Jim Scrivener has twenty-five years' teaching experience and if he's still unsure of how to teach grammar, is it possible at all?

Photo of a teacher explaining something to their students.

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Let me tell you about my problem …

I’ve been teaching English for a while - well, most of my adult life in fact. In any average profession you might expect that such a length of time would lead to a sense of comfortable familiarity with one’s craft.

Imagine, for example, if I was a plumber. With time one would know all the U-bends and all the things that can go wrong with taps and washers and just what to do when your trusty washing machine decides not to be trusty anymore and floods not only your flat, but everything in the flat downstairs as well.

So, I (experienced, trained, travelled, trusty English teacher) should know it all – or at least, know quite a lot of “it all” by now, twenty-five-plus years down the line. And yet, that doesn’t seem to be happening in my case. So, being invited to write an editorial on this website gives me the privilege of asking: I wonder if any of you have been getting these nagging doubts too: Is it really possible to teach grammar at all?

As someone who has used almost every coursebook going and who has been to lots of conferences and read quite a few books on things like “How to Teach Grammar” I feel that I should be as confident as my plumber is about his pipes. And I think I should admit that I have myself been responsible for writing quite a lot of well-meaning advice for teachers including detailed walkthroughs on things like, er, hmmm, “How to Teach Grammar”. Presumably, then, I know.

Well, I don’t. I don’t know how to teach grammar. And I’ve known that I don’t know for some time. Worse still, I’m not really persuaded that anyone knows, whether they are a new teacher, an experienced teacher, a trainer, a coursebook writer, an academic researcher or a random person in the street.

Grammar lessons or entertainment?

Maybe, before I get too carried away I should be clear that what I’m talking about is quite different from knowing how to teach an interesting lesson that contains something about grammar as part of its content. Many teachers (I’d like to hope that it’s most of us) can pull off a great “grammar lesson” when we try – something exciting, informative, amusing and entertaining. It’ll interest the learners, give them chances to meet the language item being targeted, let them work with it and practise using it. But does it all make any substantial difference? Do they really learn the grammar being taught – or is the learning mostly illusory? Do both learners and teacher leave the room thinking “we’ve had a grammar lesson?” whereas the truth is that they have mostly just been passing the time? Does the grammar lesson genuinely teach grammar – or is it a construction that has grown up over the years that gives the pleasant illusion that it is doing that – whereas the real learning of grammar comes slowly and in much more uncertain ways over months and years?

I think that what I do now when I teach “Grammar” is move through a number of procedural steps that seem, from past experience, to lead to “doable” lessons. By “doable” I mean that, from the teacher’s point of view, they are relatively plannable and teachable – while, from the learners’ perspective, they make some (but not excessive) demands on their attention, energy and brainpower and are a reasonably pleasant way of spending the hour or so (if one has to be in a classroom in the first place). But is this teaching grammar – or just “entertainment”?

Here’s an example of what I mean. I’ve been working with a pre-intermediate class for the last few weeks, teaching all the usual pre-intermediate early-on-in-the-syllabus stuff. So we’ve had present simple, countable and uncountable nouns, verb + preposition patterns (want to do / enjoy doing), will vs. “going to” etc - I’m sure you know the list as well as I do!

And I do my best teaching, using the coursebook in as lively a way as I can think of, adding in my own board presentations, sparking things up with a quiz or a game at various points, jollying up exercises by running them as races or competitions, slipping in personal touches and personalization where I can link topics to things I know the students are interested in – and so on and so on. In class I get what I usually get – some sense that under these laboratory conditions, with a lot of help and guidance and hints and correction, students can get answers right to exercises, can explain salient parts of the rules, can say almost-intelligible sentences in response to drills and can muddle their way through in pair work dialogues. But does all this mean that they have learnt the grammar? When they return after one day for their next lesson, will they be able to use any of the features I have worked on with them? Fat chance!

I’m half-ashamed to admit that I have this problem even within a single lesson. Just yesterday I was teaching comparatives. I stepped out of the coursebook and did a series of careful focussed presentation and practice tasks. I kept the aims limited, just wanting to get the basic idea of “-er” versus “more” comparatives sorted. Students did a lot of active work through the lesson. They drilled. They did written exercises and did pair work and got corrected and helped and, by the end, I was thinking “This is about as much as I could ever bear to do on one discrete item of grammar!” With two minutes to go at the end of the class I thought I would give myself and my students a sense of achievement by writing three sentences on the board and asking students to correct the errors (something that they should have been more than capable of doing after a whole lesson!) – sentences like “Potatoes are more cheap than mushrooms”. Not a single student in the room could find any of the errors. A few minutes later I was sinking into my staffroom chair in a state of befuddled disbelief wondering: What on earth goes on in students’ heads?

What do we mean by “learnt”?

The problem is, of course, at least partly to do with what we mean by “learnt”. If I say a student has “learnt something” I would like to be confident that they can go off into the world knowing how the item works and reasonably able to use it in appropriate contexts, with accurate formation, good pronunciation, intended meanings etc. – in other words that they have made this item part of themselves and their own use of English. But, if you think about it, that’s (sadly) never going to happen after just one or two English lessons on an item. Yet don’t we – and the coursebooks we use – often seem to act as if that’s what will happen? Didn’t our trainers imply that this was how people learnt? Don’t we all (please feel free to exclude yourself from any of my sweeping generalizations if they don’t apply!) – don’t we sit around the staffroom talking as if it’s true, even getting upset about those students who repeatedly fail to learn smoothly according to our timetables – as if it’s their fault?

How do people learn grammar?

A lot of current English teaching seems to still be built on the piece-by-piece accumulation of individual items of grammar, introduced one by one and somehow, as a result, being learnt. It’s as if all the arguments about communicative approaches, task-based learning, cognitive processes, real world “can-do” statements etc. have somehow passed most of the profession by. Coursebook writers and others have cherry-picked the features that are most take-on-board-able from these interesting ideas but even the newest of their publications are still by and large founded on the traditional grammatical syllabus.

So, what do you think? Do people learn grammar bit by bit in this accumulation of little globs? Probably not, I’d say. I have (as many teachers do) slowly pieced together my own “theory of learning” over the years – based on things I’ve read in books and articles or heard and discussed in staff rooms, at conferences on courses and so on. My “theory” isn’t necessarily the truth – but it represents my personal current attempt at grasping the truth.

I’d guess that the real learning of grammar goes on very slowly over a long period of time. It requires, I think:

  1. Exposure – a lot of exposure to spoken and written language.
  2. Noticing – an enquiring mind to notice and pick out things that are going on within this language.
  3. Help – of various kinds – to draw attention to features, errors and interesting attempts, as well as summarizing, explaining and clarifying.
  4. Memory – a good memory to store (and later recall) what has been noticed.
  5. Practice – lots of practice – trying again and again – with all the chaos and mistakes and muddles that this involves.
  6. Owning – after this long process, slowly a new item becomes integrated with all the other language that the learner knows and becomes something that the learner can use fluently and freely at will to express meanings they want to convey.

All of this takes time – and it doesn’t seem possible to speed it up very much. I think students learn the items they need to learn when they are ready to learn them – and that outside interventions make relatively little difference to this process – if they don’t come at appropriate moments.

Yet, somewhere in the middle of my students’ long-term learning process, I stroll in and give a 50 minute presentation on “used to”. What are the chances that this will be the piece of grammar that my students need right then? If they have been studying a coursebook which (like so many) rigorously excludes grammatical items from listening and reading texts until they have been “presented” - what are the chances that my students will be able to learn a language item in one meeting? Can I possibly squash that whole exposure, noticing, help, memory, practice, owning process down to 50 minutes? Clearly hopeless!

At pre-intermediate level wouldn’t I do better offering lots of work on reading and listening (and I mean far more than we currently do) and largely ignoring the explicit grammar teaching until students have started to ask specific questions about things? In other words, teach the grammar when students are ready for it, after they have heard it and read it many times, when they are starting to think or ask “What is this bit of language?” “Why is it like this?” etc. And even then, I suspect, the teacher would do best not to spend ages presenting and explaining and drilling and whatever, but maybe – giving only the smallest, most useful answers or help that are just enough for the students’ current questions, giving only exercises or tasks that deal directly with the issue at hand – avoiding the urge to rush in with everything that could be done with the item.

Conclusions and an invitation

I suspect that the grammar lessons we teach do help teach grammar – but that they don’t work in anything like the way we often imagine. For just a few of the more linguistically tuned-in students they may achieve exactly what we hope for. But for most of our elementary, pre-intermediate or intermediate learners, the lessons are, for the most part, simply a piece of that wonderful wash of information and confusion that surrounds the language learner. But, of course, as part of this, they do provide exposure to language – and this may be where they are most useful – it’s just that it’s not necessarily the language we think we are teaching that students are learning at any particular moment.

So - is it really possible to teach grammar at all?

I’d say “Yes-ish” – but only in passing! We do it best by providing an environment that exposes students to lots of language and encourages them to engage with it and helps them to use it. Around pre-intermediate and intermediate levels, I suspect, we do that least when we have those very lessons that we think of as “grammar lessons”.

So – fellow onestop reader. There you have it - one person’s opinionated, lopsided and probably entirely wrong view! But what do you think? I invite you to join in the debate over in the Forum. See you there!