Grammar nonsense

Welcome to this teaser of grammar nonsense. It contains three new chapters that are a taste of what we cover in our more extended collection of rants and reflections on how the ELT industry views grammar and how it should be learnt and taught.

Grammar nonsense is a collective, industry-wide problem where each individual part of the ‘family’ -education systems and examiners, students, teachers, schools, and publishers can all reasonably point to someone else to justify their own (unhealthy) behaviour, which means breaking away from the nonsense can be pretty hard.


By Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley, Teacher Trainers and Authors | | Reprinted with permission

Grammar nonsense has essentially three strands: the first is the concept of grammar itself as being synonymous with language learning and therefore what needs to be taught and learnt; the second is the way we cut up grammar into rules and how the rules we give are nonsense when we look at real usage or when we consider  them from a student’s perspective; and finally, the third is the way we teach and practise grammar which leads to further absurdities or means that some useful areas of language just get left out of the syllabus.


The three chapters here give a bit of all three. We hope you like what you see and that it might tempt you to delve a bit deeper in Grammar Nonsense and What To Do about It.


Coursebooks, Level, And Grammar

Lies and denial

OK, let’s just come out and admit it: publishers, writers, teachers – virtually everyone in the ELT industry – we’re all liars! In publishing and in many schools, we’ve reduced the task of becoming a fluent speaker to the completion of six or seven levels. The basic idea is that if you complete the classes for Beginners, you can then move on to Elementary. Finish the Elementary book and you’re now officially Pre-intermediate… and so it goes on until, in a flash, you arrive at the giddy heights of C1(+)! If we follow the publishers’ logic that a coursebook provides between 80-120 hours of classroom material, then you, my friend, could be going from zero to hero in the space of just 540 hours. Put it in another way, if you study at your local language school for 25 hours a week, you could go from Beginner to Proficiency in less than six months!


This is, of course, a lie. It’s total nonsense! However, not content with this “inverted pyramid of piffle” (as our own congenital liar-in-chief Prime Minister Boris Johnson once said), we’ve taken that nonsense and distilled it into an even purer form of idiocy by insisting that we must construct our books in pretty much exactly the same way at each level, with each unit having the same allotted time spent on one particular grammar area.


This grammar area must be then practised in both controlled and productive ways – ideally whilst using a neatly selected set of vocabulary – regardless of how unlikely or useful it might be. Then we can do some other stuff like communicating, reading, and listening – so long as we have ‘done’ the grammar.


To be fair, rather than being liars, we could be said to be in a state of denial, or cognitive dissonance. We’re like those people in cults who predicted the end of the world in the year 2000, but then woke up to the shining sun and found ourselves still alive on the morning of January 1st. This is because of the fact that in ELT, we have understood for some time that there is an alternative way of looking at language and learning. Decades of corpus linguistics research have revealed that many of our cherished rules don’t stand up, and that vocabulary and grammar are far more inter-related and constraining than we used to think.


Putting our CEFR round peg in a square hole


Then we have the Common European Framework of Reference (the CEFR), which, rather than focus on presenting grammar rules, suggests we might like to base our teaching on what students actually want to do with the language they learn. Unfortunately, when exam boards and institutions started suggesting that CEFR can-do statements should drive our courses, many teachers treated the suggestion as if it were some kind of interplanetary visitor to earth – an awe-inspiring close encounter that they didn’t quite know what to make of.


What is this strange thing called ‘the can-do statement’? What can this ‘I can express opinions on abstract/cultural matters in a limited way’ possibly mean? What am I supposed to do in the classroom? Oh, screw it! Let’s just teach the present continuous and get them to describe what Mr Bean is doing in a video instead! And sadly, publishers have, to some extent, just gone along with these kinds of desires. It’s words with grammar, stupid


Essentially, the problem that the CEFR presents is that if you start with conversations as your goal for a lesson, then inevitably students will need firstly a greater variety of grammar than that which would be provided via a discrete presentation and practice, and secondly more vocabulary – especially vocabulary that falls outside of the still-favoured lexical sets. This reality can be seen when researchers start analysing what kind of language might actually be needed to fulfil certain can-do statements. Pearson have tried to do this with their Global Scale of English (GSE) and Cambridge with their Profile of English.


Now, there are problems with the way both the CEFR and these profiles of language are constructed in that they are at least partly drawn from what teachers think students should be able to do at each level – and this, in turn, is influenced by traditional (coursebook) thoughts on level. It all becomes a bit circular, really; but given that, the results above are actually all the more surprising.


What do they signify? Well, firstly that there’s a hell of a lot more ‘grammar’ than we generally study in our books… or at least, that seems to be the case. In fact, when you delve a bit deeper, you actually begin to wonder what the difference really is between vocabulary and grammar, but let’s leave that aside for a moment. Let’s focus instead on how those figures are distributed.


Basically, once you have reached the end of B1, your grammar work is pretty much done. Apparently, you need about six times more ‘grammar’ to get through the first three levels than to get through the next three. However, this is pretty much reversed when it comes to vocabulary. Getting through the next two levels essentially requires four times as many words as the previous three levels put together! It looks as if they might have given up on C2, as it would’ve meant recording thousands more words for little obvious reward.


Not following the science


I’d like to say publishers have been struggling with this conundrum, but… well, I think that would be a blatant lie terminological inexactitude. The structure of the average coursebook series simply does not reflect this. While lower levels – as we shall see in future chapters – are starved of examples of a wide range of the ‘grammar’ that students should have a basic grasp of by the end of B1, students are still tortured with grammar lessons at Advanced/C1 levels for no discernible reason. Never has so much time been expended for such little reward than on the niche grammar that is inversion. Additionally, these higher-level books end up trying to sting students with sixteen imaginary uses of perfect tenses, or they force (yet more) artificial practice of the past perfect continuous.


Now, I’m not saying that all coursebooks are crap, or that everything in them is either. As teachers, we can use them in ways that very adequately compensate for their deficiencies. But then again, they could be organized quite differently – even according to the publishers’ very own research! So why aren’t they? Why do we have what we have?


Well, there may be some pedagogic reasons. We’re not going to get students working with a third conditional before they can ask ‘What do you do?’ But the much bigger reason is simply “That’s what we’ve always done, and I can’t cope with the idea that it might actually be wrong!” This is literally how most courses are constructed these days: first look at what everyone else has done; do as much of that as you can – and then maybe do something a little bit different. Sometimes that’ll be good stuff like tasks and opportunities for real communication, but sometimes it’s basically just adding in a video component or an online workbook. It’s not exactly a recipe for radical change, is it? And that’s before you get into the craziness of what we actually tell students about so much grammar – honestly, you could write a book about that. Oh, wait. We have!


Grammar-Obsessed Teachers

But what about the children!

Let’s face it. Coursebooks aren’t entirely to blame. There are plenty of teachers who hold on to grammar in somewhat unhealthy ways. On my journey as a trainer, I have occasionally been asked, “But what about the students who are obsessed by grammar? What do you do about them if you’re not focusing on grammar?” This has always reminded me of the guy in the film Titanic who grabs a lost child so he can get on the lifeboat. ‘But what about the child?’ It’s not me who wants to teach the grammar – it’s my students. Can’t you see?


Of course, we can always blame students to justify our own grammar obsession and woes. They do exist, these grammar-obsessed students. Who hasn’t experienced that fateful question ‘Teacher, what is the difference between must, should, could, can, shall, will and would?’ asked like a stream of consciousness regurgitation of Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use.

My usual answer to this question is to say something like, ‘Well, we’ll be covering that later in the course, Hiro.’

But my first question to you today is, where did this question come from in the first place? And couldn’t we actually… ahem, educate students to focus on something different? Like, you know, actually be teachers!


Grammar as words and words with grammar


When you think about it, this particular question on modals is a bit of an odd one, because in most cases they have completely different meanings! It’s like asking what the difference is between a table and a chair! Notwithstanding the possibility that we can potentially use a table to sit on or a chair to balance our TV dinner on, these are basically completely different things, only confused in the rarest of instances.

So presumably the question comes from the fact that these modals have been taught together in a purely grammatical way as sharing certain features that will be familiar to any CELTA trainee – they’re all followed by an infinitive (or is that an infinitive without to? Hmm. Might have to leave that for another chapter!); they’re not inflected (no third person -s or -ed endings); they can’t be used with another auxiliary verb, etc.


I don’t want to say that we shouldn’t ever draw attention to these features, but surely this is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Really, we need to think of these modals as words first and worry far less about the supposedly ‘grammatical’ traps that students will naturally fall into – irrespective of whether we tell them about these features or not.


To be fair to the coursebooks I gave a kicking to in the last chapter, I think this particular question has nearly always come from Japanese students, which suggests to me some peculiarity in their syllabus and/or teaching materials of which I’m not fully aware. Few if any British-produced coursebooks would attempt to teach all of these modals together – except maybe at Advanced level (sigh!) – and all would contextualise their particular meanings. However, such books don’t get off scot-free, because they certainly don’t treat modals just as words either. You can see this by the fact that – with the exception of shall – all the modals are in the top 60 most common verbs in English (, and yet pretty much all of them except can/could are excluded from beginner courses and several – must, should, may, might – don’t generally appear until the Pre-intermediate level.

We might also have been able to add ‘would’ to this list, but in the perverse way our passed-down syllabus has been created, somewhere along the line it was accepted that students could learn ‘Would you like …?’ as a chunk; though not ‘Maybe you should’ or ‘I might’. It’s completely illogical! I mean, how is using should or could really more difficult than using the word think? Actually, now that I mention it, perhaps I think it’s more difficult! I mean, look at the different patterns associated with think:

  • I think so. (not I think)
  • I don’t think so.
  • Think of a number, any number! (not think with or about)
  • I’m thinking. (not I think)
  • I’m thinking of going to the cinema later. (not I think or I’m thinking on or I’m thinking to go)
  • I’ll think about it. (not I think about it)
  • I’ve thought of an idea. (not thinked)
  • I think it’s / he’s / they’re …..
  • I don’t think I can / she is ….. (not I think I can’t)
  • What do you think?
  • Don’t you think it’s / he’s / they’re …..?
  • When / How / Why do you think you can / it’ll / we should..?
  • I thought it would / was going to be ….. (not I thought it will)


If we are teaching grammar, we could just as justifiably have a section labelled think / don’t think as we could can / can’t, but we don’t.


Natural grammar should emerge


Actually, something like this was tried in Scott Thornbury’s book Natural Grammar. It’s an interesting book in that it looks at the patterns around individual words and the grammar that emerges from them. It’s good in that it tried to break down the kind of arbitrary division that exists between grammar and words. No, the solution here is not to turn more words into grammar, but instead to treat more grammar as words in the first instance. As good lexical teachers, we should do this whilst constantly giving fuller examples and drawing attention to surrounding patterns and grammar as we go along. Maybe at a certain point, we could draw together some of these common patterns in a similar way to Scott’s book, albeit in a simpler way.


How grammar might emerge


However, while the hardened grammar + words teacher will be happy to teach the word think, maybe with a translation, and not worry about the multitudinous ways in which students could use it grammatically incorrectly, these same teachers (and the coursebooks they favour) hold back on showing or translating other words and

grammar forms (the past simple / be going / must / have you been to [place], and so on).

What I’m talking about is literally just letting students see these words, not even actively encouraging their use. Why don’t these teachers do that? Well, usually because they say they don’t want their students to get confused or make mistakes that could become fossilized. Hello? Surely this is completely crazy somewhat contradictory.

And a dip into the details of all those Pearson GSE grammar items at B1 level that I mentioned in the last chapter reveals a similar ambiguity about what exactly is grammar and how it’s learnt. Here are three entries from the first page.


  • Can use ‘with’ to refer to the instrument or means of doing something.
  1. You can open the door with this key.
  2. Wash it with soap


  • Can form compound nouns from nouns plus other nouns and adjectives.
  1. credit card
  2. bookshelf
  3. DVD player
  4. Whiteboard


  • Can use a range of indefinite compound pronouns prefixed with ‘no-’.
  1. No-one knows you.
  2. There’s nothing to do.


So with the first example above, I’m thinking ‘How is this grammar?’ Surely it’s just another use of with, in the same way that we can have multiple meanings and uses of the word get. Does this mean ‘get’ is grammar too? Then we have compound nouns. OK, here I know there is a grammatical element. We can say there is a particular order to the individual parts of the words and a rule about where we would put a plural ‘s’. Still, when you look at the examples given, are you seriously telling me they have been formed and acquired grammatically? Surely students will have just learned them as words. And, of course, many coursebooks would indeed list compound nouns under vocabulary. The same is actually probably true of nothing and no-one; because the no- part is pronounced differently! Would we only introduce nothing after we have presented the grammar of ‘compound pronouns with no? I doubt it very much!


Don’t get me wrong – I think the examples above are good things to list in that they highlight the grammar students will systematically acquire through learning and using these things as vocabulary first. In essence, as I say, I would like to extend this to all grammar teaching, and sure, feel free to sometimes summarise and reinforce the rules connecting certain words after they’ve initially been learnt as words.


What’s utterly frustrating to me is the inconsistency of those grammar-obsessed teachers. publishers and materials. And that’s really not down to students! It comes from us. It’s learnt behaviour. And different models of teaching might lead students to pay attention more widely to how words are used and to ask somewhat different questions.


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