Busting grammar myths

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What are your memories of learning grammar?

Cast your mind back to when you learned English, or another second or third language. What are your memories of learning grammar?

Mine are certainly the latter. Why? Because I remember chanting mindless drills in German: ich, mich, mir; du, dich dir; grappling with the enigmatic subjunctive form in French: Il faut que je fasse mes devoirs; and I’ll never forget using the wrong pronoun to address my French penfriend’s father: Quelle horreur! I called him tu instead of vous. Tutoying the wrong person at the wrong time is considered overly familiar and downright rude!

Now, that was a long time ago. More recently I’ve been studying Spanish and, thankfully, things have moved on. I don’t have any horror stories. Learning is fun. With this experience as a learner and many years as an EFL teacher and writer, I finally feel ready to bust the myth that grammar is boring and difficult.

Why teach grammar?

Whether we like it or not, we need to teach grammar. If vocabulary constitutes the building blocks of language, then grammar is the cement that holds it all together and makes sense of it. Without grammar, we are left with the rubble of random words. Grammar gives us the tools to manipulate language in order to express ourselves and it underpins the four skills: reading, speaking, listening and writing. Students need it to communicate … and they need it to pass exams.

Kids just want to have fun!

I remember a teacher in Mexico telling me quite recently, ‘My kids don’t like grammar. They want to have fun!’ Well, guess what? They can do both! Young learners in particular are less likely to want to focus on grammar rules. Children approach a second language from the inside. They need to find meaning in how the language is used in a context and with a purpose, rather than from the outside as a system or form. Young learners tend to acquire language inductively and implicitly, while adults might be able to focus explicitly on grammar rules and then apply them later.

Inductive approach:

  • present language in context
  • practise it
  • analyse it

Deductive approach:

  • analyse grammar rules 
  • apply the rules to examples
  • use it in context

The inductive approach tends to be more learner-centred and more suited to teaching young learners. Language is presented in relatable, child-friendly contexts and involves the learners in interactive activities, such as games, stories and songs, which are motivating and fun.

Making grammar fun for Young Learners

We make grammar fun in the classroom every day – sometimes without realising that we’re teaching grammar – or certainly without the children realising! Think about the classic spot-the-difference activity that is so enjoyed in the primary classroom:

In picture A, a boy is climbing a tree. In picture B, he isn’t climbing a tree.

In picture A, a bird is flying in the sky. In picture B, three birds are flying in the sky.

Now if that isn’t grammar, I don’t know what is! We’re practising the present continuous tense in different forms – positive, negative, third person singular and plural.

Sentence building or jumbled sentences is another idea. When children put jumbled words in order to make sentences or questions, they start to notice patterns in the word order – like the change in position of subject and verb in statements and questions – which are at the root of grammatical structures.

A class survey is a useful way to secretly drill a structure whilst personalising language in a purposeful activity. For example, when teaching the topic of food, a survey of children’s likes and dislikes has them asking Do you like (bananas / pears / grapes)? several times and embeds the question form in their brains. Ask them to feed back to the class and you are getting them to transfer from first to third person: I like apples. Tom likes bananas. and so on.

Stories are a wonderful source of grammar in context. Our course books and readers are full of stories that are carefully graded to practise specific grammar and vocabulary. Learners hear the structures within the context of a story, which gives them meaning. They are motivated by the story itself and wanting to know what happens next – often oblivious to the grammatical structures in their desire to understand the story.

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Songs are also a popular way to present language. They often contain repeated structures that are in effect disguised drills. They have the added bonus of containing rhyme and rhythm, which help with pronunciation and intonation. I’ve had an earworm ever since I played this song the other day:

I have a turtle and a cat.

I have a hamster and a rat.

I don’t have any brothers or sisters you see,

My pets are my family …

Do kids find these games, stories and songs boring? No, I don’t think they do!

Making grammar achievable

So, what about the other preconception that grammar is difficult? This one is harder to disprove. It’s true that grammar is complex, but we can break it down and support students throughout the learning process. Remember what I said about building bricks and cement? Well, sometimes we need a bit of scaffolding too. We can’t just feed the grammar to our learners and say, ‘Off you go and use it.’ We need to find ways to support students and help them along the way as and when they need it. If they find something too difficult, they won’t enjoy it and they will become demotivated.

Scaffolding grammar

We scaffold grammar in the classroom every day. Showing flashcards to pre-teach vocabulary, modelling language, monitoring and helping students as they work, prompting them rather than correcting them. As coursebook writers, we aim to provide ready-scaffolded lessons, with carefully selected tasks presented in a logical order to guide teachers and learners systematically through a unit. Visuals support meaning, word pools and gap-fill activities guide writing. Even the good old grammar box is a kind of scaffolding prop to which learners can refer to inform their activities or for reassurance and consolidation. Grammar reviews provide yet more reinforcement with grammar boxes to be completed by the learners themselves and further practice activities.

Scaffolding can also help when dealing with mixed ability classes. Tasks can be adapted for different learners based on their ability and we can adjust the amount of support we provide to individuals too.  

Conclusion

I think the problem with the way I learnt those languages when I was young was that grammar was approached as a system. Grammar rules were taught prescriptively and out of context and we had to memorise them. By teaching grammar in a more child-friendly, inductive way, using motivating and learner-centred materials, we can make it fun. By tailoring support along the way as and when learners need it, we can make it achievable for every child too. Is grammar boring and difficult? I don’t think so!

About the writer

After some years spent travelling and teaching English, Viv worked in Educational Publishing – editing and commissioning children’s books and Primary EFL materials.  She then became a freelance ELT author and has been WFH since before it became a thing! She has written several courses for Young Learners – including Story Central, Share It! and Global Stage – from her home near Oxford with her dog Rafa snoring under her desk. She also gives Webinars and in-person presentations (when invited and allowed!) Viv has taught French at her local Primary School and been involved in teacher training in Oxford. Her hobbies include tennis, yoga and running.

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