Long live grammar teaching (or ‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’)

In the last 20 years, repeated messages in the literature about communicative and task-based approaches, and the uptake of these approaches in contemporary coursebooks, may have created the impression that a ‘modern’ approach to grammar teaching is now a universal norm. This is, though, rather fanciful. My suspicion is that in many classrooms around the world, grammar remains the driving force and the way it is taught has changed very little over the years. Even where teachers have modernised their approach to other areas of language teaching, such as reading or speaking, grammar has often remained impervious to change.

Let’s look at some examples. I recently spoke to some teachers who had completed a four-week methodology course which emphasised learner-centred, communicative and interactive strategies for language teaching. A few weeks after the course, the teachers explained that these ideas were influencing their lessons: for example, they were making more use of pair and group work, being less direct and more selective in their correction of spoken errors, and general trying to make lessons more enjoyable for the students. However, they also agreed that how they teach grammar – which as one them told me was ‘I explain to my students the grammar rules and then we do grammar exercises and different tests’ – had not really changed. Here’s a summary of a lesson plan from a teacher in this group which illustrates this approach in more detail.

The lesson aimed to help students learn the difference between the present perfect continuous and simple. The steps were: (a) Teacher presents the grammar, establishes the names of the verb forms and writes these on the board; (b) Teacher asks the students to use the grammar to describe the pictures on the board; (c) Teacher gives further explanations and writes detailed notes about each verb form on the board; (d) Teacher asks concept questions, for example, ‘Which of the 2 sentences is in the perfect simple and why?’; (e) Students complete a series of written and spoken activities individually, in pairs and in groups; (f) Students complete a translation exercise from their own language into English.

Here’s a second example from a different country (this also happens to be about the present perfect). In this case the students had to complete a gap-fill exercise by writing in the correct form of the given verbs. Here’s an example of the work one student produced:


In the light of arguments about the importance of teaching grammar in context, my reaction as I read these examples was to try to imagine situations in real life where such utterances might occur. I did eventually come up with some, but it does take some imagination. In the context where this example was used (and in many others I am sure) students are fed a steady diet of such gap-fills. I am not saying there is no place for such exercises; what I am saying is that they are over-used and that teachers are often unable to provide a clear rationale for them.

Here’s one final example. Have a look and think about it – my comments are below.


Once again, grammar is being practised without any larger meaningful context. But it was the first example that caught my attention. The saying is ‘the show is not [or it ain’t) over until the fat lady sings’ but in this case the teacher’s sole concern was that students write a third-person singular verb – anything – jumps, dies, flies or groans – would have been marked correct. This is such a great example of an exclusive focus on grammar without any concern for meaning or even lexis.

So the point, then, is that despite everything that has been said and written to transform English lessons around the world, conventional approaches to the teaching of grammar have proven very resilient. Here are some reasons for this, in no particular order. I’d be interested to hear whether these resonate in your context, if there are other factors you can add, and, of course, of you disagree:

  • Curricula and assessment systems where substantial weight is given to discrete knowledge of grammar
  • The widespread availability of grammar practice materials (online and in language practice books)
  • Convenience, as grammar exercises are easy to administer and quick to mark
  • Identity, for teachers who feel that being able to explain grammar is the hallmark of a competent language teacher
  • Educational systems where effective teaching is seen to be a process of transmitting knowledge
  • Lack of alternative models, which means that teachers often teach the way they were taught
  • The belief that learning a language means learning grammar
  • Classroom management – grammar exercises keep students busy and quiet
  • Security, where teachers stick to what they feel they know best
  • Lack of training to support changes in how grammar can be taught.

As always I look forward to your comments.

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