How can you break up big grammar points when using a coursebook with a structural syllabus? Mark Trevarton shares his strategies.

Unit 1: Present simple, present continuous and present habits; present perfect simple and present perfect continuous. Unit 2: Past simple and past continuous; Past perfect simple and past perfect continuous...

That's the coursebook that I'm currently using with my teenage General English class. Needless to say, it follows a very structural syllabus. It has other bits - the four skills, vocabulary and some pretty good life skills bits, but on the whole, it all seems like a pretext for those Big Grammar points.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against grammar, but I do agree with Lightbown and Spada's 'Get it right in the end' position on language acquisition - primary focus on meaning with focus on form in meaningful contexts. To cut a long story short, let's just say the treatment of grammar in this coursebook...

  • ...isn't very relevant to my learners' motivations, needs or level
  • ...won't necessarily make learners more communicatively competent
  • given too much emphasis in the syllabus

When I first started teaching, I wouldn't have known what to do with it. I DIDN'T! I still remember my first week of summer school, struggling through a unit on the Present Perfect... those poor students!

So what do I do now?

Trim off the fat

Coursebooks at Intermediate level and beyond often include huge reviews of grammatical areas like 'Past Habits'. But instead of going into the minutiae of differences between 'would' and 'used to', just get them talking about childhood memories using 'used to'. At lower levels, you could just teach the affirmative form, instead of all forms, or trim off other parts.

Get to the point

Say you're getting to that unit on 'Past Simple' with your Elementary class. Get them to tell stories about something in the past. If they turn out to be actually quite good at the form, but struggle with the pronunciation, you move on to that. In other words, do some sort of diagnostic activity, then help them fill their linguistic gaps (AKA Test-Teach-Test). If you know your learner's L1, you could home right in on anticipated difficulties rather than the broader grammar point.

Lead them up the garden path

This is my absolute favourite way to break up big scary grammar. Example: 'Past Simple'. You begin by looking at the regular forms as you would in a typical PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production) lesson, and get learners using that language to talk about a memorable meal. But you didn't tell them the full story! They'll soon realise they need some irregular verbs to do that, so you then elicit/teach these as the need for them has emerged from the communicative task. It's a half-way house between telling learners everything first in a big presentation (as the book might suggest) and postponing language focus until after the task as Task-Based Learning suggests.


Coursebooks often present all the rules for articles (a/an, the, -) in one fell swoop. But why not break apart the various meanings and teach them separately over several lessons, spreading it out a bit? You could look at one of the uses in a reading lesson one day, then another one in a writing lesson another day, etc.

Don't teach it as grammar

Alternatively, you could put a lexical, phonological or functional spin on the grammar point. Eg.

  • Instead of teaching 2nd conditional to learners who already understand it, teach 'would' with adverbials like 'ideally', 'maybe', 'preferably' and phrases like 'I guess', 'I think', 'I suppose' to talk about your dream home, Eg. "I guess my dream home would be in the countryside, ideally quite big..."
  • Instead of looking at reported speech you could look at patterns with the verb 'tell' (tell sb + that+ clause / tell sb to + verb / tell sb about smth), which is likely to stick with learners.

These approaches help to rebalance structurally organised syllabi that are saturated with sentence-level grammar and verb tenses.

Implicit 'Language focus'

Think about the purpose the grammar serves in that lesson. You might not need to explicitly do a 'focus on form'. You might devise a task in which learners are exposed to the form, encouraged to notice it and even use it without ever drawing attention to it explicitly. See my example of this in my post on How to improve your lesson timing.

Keep it up your sleeve

If you have a bit of freedom with the syllabus, you might just skip that grammar point and come back to it when it's relevant. Maybe learners are discussing something in a meaning-focused task one day. They're making errors with gerunds and infinitives. So when the task is over, you draw their attention to their errors and get them to pull out their books to that daunting grammar page that has now become super useful! This is just one small step towards reorganising the syllabus and making it more a posteriori, i.e. one that keeps track of what you have done after it's emerged in class.

Skip it

Take a good hard look at that page about adjective order in English (eg. my lovely old brown crocodile-skin handbag). Is it ever going to make a difference to communication? Are your learners actually going to internalise the rules? The answer is probably no, so use class time more constructively. 

Give learners the choice

Depending on your context, you could ask learners to look through the coursebook and decide what they want to study. This works well in small classes, where you can tailor the grammar content to learners. However, learners aren't always the best judges!

Flip it

Everybody's talking about flipped learning these days. I'll be honest - I've never tried it, but I'm definitely going to soon after reading this great how-to. I'll get learners to do a bit from the book at home with the incentive of more conversation in class.

How do you break up Big Grammar? 

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