The big bad wolf of ESL: grammar


As a child, I remember outlining sentence after sentence in a hopeless mess of adjective phrases and adverbial clauses, finding myself placing words on random lines in the hope of maybe, just maybe, getting this one sentence correctly dissected.  At the same time, I remember believing that to dissect a sentence was to commit an injustice, taking the balanced beauty and meaning out of its wholeness by cutting it up into bits.  It wasn’t until my last year at the university when I learned about a whole new way of describing the sentence structure, using a structure more like trees – or roots of trees, depending on how one looks at the picture.


Suddenly, phrases and sentence structures became logically interconnected.  The inner balance of each sentence remained intact as I explored the finesses of phrases, clauses, and verb tenses.  And just for fun, I even took another grammar course to follow up.  Here is where I learned the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar.

Prescriptive grammar, in a manner of speaking, is first the rules, then the language.  Descriptive grammar works the other way around: first the language, then the rules.  To put it bluntly, if a native speaker of a language applies a certain structure to his sentences when speaking, then it’s correct, according to the linguist.  According to the grammarian, grammar is meant to teach “correct” language use, hence the jungle of grammatical rules often found in textbooks meant to teach people proper English.

When I start a new English course for teachers, I ask them what they remember about their own English lessons.  They often come up with one of two things: conjugating irregular verbs, or the nightmarish grammar, both of which they hated.  Fortunately, the method of teaching we focus on at my teacher college is the “Communicative approach”, a.k.a. the “Functional notional approach“.  The students still have to learn grammar, and learn how to teach it, but we focus on it differently: implicitly instead of explicitly.

With the functional notional approach, children are given example after example of how to use given vocabulary in a certain sentence structure.  An easy example might be: I walk to school.  I bike to school.  I fly to school.  (for that last example, the grammatical structure is correct even if the sentence isn’t entirely truthful)  With this series of examples, children learn to apply the simple present tense in a short sentence and will soon figure out how to say “I …. to school”, using verbs of their own choosing.

A more complicated example might be “On Wednesday, we have maths.” or “On Tuesday, we have gym.”  In this case, the child is learning to talk about when they have various subjects.  Once this sample structure has been learned, it won’t be long before the child can extrapolate this sentence to say things like “On Saturday, I play football” and the like.

The basis of the Functional notional approach is the concept of functions and notions.  Functions are language tasks, examples of things we might have to say in order to get things done.  Notions are concrete examples of how we might fulfill those functions. Notions can be further divided into fixed notions and variable notions.

For example, a function might be “order something at a restaurant.”  A sample notion might be “Excuse me, I’d like to order a pizza / some chips / a bowl of soup.”  Or easier: “I want pizza / chips / soup.”  The choice of notion depends, of course, on the level of the learners and what they can realistically handle.  The pizza, chips, and soup, are examples of variable notions because they are interchangeable within the sentence.  The rest of the sentence (e.g. “I’d like to order…”, “I want…”) is the fixed notion, and therein lies the implicit grammatical structure the learners are to figure out.

Is “I’d like to order…” always a fixed notion?  Of course not!  Each language lesson focuses on a given grammatical structure that is chosen based on the vocabulary being taught.  Vocabulary and grammar are interlinked.  This is most easily seen when learning about prepositions, as words such as “in, on, under, towards” only have meaning in relation to the nouns contained within its phrase (in the box, on the table, under the chair, towards the exit), but it just as true for many other parts of language.

By embedding the grammar into the way vocabulary is used, pupils learn to “feel” when a sentence is correct.  They learn to understand the rules of grammar even when they cannot explain them, but apply them instead without thinking.

Do pupils have to learn grammar?  By all means, yes!  BUT… do they have to learn it explicitly, and prescriptively?  I don’t think so.  Pupils have a natural way of picking up grammar and are perfectly capable of creating their own understanding of a language, given enough input.



  1. Hi Amy, absolutely in agreement with you. It’s a discussion we often have in bilingual education (where I teach). On the one hand we are teaching through immersion like in my English language art lessons. Here it is all about exposure to the language and learning to ‘feel’ the language. When promoting bilingual education it is always said that this is the best way to go, to learn like a native learns. At the same time we have to be cautious not to contradict ourselves when the pupils enter the English classroom by slipping back into an overly explicit grammar approach. Grammar is of course important, but as you suggest, it is way superior to feel the grammar rather try and apply some rather abstract rule to fix a sentence.


  2. I completely agree! Too many times I have had students wishing to know why a certain phrase is said like it is said or why something else isn’t correct. That’s fine….sometimes! But a lot of people put way too much emphasis on it. I honestly blame the school systems in a lot of countries, especially in Korea and Japan, who put way too much emphasis on grammar through their grammar-translation approach. Every new student I have to have conversations with about grammar and about speaking. I relate it to how they learned their own native language (Did you learn grammar before you started speaking?) and then they *sometimes* understand where I am coming from.


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