An article discussing a communicative approach to teaching children grammar.

I have been teaching two classes of 'false beginners'. Each class has 28 students. They are all 11 years old. They have been excellent in communicative skills in the first semester, since I have put most stress on dialogues, pair-work and group-work activities involving talking practice. They really enjoy doing it! There has been some grammar all the way through, but never explicitly. Recently they have succeeded in adopting all the present simple rules without being told they were actually doing grammar points. I am in two minds now: shall I continue like this with the present continuous and every grammar lesson that is to be taught OR tell them at some point what it is all about (maybe when they have become proficient in usage of a specific grammar section?)? Children generally hate the very thought of grammar and rules, even when it comes to their mother tongue.

Maja Hadzic

Hi Maja

First of all, well done on what sounds like a great success! It sounds like your classes have been very useful and successful in getting the students to communicate in English. I know if I were one of the parents of those eleven year-old students I’d be quite happy.

Your focus on communication skills reminds me of something the author Jayne Moon talks about in her book Children Learning English (Macmillan, 2000). She explains how children 'go for meaning' in communication. Basically this means that they work out the meaning first using their knowledge of everyday life and clues provided by the situation. It’s worth quoting her a little more:

This ability to go for meaning is a very useful one in language learning as it allows children to work out what is happening in a situation, e.g. a story, a video, a conversation, and this then helps them to attach meaning to the words used. The use of communication games, drama, project, story telling and practical activities in teaching, all allow children to make use of this ability to go for meaning.

For many, explicit teaching of grammar would be a no-no with children. This is because until a certain age children do not pay attention primarily to the form of the language. Therefore any explicit focus on the form is, at best, a waste of time.

Additionally, there are those who wonder if we can 'teach grammar' at all. For an interesting article and debate on this, you might want to take a look at the editorial from January’s onestopenglish forum, entitled Is it possible to teach grammar? The author argues that the piece-by-piece accumulation of individual items of grammar (as presented in coursebooks for example) does not automatically lead to students learning it, no matter how well it’s taught. Learning just isn’t linear like that.

So up until now, I’d say that you’re doing pretty much the right thing. But you have a doubt. Do you tell them what it’s all about? I think that you’re right to ask yourself that, and it will depend on different factors, including your teaching context. Here are three reasons to tell them what they’ve been learning explicitly:

1. That 'certain age' referred to above (the point up to which children primarily go for meaning) is said to be around nine or ten years old. Eleven-year olds are, well, older. They may be able to understand a grammar rule, phrased simply enough.

2. If you are working within a system that will expect these children to 'know' grammar rules and grammatical terms (for school, final exams) then it’s only responsible for you to go over it with them.

3. If you are getting pressure from outside the classroom (through parents, other teachers, school administration) to teach more grammar then you might have to compromise and include some explicit focus

But don’t do it for the following reason: it will help them learn more or better. Because it probably won’t.

Finally, you ask whether or not to continue like you have been doing with the present continuous. I’d say YES. Not only because it seems to be working, but also because the present continuous (for actions happening 'now') lends itself so well to all kinds of communication games and activities that I’m sure you and your students will enjoy. Good luck with it.

Further reading

Jayne Moon, Children Learning English, Macmillan, (2005)

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