Yet more thoughts on teaching grammar

I’m now four weeks into the Focus on Grammar course I’m teaching at International House, London, which means only two more weeks to go. It’s been a strange and mostly fairly lovely experience, made much easier by having some really great students. It’s also been a course that has provoked two posts already – here and here – and what follows is the third set of reflections on what’s been going on in class.

1 I’ve read all the rules, but I still got most of the homework wrong

This has been a recurring lament throughout the course, and whilst it’s generally also been a bit of an exaggeration in most cases, it also highlights a crucial fact: the ability to use grammar well generally seems to be less to do with an abstract understanding of generalized principles of usage and more to do with familiarity with the most common phrases and chunks within which particular items are used.

I’ve long thought this echoes the process of learning to drive. When I was doing my lessons – at the ripe old age of 35, as it happens – I had an instructor who wasted half of one whole lesson drawing diagrams and explaining in great detail to me the particulars of parking. Obviously, I grasped fairly quickly how the manoeuvre was supposed to work; the problem was far more to do with drilling its rhythms into my muscle memory, automatizing it, and then replicating it in a variety of different contexts.

To give one small example of how this applies to grammar, today we looked at modal verbs. I started off by giving the students (who are around Upper-Intermediate / B2 level) fifteen gap-filled sentences that they had to complete with the correct modals. The sentences included things like this:

I ………. REMEMBER TO call my mum later. It’s her birthday.

YOU ………. HAVE TOLD ME you needed a lift. I ………. HAVE been happy to drive you.


You paid three hundred pounds for that? YOU ………. BE MAD!


A couple of students got a fair number of these correct. I went through the answers, eliciting from the group and checking why they’d chosen the modals they had (when they were correct!) – in the hope that we’d start establishing some basic ground rules like “It’s a threat (about a possible future situation), so we use will” and “You must be mad – I’m 95% sure that you are!” As I was doing all of this, the students who’d done best often simply said that they knew because they’d heard these things said. One response was “I’ve often heard If I were you, I would . . . or If I were you, I wouldn’t . . . “.

This suggests that maybe we ought to be focusing slightly less on the rules (note that I’m NOT saying general principles of use aren’t needed!) and maybe slightly more on ensuring we point out some of the common sentence frames and chunks (shown in CAPITALS above) that certain items are often used with.

2 Perhaps receptive understanding is sometimes the best that we can hope for

In terms of productivity, much of what might be termed ‘advanced’ grammar remains but a distant dream for many students currently somewhere on the the Upper-Intermediate / B2 spectrum. These are students who can express themselves fairly well across a range of topics, but who still make lots of mistakes with so-called basic structures and who lack sufficient vocabulary to really be precise when making points. There’s clearly still much to be done in terms of bringing errors involving structures already repeatedly studied to their attention, and trying to make them more aware and self-reflexive in their monitoring of output. At the same time, though, you do also want to push on and expose them to new subtleties and features of the language.

Given this, I think we often have to accept that much grammar that’s currently slightly above the level our students are at will inevitably remain – at best – something that’s passively recognized and understood, rather than something we can realistically expect to hear produced. Grammar as some kind of passive ‘skill’ requires specific kinds of tasks, one that draw students towards certain structural features and force focus on how meanings shift as structures do.

The task we tried yesterday, when exploring modals, simply gave pairs of similar sentences and asked students to discuss the structural differences and the impact on meaning these have. Here are a couple of examples:

1a That MUST’VE HURT, having those teeth out.

1b His teeth MUST’VE really BEEN HURTING for him to actually go and see a dentist!



Perhaps the first step towards being able to one day produce such language is simply for students to recognize that 1a implies a long, ongoing ache whilst 1b talks about a completed, closed, contained, one-off pain, and that 2a means I’m sure he was ill (in the past) and that’s why he didn’t come, whereas 2b means I’m sure she’s not feeling well now. And of course, even if they can manage this, some of them may still never end up producing such utterances themselves.

3 A lot of the questions students ask about grammar exist in a context-free void!

Anyone who’s ever tried to teach grammar will have encountered questions that initially evade simple explanation. Two that came up yesterday were “What’s the difference between It can be and It could be? Is one more possible?” and “What’s the difference between It should be and It would be?” With questions like this, the temptation is to treat these amputated fragments of language as whole items and to try to explain the semantic difference between them. In other words, to lecture about supposed meaning.

I’d suggest that a far more useful way of handling these things is to expand outwards into contexts of use and to use these to clarify different usage. So for instance, yesterday I said something like this:

It can be is often used in sentences talking about things generally, or usually, so It can be hard finding a cheap place to live in London – as I’m sure you know, right? And you also know that learning a foreign language can be really frustrating sometimes, yeah? It could be is often used in fixed expressions, so for instance I’m not happy about the current situation, but it could be worse. At least I still have a job. It’s used when there are lots of different possibilities, so, you know, if your knee starts hurting, it could be because of lots of different reasons. It’s hard to be sure without examining you.

It should be? Well, imagine there’s a party tonight and you ask if I’m going, I’d say Yeah. I’m really looking forward to it. It should be good. It should be fun. I think it will be good. I think it will be fun. It would be is more like . . . Oh, you’re coming to London next month. If you have time, call me and we could meet. It’d be great to see you again. Or sometimes in more imaginary, hypothetical situations, so for example, personally I really hope the UK doesn’t leave the EU. If we did, it would be a disaster.

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5 Responses

  1. racheldaw18 says:

    Thanks for this post – I’m about to start my CELTA and, although I have a fairly sound knowledge of grammar in general (from an MFL degree), I am concerned I won’t be able to answer tricky questions about grammar, such as those you mention having faced.
    However, your suggestion to simply give examples is a good one, so thank you very much ๐Ÿ™‚
    Rachel Daw

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Rachel –
      Glad you found this helpful.
      Examples trump explanations most of the time, I find – and explanations are best kept short and sweet when given.

      Have a look at the other connected posts in this little mini series.

      I’m going to try and add one more this as well.

      Where are you doing your CELTA btw?

      • racheldaw18 says:

        I will indeed have a peruse of the rest of the posts in your mini-series, thanks! Although I need to knuckle down and make sure I finish my pre-course exercises that my school has set me and stop getting distracted by fascinating blog posts!
        I start on April 13th at the Berlin School of English, and can’t wait ๐Ÿ™‚

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