Grammar: What should we teach, to whom, and when? (Part 1)

Niall Curry

In this two-part blog entry, Senior ELT Research Manager Niall Curry helps us to decode the order in which we should teach English grammar.

Trying to decide on the area of grammar to teach and the order in which we teach it is a big task. There are so many variables that can impact this decision.

We could look at the level of challenge from a developmental perspective, which is often helpful with very young learners. Or, we could look at utility, where frequency and relevance could be important factors in making such decisions.

There are general trends and preferences in ELT grammar about what to teach and when. This can also differ across different parts of the world. So, how do we make a decision? Well, by bridging research on language, on learning and on teaching, we are trying to better understand how to address this question.

What can we say about the brain? In my previous blog post on Psycholinguistics and Neuro-linguistics for ELT, we saw that language learning draws on both declarative and procedural memory systems.

Types of grammar

Declarative memory is often used to remember an event or arbitrary items of language. Procedural memory is useful for sequences, rules and predicting. Procedural memory is also slower and more gradual than declarative memory for learning.

With what we know of grammar, we can see that activating procedural memory could be useful, but typically evolves later. Therefore, less complex grammar that requires less cognitive engagement could make sense as an area of initial focus.

However, what we mean by complex grammar is a hard consensus to draw. This forms a large part of the debate on what we should teach.

Where declarative memory and procedural memory can support one another, lexical-grammar could be a good starting point. Learners can draw on both systems to acquire language.

Furthermore, we know that children and young learners’ grammar development is largely linked to what they can do in the first language. It’s also linked to their ability to understand complex concepts like time and space. Until these concepts are understandable, there is little point in teaching children the ‘past perfect’ or a ‘conditional’ structure, for example.

For adults, this is often less relevant. Nonetheless, we can see how some guidance from cognitive development could be useful when deciding on what to teach and when.

Utility and relevance

When we think about lessons in terms of utility and relevance, we can see further direction for deciding what to teach. Take relative clauses for example, when should we teach them? Should this be early in the language learning journey or later? And what about defining relative clauses and non-defining relative clauses.

Let’s take a look at some example sentences that contain relative clauses:

Defining Relative Clause: The house that my brother lives in is tiny.

Non-defining Relative Clause: My brother, who lives in Paris, is a doctor.

Looking at the Cambridge English Corpus, we know that non-defining relative clauses are really infrequent. In fact, if we imagine that there are one million relative clauses in each box below, only those in the purple box are non-defining relative clauses.

Moreover, those in the yellow box account for sentences like ‘My brother, who lives in Paris, is a doctor’ while the rest signal non-defining relative clauses used to make comments like ‘My brother lives in Paris, which is nice’.

grammar graph

Should such a finding guide our thinking about which grammar to teach first? Should we teach defining relative clauses first? If so, when – if ever – should we teach non-defining relative clauses? It would be interesting to hear what you think about it.

What we can see here is that making a decision based on utility, relevance and frequency could lead us to decide that non-defining relative clauses should be taught later in the language learning journey.

The context debate

But, doesn’t it depend on context? Are there genres in which this structure is particularly frequent? Is it more formal? Is it specific to a spoken or written language? Or a particular variety of English? Or even to a particular generation?

These are all problems we can seek to answer using corpora, but feel free to share your thoughts and experiences of it too. Perhaps you’ve done some studies yourselves that you’d like to share?

Next time, in Part 2, we will look at some more examples of grammar and pick up again on these ways of deciding and adding a few others to the mix.

Could your students benefit from some self-study on English grammar? Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use Fifth Edition is out now.

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