuck I could always revert to the situational technique, although it has since been replaced by divers modern *methods*.An example of Robert O'Neill's stuff, if you can't get hold of an old copy of English in Situations, follows.  This can be adapted to suit a variety of vocabulary or grammar topics.Level IntermediateTarget language:  Phrase *raise money*Step one:  Set the situation.Teacher says:  I have a brother and he is a businessman.  He needed to make his business bigger but this needed money.  He had to raise money.  He asked his father if he had money for him but father couldn't help.  Father said:  If you need to raise money, go to the bank.  Say to the bank:  I need to raise money for my business... (Stop there or extend it to taste.)Step Two:  Basic comprehension questions:  Is my brother a banker?  Is he a businessman?  Does he need money?  etcStep Three: Wh- questions:  Who is a businessman?  What does he need ?  Why does he need money? Who did he ask?  etcStep Four: Questions and answers that lead to the use of *raise money*.Did my brother have a business?  Was it big enough?  Did he want to make it bigger? Did he have enough money?  What did he need to do?  Step Five and on: Students ask questions:Ask me about my brother:  Is he...?   What is he...?  Does he....? How much money...?

There are two books that taught me a lot about English language and teaching it, back in the olden days, and for what it's worth they are:
English as a Foreign Language by RA Close, for insight into our language.
English in Situations by Robert O'Neill, for techniques of how to get the students listening, speaking and using grammar.
If I were to start again, I would feel that life would be a lot easier with the knowledge of these two books.
They may not be easy to get hold of nowadays, but that is only fashion!!

Dear Michael,
It is interesting to note that people teaching English face the same sort of problems all over the world. Surprised to see that you in England are trying to tackle the issue which also comes between me and my students  in Coimbatore, India. For long I was doubting whether I alone was thinking on the lines which come up with the peculiar questions each student asks according to his or her understanding and more importantly the questions that rise within ourselves as to how we are going to  make students understand this particular fine point(whichever comes up as we teach along).
There are times when we are totally surprised the way we have taken it to the students and when it ends as a revealation to ourselves. For eg.,I was teaching on the vowels as usual for the 'articles' and found the vowels in English are same like the vowels in Tamil, my native tongue, and for that matter similar to many more languages in India including Hindi. This led me to a conclusion that all our languages have a common ancestor or mother from which all our languages have descended, something like a common primate from which we, apes and tailed monkeys have have descended from.
Your blogs have emboldened us in our endeavours and made light of the facts which have bemused all along. I can't stop but to be awed by your openess which has made us to be least bothered and also eager to find more finerpoints that raise their heads helping us to strngthen our language knowledge
Thanks to you and thanks to the British Council 

hello, dear mr. Swan
howeever i agree with you about boring grammar lessons, where we teachers made our students mug grammar rules up. even if they know all rules they very often cannot do grammar exercises correctly. according to learning languages it is important speaking skills not knowledge of grammar. but in my country,in Azerbaijan they i mean students must pass exams where they have tests in written form. so it is very important for us teachers focusing on right grammar using. how do you think, what i'm to do in this case?