How to teach grammar

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.

Average: 2.7 (7 votes)

Submitted by Sitor on Mon, 02/14/2011 - 02:13

        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.

Submitted by Malicabanu on Sun, 02/13/2011 - 19:32

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.

Submitted by Neli Kukhaleishvili on Sat, 02/12/2011 - 11:40

 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



Submitted by evab2001 on Sat, 02/12/2011 - 10:31

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

Submitted by Sabapathi on Fri, 02/11/2011 - 06:37

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 







Submitted by philipd on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 22:07

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!!

Submitted by philipd on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 21:46

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 Intermediate
Target 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?  etc

Step Three: Wh- questions:  
Who is a businessman?  What does he need ?  Why does he need money? Who did he ask?  etc

Step 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...?

Submitted by Teri Hedberg on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 21:19

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!



Submitted by jvl narasimha rao on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 17:10

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



Submitted by gabezmail on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 14:31

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

Submitted by ancaelena on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 13:03

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.

Submitted by ninos on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 10:32

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?

Submitted by SLI.ABOU on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 10:19

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!


Submitted by K.Rajalakshmi on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 05:56

Greetings Sir,

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

Submitted by Ajit Singh Nagpal on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 01:42

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







Submitted by kamal83 on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 00:01

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

Submitted by Corajean on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 21:47

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.


Submitted by Vlazaki on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 20:53

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

Thanks for reminding

Submitted by acLiLtocLiMB on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 20:07

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,


Submitted by racejimbarbara on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 19:46

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!

Submitted by Survival Guide on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 19:04


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.

Submitted by RRK on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 16:37

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

Submitted by kuilao on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 16:12

Hi Michael, thank you for your article, very interesting and agreeable.  I would be very interested in seeing/using your completed grammar lesson plans in the future when you've published them

Submitted by pajand on Tue, 02/08/2011 - 20:20

don't be sorry cause the length of the article or any kind of write-for-help pieces not considrable and can be usefull even more than what you expected ...

actually according to my experiences and teaching time ..I think we have  many different ways to use as the number of people around the world  and it depends on their intelligences and their interests to that field we can grab one of those ways and continue it till achieving what we want  ..I had many students(Ss) who had  kind of mental problem ..those who are great in visual and horrible in audial ...even the weakest one can get the examples through  the way that they are good at ... sounds and musics for the one who has ineterst or even more powerfull intelligences in  ..or the other one may catch the same info much easier by touching the words (something like Montessori) ...and million other instances .I have written an article which i will DL  here for the very first time wish u help me to be better on this matter ...enjoyed ur blog and will continue reading ur precious  writtings...


Pajand Soleymani

Submitted by jlshylla on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 03:20

In reply to by pajand

Greetings Sir,

I started teaching English (Language) only recently and have been trying to get a handle on how to teach Grammar to young and adult learners effectively without making it too dry. So you can imagine my delight when I came across your article.

I have benefited much from your discussion of how to teach Grammar. I have one question though at this moment and it is not directly connected with your article but is somewhat connected to it.

Recently, I bought a book on Grammar and was surprised to find that the authors strongly emphasised the fact that there is no such thing as 'good' grammar and 'bad' grammar, but it was only a matter of appropriateness. This then caused me to wonder if this were to be true then what really are we suppose to teach. And, do we even need to teach grammar at all then.

I will be grateful to you if you could share your thoughts on this issue.

Thank you,



Recently, I bought a book on Grammar and was surprised to find that the authors strongly emphasised the fact that there is no such thing as 'good' grammar and 'bad' grammar, but it was only a matter of appropriateness. This then caused me to wonder if this were to be true then what really are we suppose to teach. And, do we even need to teach grammar at all then.



Linguists, who consider themselves to be scientists, believe they cannot possibly distinguish accurately and consistently between "good" grammar and "bad" grammar. As scientists, they can only describe language that people actually use and the situations in which they use that language. "Good" and "bad" are simply opinions, though a very, very large number of people may share the same opinions on certain language points.

As an example, I live and work with a large group  of people who often express their intentions in English by using the imperative form. For example, they say 'Go home!' when they happily tell the world they are about to leave the office, or they say 'Eat dinner!' before going out to dinner. They feel this language is VERY good and it usually receives very positive and enthusiastic responses. Linguists would not say this is bad simply because  I would never do this. (I admit being a bit disappointed that linguists do not value my opinion over the opinion of these other people.) Linguists would be more interested in finding out how often this happens, what typical responses are, and why this variation in language came about in the first place.

As an English teacher, I've tried to teach these people what I consider to be more "appropriate" language, but even the people in this group who hold the title "English teacher" do not think it's necessary to change what is, to them, a wonderful, concise style of language. Hmmmm... maybe they have the right idea. It's late now. Go to bed! Well, it doesn't seem right for me, but I will go to bed now.

Thanks, everybody: a very useful discussion, I thought.

Jacob, it certainly does make sense to talk about 'good' and 'bad' grammar, or about 'correct' and 'incorrect' grammar; but the difference is not always a simple matter. Let's look at four sentences:

- I did not say anything.
- I didn't say anything.

- I didn't say nothing.
- I didn't said nothing.

 The fourth is quite obviously incorrect. It has a past form instead of an infinitive, so it doesn't conform to the rules for negative formation in English, and no native speaker would produce it except as a slip. The first two, on the other hand, are clearly grammatically correct in principle, but they are not equally correct in the same contexts. The second, with the contracted didn't, would be considered inappropriate or incorrect in a piece of formal writing.

 What about the third? Multiple negatives are normal in many varieties, but not in standard modern English (though they were common centuries ago). In my London primary school, the following conversation was typical:

teacher: Michael, what did you say?
I didn't say nothing, Miss.
No, Michael. You mean 'I didn't say anything'. 'I didn't say nothing' means 'I said something.' Don't you know that two negatives make a positive?'
Sorry, Miss.

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.

It's often better to ask not 'Is this correct?', but 'Where is this correct (or appropriate)?'  'I didn't say nothing' is certainly incorrect (in the sense of 'I didn't say anything') in standard English. On the other hand,  it is quite correct in cockney, and if you wanted to learn cockney you would have to learn the rules for multiple negation (just as you have to when you learn French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese).

Inside standard English itself, there is a lot of variation.When native speakers talk about 'bad grammar', they are often condemning a usage which is actually perfectly correct in the appropriate context. A common example is the use of 'me' in double subjects, as in 'John and me saw a good film yesterday'. This is often criticised as 'incorrect', but it's not; it's common in informal standard Englsh speech, and is perfectly correct in this context. On the other hand, it would be quite incorrect in formal writing. The same goes for 'I' in double objects, as in 'Between you and I' (which comes in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice: 'All debts are cleared between you and I').

Thanks again








Submitted by Ana Cristina d… on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 14:40

In reply to by Michael Swan

Thank you so much for your comments...

Soon I'll be teaching the future - will, going to, pres continuous - it usually raises a lot of doubts in the students, so when the time comes I'll let you know with real examples (from them) to see if you can help me out.

Submitted by jlshylla on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 16:12

In reply to by Michael Swan

Greetings again,

I am overwhelmingly grateful, and I say that because you took all that trouble to provide examples and to discuss at length the mechanics of grammar. I am now at ease knowing that I would not have to unlearn all the grammar I have learnt so far and not have to start all over again. There is always room for improvement no doubt.

Thank you once again for helping me out on this one.



Submitted by cute angel on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 16:32

In reply to by Michael Swan


This is my second year in teaching,so lemme say that I'm a novice teacher and reading articles like this is really useful for me and I'm sure for all teachers.

What you've said is so true but TES "teaching English as a second language "is a very tough job to do.I myself teach in the middle school and I find problems in explanation especially with abstract things.Concerning grammar,I know that with the CBA we should teach it implicitly ie,not directly explained but when I came across the passive voice I was paralized I couldn't do be implicit I was obliged to be explicit and more than that use my mother tongue,eventhough,it's not recommended to use the mother tongue in teaching English ,so please do you have any solutions or pieces of advice to enlighten me with.


Any help is highly appreciated

Submitted by humay.musayeva… on Fri, 02/11/2011 - 09:32

In reply to by cute angel

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?

Submitted by mfabbioni on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 18:55

In reply to by Michael Swan


Thank you, Michael

I 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.



Submitted by lalla99 on Sat, 02/12/2011 - 14:58

In reply to by Michael Swan

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.







Submitted by MADINABONU on Tue, 02/08/2011 - 08:04

Hi michael. I liked your methods which you use to teach the grammar. Useful exercisesyou use in your methods. If anybody weants to be a good teacher surely, I suggest your three golden rules to them. GOOD LUCK

Submitted by Ana Cristina d… on Tue, 02/08/2011 - 14:47

In reply to by MADINABONU

Hello Michael,


I've always felt terrible when teaching grammar and had to give students all the rules that must be followed but after reading your opinion on the matter, I think I've been doing the right thing...

Thank you

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