Rule breaking: Why teaching grammar rules doesn’t always work

I have been an EFL teacher for about four years now. In this time, I have had the privilege to teach a wide variety of learners, levels and needs, from 9–10 year-old beginners to 45 year-old advanced learners. I feel like “I’ve seen ‘em all.” I’ve also been pretty lucky to have been exposed to a variety of different approaches and materials: from the traditional classroom with trusted textbooks like English File to freelance “use any resource you want” one-to-one tutoring. This wide scope has afforded me a lot of experience when teaching students. One thing that has become clear is that teaching grammar through communication, and not through a series of rules, is often most effective!

Knowing the learning styles of students is important

Some students are intuitive – they naturally pick up language. In my experience this tends to be younger learners whose exposure to English is far more common with American pop culture reigning on a global level. Older learners, on the other hand, tend to be a little more methodical in their approach to learning. They want to know the rules – the hows and the whys of the language. That might also be an age thing, as younger people tend to just accept things how they are whereas older people want to know why! I endeavour always to be a flexible teacher, adapting to the needs of the student. No two students are ever the same, and no two lessons are either.

A language natural getting stuck on grammar rules

I must admit that I have a tendency to be a very Type A personality. I like rules and order and structure (just ask John). So, naturally, when I started teaching, I was the teacher who would give you all the grammar rules. This was mostly because I was learning them, too. I taught how I learnt. For the most part, I could fumble my way through a grammar lesson (unless you asked me a question that was an exception to the grammar rule – then I deferred to my life-saving teaching trick of “That’s a good question. Does anyone in the class know why it is like that?”).

It wasn’t until I started teaching a private student of mine, a very talented and bright 13 year old. They had a natural and intuitive feel for the language, but most lessons with her ended in disaster with me confusing her with grammar rules. She would start the lesson well and use present perfect “perfectly”, but by the end she would get so confused on how and when to use it. I would end up correcting and explaining more than she was talking. 

Taking the communicative approach to teach grammar

It was then I took a different approach with her. It’s traditionally known as the communicative approach, but I like to put my own spin on it, as I will explain below. I would ask the students questions related to the grammar point. Essentially, it is teaching grammar through communication that is natural.

For example, when teaching present perfect, I might ask “What is the best food you have ever eaten?” and they would answer. If they answered correctly, as in they answered using present perfect, I would move on to the next question. Otherwise, I might tweak their answer. After some time, I would then feed their answers back to them and see if they noticed any similarities or patterns. 

My hope is that they would see that they used the same construction in their answers as in my questions. I would then use concept checking questions (CCQ – thank you, CELTA) to see if they understood why they had used the language that way. For the example question above, a CCQ might be: 

  • “You said sushi is the best you have ever had. Do you think you will eat something else that is better in the future?” (student answers) 
  • “So, from the time you were born to now, that’s the best thing ever?” (student answers). 

The idea of this approach is to help students naturally see a pattern in the language and to produce, instead of getting weighed down by the rules of the language. This is most evident when teaching 3rd conditionals. When I see students attempt 3rd conditionals, it’s like I see them attempting to solve a math equation. “If, plus past perfect, add would, and then carry the present perfect…” Students get stuck on trying to get the equation right that the content of the structure doesn’t make much sense. Worse yet, most students forget what they were trying to say in the first place. 

Understanding grammar rules comes with practical use

Yes, there is a time and place to teach grammar rules, and I have had my fair share of students, like myself, who want RULES! However, I think a more natural approach to language learning is to experiment with the language – to use it freely. Teaching grammar through communication is a far more natural way of instilling the complexities of English to learners. If you notice a pattern, great! If you know why you’re using it, even better. Just don’t let your lack of knowledge of grammar rules stop you from using the language. 

I am an energetic English teacher with a specialized education (Master’s degree in education from Durham University). Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, I later studied in the USA and England, so I am very familiar with both American and British English. I have worked as an ESL teacher in Poland and Malta, and I know how to find an approach to students of different ages and temperaments, from shy teenagers to demanding company directors. I enjoy coaching and playing basketball and spending time with my (new) family!

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  1. Pingback: Rule breaking: Why “kids'” activities work for adults too | Sword Word Creative

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