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Classroom Lecture

How to Teach Grammar

What is grammar?

For many years, “learning the grammar” has assumed a central role in students’ expectations about what learning a language involves. Nowadays, however, there are many different views about what learners need to learn and how best to go about teaching it.


When thinking of “grammar”, many people probably first picture a book full of explanations and rules that tell them which verbs have what endings, how to use adverbs, how to make a superlative, etc. That's certainly one kind of grammar, but it's not really what we are talking about when we say that we are “teaching grammar”.


Grammar is partly the study of what forms (or structures) are possible in a language. Traditionally, grammar has been concerned almost exclusively with analysis at the level of the sentence. Thus a grammar is a description of the rules that govern how a language’s sentences are formed. Grammar attempts to explain why the following sentences are acceptable:


  • We are not at home right now;

  • Right now we are not at home.


But why this one is not:


  • Not we at right home now are.


Thy system of rules that cover the order of words in a sentence is called syntax. Syntax rules disallow:


  • Not we at right home now are.


The system of rules that cover the formation of words is called morphology. Morphology rules disallow:


  • We is not at home right now.


Grammar is conventionally seen as the study of the syntax and morphology of sentences. It is the study of linguistic chains and slots. That is, it is the study both of the way words are chained together in a particular order and also of what kinds of words can slot into any one link in the chain.


From a learner’s perspective, the ability both to recognize and to produce well-formed a sentences is an essential part of learning a second language. But there are a number of problems. First, as we shall see, there is a great deal of debate as to how this ability is best developed. Second, it is not entirely clear what “well-formed” really means, when a lot of naturally occurring speech seems to violate strict grammatical rules. For example, in many English-speaking contexts, We ain’t at home would be preferred We are not at home yet only the latter has made it into the grammar books.


Third, an exclusive focus on sentences, rather than on texts or on words, risks under-equipping the learner for real language use. There is more to language learning than the ability to produce well-formed sentences. Texts and words also have grammar, in the sense that there are rules governing how both texts and words are organized, but it is not always clear where sentence grammar ends and either word grammar or text grammar begins. But, since most language teaching course books and grammars are still firmly grounded in the sentence grammar tradition.

It seems likely that learners have to do a number of things to be able to start making any new grammar item part of their own personal stock of language. They probably need to have exposure to the language; they need to notice and understand items being used; they need to try using language themselves in “safe” practice ways and in more demanding contexts; they need to remember the things they have learnt. The table expands on this description.


Grammar and meaning


Learners need to learn not only what forms are possible, but what particular forms will express their particular meanings. Seen from this perspective, grammar is a tool for making meaning. The implication for language teachers is that the learner’s attention needs to be focused not only on the forms of the language, but on the meanings these forms convey.


But what meanings do these grammatical forms convey? There are at least two kinds of meaning and these reflect the two main purposes of language. The first is to represent the world as we experience it, and the second is to influence how things happen in the world, specifically in our relations with other people. These purposes are called, respectively, language’s representational and its interpersonal functions.


In its representational role language reflects the way we perceive the world. For example, things happen in the world, and these events or processes are conveyed by (or encoded in) verbs. The second main role of language, its interpersonal role, is typically reflected in the way we use grammar to ease the task of getting things done.





If there is one basic teaching sequence used around the world with classes of all types, it must be 'present then practise'. In other words, the teacher first presents / introduces / explains / clarifies / inputs the language point that the lesson is aiming to work on, and then, when it seems to be reasonably understood, moves on to give learners a chance to practise using the language themselves.


If we want to plan a well-focused grammar lesson, we need to decide:


  • Which of these areas we want to spend time on;

  • How long we want to give to each one;

  • What the best sequence is to have them in.


Many 'present-practise' lessons are structured as:


  1. Lead-in: The teacher shows pictures connected to the lesson topic / context and elicits ideas from students.

  2. Teacher clarification: The teacher gives / elicits examples of the language and explains / elicits information about them from students. The teacher may use any of the clarification ideas (e.g. explanation).

  3. Restricted output: The students work on oral practice of examples of these items.

  4. Restricted output: The students do a written exercise to practise these items.

  5. Authentic output: The students are given the opportunity to use these items, along with the other language they know, in communicative activities.


Many 'present-practise' lessons make use of restricted textual material (e.g. printed in the course book or using specially recorded material to provide examples of the target language items being used in context).


  • Lead-in: The teacher shows pictures connected to the lesson topic / context and elicits ideas from learners.

  • Restricted exposure: Learners read / listen to a text and get a general understanding of it (maybe via a sequence of tasks and feedback).

  • Teacher clarification: The teacher uses the text to give / elicit examples an explain / elicit information about the item of language.

  • Restricted output: The students work on oral practice of examples of these items.

  • Restricted output: The students do a written exercise to practise these items

  • Authentic output: The students are given the opportunity to use these items along with the other language they know, in communicative activities.


Of course, many “present-practise” lessons are more complex. In many cases, the stages will not necessarily be clear and distinct. Your use of examples, your explanations and some practice elements: all be integrated, e.g. a cycle of examples, explanations and learner drills all being offered within a few minutes.



Situational presentation


An interesting example of presentation is the popular situational presentation, in which language is introduced via a context that the teacher has created (using board drawings, for example). Here is a description of a teacher using a situational presentation to teach used to.



Establish the context


  1. The teacher draws a picture of a country house and a rich man (holding dollar bills). She asks the students to tell her about him and his life (e.g. He\ rich, Helixes in a big house).


  1. She adds more pictures one by one (e.g. a Rolls Royce, a four-poster bed, a swimming pool) and elicits more statements about his life (e.g. He drives a Rolls Royce). She checks that all students are clear about this context.






Establish the meaning of the target item


  1. She adds a picture of an 'interviewer' to the context and establishes that the rich man is being interviewed about his past life.


  1. She draws a picture of his thoughts about the past (e.g. a “thought bubble” with a bicycle inside it). She invites the students to make a sentence about this. She taps the board to explicitly link the Rolls Royce (now) and the bicycle (past). She asks concept questions, e.g.  What is this? (a bike) Does he ride a bike now? (no) Did he ride one in the past? (yes) But not now? (no) Does he ride a bike now? (no). She has now introduced and focused on the target meaning of used to without actually using the target language. Note that the meaning comes first, before the students meet the target form - the students understand the concept being dealt with, and, hopefully, feel the need for a piece of language to express it, before the teacher introduces the target language itself.




Introduce and practise the target language


  1. When the “bike” concept is clear, she asks if students can say the sentence he said to the interviewer, i.e. that has the meaning of 'I rode a bike in the past, but not now' If a student produces a reasonable sentence, she works with that; if not, she models it herself (e.g. he used to ride a bike).


  1. She gets students to repeat this round the class (a drill) and corrects any problems, especially taking care that she doesn't only notice incorrect words and word order, but also notices unnatural pronunciation.


Generate more sentences from the context

  1. She adds more pictures to the 'interview' (e.g. bottle of water). She elicits further sentences using the target structure (e.g. He used to drink water, He used to sleep in the street, He used to be poor).


Recording in notebooks


  1. She recaps sentences made so far and invites the class to help her construct a substitution table which they can then copy into their notebooks.



Moving on to practice stages


  1. Now that the class has met a number of examples of the target language and has had a chance to repeat these sentences, she moves them onto practice activities.

Many teachers spend most class time on the presentation because they use this as the most important thing they can do to help their learners with grammar. They see language teacher’s job as primarily supplying information.


Language teacher’s job is primarily to push, encourage and help learners to try using the language themselves. Students in many classes do not need long explanation or detailed information. What they tend to need more are challenging opportunities to try using the language items themselves.


Thinking about grammar teaching as primarily “practice” rather than “presentation” can help to solve a number of problems that teachers feel they face in class.


Many students think they “know” certain items; what they actually mean is that information about these items has been presented to them, but the chances are high that, when pushed to use that item, they will make errors. A major problem with many grammar lessons is that they provide too much “information” and not enough “expectation” of quality student production. This is not to say that learners don't need the information - they almost certainly need some (and they need it clearly) - but they don't need all of it every time they have a lesson on a certain grammar item. They don't need to always be starting again at Step 1.'What makes the lesson challenging is not the level of theoretical knowledge the lesson deals in, but what you ask students to try and do. It's the difference between up-here knowledge in the head and knowledge-in-use.



The structure of grammar lesson:


60 min




We can differentiate three general categories of clarification:


  • Teacher explanation

  • Guided discovery

  • Self-directed discovery


Giving helpful explanations


Two minutes of focused explanation can be really helpful; 20 minutes of the same is likely to get students confused, bored and embarrassed. The problem is that it is not necessarily a very involving teaching method; it is easy for a learner to switch of for misunderstand. It can appear successful because there is often an illusion of a large amount of work being covered, but the fact that the teacher has expounded on a particular topic does not mean that the item has been understood or internalised. Remember that they are foreign-language learners, not science undergraduates lecture is not generally an appropriate style. Explanation will be better as a small component of lessons rather than the driving force. Having said that, a good explanation can often be the clearest and most efficient way to teach something.


The best way to avoid over-long, unhelpful explanations is to prepare them Carefully when lesson planning. Decide what information will be necessary to state explicitly. Plan a simple, clear way to convey this information. Plan the use of timelines, substitution tables, annotated examples, diagrams, etc that might make the information easier to take in.                   




Guided discovery


An alternative to giving explanations would be to create activities that allow learners to generate their own discoveries and explanations. Tasks at just the right level will draw attention to interesting language issues. Teacher questions (and use of other techniques) will 'nudge' the learners towards key points. In this way, long explanations can be avoided and learners can take a more active role in their own progress.


Teacher’s role in guided discovery is to (a) select appropriate tasks; (b) offer appropriate instructions, help, feedback and explanations; (c) manage and stucture the lesson so that all learners are involved and engaged and draw the most possible from the activity.


The key technique is to ask good questions, ones that encourage the learners to notice language and think about it. These questions may be oral (i.e. asked live in class) or they might be on a worksheet that leads learners in a structured way to make conclusions. This kind of guidance is sometimes referred to as “Socratic questioning”, i.e. leading people to discover things that they didn't know they knew via a process of structured questions.



Teacher can:


  • ask questions that focus on the meaning (concept questions);


  • ask questions that focus on the context (context questions);


  • ask questions that focus on the form;


  • offer appropriate examples for analysis and discussion;


  • ask learners to analyse sentences from texts;


  • ask learners to reflect on language they have used;


  • ask learners to analyse errors;


  • ask learners to hypothesise rules;


  • set problems and puzzles concerning the language item;


  • offer tools to help clarify meaning, e.g. timelines, substitution tables (but perhaps encouraging the students to use them to solve the problems);


  • help them to stay focused if they get sidetracked;


  • raise their awareness as to what they have learned.




Self-directed discovery


This is what learners do when studying on their own without a teacher -or in a class where the teacher's role is primarily to 'facilitate' the learner's own self-direction. It is the least commonly found in classrooms. Where you want a class to work mainly in this way, it is essential that learners understand and agree with the working method. You need to ensure that the learners have sufficient information and experience to be able to work out their own rules and explanations, and perhaps work out their own goals and learning strategies as well. The obvious danger here is that you will abdicate your real responsibilities.





  1. Scrivener, J., Learning Teaching, (Macmillan Education, 2005)

  2. Thornbury, S., How to Teach Grammar, (Pearson Education, 1999)

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