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.


Dear Mr Swan,
From the day I enterd the classroom as an EFL teacher, I carry Basic English Usage with me as a reference book and I plan my lessons with it.
Thank you for sharing these useful tips with us. I really enjoy reading your blog on TE.
Eva Buyuksimkesyan

 Dear Michael,
I'd like to start with  commenting on mechanical exercises. I agree with you you can't doing without such exercises because students have to   work with forms and structures and see for themselves how this or that grammar   issue is created.
Another  important point is to help your students to develop a conscious approach towards it  which is moving them  from very controlled exercises to less and less controlled. Even when they do this gap- filling and substitution exercises , it is importan to ask them why they prefer this or that form . Sometimes there are intereasting sentences and I ask students to comment or expand them which is practising the structures itself and making students think . For example  , I ask them to give diffent options : If it hadn't rained , I would have gone out. I ask my students to gove different versions: What else would you have done? ...
Some students grasp things quicker and use them  more accurately than others. Other students just need time. I   often noticed   when   students   I thought hopeless  improved  their accuracy but you  need to get back to revision from time to time which should   more fun than punishment.
We get reults when both teachers and students make the effort  and desire to improve.
With best wishes,
Neli  Kukhaleishvili

Quote: 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.
I read the blog article with great interest and this point had me laughing; I wonder if I can convey the humour across next time the subject of double negatives come up!
Thank you,

What a fascinating set of responses, and what a lot of things to think about! Thank you all very much. A few ideas in reply to points that various people have made:  I'm always bothered by 'should' and 'shouldn't' in discussions of language teaching, as in the suggestions that, according to the communicative approach, we 'shouldn't' teach grammar explicitly; or that (according to a very bad old dogma) we 'should' avoid using the mother tongue at all costs, or that we 'should' teach tenses one way or another. If a theory or approach or method tells you that you shouldn't do something that is obviously sensible, then there's something wrong with the theory, approach or method. Teaching grammar explicitly is fine in the right circumstances, and there's good research evidence for its effectiveness. And there's no evidence at all to support the outlawing of the mother tongue (a principle that no longer has any support from researchers). I don't myself agree with the idea of postponing explicit grammar teaching till higher levels: it seems to me that some explanations of how structures work are valuable, and perhaps essential, for beginners. As I keep saying in these exchanges, it all depends: some things can be learnt implicitly from the input, some can't; explanations are more necessary in some contexts than others; they work better for some learners than others, etc etc. Let's avoid all these either-or arguments: 'you should or you shouldn't', 'you can or you can't', 'it is or it isn't', 'it does or it doesn't'. IT DEPENDS! So how do you decide, if everything depends on so many things? Experience and common sense, supported by your knowledge of research findings and the accumulated wisdom of the profession. Inductive or deductive? See above. Both are good in their place, depending on the complexity of the point and all sorts of other things. Working out the regularities underlying examples can be pretty hard (I know – it's one of the things I do for a living), and wall-to-wall inductive work can be a big turn-off for students if it goes on too long.  No, I don't find the Communicative Approach 'anathema' at all. It's done us all a lot of good. But there's a widespread version of the Communicative Approach that sidelines or condemns explicit grammar teaching: I think that version has done a lot of harm along with the good. Students who have done too much grammar and can't use what they know? Sure: those are exactly the students who don't need grammar and do need fluency practice to restore the balance. No disagreement there. Fast learners and slow learners in the same class: always a problem. It's one of the many reasons for having students work in groups, with not everybody doing the same thing at the same time. Good teaching materials can make it possible to give everybody the same sort of task, but allow the fast learners to do it in more challenging ways. You can give a special lesson to the slow ones and give the fast learners other things to get on with while you're doing that. Sometimes you can even get the fast learners to teach the slow learners. But there's no magic solution: you can't perform miracles in a difficult situation. Teenagers who don't want to do homework? OK, they won't learn very much. Their choice. Thanks, all those people who stressed the importance of making grammar work interesting, interactive, communicative, motivating, fun, … That's so important. Grammar doesn't have to be grey! Terminology: traditional grammatical terminology is a real nuisance, full of expressions that don't have their normal meanings (like 'perfect') or that are thoroughly misleading (like 'past participle'). But we need to use some, so we just have to live with it. Researchers have discovered that there are families of languages that are clearly descended from a common ancestor. Most European and North Indian languages are in the same family, so English and Hindi are related. Dravidian languages are in a different family, so we can't detect any relationship between English and Tamil (though the vowel systems may happen to resemble each other). But we only have records of languages going back a few thousand years, and languages have existed for hundreds of thousands of years, so even if all languages are descended from a common ancestor (which seems highly probable), they have diverged so much that older relationships between the different families are no longer visible. If you're interested in this, look up 'Language families' on Google. What to do if your students have to pass exams where they mainly have to demonstrate that they know a lot of grammar? Teach them what they need, but try to slip in some proper language teaching as well, and encourage them to do as much reading for pleasure in English as possible. Our son learnt French grammar at school, and everything else from French computer games magazines. 'I didn't say nothing to nobody': actually, this means 'I said something to nobody', so it is negative. Think about it. philipd: I have warm memories of Alf Crosby. I too found Reg Close's book valuable. And Robert O'Neill's 'English in Situations' and 'Kernel Lessons' were wonderful – they don't make them like that any more. As it happens, I'll be having dinner with Robert next month; he'll pleased to hear about your memory of working with him. Can't help, I'm afraid, with a TESOL Course (ask the nearest British Council office); with ideas for teaching tense use to EFL writers in the Arab world (a specialised context that I know nothing about). And I've nothing to say about Relational Frame Theory (I know nothing about it, but perhaps others do). Thanks again, everybody, and best wishes for your teaching. Michael          

Good! I partly agree to you. I think vital is not so good .Maybe for some students this is a only true way but not for all of them . I am a student and we also had grammar classes. but I want to change style of teaching in our faculty . Because your advices are usefull for students to understand easily. Before i thought that our style is ok.After read this blog i changed my mind. If iwill be a teacher in the future I will choose this one. I liked your blog. Thank you.

        Hello Mr Michail! I maintain your method of teaching grammar.I'm a second year language learner and I know very well how much this strategy is useful.My teacher always uses this teaching style and I'm making a great progress in my grammar.       I hope your method will be common around the world soon.