How to Teach English Grammar (EFL):
Issues and Perspectives
This article has two main aims:
to give teachers a variety of strategies for dealing with grammar in the classroom
to explore ways of approaching grammar outside the classroom
NB: It is important that the above two aims are kept in mind throughout the workshop, since
some of the issues touched on are controversial and complex. Deep water abounds, but the
results are worth it; while teachers new to the profession may find some of the following
'difficult', all will find it useful. At some points during the article, it would be easy to become
bogged down with grammatical analysis, a situation which the workshop itself is, to some extent,
attempting to avoid!
The general approach is to train EFL teachers to train EFL students, in the hope that both will
become better learners. This article was born, I admit, not only out of teachers' needs, but of my
own fascination for how language works, a fascination I hoped would infect others, students and
teachers alike, who see language analysis as the bane of their lives. Enthusiasm in teaching,
though requiring restraint, is not to be underestimated. The definition of 'grammar' used here is
broad, and both new and more experienced teachers should find something worth pondering. The
seminar is split into two sections, firstly looking at grammar teaching from a teacher's point of
view, and secondly from a student's.
GRAMMAR - A Teacher's Perspective
Close your eyes and think of a word or phrase to characterise "grammar'.
Grammar can be viewed in a number of ways, including:
as facts - e.g. the plural of 'child' is 'children'. This is possibly what many people think of first
when they think of 'grammar', i.e. as 'right vs. wrong'.
as patterns - e.g. 'I love you'. The words can be moved around or substituted. Things can also be
added or inserted.
as choices - 'I buy a car tomorrow'. The question is not so much what goes in the gap, but
whether or not the speaker is saying what they intend to say; here we move away from the
certainty of 'right vs. wrong' into the greyer area of 'likely vs. unlikely'.
Obviously this is an abstraction, a point perhaps worth making about language analysis in
general, whether the nature of the analysis be descriptive, prescriptive, or pedagogic.
ISSUES IN TEACHING GRAMMAR
Language is a complex affair, and language classrooms are complex places, so it's not surprising
language teachers can sometimes find themselves on the spot. A student asks you about an area
of language you've never really thought about before.... Which of these statements applies to
The answers are at the end of the test.
I'm well prepared here. I have a grammar book in class. I use my intuition to give the best answer
can. I say I'll get back to them, and consult either a colleague or a reference book after the
I focus the student on the meaning, rather than get bogged down in detail. I sometimes ask open
class if anyone else can answer, especially if we've covered that point. I'm comfortable with not
knowing everything. Sometimes I say,"lt just is, OK"? I try to explain that language is sometimes
complicated, that they can't expect to know everything at once. I simply point to my lesson aims
written on the board and remind the student of what we are doing. Usually I try to avoid the
whole issue. I don't want my students to lose confidence in me.
'intuition' - the need to think ahead and consider students' level, beware of: reasserting authority
as a teacher at the students' expense; abandoning lesson plan; gross over-generalisation.
'grammar book' - useful, students can consult it, or you can deflect a complex question by
showing students how large the section is.
'consult' - make sure you do get back; not to do so is disrespectful.
'meaning' - language is essentially context-based, rules have exceptions, and can be so abstract as
to be unhelpful.
'open class' - gives teacher time to think, student centred, and students are often right!
'comfortable' - true sometimes, but don't use for all questions.
'complex' - true; constant revision required. PPP probably works more effectively over a number
of lessons rather than just one (taught does not equal learnt), other methods and approaches: drip
feed, TTT, topic based, ARC, observe-hypothesize- experiment, lexical etc.
'aims' - focuses lesson- and students, but do acknowledge the question as it's probablya good one
asked for a good reason.
'avoid' - students are more likely to have confidence in an honest teacher ('I've never really
thought about that before') than in a shifty, unreliable one.
These points are summarised in the next section.
DOs AND DON'Ts
Become evasive/defensive Over-generalise Think aloud
Acknowledge the question
Stick to your aims
Get back to the student
Have the confidence to say 'I don't know' Consider s/s level Remind s/s of your policy
This needs to be negotiated with your students. A learner training exercise gives the teacher the
opportunity to establish the policy, eg.
I am not a grammar book.
I will decide what and how much is to be taught.
Sometimes I will not be prepared, willing or able to answer questions. Grammatical analysis is
not always the best approach. The rest of the policy should aim to establish your strategies for
dealing with the unexpected.
We are going to round off with a look at some interesting examples of language analysis. The
aims here are to:
• explore the differences between teachers' needs and those of the student • show that. while
language analysis can appear discouragingly complex, it can also be fascinatingly simple.
• encourage an open-minded, enquiring approach to the subject
• emphasise the need to anticipate areas of confusion for students
How often do you notice unusual or interesting uses of English. The verb 'unlearn' is an example
of this. A few times a day, once in a while, hardly ever?
Look at the following sentences and grade them on a scale of 0 (completely acceptable) to 5
• It was more clear than usual.
• Have you an explanation of this?
• We would've met. if he hadn't've done it.
• If it would be fun to do it, I would do it.
• He asked where was the engineer.
• Jack could hear him snoring very loud.
• The town I live in is undershopped.
(Examples from 'English Observed', Richard MacAndrew, LTP)
All these sentences were produced by native speakers, some of them in writing. Moreover, with
the possible exception of the last one, they can all be found in reference works somewhere. The
idea here is to encourage, where appropriate, a more realistic view of language as a creative
phenomenon where ultimately meaning is paramount. It may also be necessary to point out that
we are not descending into anarchy here, just exploring the boundaries between 'right vs. wrong'
and 'likely vs. unlikely'. Non-native speakers' needs often don't correspond with those of native
speakers, but there is no principled reason why creativity should be the prerogative of native
speakers. It would be an easy task to compile a similar list of 'unusual' uses from students.
1) Explain the difference in use of the past perfect in the following examples:
He hit me; I hadn't said anything but he still hit me.
If they had taken more food the trip would have been more comfortable.
It was the third time I had been cheated and I was determined it would be the last. I hadn't seen
her for six months before the accident. I'd previously met him in 1984. You told me you hadn't
2)Label the tenses in the traditional analysis of conditional sentences. Explain the following IF
sentences: If you paid sixty quid for that chair you must have been out of your mind.
If I'm a bad carpenter I'm a worse cook.
3) "Use some in positive and negative sentences and any in negatives and interrogatives. How
adequate is this rule, in the light of the following data:
Could you lend me some money? Any student would know the difference Some people will
never learn to sit still. Tell me if you've got any good ideas. He didn't tell some of the neighbours
about the meeting.
4) What do the following verbs have in common?
scarcely, hardly, seldom, barely, rarely
5) Explain and contrast the use of the two "related" modals in the following examples: It's odd
you should say that.Well he would say that, wouldn't he.
Should you decide to travel alone, a higher insurance premium may be payable.
6) To what extent may could be regarded as the past form of can and what other analyses may be
helpful in explaining usage?
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