Grammar? I Ain’t Got Time For Grammar!

How to stop teaching linguistics and get on with it:  Advice for teaching Beginner English.

Learning is simple. You go to class. You watch and listen. You apply what you see to a controlled environment. You prepare for a test. Pass, you’re good to go. Fail, try again.

Language learning is no different, right? Just words and grammar. Decode the mechanism with time, effort and will-power: you get language.

These beliefs are only partially true.

According to William Perry, there are three important stages of development:

– In the early fixed knowledge stage you learn vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.

-In the transitional stage you apply it to prepared situations..

-In the contextual stage, the prepared situations bleed into more real-life scenarios. Students select from a wide range of responses. Participating in the culture of the language eclipses responding to hypothetical stimuli. Ideally, the student takes this stage with them when they leave the classroom.

All disciplines apply this three-stage approach. Learning language is like learning science or arts: You get words and grammar. Use the words with the grammar. Eventually you apply it to the real world.


Most people bail before the first step. If its going to take forever, why invest the time and effort?

English isn’t strict on grammar, spelling and pronunciation rules. Its a lot of expressions and colloquial usages, even in the beginner stages. Apply Perry’s stages in order, and you wont get to them for a while. When do students get to apply their knowledge in the real world? They need it yesterday, not after several grueling months of applied linguistics.

A deliberate over-complication of a hypothetical untruth

For most students, motivation isn’t academic, but practical. It’s out of urgency more than necessity. Real-world applications meet them as they leave the classroom. They don’t need linguistics, they need language.

English grammar is a long ride; exhaustive in its intricacies and irrational, inconsistent exceptions.  Embrace it as a phrasal patchwork, and you’ll be participating in the culture of the language faster. By flattening Perry’s stages, student hit the ground running.

This does not mean they wont learn vocabulary and grammar. With time, student will need to learn rules, intricacies and subtleties. Tough bits like the present perfect or  gerunds and infinitives are so dependent on contextual and cultural factors that they are better explained retroactively. The present perfect tense is as much a cultural phenomenon as a grammatical rule. Unlike standardized languages like French and German, English is a big free-for-all. Participating in it is the only way to learn how it works.

Language courses need to be strictly in the target language. But if students don’t speak the language, how do you teach them? The learning process is your only means of communication. It has to be cyclical, predictable and self-evident.

Start with what is most immediately useful. Introduce it in the idiomatic form, not the grammar/vocabulary form. Let students deduce through teacher interaction. Then let them practice with classmates. Once students are able to independently produce language in earnest, the actual mechanics of the grammar can be examined.

Here is an example of a typical learning exchange:

1) The teacher demonstrates how to say his name by introducing himself. (MY name is …)

2) He then demonstrates how to ask someone’s name, thus prompting the students to introduce themselves (What is YOUR name? – MY name is…).

3) The task is then carried on among classmates. The teacher asks students to introduce each other. (What is HIS name … HER name?)

4) The student can now infer the usage of the new pronoun and apply it. (HIS name is …).

5) The students are all now prepared to meet, greet and introduce each other.

By the end of it, students can automatically respond to a meeting situation. The teacher can now flesh out the grammar without lengthy explanation. It serves as an epilogue to a lesson already learned. This cycle  is used throughout the learning process to build communication, ascertain new data, and explore new ground.

The first moments in the classroom are critical. Immediately introducing the learning process minimizes confusion and disillusionment. It also makes the target language the standard means of communication. By language-quarantining the classroom, all relationships are thus formed in a monitored transitional culture conducive to progress.

So easy on the grammar. Students are already motivated to learn the language. It took guts, so don’t crush it. They are there to better communicate with their world, not satisfy the requirements of an evaluation. Without a dynamic system, learning is just going to be a drag.

By using a good learning cycle, students are less inclined to consult external sources of translation that may inhibit the learning process. They remain focused on the task and in the target language. Just remember how you learned your mother tongue. It wasn’t through extensive insight into grammatical structures…


Donald, J. G. (2001). Learning to think: A cross disciplinary perspective. In Learning how to think: Disciplinary perspectives. (pp 2-5). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass