If Only, It Were True: The Problems with Grammar Teaching

Pramod Kumar Sah

Can teachers do a good job by prescribing grammar rules to their students? I imagine “No!” would be the most common answer to this question if asked to a gathering of contemporary English language teachers. We now seem to have that realization by now. However, same ineffective and purposeless grammar teaching continues to dominate in majority of Nepali classrooms. What can we as English language teachers do? I discuss the pros and cons of grammar teaching, highlight some problems of grammar teaching in Nepal, and suggest some aspects that can be incorporated to make grammar teaching more effective.

Grammar teaching is still a controversial issue in the field of second and foreign language instruction. It has been of great interest to researchers and teachers to find out whether it is worth teaching. Apparently, despite Krashen and Terrel’s (1983, p. 114) and some others’ negative view, linguists like Cowan (2009, p. 3) and Thornbury (1999, p. 16) believe grammar instruction has a lasting effect in learners. As ‘grammar’ is an inevitable aspect of language teaching, what counts is the meaning of ‘grammar’ taken as in the classroom. Is it a set of rules thatsubsequently drives us to interpret the rules stated in the marketed textbooks? Thus, questions arise as:

Is teaching of grammar textbooks advisable?

I am much concerned about the practice of using textbook in our grammar lessons provided it helps with set guidelines to reach objectives. Be of my opinion that, this is merely a mythological grammar teaching if we are explaining the textbook page by page, getting the students to complete the exercises and eventually setting a test of those exercises and quantifying their level of learning.More miserably, we have chances to observe the classes where students are seen reciting grammar rules and definitions of terminologies by rote. The majority of empirical researchers have found these practices of no worth as Bright (1947) finds “….a knowledge of the technical terms gives no guarantee that the pupils can use the language.” Thus, I would prefer to use textbook merely as a resource book.

Instead of following a mere textbook, at first, I would choose a grammatical item to expose to my students. Choosing an item again depends on Second Language Acquisition paradigms, such as the hierarchy of acquisition. In particular, SLA research shows that the ‘Present Continuous Tense’ is acquired  prior to the ‘Present Simple’; thus, despite textbooks introducing the ‘Present Simple’ first I would opt for the ‘Present Continues’ alternatively. Then, I would plan my own lessons with comprehensible input and tasks. Nevertheless, ways to make input comprehensible, what we teach of a particular grammatical item and what are the issues undertaken in a grammar lesson will occur later in the article.

Should we teach grammar rules?

I would say, ‘no’. Jespersen discovered this fallacy in the early 1900’s and was re-emphasized by Bright in late 1040’s, but it still governs language classrooms and textbooks not only in Nepal but in some other contexts as well.  Introducing grammar rules deductively to our students brings nearly no development in the students’ production. It helps them know the rules; they can tell, for instance, the simple present tense is composed of Subject+ verb + object/complement, but unfortunately will not be able to express their present habits accurately and fluently.The exhibited below  demonstrates this dilemma:

Teacher: The difference is the present simple expresses habitual actions, but the present continuous actions that are going on now while you speak.

Tiresome child: Please sir, why are you sayingwhile you speak?”

Teacher: I’m sorry. It would have been better to say “while you are speaking”.

Tiresome child: Was what you said wrong, sir?

Teacher: No.

Tiresome child: I’m sorry. I am not understanding.

Teacher: Look. There are some verbs that are exceptions. We never use the present continuous of the verbs “to understand”, “to see”, “to hear” and so on. Now you really must go away. I ‘m seeing the headmaster in five minutes and it’s time I started.

Tiresome child: You are seeing the headmaster, sir!

Teacher: Go away!

[source 1=”Bright” 2=”(1947)” language=”:”][/source]

Thus, prescribing grammar rules hardly boosts up the learners’ production in the target language. Consequently, what I would rather teach themis ‘patterns’ of language, explicitly and inductively. I would give them implicit exposure; this doesn’t hold the ideas that I oppose explicit instruction. Then, the learners are asked to work on the language (i.e. examples) to explore ‘patterns’ of that particular language. Once the patterns are noticed, the information processes to their short-term memory that needs to be practiced to drive to long-term memory. The explored patterns are practiced communicatively with appropriate tasks. The more they are given chance for production, higher is the possibility for the information to reach to automatic processing or to say long-term memory.

Furthermore, in our context, we lack the authentic data to use as an exposure to our students. Here, I doubt at making use of the marketed textbooks since the language used in them are barely authentic or based on any study. In this regard, corpus study has been a great means to us. It is advised to check Using Corpora in English Language Teaching by HimaRawal in February issue of this blog for detailed information.

Should we teach to speak according to the rules of grammar? 

I’ll agree with you if you said ‘yes’. The significance of speaking according to the rules of grammar cannot be ignored butconsciously using rules while speaking not only obstructs fluency but also increases likelihood of using language out of context. In normal speech, the mind of the speaker certainly does not think of a rule and then work out a sentence to fit it. While speaking, a fluent speaker does not think of grammar at all, s/he thinks of the meaning of what s/he wants to say. Thus, as a language teacher, we need to teach studentsto speak comprising meaning in the context rather than the rules of grammar. However, there might be an argument that a conscious knowledge of grammar rules is obligatory for new learners of a foreign language. Thus, what can be the best idea is that we provide them rules of grammar and then give them ample opportunities to practice those language points by creating natural settings so that the patterns of languages are discovered  by the students in such a way that rules become a subconscious part of language learning endeavour eventually leading to a condition where the learner can use language even without worrying about remembering the rules.

Moreover, it is not always necessary to stick to formal grammar while speaking. The utterances, like ‘How are you doing?’, ‘I am going to go home now’, ‘Do you want to have coffee?’, ‘Are you all right?’ and so on will seem quite odd in spoken discourse. Thus, I would teach my students to speak like, ‘How you doing?’, ‘Gonna go home now’, ‘Wanna have coffee?’, ‘You all right?’, but they should be made aware that they cannot use these forms in written discourse. If we attempt to teach our students as we were taught, we will not do any justice to them. We need to understand the need and interest of this iphone generation. They do not even bother grammar rules while speaking, face-booking, twittering, or texting electronically. What counts for them is communication and they areright. If native speakers are doing so, why cannot they? On contrary, formal grammar must not be ignored in written texts.

In a nutshell, we should start teaching ‘spoken grammar’ as well. Out of my personal interest, we must be thankful to course designer of Tribhuvan University for prescribing the textbook ‘Exploring Grammar in Context’ which is primarily grounded on corpus data and indeed a descriptive grammar textbook. The most significant aspect of the book is that it incorporates spoken grammar, but unfortunately we witness the section being ignored in classroom practice and has been taken as of less importance. This attitude is born from the question patterns of the annual examination that hardly composes any question from the section, and this has assisted me to assume the avoidance of spoken grammar. It is advised to give equal importance to the section and be honest to students. The knowledge of discourse marker, back-channelling, ellipsis, headers and tails, filled and unfilled gaps, etc. is equally notable to tense, mood, passive sentence, reported speech and so on.

If we teach grammar anyway, let’s consider these 4 aspects

The most crucial aspects of grammar teaching that must be taken into account are ‘noticing’, ‘consciousness- raising’, ‘grammar in context’, ‘information processing system’ and ‘focus on production’. This short article will not discuss these aspects in details, but attempts to deal them briefly.

Grammar teaching without giving students chance to notice a language is meaningless. Noticing can occur when the learners are paying conscious attention to a form within input. Schmidt (2010: 725), the propounder of Noticing Hypothesis, defines the term as ‘conscious registration of attended specific instances of language’ and emphasizes the idea that no noticing means no learning. Thus, a teacher has to help learners develop noticing. And, this is only possible when we expose plenty of comprehensible input and get the students to work on the input to explore their own grammar rather than explaining prescriptive grammar rules to them.

In addition, by consciousness-raising we mean to device activities that help them ‘to construct their own explicit grammar’ (Ellis, 1993: 10). Put it other way, we develop activities that will get the students to understand a particular grammatical feature, how it works, what it consists of and so on. The students attempt to raise their consciousness towards a form of language through noticing. This does not necessarily mean students are able to produce sentences but it helps to understand a form that is eventually brought to their production through practice.

The next concept is the need of teaching grammar in context. The real acquisition is not completed until the learners are able to use them in communicative context asNunan (1998)views “…effective communication involves achieving harmony between functional interpretation and formal appropriacy… by giving them tasks that dramatize the relationship between grammatical items and the discoursal contexts in which they occur” (p. 102).Thus, instead of just giving them a set of rules, we are supposed to give them optimum opportunity to explore grammar in context.

Finally, our grammar teaching activities might as well be based on the theory of information processing. When a learner is provided with input, it is not necessary that all input turns into intake. Some type of filtration takes place where the noticed input processes to short-term memory that needs to undergo practice to eventually reach to long-term memory. The language reached to the long term memory finally becomes automatic whenthe learners are able to produce a language.

Incorporating these factors(noticing, consciousness-raising, providing context for language use, and authenticity can give purpose for the teachers and may significantly increase the effectiveness of learning. Johns and King (1991, p. 3) find DDL, a new style of grammar teaching incorporating learners own discovery of grammar based on evidence from authentic language use. This approach initially makes use of corpus data that is exposed to learners where they are asked to notice patterns of a language. While working on the data, students consciously notice patterns and raise their consciousness on the given patterns. Later, the   discovered patterns are practiced in set tasks where the learners get chance to produce the language.

It is always heard from teachers saying grammar teaching is a problematic area, but in my opinion, the problem is we do not take on new experiments to see if new approaches work. We are much preoccupied and grounded by the age-old “grammar” books that shamelessly prescribe “correct” rules. It’s high time we consider minimizing the use of prescriptive grammar rules with aids to textbooks and allow learners to explore their own grammar through comprehensible input, especially making use of authentic data.


Bright, J. A. (1947). Grammar in the English syllabus. ELT Journal. 1 (7), p.173-177. 

Cowan, R. (2009). The teacher’s grammar of English. Cambridge: CUP.

Ellis, R. (1993). Second language acquisition research: how does it help teachers?. ELT Journal. 47 (1), pp3-11.

Johns, T & King, P. (eds.). (1991). Classroom Concordancing. (Birmingham University: English Language Research Journal 4, pp 1-12).

Krashen, S. & Terrell, T. (1983). The natural approach. Oxford : OUP

Nunan, D. (1998). Teaching grammar in context: ELT Journal. 52(2), pp101-109.

Schmidt, R. W. (2010). Attention, Awareness and individual Differences in Language Learning. In W. M. Chan, S. Chi, K. N. Cin, J. Istanto, M. Nagami, J. W. Sew, T. Suthiwan., & I. Walker ( Eds.), Proceedings of CLaSIC 2010, Singapore, December 2-4 (pp. 721-737).Singapore: University of Singapore Centre for Language Studies.

Thornbury, S. (1999). How to teach grammar. London: Longman.


Pramod Kumar Sah
M. Ed. in English, Tribhuvan University

Currently Pursuing MA in TESOL with Applied Linguistics at University of Central Lancashire, UK.

2 thoughts on “If Only, It Were True: The Problems with Grammar Teaching

  1. Nice article..!!! Plan a lesson covering one important concept in grammar instead of packing in several smaller ideas. Teaching grammar in context is the best!!

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