Learn/Teach English – What about grammar?

How should we teach or learn grammar?  Is there only one way?



What is the best way to learn grammar?  Is there just one way?  Let’s talk!

(Intro: English without Fear where you can learn to speak English naturally, through listening to stories)

Until recently I taught French in the classroom. The first 10 years I used a textbook. I taught grammar explicitly, very creatively, too. When I would test my students about one fourth of the class would do well, about a half would do okay. But there were always those students at the bottom, who just did not do well. If I were kind to them, I gave them a C minus or a D plus. Even if they were getting an F, I tried to give them points. But I felt really bad for them, because they concluded that they were not good at learning another language. 

Then about 10 years into my teaching career, I found out about teaching with comprehensible input. What I call ‘MommyTalk’, making everything you say understandable.  And just providing students with lots of interesting rich input, letting the brain do its thing. 

For the next 17 years I practiced using comprehensible input. I had good results. It made sense to me. I felt it was much better than using a textbook and teaching grammar. 

Then I started acquiring Spanish myself, just through input. That was two years and two months ago. And I have been keeping up with how many hours of input I get. This week, I’m up to 1,462 hours. Last year. I decided to try out an online course that turned out to be mostly grammar. And what I have found after 10 months following this course is that the grammar doesn’t help me. In fact, it’s boring and I am not going to renew the course. 

I wrote a very nice note to the gal and her husband who teach this course, complimenting them on their hard work, their creativity, but letting them know that the grammar doesn’t help me speak better.

So, is there any place for grammar?

Yes, there is. And this is what I was told as a teacher, as a French teacher. This is what I experienced as a teacher, using comprehensible input. And this is what I now know for a fact in my adventure acquiring Spanish only through comprehensible input.

Let me explain. The best way I think, in my opinion, to learn grammar, to teach grammar is just through the meaning of the word or chunk of language. 

For example, if I were to say in Spanish: “ella caminaba,” she was walking or en français, “elle marchait dans la rue” there’s no need to explain about the ‘imperfect’. Just say that ‘caminaba/marchait’ means ‘was walking, she was walking’.  Just teach grammar through the meaning of the word or word chunks.

When I was a teacher in the classroom and there were the one or two students who wanted to understand a little bit better and they would ask me a specific question……then I would give them that five-second response in front of the entire class. No more than that because the other kids, frankly, didn’t care.

I have found in my own acquisition of Spanish through input, through the meaning of words and word chunks, is that when I am curious, when I’m a bit confused and I want to understand ‘why?’ I will look it up.  I’ll go online. I’ll Google something. I’ll look into a verb conjugator just to sort out. But I do that only when I’m good and ready. What helps me far more is just to learn a chunk of language and what it means. Then I don’t have to use my left brain and think, think, think, think, think……which causes me to feel awkward and pause. If I know that ‘caminaba’ means ‘was walking’, then I can just use that without thinking about a rule.

So, as you go back to school, either as an English language learner or as a teacher of English language learners, I would recommend that you try teaching grammar just by the meaning of the word or word chunk. And be prepared to answer the curiosity, answer the question of that student or those students who want to know. But maybe off-line or after class, give them a little explanation. They’ll feel really good. I mean, they really want to know, and you do need to provide that. But if they’re asking the question, that means there’s an empty space in the brain where they are ready to take in the five second explanation. Does that make sense?

So, what do you think, what have you found works best as a teacher or as a learner? And remember if you’re not, if you are a teacher and you’re not working on a second language yourself, you’re missing out on a rich source of insight. I wish I had started acquiring Spanish years ago instead of my last year of classroom teaching. Well, that’s it for this episode, I’m Maria from English without Fear. Talk to you next time.

(Outro: Thanks for watching. For questions or comments, here’s my email.)

2 thoughts on “Learn/Teach English – What about grammar?”

  1. Hi Maria,
    I’m a English Language coach helping a 60 years old lady to be able to communicate with her grandchildren (They were born in the US and only know English). I’m not a native speaker either (my first language is Spanish) but I’m proficient enough to help her. I’ve followed your advice plus I read as much as I could about Dr. Krashen’s hypothesis and I can say that you’re absolutely right! After just four months she’s able to watch and understand US news and some basic interviews. Oral production goes slow but it increases steadily (She’s currently going through what I call the “Toddler conversation phase”). I have to clarify that she had English classes in her twenties but according to her: “English never stuck”. Her accent is quite “thick and heavy”and I haven’t seen much progress in that area.

    Do you have any suggestion or tip I could use to help her to “smooth” it or should I wait until her proficiency raises?

    Thanks in advance for your help and congratulations for the great job you’re doing with both your YouTube Channel and your blog.

    My best wishes!

    1. Juan – hope you received my email response. It sounds like you are doing a GREAT job. And how satisfying to see the progress that this gal is making! The best way to work on her pronunciation is for her to HEAR lots of native-speaker English – videos or podcasts or narrated books. I wouldn’t work on her pronunciation, per se. Just give her input that she can understand. Let me know if you have any questions.

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