The Grammar Jungle

Once again, I’ve been inspired to write a blog post by one of Scott Thornbury’s brilliant alphabet-soup essays. Specifically, I read his recent “R for Rules” and its refreshing point of view that using grammar terminology may not be the most effective way to get learners of English to understand and use proper grammatical forms of the language. It greatly comforted me in what I have often thought was my singular aversion to a rules-and-terminology approach to English grammar.

The topic is one close to my heart, as I grew up with the paradox of excelling in all aspects of English as a subject except – to the great frustration of both my teachers and parents — for any quiz or test question where I was asked to indicate or reproduce what were, to me, totally opaque references to “past participles” or “present subjunctives.” When given a sample sentence using the form, or having to fill in gaps in sentences requiring the correct forms, I had no trouble at all. My issue was with the terminology itself, which I was totally unable to retain and for which I could see no evidence of any possible utility later on in life (no adult I had ever met, except my English teacher, had ever uttered any of these terms).

So I was quick to take the tale of Scott’s Spanish teenagers on that bus as welcome evidence that the ineffectiveness of a rules-oriented approach to grammar, and of using grammar terminology in particular, is rather more of an issue than most of us might appreciate. How many native speakers of English, after all, would – if questioned on the street – be able to produce a sample sentence using something called the “present perfect indicative” form? I don’t recommend carrying out such a survey in your average pub on a Friday night. Yet almost every native English speaker uses the correct forms of the language every day without knowing what they are called nor the formal rules that govern their usages.

So why do we expect learners of English to spout terminology and rules that native speakers don’t attempt to learn or, even if forced to learn at some unhappy point of their childhood education, promptly forget? Many ESL and EFL teachers, in fact, freely admit that the first time they actively studied grammatical rules and tried to retain them was in training for a TEFL or TESOL qualification.

My first TEFL teacher was of the opinion that there’s no way to explain grammar using grammar terminology that doesn’t confuse the issue for the learner more than it clarifies it. The confusion, I’m convinced, can be similar to that produced in some students with no trouble in doing basic mathematics until words like “integer,” “denominator” and “factor” are thrown at them. They know what those things are there for, of course, but having to remember the technical names for them ultimately distracts from their ability to do the equations and often introduces a level of anxiety about the general subject that was totally absent until then.

So what’s the alternative to teaching English grammar using rules and grammar terminology? I’m no expert on the subject, as must be clear by now, but logically I would volunteer that an alternative approach would certainly include (1) lots of input, so that learners develop an “ear” for correct forms depending on the communication task just the way a small child starts to understand the difference between “I want” and “I’d like to have”, without having a rule book to explain the difference; (2) teaching grammar inductively, so that learners can absorb the logic of the forms not abstractly, but actually employed in context, with all the other language and situation information and cues buzzing around it, and learning from mistakes; and finally (3) employing simpler terms –everyday language that doesn’t obfuscate the issue — to explain the grammatical principle at hand. This last item is by no means an easy one to carry off, by the way. Explanations using everyday language often end up seeming verbose and pedantic compared to the seemingly clinical precision of a grammatical terminology-laden statement of rule. But they are, in my view, much more learner-friendly.

We’ve tried to adopt such an approach with English Attack! in the “Grammar Jungle” section of our Video Boosters (short movie clips enriched with a series of language exercises), where we focus on a single passage or phrase from the transcript of the video and attempt to explain, avoiding all use of grammar terminology, why that particular form was used. We then drill the point home via a choice of exercises (fill the gap, multiple choice, correct/incorrect, matching pairs) in which the learner is asked to use to illustrated form correctly. It’s not an exact science, and sometimes our layman’s language explanations can seem to use a half-dozen words where a simple “modal” or “subjunctive” might have done. But we’re firm believers in a less terminology driven approach to learning English grammar, and the great majority of our 18,000 Beta testers around the world seem happy with our approach. Let’s hope that we are on to something and that experts better qualified than we can actually start to codify English language usage into a “common sense, simple words” framework that all teachers of English can switch to at some point.

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3 Responses to The Grammar Jungle

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Grammar Jungle | English Attack! Entertainment English Blog --

  2. Sevo Slade says:

    Amen. I think that grammar terminology, and grammar in general the way it is explained in textbooks, is precisely the point at which the MEGO effect (“My Eyes Glaze Over” ) takes hold of my students.

  3. kalamworld says:

    This is a great site. Good interface and very informative articles. I will be coming back soon, thanks for the great article.

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