Posted by: carolread | March 12, 2010

G is for Grammar

Do you ever feel bugged by the perennial question: should we teach grammar or shouldn’t we?

Young children initially learn chunks of language, which combine vocabulary and grammar, in a holistic, unanalysed way. The learning of grammatical patterns is implicit, based on formulaic sequences and unanalysed chunks of language which are embedded in the context of lesson routines and activities, such as songs, rhymes, chants, stories and games. As children progress, they begin to transfer chunks to new contexts and to use them creatively. All this happens naturally, without any explicit reference to grammar or language analysis which, in any case, would be beyond the conceptual reach of young children.

This holistic learning of language chunks provides young children with a potentially rich, internal resource of language patterns as they grow older. It lays the foundations for developing a strong, intuitive feel for what is or isn’t correct. It also helps children later on when they are likely to be required to pay attention to specific grammatical features and apply more explicit analytical skills to the way they learn.

One of the key issues and challenges during the primary years is when to move beyond the implicit teaching-learning of language chunks to more explicit language awareness and analysis. Another is how to develop children’s understanding of aspects of grammar, in order to begin to systematise their knowledge and potentially enrich and extend the creative ways in which they are able to use language.

In terms of when, this is unlikely to be appropriate before somewhere between the ages of 8 -10 in most contexts and depends on a range of factors. Some of these are:

  • the cultural context, including attitudes and beliefs about language learning;
  • the educational context, including the way the curriculum and learning outcomes are specified;
  • the children’s L1, including the writing system, and how this compares to English;
  • the cognitive maturity and conceptual readiness of the children;
  • the level and the number of hours spent studying English;
  • the approach used in teaching L1 e.g. whether this includes explicit analysis of parts of speech and the use of metalanguage which may usefully be transferred to the learning of English;
  • the formal requirements of internal assessment procedures or external YLE exams.

In terms of how we teach grammar, we need to find concrete, rather than abstract, child-friendly, ‘hands on’ ways which naturally develop children’s interest and curiosity in how English ‘works’ and to use these as an integral part of building up their understanding of language meaning and developing language use. Whether learning holistically when younger, or developing more conscious language awareness and powers of analysis as they grow older, the most important thing we can do is to give children rich and varied exposure to language, as well as plenty of opportunities to practise, recycle, memorise, extend and experiment with language, in meaningful contexts and for relevant purposes, throughout the primary years.

Having said all that, there are no “right” answers and so … over to you!

It would be really interesting to hear your views and how you go about teaching grammar in your classes!

This posting is adapted from the introduction to grammar activities in 500 Activities in the Primary Classroom, Macmillan Education. The illustrations of grammar bugs are from Big bugs 3, Macmillan Education.


  1. I don’t really have any comments on “when” or “how”. I’ve observed that it also depends on classes and individall children and for me there’s no always working method. Usually, no matter how old the children are, a lot of movement, experimenting etc works best. But not always. I once had a group who loved doing grammar activities in workbooks.
    As for parents bugging about grammar and other teaching-learning issues (of course, all of the parents are experts here) what worked for me was a meeting with parents at the beginning of the school year when I said how children learn, what I was going to do and what I wasn’t, what result I anticipated and how they can help instead of discouraging their children. Usually worked quite well.

    • Hi Marta

      Many thanks for this and for all the useful and important points you make.

      I completely agree with you that the approach we adopt depends on individual classes and children and, although experimenting and moving around ‘works best’ for some, as you say this is not always the case. Your example of the group who loved doing grammar activities in their workbooks is very pertinent. For some children, especially ones who may be e.g. more analytical, or enjoy a more logical-deductive approach or working on their own, or feel shyer about speaking, it can really help them to feel secure knowing that there are ‘rules’ which they can successfully apply when doing grammar activities, and this can also lead to a sense of achievement and success. It does also depend on what the grammar activities themselves are like as to how engaging they are – as these can vary hugely from meaningless copying to meaningful activities in which a range of other cognitive skills, such as e.g. classifying or sequencing are also involved.

      Thank you so much also for raising the issue of “parents bugging about grammar”! I’m also very familiar with this from experience over the years and think your idea of having a meeting with parents at the start of the school year to explain how children learn, your philosophy and approach and how parents can help and support their children’s learning sounds great. If it’s not possible to have a meeting, another approach is to send a letter home outlining what you plan to do. This is something I like to do at the start of each term outlining the topics/language we’re going to be doing and how parents can help. It’s also great if there’s ever an opportunity to invite parents into your classroom to watch a lesson or, if you can, to film one and show them on DVD. Very often parents only have their own (often not very positive) memories of language lessons from school to go on and it can help hugely if they have an opportunity to see and appreciate how you may be doing things differently!

  2. I totally agree that grammar instruction needs to be holistic and contextualized. I teach a self-contained beginner-intermediate ESL fifth grade. I try to incorporate grammar learning within shared reading and read aloud lessons.

    Our school is part of a pilot approach to teaching grammar referred to as “Juicy Sentences” – it’s developed by Dr. Lily Wong-Fillmore, and has been very successful in improving how our students think about complex sentences, such as those using tier 2 words, or that use clauses. There’s a lot to it, but basically, you’d read an on-grade-level text in shared reading. Day 1, you do some word play, Day 2, take apart a juicy sentence that holds the essence of the text, and then use the structure to create a sentence frame for students to use in their writing. Then, Day 3, you re-read it and they discuss and jot down their now-deeper understandings.

    For example, we did: Previously…. but after ….. I/they/we realized…. The sentence was from an article on Dinosaur poop (no kidding) and I think it had said something like, “Previously, scientists believed dinosaurs swallowed the bones whole without chewing, but after examining the coprolite, they realized they crushed mouthfuls of flesh and bones.”
    That’s it, super-condensed 🙂 It’s a lot of fun.

    • Hi there

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and describing the ‘Juicy Sentences’ approach to teaching grammar. This sounds a wonderful way of building on a shared reading approach and leading the children through various stages of reflection and analysis which then enables them to use the structure of the sentences creatively as a template or model for their own writing.

      I love the way that this approach to grammar grows out of what the children are doing anyway, i.e. sharing a text, rather than being artificially imposed on the lesson. I tend to think that it usually helps when we embed any focus on grammar as a natural part of lessons in the way you describe. Your example sentence is also at a pretty amazing level of complexity (at least compared to what I’m used to) and I can imagine the sense of achievement and positive self-esteem when children feel they can use sentence structures like this in their own writing.

      I’ve read several articles by Dr, Lily Wong-Fillmore in particular about children developing communicative strategies in immersion situations but it would be great if you have a reference to learn more about her work on “Juicy Sentences”. Many thanks!

  3. […] – Grammar in Context March 13, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments In “ G is for Grammar“, at the ABC of Teaching Children blog, Carol Read offers an engaging post about teaching […]

  4. […] – Grammar in Context March 13, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments In “ G is for Grammar“, at the ABC of Teaching Children blog, Carol Read offers an engaging post about teaching […]

  5. Carol!

    You raised a very important question to which, I’m afraid, I haven’t found an answer yet.

    Typically, teachers don’t really have the choice to decide when to introduce grammar – it’s the principal or the Ministry of Education who chose the books we have to use. And that causes a problem.

    Usually in grade 4 some students slowly lose their enthusiasm and don’t like English any more. Why? Because after years of fun, songs and learning English in chunks they have to learn Present Simple/ Continuous and so on. Grade 3/4 transition is a huge shock for them and many students can’t handle it. It’s sad to look into children’s eyes and see disappointment.

    I guess the solution lies in the course books – they should be written in a different way to make the transition stage easier for the kids.

    What do you think? 🙂

    • Hi Anita

      Thanks very much for your contribution which raises so many interesting – and at times also rather depressing – issues.

      You’re so right that many (most) teachers don’t have the choice about when to introduce grammar or the books that they use. I also completely agree with what you say about the moment that very often comes when children are expected to learn tenses etc. and suddenly it’s no fun learning English any more. I guess that the timing of this varies in different contexts – it may be as early as grade 3/ 4, as you say, or in my experience very often a year or two later when they move up to secondary school – when not only does the methodological approach completely change, but they’re also very often expected to start learning all over again from the beginning – another potentially extremely de-motivating factor.

      I agree with you that part of the solution lies in course books and that the transition from implicit active learning of language through stories, songs, games etc to introducing language awareness and the beginnings of a more formal approach needs to be introduced gradually and handled sensitively and progressively, and in a way that is also in tune with children’s cognitive development. Another part of the solution also seems to me to lie in opening up greater dialogue between teachers in the primary and secondary schools – something that many people have long recognized is needed but in reality still rarely happens. I also believe that when we’re teaching upper primary we have a responsibility to prepare children for the more formal approach they will encounter in secondary school (whether we agree with this or not) and that we would be letting the children down if we did not sensitize and get them ready to be able to cope with this.

  6. Dear Madam,

    Few decades ago, teachers used the deductive method to teach English Grammar (English was the second language). I too learnt grammar in the same way. Grammar was religiously studied in those days. Wren and Martin’s ‘High School Grammar and Composition’ had the pride of place in every teachers and students collection.
    We were drilled in parts of speech, and the different grammatical patterns of sentences. Grammar classes were like surgery hours. The teacher used to cut a sentence, separate the parts, and teach the rules of grammar. Thus, a clear analysis and operation was performed. This method helped us to score good marks in the examination.
    The testing of grammar in the examination was done through exercises or questions like ‘Filling the appropriate form of the verb in the blanks, Filling the appropriate form of the Non-Finite in the blanks, Changing the voice, Combining the sentence with a sentence connector’. But the method has completely changed in these days. Now, we are supposed to teach grammar from the contexts. The text is used as a springboard for a number of grammar activities. Grammar is derived from the text and the context. Even though we teach grammar through the text or context nowadays, I think it is also important to teach them the Grammar rules. I would like to know your opinion in this regard, Madam.

    With highest regards,

    • Dear Suresh

      Many thanks for this great contribution which show so wonderfully well how true it is that there are no ‘right answers’ when it comes to teaching grammar – at least with older students who are able to deal with the abstract concepts involved.

      I love your description of the ‘surgery hours’ and the way that this approach helped you to score good marks in exams – and also of course have an impressively accurate use of English grammar later on. I think that it probably still is the case that this kind of approach can help when it comes to preparing students to take exams, as many of the testing techniques that you describe are still very much alive and well today – albeit perhaps dressed up in a slightly more contextualized form. I also know from my own experience of learning another language that it’s these kinds of ‘surgery hours’ that I actually very often want and need. Despite living in Spain for over 20 years, for example, I could still do with a good few ‘surgery hours’ on the use of the subjunctive in Spanish! I also know that when I’ve had to prepare older students for exams that it helps them to be able to analyze the parts in order to be able to unpick the puzzle of test questions such as, for example, predicting and/or deducing what comes in the next gap.

      With regard to grammar rules, I completely agree with you that it is important to teach them (although again with the proviso that learners have the cognitive maturity to be able to grasp them) even if they are only partial, interlanguage rules and not absolute ones. For many learners, I think it can provide a huge sense of security and relief knowing that they’re not just drowning in a sea of language and that there are rules they can apply. If these arise from the context in which learners meet the language then the knowledge of such rules can also feel useful and relevant. Although knowing a rule is very different from being able to apply it, anything we can do which may help our learners cope with the challenge of being able to use English grammar accurately is worth a try.

      Many thanks again for introducing this perspective on the discussion.

  7. I really find tricky this moment where grammar becomes explicit, even though you try hard to explain all the rules and you set hundreds of examples, when they have to produce the language using the grammar structure you have already explained, they keep failing. I personally think that as they can´t see the meaning of this structure, they don´t realise that they are making a mistake.

    It is also difficult to achieve that learners use what they learn in each unit in different situations that you give them. Although you give them the correct context to use a specific grammar structure they know, they will get lost and try to use what they are studying at the moment. That´s why I think that recycling all we learn in different meaningful contexts and as many times as we can is the key to give meaning to these strange rules we give them.

    • Hi there

      Thank you very much for these insightful thoughts. I completely agree with you that the cross-over moment from implicit to explicit is extremely “tricky”, and I think this is mainly because it varies for every individual child. However, as teachers of classes with 25-30 children or more, we have to plunge in and start somewhere as we don’t usually have the luxury of being able to adopt a highly individualised approach.

      I understand and share your experience of frustration when explaining rules, giving hundreds of examples, setting up an appropriate context etc. and children can’t immediately or automatically apply any of what has seemed so clear (to us at least) to their own performance. I think you’re right that it’s very often because they can’t conceptually grasp the meaning – or the point, and that it’s a very gradual process from awareness and ‘noticing’ features of language to ‘proceduralising’ them and being able to incorporate them naturally as part of their language repertoire. For some children explanations and examples to follow and apply may help, therefore can be valid but is certainly not sufficient on its own.

      All this makes me completely agree with your conclusion:

      “That´s why I think that recycling all we learn in different meaningful contexts and as many times as we can is the key to give meaning to these strange rules we give them.”

      Thanks for putting this so well!


%d bloggers like this: