To grammar or not to grammar

As the title may reveal, the language is in constant change, no one owns it and everybody does. Therefore, we can all play with it as we wish. Can we? While some of us stand as the grammar police to correct tests, written tasks, posts on Facebook or so many other things people say and write around the world, many of us (also) fight to help learners better communicate in a world where English is frequently used as a lingua franca. Today I propose a discussion on priorities in English language teaching.

If we read through Richards and Rodgers’s (2001) chapters to learn about the history of methods and approaches in ELT, we may have the impression that we went from one extreme to the other during the 20th century. Teaching varied from lessons that focused on directly translating perfectly accurate sentences from one language to the other through practical exercises in lessons that could be taught in any language, to ‘forbidding’ the use of L1 to encourage learners to acquire the language through exposure to English and repetition of perfectly pronounced language chunks. A belief in one approach or method risked being denied in the next.

Nowadays, diversity seems to be the key, as it is clearer that language teaching and learning depend heavily on context and learner needs. From this perspective, it seems reasonable to assume that teachers should either work in a context that suits their teaching styles and beliefs or agree to flexibility in approaches to match learners’ needs. I will then focus on the latter, not only because it is closer to my context, but also because it is closer to what I have in my heart on expectations towards language teaching. In this context, a grammar-focused curriculum may not be the appropriate starting point.

If you had the chance to read Thornbury’s post about ‘grammar mcnuggets’ and the subsequent discussion on the blog, all published almost 10 years ago, you probably considered the fact that a grammar syllabus does not seem to allow natural communication that most our learners need in the world we currently live in. Considering communication is the goal, grammar becomes only a tool to build utterances, along with vocabulary, pronunciation, discourse and skills that have always been around, but gained evidence in the past decade. Those involve critical thinking, empathy, resilience and pose greater challenge than teaching grammar. For grammatical structures, pronunciation, vocabulary, you may take samples from books, films, podcasts, online articles and give learners concrete examples. Also, preparing questions to check understanding may be more concrete than helping learners develop empathy, for instance.

The same happens with practice of the language: providing learners with chances to put grammar in context in controlled exchanges in the classroom is more straightforward than promoting critical thinking. The main point is that teachers do have a chance to innovate as nonconformists in the hegemony of grammar-teaching in some contexts. Teaching for 40 hours a week, one may not have the time to creatively consider how to encourage learners to think, analyse, question – therefore use the language in what may be meaningful communication. But those of us who have fewer lessons/ learners may start subverting what is comfortable: ‘I’m following the book’ should not be a reason to neglect learners’ needs or a more relevant use of the language in the classroom.

When there is enough subversion, the market – publishers, parents, students, schools – may perceive language learning differently, changing the demands for so much grammar and prescription. The subversion can also be in the way teachers grow professionally to remain indispensable to the learning process. Information and content are out there and can be accessed by virtually anyone. Thus our learners are able to open grammar books, enroll in online self-study courses and learn a lot about the language. What they expect from our lessons may therefore be more connected with what they can do with the knowledge – how to interpret what people say, how to effectively respond, how to assertively communicate with others, how to empathise and react to social interaction, etc. There cannot easily be learned from books or computers, they require human interaction to be practiced and developed.

What small actions do you think we teachers could start with in order to impact change in the overall scenario of English language teaching?


Richards, J., & Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Marcela Cintra

Marcela Cintra is the Head of Products in the Academic Department at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo. She has been working with English language teaching for over 20 years, been involved in teacher training and development programmes and presented in ABCI, LABCI, BRAZ-TESOL, TESOL and IATEFL conferences. A CELTA, ICELT and Delta tutor, she has an MA in TESOL. She is the current first-vice president for BRAZ-TESOL.

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