Teaching Grammar

There are different definitions of grammar. Grammar can be defined as a number of rules according to which students express their ideas, feelings or thoughts in speech or in writing. The grammar rules are not always learnt in a conscious way; some students do not even think about rules when they speak English; this means that grammar can be both learnt consciously or acquired unconsciously.

However students may learn or acquire grammar, teachers need to focus on two aspects in the process of teaching and learning grammar. The former aspect is „accuracy” which stands for the form of the language and the latter aspect is named „fluency” which represents the use and meaning of a language.

Accuracy and fluency lead to the three-sided structure of any language. The first structure is the phonemic and morphosyntactic one (the form); the second structure is the semantic one (the meaning) and the third structure is the pragmatic one (the context of communication). For example, the past tense subjunctive grammatical pattern „I were in your shoes” is a three-sided pattern; first of all, it consists of sounds which should be pronounced correctly; secondly, the pattern is often preceded by „I wish” or „If only” expressing the meaning „I regret that I am not in your shoes”; thirdly, this subjunctive pattern is used in the context of expressing regret.

Starting from the above-mentioned structures, grammar should be seen as a skill rather than a set of rules. The pragmatic side of grammar obliges teachers to combine the classical teaching models with the modern ones. For instance, the PPP model (presentation, practice, production) can be used together with the TBL model, which consists of lessons that focus on communicative tasks (for example, travelling by plane). If we want to understand the two models of teaching and practising grammar (PPP and TBL), we should move back in time. Let us begin with the PPP model. In former times, the grammar lesson consisted of two parts: rule teaching and exercises. Rule teaching is associated with presentation and exercises are associated with practice; the objective of rule teaching and exercises was that of mastering accuracy. A third stage was needed and that stage was production whose objective is fluency; this means that students are involved in real-life contexts of communication. This is how the PPP model was created. One can notice that in the PPP sequence (presentation, practice, production) fluency always comes after accuracy. In other words, we start from accuracy and arrive at fluency.

The reaction to the PPP model is called TBL which stands for task-based learning. A typical task-based learning lesson consists of the following stages. First of all, the teacher gives students a task and students carry out the task (convey meanings in communicative contexts) using the grammar and knowledge at hand (this means fluency). Then the teacher assesses the way in which students did the task (vocabulary; grammar; usage), explicitly teaching the grammar rules (this is accuracy). In the third stage, students do the initial task again or a new similar task (this is nothing but fluency). Let us exemplify. The task is „Going to the supermarket to buy some products”; make a dialogue and act it out in the classroom. After students’ accomplishing the task, the teacher provides feedback on the appropriate vocabulary and grammar teaching the rules. Finally, starting from this feedback, students do the initial task again. Some teachers argue that, unlike the PPP model, the TBL model starts from fluency and arrives at accuracy. In my opinion, this is half true. As in the example above, The TBL model is efficient when the lesson is based on fluency-accuracy-fluency patern. This means that it starts form fluency and arrives at fluency. It is absolutely necessary that students should perform the initial task again. In conclusion, both TBL and PPP models are perfectible and that is why the best solution is to combine elements of the TBL model with elements of the PPP model.

On the other hand, these models can be put into practice by following two principles for teaching grammar. The principles are: the principle of efficiency and that of appropriacy. According to the principle of efficiency, grammar has to be taught efficiently because time is limited. Hence, the principle of efficiency can be divided into three sub-principles: the principle of economy, the principle of ease and the principle of efficacy.

The sub-principle of economy suggests that grammar material should be taught in a simple manner focusing on the matter recommended by the curriculum. The sub-principle of ease tells us that intricate materials are not necessary or possible all the time because of the number of classes and limited time which prevent teachers from performing elaborate activities. The sub-principle of efficacy determines teachers to check if their teaching urges students to learn; in other words, teachers must create conditions for study.

It is difficult to evaluate the sub-principle of efficacy; yet, it can be measured by four units. The first unit is named attention. Teachers’ duty is to draw students’ attention and to eliminate the things which distract attention. The second unit is represented by understanding. Attention needs to be supported by understanding and teachers have to offer enough information. The third unit is called memory. Teachers can help students use their memory capacity by making their lessons memorable. The fourth unit of measurement without which the first three would not exist is motivation which can be internal and external. Thus, both exams and the opportunities English offers represent factors of motivation.

Finally, the principle of appropriacy is of great importance. It implies the fact that activities in the classroom might be suitable for one group of students and unsuitable for another; this happens because these groups range in the level of study, interests, age, values or expectations. For example, a lesson about the subjunctive is considered appropriate for a group of 12th grade students and inapprpriate for a group of 8th grade students.

Starting from the models of teaching English grammar and the principles for teaching grammar, one can identify at least five methods of teaching grammar. The first method is the Grammar-Translation Method. This method proceeds from explaining a clear rule. After the rule has been explained, translation exercises are done. Lessons are based on a syllabus.

The second method is called the Direct Method. It appeared in the nineteenth century and focused exclusively on the oral skills unlike the Grammar-Translation method which focused on the written language. Even if it observes a grammar syllabus, it does not explain grammar rules directly; learners acquire grammar as children acquire it when being exposed to their native language.

The third method is named Audiolingualism. The method focuses on speech and oral skills and it is against presenting grammar rules. The theory of this method derives from the behaviourist movement according to which learning a language is as if forming a habit. Habits are formed through drills and repetition. Vocabulary and grammar become part of the learner’s behaviour.

The fourth method is The Natural Approach which appeared as a reaction to Audiolingualism. Language is not the result of practice drills, but a natural ability. The foreign language should be acquired in the same way in which the mother tongue is acquired: through exposure to the language. There is no need for a syllabus and for explanations of grammar rules. Learners will be able to produce their own language (the output) after coming into contact with the foreign language (the input).

In the case of the fifth method, Communicative Language Teaching, the process of acquisition revolves around tasks meant to stimulate the natural acquisition of the language. The communicative tasks need to be centered around language functions (expressing intention, giving advice) and around situations of every day communication: seeing a doctor, going to the airport. The last version of this method excludes grammar rules and their explicit presentation from the syllabi.

In conclusion, it is important that teachers should identify the strong points of each method and combine the methods in order to help students learn English. Grammar needs to become a skill rather than a set of rules and it should co-ordinate the entire process of learning.


1. Thornbury, S., How to teach grammar, Harlow, Pearson/Longman,2007.

2. Larsen-Freeman, D., Teaching language: From grammar to grammaring, Boston, Heinle and Heinle, 2001.

3. Scrivener, J., Learning teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers, Malaysia, Macmillan, 2009.


prof. Bogdan-Mihai Măimăscu

Liceul Tehnologic Grigore Antipa, Bacău (Bacău) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/bogdan.maimascu

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