Teaching grammar: research, theory and practice

September 20, 2014

Seminar Review: Penny Ur

By Jean Richter

The turnout was great for Penny’s talk after lunch. I thought that, although it was like a lecture (ie. Penny stood at the front and talked) she managed to captivate us from beginning to end. Penny’s power point slides are on the website – but I’ll do my best to summarise the event for you all.

Recent changes in English grammar is evident through the study of corpora in the last 2 generations:

Rise in use of present progressive, especially in USA, including use of stative verbs (I’m lovin’ it!), with future meaning and for explanations. But simple form is still in wider use.

Decrease in use of “must” (down 55% between 1960 and 2000). Mostly now used to express logical necessity (They must be ready by now!).

Decrease in use of “shall” – being replaced by “will”.

So what grammar should we be teaching?

“Correct” grammar in accordance with our books? “Acceptable” grammar that is widely understood and in use by most fluent speakers or English?

She go … or She goes …?

Although context (and therefore appropriateness) is always important – the consensus is for “She goes”. Corpus reflects that 3rd person s should be taught. The general view was that we should teach a good standard of English. “The most important grammatical forms to teach are those that will affect communication”.

How important is accuracy?

Our goal as teachers should be implicit knowledge of grammar for our students. But because of L1 interference we need to teach explicitly.

Students need to be ready to learn certain grammars. We need to think about the order in which we teach items in order for the learning to be effective. But it’s great to recycle stuff. Members of a class will be ready to learn items at different stages. Research shows that explicit grammar teaching leads to better understanding of structures.

But also important to teach grammar through meaningful communicative language use.

One order of teaching grammar:

  1. Explanation
  2. Corrective feedback
  3. Learning by heart, language play
  4. Focus on form
  5. Practice

There was a brief discussion of the use of L1 one in the classroom. Many of us use it to explain and contrast.

Types of corrections:

  • Recast
  • Eliciting
  • Clarification request
  • Metalinguistic feedback
  • Explicit correction (No, that’s wrong)
  • Repetition

(I can’t remember what “recast” or “metalinguistic” were – can someone explain? A message on the ning would be great)

The right moment to correct is as important as the correction itself. We also need to keep in mind how important a given error is. But when students are made aware of a mistake it’s important that they go through an interaction with it in order for it to be effective. At the end of the day – know your students and keep the overall aim of the lesson in mind. Research shows that learners want to be corrected.

(see a survey of childrens’ views on corrections on the slides. Very interesting!)

Some ways of learning by heart/language play:

  • Jazz chants (google: jazz chants/graham)
  • Dialogues (implicit learning)
  • Rhymes
  • Proverbs and idioms
  • Plays and sketches
  • Songs

The above are great because they involve play. (see slides for examples of above).

Focus on Form – planned or spontaneous?

Good to plan how and when (what part of the lesson) you are going to focus on the form. But the basis of a lesson is a communicative task – good if teacher takes “time out” during the lesson to focus on errors.

This could be based on:

  • Student’s question
  • Error correction
  • Something the teacher noticed

Correction phases can be planned or spontaneous. They should also be meaningful (see slides for some nice examples of lesson activities and exercises).

Grammar practice? Mechanical or meaningful?

Good if students are made to think about and find solutions to a given task/situation (see slides for activities and exercises).

E.g. Lina can’t find her keys. (lost).

Here students decide what happened (e.g. She’s lost them. /Her kids lost them).

E.g. Think of situations that would produce these reactions (use present perfect):

Oh dear! Wonderful! What a pity. (see slides for more)

A task in a grammar lesson should be meaningful and communicative for it to be effective.

phew! Time for a break and a breather before the next session.

English as an International Language

Again – slides are available for us all – but I’ve picked out some points that I think you’d be interested in from Penny’s fascinating talk (I am very happy to hear feedback and if you think I’ve missed out essential aspects).

English as an international language or as a lingua franca.

There is a huge increase in literature on this. (Try “googling” the phrases)

In academic circles also increasing interest. The vast majority of people who speak/use English do so as a second language. Mostly for work related reasons. People use English not like when we learn French or Spanish. We can liken learning English today with learning computer skills. It has little to do with wanting to travel in English speaking countries or wanting to know about the cultures (like when we learn French for e.g.). Most people who use English are located outside of the traditional English speaking countries (e.g. Canada). It’s use is intra- and international in the fields of tourism, academia, business, entertainment etc.

Is English fragmenting or unifying?


There is an “increase in the number of local ‘Englishes’, side by side with a generally comprehensible ‘standard’ variety.

Many (most?) English speakers speak two varieties.

People who use English as an international language are typically native or non-native; bi-lingual or bi-dialectical; skilled in communication and comprehension stragegies.

They usually have a wide vocabulary, accurate grammar and are easily understood by native and non-native users of English.

It might be more useful to define English speakers more in terms of level of competence rather than where they live (see slides for details of kachru/3 circles).

The implications for us as English teachers

What models do we have/use – the options:

  • Mainstream native (e.g. American or British)
  • Diverse varied models
  • A world standard model

The native model has various disadvantages e.g. not being widely understood and therefore not appropriate for an international context.

There is a trend towards a recognition of a worldwide model of English which takes into account the diversity of its users – and away from a prescriptive model.

The problems with this for us teachers is that such an English is hard to teach and hard to assess because it is not based on only one standard model.

There is a call for a World Standard English (WSE) which has limited room for such things as idiomatic expressions and is based on a combination of native varieties.

Examples of local items that do not work so well on the international stage are:

fortnight (only UK)



aluminum (spelling!)

(see slides for more examples)

There are disagreements between post-modern thinkers and people who lean towards a standardisation of English. However, some kind of standard is needed and one that allows for (necessary) diversity.

At present US and British English reference books provide a code. But a different code is possible – see the Corpus of Global Web-based English

A wiki

A wiki could invite a large number of contributors and could provide a guide that is readily available to teachers and learners.

If we adopt such a standard how rigidly do we use it in the classroom? Good to teach a “conventional” standard and provide clear models for the basis of tests and classroom discourse. But outside the classroom …? Again it is important to raise students’ awareness of appropriateness.

Is International English “culture free”?

Yes, to some extent. It expresses the identity and culture of a wide variety of users. English needs to be able to reflect the culture and identity of the user (see slides for details). Intercultural competence is a key skill to have.

Teachers – non-native or native?

Many students still prefer a native speaking teacher. But non-native teachers of English are increasingly providing good role models. They have the advantage of providing a model of a high standard and fully proficient English as being achievable (as opposed to a native level – which is hard to achieve for learners).

See slides for more details – but that’s all from me for now.