In a previous blog I suggested that many teachers do either too much grammar or too little, and asked what the reasons might be. Here are some thoughts of my own.

Reasons for teaching too much grammar.

 1. Because it's there. The coursebook or the syllabus has a comprehensive set of structural topics, and teachers may feel they have to cover everything. So lots of class time gets used up in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to get students using all these structures correctly, and there isn't much time left for anything else. The result: students are doing grammar instead of learning English.

2. It's tidy. Vocabulary is a great big disorganised muddle. Functions, can-do lists, skills and strategies are all messy. Pronunciation is tidy but very hard to teach. That leaves grammar: a limited and comforting set of (relatively) neat and to some extent teachable rules and examples. And some grammar, even in English, can be laid out in tables, which often appeals to the pedagogic mind.

3. It's testable. It's very satisfying to spend your time teaching what can be tested and then testing what you've taught. There's an agreeable symmetry about the whole operation. Why do anything else?

4. It makes people feel secure. In the jungle of language learning, grammar rules shine out like traffic lights or street lamps, giving a reassuring sense of control, of knowing where you're going. There's nothing wrong with making people feel secure, of course, provided they can carry over their security into doing other things.

5. 'It formed my character.'  Many teachers have reached their present status by passing exams which required considerable knowledge of grammar; they may naturally feel that this knowledge has contributed importantly to making them the splendid people they are today. Unselfishly, they do their best to pass on this valuable gift to their students. All the time. For a minority of teachers, indeed, grammar is all they know, so grammar is naturally all their students learn.

6. 'The backbone of the language.' A not uncommon feeling: that the grammatical system is the backbone of the language, and must be mastered if learners are to speak and write effectively. Actually, 'system' is a rather misleading metaphor, suggesting that the different aspects of grammar are closely linked, so that if one of them doesn't work the 'system' breaks down. Not so: you can get all your articles wrong and it doesn't affect your use of tenses at all. 

7. Power. Some teachers, unfortunately, like power. And teachers get power from knowing more than their students. But in this internet age, teachers may well have students who know trendy vocabulary that they don't. And if you are a non-native speaker, you may have an irritating student whose pronunciation is better than yours. But you are the only person in the classroom who knows what the past perfect progressive passive is. Stick to grammar and your dominance is assured.

Reasons for not teaching enough grammar

1. Theoretical bias A: 'no-interface'. As one or two people have pointed out, teachers may be influenced by SLA theories which downplay the need to teach grammar systematically. For instance, it has been asserted by Krashen and others that learning grammar consciously has no significant effect on real acquisition. This extreme view is no longer taken seriously by many applied linguists, but one still hears some teachers parroting the doctrine that 'comprehensible input is all that is needed'.

2. Theoretical bias B: 'focus on form'. This more recent and moderate view asserts that grammar teaching may be effective, but only in the context of communicative activity, involving brief episodes of 'focus on form' and 'noticing'. Systematic syllabus-based teaching grammar teaching, on the other hand, is bad.  This view, in my opinion, is based on some very questionable hypotheses.

3. Theoretical bias C: 'grammar comes free with vocabulary' (the lexical approach). Well, small children certainly detect and acquire the grammatical patterns of their mother tongues by unconscious analysis of the lexical input – an amazing feat. But unlike small children, not many second-language learners have 20,000 hours' or so input to work with. And even those who do – long-term immigrants – don't seem to get all their grammar right without help.

4. 'My students don't need grammar – they just want to communicate.' If this means they only want a modest level of accuracy, fine. But even a modest level of accuracy – without which communication is problematic – requires a command of some grammar, and some of this will need to be taught.

5. 'Why bother? They still go on making mistakes.' Well, of course they do. If you water your flowers, not all of them will grow. But stopping watering is not a constructive response to the problem.

6. The teacher doesn't like grammar. Very well, but if you're not interested in how language works, perhaps you're in the wrong business. People who aren't interested in how cars work shouldn't become motor mechanics.

7. The teacher doesn't know any grammar. Sadly, this is sometimes the case. See comment on 6, above. If you don't know where Brazil is, don't teach geography; if you don't know what a relative clause is, don't teach English.

What we call 'grammar' is a lot of different things, and we need to avoid generalisations. In any foreign language, some of the grammar can be picked up without instruction, some of it can only be learnt with the help of instruction, and some of it probably can't be fully acquired at all by most learners. Some points of grammar matter a lot; some don't matter much; it may be hard to decide which. (In the words of the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska: 'I'm no longer sure that what is important is more important than what is not'.)

 How much of a language course should be devoted to grammar? This depends on a large number of factors: the students' level and prior knowledge, their purposes in learning the language, the time available, how much of the language they get free from their mother tongue, and all sorts of other things. But, to attempt a generalisation: I would be uneasy, in any class above beginners' level, if a teacher was spending much more than a quarter of his/her time on grammar. And I would be equally uneasy, in most situations, if the teacher was not providing information and practice on high-priority grammatical topics. 

Comments, questions 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.


Thank you for sharing your ideas with us. You're right. These are the possible reasons why we teach too much grammar or not enough. However, I think teachers need to be much more concerned about how we can teach grammar effectively. Actually I think the dose of grammar instruction depends on the student himself. Some students have the competence to learn as much as you teach. On the other hand some others do not perform so well. I really want to know how to teach grammar to these students successfully.

Dear Michael, First of all, thank you for sharing your ideas with us. As I read your blog, I retrospect my previous teaching experiences and the methodology classes I attended during my university years. The problems you mentioned above are all true in different settings. When I first started teaching, I did not know how to teach altough I took many methodology lessons. You learn how to teach grammar as you teach. You see that one method is very good for a particiular class but it does not work in another class. Therefore, we should be aware of the needs and interests of our learners and the atmosphere of the class.

Dear Mr Swan, I have been reading Krashen's comprehensible input by a professor from kerala, India for the last five years.He says that english should be de-colonised.The oxford and the cambridge are commercialising the teaching of english by selling their books.He believes and says that anychild picks up english within 3 months and construct all discourses in the same period if comprehensible in put is given and language is taught in the form of narratives.
I hope you read my BLOGS NARRATIVE AS A PEDAGAGOGIC TOOL and LEARNING AND ACQUISTION ARE DIFFERENT which are influenced by KRASHEN'S theories.I would like to know whether you believe in CONSTRUCTIVISM.
yours sincerely,
JVL Narasimha Rao
Andhra Pradesh

Thank you for summarizing the grammar teaching issue. As you mentioned it is either overemphasized or totally ignored. Another reason for overemphasis is the exam content. In most cases exams cover too much grammar and grammar eventually becomes the primary concern of not only teachers but also students. In order to attach enough importance to grammar in lessons it is important that exams do not test too much or too less (!) grammar. What is tested should be in parallel with what is taught or vice versa.Another point to mention is I believe low level students need more grammar input. So at low levels (I mean starter or elementary) maybe half of the teaching time can be devoted to grammar and vocabulary (as they are the means to use the language skills effectively), and as the level goes up the emphasis on grammar can be lessened. In addition, while teaching grammar, rather than only teaching the rules we should give students a purpose / a reason to use that grammar. Input does not always becomes intake so we need to make grammar learning meaningful and purposeful for the students:)Esen

Dear Michael,
I absolutely share your point of view. Your analysis is brilliant and in my opinion there is no objection to it.
Now, I do believe that another way of approaching grammar is possible. Sometimes we teachers scare our students with just mentioning the “past perfect progressive passive”, which is not even  possible in real speech. If, instead, we put examples and provide real practice of the structure (not just gap-fill activities), the students will feel they are broadening their knowledge and also putting into practice the new target language. They don’t need to know what the passive voice is. But they need to understand is that when we speak we emphasize parts of the statement and this is possible for example by starting our sentence mentioning the receiver of the action, not the performer and how the sentence structure changes accordingly. They don’t need to know what the past perfect is. They need to understand that when we have an actions that happened before another action in the past, then we construct our statements using I HAD BEEN, I HAD LIVED, I HAD LEARNT and so on. Grammar that way is easy.
I would like to share as well that vocabulary can also be well-organized in our lessons. I’m not talking about extracting unknown words from a text. I’m talking about vocabulary sorted out by subjects and presented in a coherent context where its usage is justified. This is possible and we do it in our company which is called Oxbridge and is based in Barcelona.
In each class our students have at least one vocabulary activity, at least one structure activity and at least one topic activity, not necessarily related, but all of them providing good language practice and all of them selected carefully to fit the level of the learners.
Well, after reading your article I have the feeling we are not the only ones to think that another approach of teaching English is possible.
I’ve really enjoyed reading your thoughts.
Radmila Gurkova

Dear Michael, Thanks for touching such an important issues for us, the teachers. I think we should balance all skills in a way. What we shouldn't forget is not to skip grammar. We should find the right, effective and enjoyable tools to teach grammar through so the students will not even notice that they are learning a grammar topic. I know it is difficult for us to search and find the best for our students because of our limited time and the education systems full of different exams but isn't it worth creating an archive for ourselves?  

Well, I hope you're getting better weather where you are than we are here in gloomy windy Oxfordshire. No doubt spring is on the way, but I wish it would hurry up.  Thanks, everybody, for your responses to my last blog. It's good to hear your views, and I find myself resonating to all sorts of things that you say.  Yes, indeed, esenmetin, exams can force us to overload our teaching with grammar – to the extent that in some countries the examination system makes it virtually impossible to do effective language teaching. And you are of course absolutely right in saying that the amount of grammar students need depends very much on their level – beginners can't really communicate at all until they have a reasonable repertoire of basic structures, while higher-level students have other priorities. I love the cake question, Turkish woman. Is grammar as important as the flour, sugar, baking powder or the eggs? The trouble is that I know nothing about cake-making: as far as food and most other things are concerned, I specialise in consumption rather than production. (It's an important role: producers need consumers. Where would painters be without people who look at paintings; or musicians without listeners; or car manufacturers without drivers; or cooks without eaters?) Perhaps somebody else can come up with a sensible answer? Radmila Gurkova: what you say about terminology raises a very important question, I think. How much can we do without it? I have always tried to use relatively little in my teaching  – language teaching terminology can be quite baffling and off-putting for students. On the other hand, I do feel you need some, as in any other branch of study – imagine teaching people to drive without using words like 'accelerator', or trying to avoid talking about 'key' or 'sharp' in music lessons. Can we really manage without talking about nouns, verbs, tenses, …? What do other people feel about this? Three cheers for what you say about systematic vocabulary teaching, Radmila. Vocabulary is the main learning load in a foreign language. It's vast, and the more we can do to make it manageable, by careful selection, sequencing and contextualisation, and by well-planned practice activities, the better. (Turkish woman: perhaps  vocabulary is the flour.) Jvi narasimha rao: you raise a string of interesting questions. I'be already made it clear, I think, what I feel about Krashen's hypotheses. As regards constructivism in general, I'm afraid I've nothing useful to say: epistemology is well outside my modest range of expertise. Perhaps other people have opinions on this? I'd also be interested to read people's views on the suggestion that English should be de-colonised, on the assertion that Oxford and Cambridge are commercialising the teaching of English by selling their books, and on the interesting claim that any child can pick up English in three months given comprehensible and narrative-type input. Reactions, anyone?     Hayriye, bluering and merveoflaz: yes, the most important question – and the most difficult - is HOW to teach grammar effectively. That sounds like a good topic for the next blog. Thanks again, everybody  Michael

I'm looking forward to reading your next post on the blog.

Thank you for your educational blogs, Mr. Swan.  I have been an admirer since first reading your Beginner's Coursebook 15 years ago.  Sad to say  that I lost that book (and to think that having the advanced level is in my wish list).  But your work inspired me in my English teaching career.  I'm just so thrilled now that I found this site and I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw your name and Mr. A. Maley, who would always be the editor of some of my reference books in Linguistic subjects. Will be looking forward to more of your blogs. I share them with my co-professors.