Teaching Grammar as a Process

As an ELT professional and author in Brazil, I am well known as a Lexical Approach evangelist. I know some of you out there do not take the Lexical Approach as an approach. You may think it is only a series of techniques for teaching vocabulary: collocations, phrasal verbs, idioms, fixed sentences, semi fixed sentences and so on.

Whenever I run lectures and workshops about this approach for English language teachers in Brazil, there are three questions that always come up:

“What about the grammar?”
“Where’s grammar?”
“How can we teach grammar lexically?”

Teaching Grammar as a Process

The first question can be read as “What is grammar?”. So, the simple answer here is: grammar is “the set of rules that describe the structure of a language and control the way that sentences are formed” (Macmillan Dictionary Online).

Grammar seen as the set of rules which control the language can be easily found in a grammar book. Taking that definition, we can say grammar is a thing. Michael Swan, the author of Practical English Usage, is one of those grammar authors who tells us that grammar seen as rules is just a thing, an object, some inanimate stuff.

Diane Larse-Freeman, a well-know American ELT author, in her “Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring” raised the issue that grammar is actually a process and not a thing. She named the idea of grammar as a process “grammaring”. Grammaring is an action happening all the time and not an inanimate object to be unnaturally stuck to mind.

Scott Thornbury also wrote about grammar as a process. In Uncovering Grammar, he writes, “when we use language in real communications, grammar manifests itself in ways that seem to have little to do with the conscious application of these linguistic facts”. By “linguistic facts”, he refers to rules and language terminology.

Having said that, we have to understand that in the Lexical Approach – whether an approach or not is not the case here – grammar is not taken as a thing to be taught. Actually, grammar is a process. As such, grammar has to be acquired naturally and not through the mechanical memorization of rules and technical words (terminology, metalanguage).

Then, this all leads us to the second question: where’s grammar? If grammar is a process, where is it?

Grammar as a process is inside the vocabulary. Grammar as a process is wherever the language is being used. Grammar as a process is everywhere. Let me give you an example.

When a learner meets the sentence “Have you ever been to London?”, the grammar as a process is present in that sentence. The problem is that most teachers and learners are used to seeing grammar as a thing. Questions such as “why is the present perfect here?”, “how can we use the present perfect”, “what’s the present perfect?” show us they really see grammar as a thing. So, they go to grammar books, they do grammar activities, they analyze the rules so as to learn about the present perfect.

Grammar as a process is always inside a sentence and teachers have to teach the process not the thing. There we go to the third question: How can we teach grammar lexically? Or rather, how can we teach grammar as a process?

Teaching grammar as a process is a very simple thing to do. All you have to do is to show the most important part in a sentence and tell learners to learn it without worrying about terminology and rules. What I suggest teachers do is:

  1. Write the main part of a sentence (chunk) on the board (Have you ever been to…?);
  2. Tell learners what it means and how to use it in appropriate contexts; the learners’ native language can be used if necessary;
  3. Write more examples with the sentence (chunk) chosen;
  4. Teach them the correct pronunciation, intonation and ask them to repeat;
  5. From time to time, do something to remember the whole chunk

Teaching grammar as a process is more fun than teaching it as a thing. All you need to do is to change the way you see the language you teach, mainly the way you define grammar. Once you learn that there are different ways to see grammar, you will definitely get the point of teaching grammar as a process and not as a thing.

Denilso de Lima

Denilso de Lima is an experienced writer and teacher educator. He is the author of “Inglês na Ponta da Língua”, “Gramática de Uso da Língua Inglesa”, and “Combinando Palavras em Inglês”. His website – inglesnapontadalingua.com.br – is a number-one website on English language tips in Brazil. Denilso is fascinated by formulaic language, corpus linguistics and spoken fluency development. Like his Facebook fanpage on facebook.com/inglesnapontadalingua

  • Denise Eugenia Paulo da silva
    Posted at 09:50h, 26 fevereiro Responder

    O seu. Texto, Denilso, mostra e informa de forma bem objetiva the way we should teach if taking grammar as a process.

    Again cultura Inglesa is open to a training.

    Fridays are the best for us.Could it be now onthe 7th?How much?



    • Denilso de Lima
      Denilso de Lima
      Posted at 12:27h, 26 fevereiro Responder

      Hey, Denise! Thanks for the comment. I’ll give you a call and let’s talk about this training. I guess this is not the place to talk business. LOL

  • Luiz Otávio Barros
    Luiz Otávio Barros
    Posted at 14:50h, 26 fevereiro Responder

    Hi, Denilso
    I enjoyed reading this piece, especially because I’m also very much in favor of chunk-based teaching – though I’m not the sort of – in your words – evangelist that you are. I strongly believe in classroom processes that enable students to move from lexis to grammar, from sysnthesis to analysis, from chunking to breaking down, from wholes to parts. Time and again I have had the experience of teaching something grammatically first and then lexically just to realize that the opposite might have been more time-effective and perhaps less at odds with naturalistic acquisitional processes. (as I’ve argued here: https://www.luizotaviobarros.com/2011/01/difference-grammar-lexis.html).

    Plus, there are all the issues surrounding the “nova classe média” in Brazil that we’ve talked about and the extent to which a syllabus which is more lexically rich might meet their needs more closely.

    Two things, though:

    1. Am I right in assuming that you would agree that not all grammar can be taught only via chunking? So, for the sake of example, say you want to enable students to hypothesize about the past using had + participle / would have + participle. You could, for example, begin by presnting and practcing a chunk like: “I wouldn’t have gotten this far without your help / if you hadn’t helped me” (function: expressing gratitude) or “If I’d been in her shoes, I would’ve done X” (function: criticizing past actions). So far so good. At one point, though, shouldn’t we begin to show students how they can play around with the different elements to create new sentences? And this is where things begin to get more complicated, wouldn’t you agree? In the Have you ever…? example you used, the lexis – grammar transition is relatively easy, because all they have to do is replace the past participle verb by something of their choice. In the third conditional example, however, moving from chunk (noticing / initial drilling and use) to grammar (analysis / manipulative practice if applicable / creating novel utterances) will require, I think, a different kind of teacher intervention – a different process, if you will. Which brings me to my second point. Anyway, we’re probably on the same page here.

    2. As I tried to wrap my head around the way you used the word “process” in your post, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Thornbury and Freeman meant something slightly different – and conceputally broader. To my mind, the “chunkier” a piece of language is, the easier it becomes to give it some sort of functional, “get stuff done” label. So, in that sense, wouldn’t you agree that it’s perfectly possible to teach a grammar lesson without an easily-discernible functional element and still try to reproduce natural acquisitional processes in class? I don’t know, maybe a materials-light lesson which, at some point, creates the need for the past continuous. The student wants to say “Eu estava tomando banho”, doesn’t know how and the teacher intervenes and introduces / practices the target language. Now, as far as “chunkiness” (i.e.: the extent to which it deserves the lexical chunk label) goes, “I was taking a shower” is not in the same league as “I was just trying to reach you” or “I was wondering if…” or “I was just passing by”. And still, because the past continuous was introduced at the point of need (rather than as the “structure of the day”), I think it would be fair to argue that, to a certain extent at least, it was taught as a process. In the same way, if I close my eyes, I can think of more overtly lexical lessons I’ve observed that, syllabus wise, were very communicative / practical / functional and yet failed to enable students to use the new items in communication – partly because of the learning processes students were engaged in.

    I’ve written this (sorry) lengthy reply because this is something very dear to me. Here’s why. Back in the early 90s, when I was still trying to make sense of where exactly ELT was (and where I stood on where it was!), I read an article by Michael Swan , which he had written at they heyday of the communicative revolution and which caused quite a stir. Here’s what he said: A functional syllabus is not necessarily synonymous with communicative teaching. You can teach a structural syllbus communicatively, just as you can failt to teach a functional syllbus communicatively – it depends on the classroom processes employed. Hence the parallel with what you’ve said. 🙂

  • Fátima Regina
    Posted at 11:15h, 27 fevereiro Responder

    Hello! Good morning!

    Thanks once more for transmitting us your knowledge.
    In my opinion, Grammar is very important; and we really have to know how to use it correctly.

    Posted at 20:57h, 04 março Responder

    Hi Denílson!
    It was a pleasure to read your article thus I love teaching gramar as a process. I’ve been an English teacher in the last 30th years. I’ve changed a lot in the course of my life. I’d worked as public and private teacher before I opened my own course of English in 1996. Recently , I went to Nebraska in order to study English Methodologies at UNO. There, I saw the Teaching of Grammar as a Process and this is the way I’ve worked. At the Latin Center there, in Omaha-NE, the students learn all grammar in the texts. never as a thing.
    At the latin Center of Omaha as well as at UNO, students read aloud after a previous study of voc, and grammar at the web. Technology is used all the time, it’s part of the learning. Texts are about daily tasks of the students. They have to use everything they read, study in their lives. Teaching English is Communication. A Language is not a thing.
    Remembering that Brazilian students don’t study English as ESL but as EFL. It’s a very importante point that not all teachers remember when they teach. Old times I used to teach Grammar as a thing. I changed. I observed my classes started getting obsolete, my students getting tired of studying English, so I changed. Today, grammar in the context only, also in chunks. Firstly they check the voc at home or in class with the smartphones. Second they read aloud together me, after alone , by themselves. Also, they write pretty texts answering my questions about their daily tasks. They can’t use YES or NO in the answers. It’s awsome!

    This kind of working is at the public school. I try to make a difference in my city. They often go to the computer lab to study the grammar, reading, answering questions about it, doing self evaluations at the web . It motivates them! They get the grammar and apply it in the movies, in the songs, in the corridors of the school saying small sentences to me…

  • eshal fatima
    Posted at 04:28h, 23 julho Responder

    I really like your post. Thanks for sharing.

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