Things I want my students to know about English – Part 2

In this second post in the series, I’d like to tackle the controversial issue of grammar and its place in English teaching/ learning.

2. Grammar is a powerful tool

Various animal species are known to use tools to make life easier. Sea otters carry stones in their pockets to smash shellfish and prise tasty marine creatures out of rocks. A community of crafty crows in Japan has developed an ingenious system of using urban traffic as a heavy-duty nutcracker.

Humans, meanwhile, have machines. Rather than just grabbing what’s close at hand and using it in its raw form, we’ve assembled natural and synthetic materials, using our capacity for longer-term thinking to design and develop highly complex labour-saving machinery. Those who study languages, meanwhile, have developed complex systems of describing a plethora of linguistic phenomena – and grammar, of course, is included in that plethora.

What is grammar, if not a kind of mental machine?

Take, for instance, the basics of present simple tense: positives, negatives, questions and answers.

  • Positive: subject + base verb + everything else
  • Negative: subject + don’t + base verb + everything else
  • Question: (question word) + do + base verb + everything else
  • Answer (to Y/N question): Yes + subject + do / No + subject + don’t

Once this machine is in place, students can generate a huge variety of sentences and questions, even have some kind of conversation (although not necessarily a very natural one). It’s a simple matter of feeding in subjects, verbs, and other things like objects and places, and cranking them through the machine, and you’re able to say quite a lot.

“Ah”, you might be thinking, “but what about the 3rd person inflection?” And it’s true, students can produce faulty sentences like “he go to the shop” or “When do she play golf?”. At this point – or better, before this point – it’s a matter of tweaking the grammar machine, bolting on some attachments to deal with the increased complexity of 3rd person forms.

Once the present simple machine is working well, it can be adapted further to handle past simple, which follows a very similar pattern. The other tenses can all be constructed as parallel machines, and passives and conditionals added. All of these take time to construct, but their usefulness in generating sentences far outweighs the effort in committing the grammar rules and procedures to memory.

With a more complex bit of grammar, things become more dicey: is it worth trying to build one big machine to tackle relative clauses, for example? Or break them into bitesize pieces and create lots of little machines?

  • Non-defining relative clauses e.g. My father, who was born in 1942, remembers the war.
  • Which-clauses e.g. She had lots of ideas for how to improve the website, which was great.
  • Subject non-defining relative clauses e.g. I’m looking for someone who can fix my roof.
  • Object non-defining relative clauses e.g. The person I spoke to yesterday was called Paul.
  • Where and when clauses e.g. Do you remember that text conversation when you said you were obsessed with penguins?
  • Reduced relative clauses e.g. That man standing by the entrance tried to steal my phone.

With these more messy pieces of grammar, I would tend to recommend the bitesize approach, at least initially. Revising all the relative clauses together also has its place, for instance before taking IELTS or another public exam.

Even then, it’s no secret that while some students get on well with machine-building, others find any kind of mechanistic grammar work a turn-off, and no amount of diagrams and timelines can convince them that this is a useful way to spend time. Whether it’s anti-grammar prejudice, grammar-phobia or a genuine inability to understand language in an algorithmic way, I’ve learned from my years of teaching experience that it’s a good idea to listen to such students and try to find another way!

Within English teaching as an industry, controversy rages over the usefulness of grammar teaching – and has been raging for decades. Back in the 1980s, the influential researcher Stephen Krashen contrasted knowledge (learning about language – including grammar) with acquisition (gaining the ability to use the language). Krashen hypothesised that rather than explicitly learning the rules of the language, it would be a better use of time for students to read and listen to comprehensible input, example texts at an appropriate level to slightly challenge the students.

Meanwhile, since before Krashen’s day, there have been numerous methods and trends in English teaching which have deliberately avoided explicit grammar instruction. One influential approach which persists until now is lexical teaching, which focuses on vocabulary instead of grammar. Proponents of the lexical approach have expanded the concept of vocabulary to include ‘chunks’ or word combinations more commonly thought of as grammar. For instance, Michael Lewis listed the following “archetypal utterances containing ‘ll“:

  • I’ll get it.
  • I’ll be in touch.
  • I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
  • I’ll see what I can do.
  • Take my word for it – you’ll regret it.
  • Be careful – you’ll make yourself ill.
  • It’ll be alright.
  • That’ll do.
  • That’ll be the day.
  • We’ll see.
  • (selectively quoted from Michael Lewis: The Lexical Approach, page 97. Published by LTP, 1993)

You’ll have noticed that this list covers future predictions and offers, often taught as grammar, as well as one idiom (“That’ll be the day”) and one possible use of will in the present (“That’ll do”). Lewis might have added several examples of habitual will too (“He’ll sometimes sit on emails for days before replying”).

I’ve chosen to mention the ideas of Krashen and Lewis here because I think they offer a useful commentary on the limits of grammar learning. Krashen reminds us that grammar is not language: too much focus on building shiny machines can give students a false sense of progress while leaving no time or energy for communicative, realistic use of the language. The lexical approach helps to create a model for studying useful chunks of language that don’t fit neatly into a grammatical pattern. Its reliance on chunks also helps to provide a more accessible route to some of the more complicated bits of grammar – for instance, passives or reported speech can be learned as phrases rather than as sets of rules.

There are other, more fundamental, objections to grammar, of course. Some of these come from students; others are often expressed by well-meaning teachers or indeed by course writers wanting to sell their revolutionary new book / website / app. I’d like to finish by offering an argument against some of these:

Objection #1: Language is about communication, not grammar rules

This is partly true: language is for communication, and with English there is no rulebook and no governing organisation. But grammar is intrinsic to the language, and often a necessary part of communication. Another influential author, Scott Thornbury, gives an excellent example of how a lack of grammar can get in the way of fluent conversation:

Native speaker: How long are you here for?
Learner: I am here since two weeks.
Native speaker: No, I mean, how long are you staying?
Learner: I am staying since two weeks.
(Scott Thornbury: How to Teach Grammar, page 4. Published by Pearson, 1999)

The learner here is trying to use the present simple to cover a situation that calls for present perfect. When the native speaker rephrases the question, resourcefully using present continuous to emphasise their intended meaning, the learner still fails to understand that this is a question about the total duration of the stay. It might still be possible for the native speaker to get the desired information (by asking “When will you go home? Next week? Tomorrow?”, for example), but it’s clear that communication is much slower and more difficult as a result of the learner’s lack of awareness of tenses.

Whether the grammar the learner needed for this type of conversation is to be learned explicitly or acquired (as Krashen suggests), it’s not accurate to imply that communication is something separate from grammar.

Objection #2: It’s not necessary to teach or learn grammar explicitly

Here we have the nub of Krashen’s theory: grammar teaching is not effective, and what’s needed is for students to acquire the ability to use grammar (and all the other parts of English) via an implicit mental process. From my standpoint as a teacher, this makes it very hard to help my students improve. If they lack explicit knowledge of grammar categories, it’s hard to talk in any meaningful way about errors such as this:

Teacher: Have you met your husband’s parents, Mila?
Student 1: Yes, I have, lots of times. They’re really nice.
Teacher: Good! And you, Carlos, have you met your girlfriend’s parents?
Student 2: Yes, I have met them for the first time three weeks ago.
Teacher: Mmmm….
Student 2: I have meet them?
Teacher: Okay, let’s look at that sentence. (etc.)

Being able to name and categorise grammar – or at least the more straightforward parts of grammar like past simple and present perfect tenses – cuts out a lot of potential confusion over what is needing correction and why. If the students know some grammar terminology, this can help to identify which machine is misfiring and to fix it with more efficiency.

Of course, Krashen has an answer to this, which is the Monitor Hypothesis: this is the notion that alongside language acquisition, students pick up the ability to ‘edit’ their own language to cut out errors. The obvious pitfall of this hypothesis is that students who make errors in class are already showing evidence that their internal monitor is not managing to fix things on its own – it’s my job, as teacher, to step in.

Objection #3: I want to speak fluently, not do grammar

This is a slightly different binary from #1: in this viewpoint, grammar is regarded as a part of writing, irrelevant to spoken English. Or, more likely, it is associated with the kind of soul-destroying lessons some students associate with school, in which stressed-out teachers handed out endless worksheets to keep the class endlessly occupied.

On the worksheet issue, I’d just say there are interesting ways to learn and internalise grammar – if you’re not sure what I mean, why not browse the lessons on this site? (I’ve linked to the C1 lessons but you’ll find lessons at every level).

I’d also point out that fluent speech involves grammar. It’s not hard to find examples that can be learned as a grammar item, including some which are specific to spoken English:

  • Question tags: “You went there a few years ago, didn’t you?”
  • Ellipsis: “You like going to watch the cricket, don’t you?” “No, but my wife does.”
  • Embedded questions: “Could I ask who you’re looking for?”
  • Word order: “Bit of a strange feeling, that was.”

Objection #4: Language is a living, growing thing, not a machine

This is the classic humanistic objection to the type of metaphor I’ve used here; this trope has been recast and repeated by Michael Lewis and many others.

And I agree wholeheartedly with this one. I’ve previously used the metaphor of a growing tree to represent the process of language learning; I much prefer to think of language development as a plant than to talk of “Threshold”, “Vantage” and the intermediate plateau as though English is a mountain to climb.

I certainly wouldn’t suggest that language, in its entirety, resembles a machine; that would be a horrible metaphor. The machine metaphor is itself a tool, no more than a potentially useful way to encapsulate some algorithmic aspects of English grammar, which I think are themselves useful to learn in an algorithmic way.

Let’s return to the sea otters: do they carry stones because of their intrinsic value as objects? Of course not – the stones help the otters to catch food, to live and to grow, to be stronger, more successful organisms. In an equivalent way, grammar is a tool to help the learner’s English to grow and flourish.

Grammar is a useful and powerful tool – but in the end it’s just a tool.

Main photo by christels on Pixabay.

To find out more about the lexical approach, this article by Leo Selivan is a good starting point.

For some analysis of spoken English, there’s this pdf from the Cambridge University website. I found it via Google so I’m not sure which book it’s from or who wrote it!


  1. Good post. For language acquisition, explicit grammar instruction is essential (or at least makes the process far more efficient). Yes, if you placed me in a Spanish-speaking country and I had no choice but to speak Spanish, I would eventually figure it out. But classes in Spanish would speed things up.
    Native speakers have learned a language’s grammar intuitively, so grammar instruction should focus on making the speaker aware of what they already know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Stefan. I agree with you about explicit learning of grammar; I can’t imagine learning a language to a high level without picking up some explicit awareness of the “rules” or algorithms that decide why we use *this* and not *that*.

      I think you summed it up nicely on your own site when you wrote that the purpose of grammar is to help us communicate, not to learn rules.


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