Teaching grammar – for and against

Author: Lucy Palmer
Published: 20/10/2022

The teaching of grammar has long been a hotly debated topic. Theories have differed not just about how to teach it but even about whether to teach it explicitly at all – and yet no one denies that students need to learn to master the constructions used to talk about past, present and future events in the target language.

Approaches are often grouped into two camps:

  • the explicit, deductive approach, in which the tense, etc. is presented first and students practise constructing sentences by applying the rules. This is also known as a learning-based approach, as it is based on ‘declarative knowledge’ or being able to explain the rules, and it includes traditional grammar translation methods and PPP (presentation, practice, production).
  • the implicit, inductive approach, in which students are exposed to lots of examples of the construction and work out the rules for themselves, either consciously or by remembering the patterns. This is an acquisition-based approach based on ‘procedural knowledge’ or being able to use the language, and it includes communicative approaches such as Gianfranco Conti’s EPI method.
Dictionary entry for grammar

Arguments against the explicit teaching of grammar

There’s no doubt that grammar can be challenging; in fact, the ‘rules’ can be so complex that only the most linguistically able students may be able to process them analytically.

And perhaps that analysis isn’t really necessary anyway. After all, no one acquires their first language by learning grammar explicitly. Rather than generative rules, language can be viewed as what Michael Halliday termed ‘lexicogrammar’[i] or what Michael Lewis called ‘chunks’[ii] – typical combinations of words ranging from fixed expressions to verb patterns. As Gianfranco Conti points out, a student can be fluent in saying J’ai joué au foot without knowing all the tenses of jouer or all persons of the perfect tense, and this fluency is achieved through practice with unanalysed chunks. These chunks can then be varied using sentence builders and L1 translation, without the need to learn the grammar ‘rules’ at all.

Arguments for the explicit teaching of grammar

The main problem with a purely inductive approach is that in only a few hours a week there isn’t time to give students the same extensive exposure to comprehensible input as we receive when learning our first language. If students are to acquire the complexity of language required by GCSE Higher tier or A-level, they’ll need something to speed up acquisition.

According to Rod Ellis,[iii] explicit knowledge of language structures can do just that, and in fact Gianfranco Conti has also said that ‘an intelligent mix of explicit and implicit instruction is the most effective alternative to the traditional PPP (presentation, practice, production) approach’[iv].

A combination of approaches

What’s more, language teachers know from experience that different techniques work with different students and tend to use a combination of methods with their classes. Some of our best-loved grammar booklets, lessons and worksheets reflect that diversity of approaches, as do our Mastering grammar: verbs and tenses teaching packs.

KS3 German – present tense revision

The hugely popular Present tense revision booklet is based on explicit teaching of the grammar point. It provides a systematic, step-by-step progression from simple to more demanding tasks, starting with regular verbs then moving on to irregular ones before reviewing separable verbs (regular and then irregular). It also contains a wonderfully clear explanation of the ‘verb second’ rule, which always causes so much difficulty for students. A vocabulary list and answers are included too, making it suitable for independent study or self-marking.

KS4/KS5 Spanish – photo descriptions with ‘ser’ and ‘estar’

Ser o estar, esa es la cuestión, by Laura Martín-Cisneros, is one of our best-loved Spanish resources. It’s a fun and memorable way to clarify the uses of these two frequently confused verbs, and it practises essential language for photo description tasks.

The resource starts with visual input and physical activity to engage students and model the uses of the two verbs: students race to match sentences describing photos to the correct photos displayed on the wall. They then categorise ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ according to their collocations and colligations, and finally they produce written descriptions of two photos. A PowerPoint of the present tense conjugations of the two verbs is provided in case students need a reminder.

KS3/KS4 French

Vicki Brownlee’s delightful French verb flower worksheet helps students create a visual record of the conjugation of any verb in the present tense by writing the infinitive and translation on the plant pot, and the verb forms on the six petals. You could have each student do a different verb and then put the flowers up as posters on your classroom walls.

Another much-loved resource is L’imparfait: mes activités – a complete lesson on the imperfect in the context of students’ free-time activities when they were younger. It provides lots of games to model and drill the tense, and lots of pictures to the make the learning memorable, before moving on to listening and reading comprehension and a scaffolded speaking task. Here, the grammar explanation comes midway through the lesson, after students have already had plenty of exposure to the forms and function of the tense.

Mastering grammar: verbs and tenses

The aim of these teaching packs for key stage 3 and key stage 4 French, German and Spanish is to make the grammar appear logical and accessible by drawing students’ attention to patterns through fun, communicative activities that are informed by aspects of Gianfranco Conti’s EPI approach: activities such as ‘Pyramid translations’, in which elements get progressively added to a sentence, with students translating each new version, allowing for lots of practice with the same structure, repeating the previous structure each time to aid retention; or ‘Mind reader’ and ‘Sentence stealer’, in which students repeat phrases as they try to guess which one the teacher or their partner has chosen. 

Each unit contains a PowerPoint presentation that teaches the grammar point explicitly, starting with a comparison of the English tense or verb form with the target language one. If you have weaker students, you could show them the explanatory PowerPoint after the activities, or not at all. If you have more able students or prefer a more traditional approach, you could show them the PowerPoint explanation before starting the activities.

Whatever your preferred way of teaching and your students’ preferred ways of learning, Teachit’s MFL grammar resources can offer activities to suit.

A shorter version of this article was published as a newsletter in April 2022.

[i] Halliday, M. (1961) ‘Categories of the theory of grammar’, Word, 17/3, 241–292

[ii] Lewis, M. (1993) The Lexical Approach, Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

[iii] Ellis R. (2008) ‘Explicit Knowledge and Second Language Learning and Pedagogy’ in Horberger N.H. (eds) Encylopedia of Language and Education. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-30424-3_145

[iv] Conti, G. (2022) training session on ‘Evidence-based strategies for effective and enjoyable grammar instruction’.

Lucy Palmer

Senior Content Lead at Teachit and former teacher of English as a foreign language.