Time to stop avoiding grammar rules!

The evidence is now in: the explicit teaching of grammar rules leads to better learning. At least that is what this article from The Guardian in England claims.

Unfortunately the article does not offer any proof that the evidence is in, but rather just makes the statement. In fact, there are other studies, such as an article by Benkiko Mason in Japan, entitled “Impressive gains on the TOEIC after one year of comprehensible input, with no output or grammar study”, which tend to prove the opposite.

Personally, when it comes to language learning, I am somewhat in the middle. I think that massive comprehensible input is a necessary precondition for language improvement, even in your own language. If you don’t read a lot, you will not write well. In my experience, if you read a lot, and listen a lot, in a foreign language, you will improve faster than by trying to nail down grammar rules.

However, I find that output, speaking and writing, that is based on a solid base of input acquired language experience, which includes the acquisition of a rich vocabulary, helps you to notice your mistakes. The occasional review of grammar rules helps to notice patterns in the language, but only if you have acquired some experience in the language via input.

However, a grammar centred form of instruction, with limited time for input based activities, will, I think, be counterproductive.


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31 comments on “Time to stop avoiding grammar rules!

I really stuck for a bit, as I came here, Steve!After having followed your YouTube channel for year and a half, I experienced a really serious cognitive dissonance, seeing such a title in your blog :)))

I’m basically right in your camp, Steve: learning grammar isn’t <i>necessary</i> in order to learn a language, but doing some amount of it between mild and moderate is probably the optimal combination (presuming, of course, that you spend the majority of your time actually <i>using</i> the language, e.g. watching movies, reading books, talking with natives, etc.).It also depends on what you want to do, if you have a written exam for school (e.g. the AP exams in U.S. high schools) then learning grammar is probably far more important for you.Cheers,Andrew


I agree with Steve and Andrew. If you jumo right into grammar, you won’t remember it and it will be useless because you’ll having nothing with which to contextualize it. When I began learning German, I tried to memorize cases and just could not do it. It was only after about six months of reading and listening that I went back to the grammar tables. Since I had already unconsciously absorbed the basic patterns of the language, I could retain the grammar more easily since it finally started to make sense.

John Budding

I thought the Guardian article was extremely weak in presenting any kind of supporting evidence for the main argument. Then I found out from the comments section that the latest research that was "now in" was actually published in 2010. Now I think that the article was not only just weak, it was actually misleading. If "evidence trumps argument", the guardian article presented no evidence to support its claim aside from referring to some "recent study", and therein failed to convince me that it was anything more than just a self serving attempt by grammar teaching proponents to blame the students for not learning in spite of "whatever teachers do", and to justify the need for the existence of the educational industrial complex. Could this kind of pathetic reporting be the last gasps of a dying giant, which is finally being brought to its knees by another approach that "has been defended with carefully structured arguments" and is being "embraced enthusiastically by ministries of education around the world"? One can only hope! Thanks Steve, for continuing to blog on this subject.


I agree with the Guardian article, and I want to make some relevant points on learning grammar. There is a way for foreign learners to combine learning of grammar with thematic learning of fixed conversational phrases at each lesson.To make learning a language more interesting learners can study at each lesson a certain number of fixed thematic conversational phrases that do not require grammar knowledge (for example, greetings, forms of addressing a person, thanks, well-wishing, apology, etc.). It is preferable to listen to audio recordings of such phrases that must be memorised through listening, multiple reading and self-check.So in the process of learning grammar learners can devote a portion of time at each lesson for learning first fixed thematic conversational phrases that don’t require grammar knowledge. Later based on known grammar learners can concentrate more productively on listening, speaking, reading and writing practice on each daily life topic and on thematic vocabulary expansion.It would take foreign learners much less time to learn grammar rules that are explained to learners than to figure out grammar rules on their own intuitively from texts because grammar rules may have exceptions and other peculiarities.Grammar books with explanations and exercises have been published by knowledgeable language specialists to make learning grammar easier so that learners don’t have to discover grammar rules anew the hard long way.

Steve Kaufmann

I don’t believe that learning artificially created themes with fixed thematic phrases resonates with learners, or is credible to learners nor are they easy to remember. I much refer interesting and meaningful content that exposes the learner to the language, increases vocabulary and improves comprehension of the language as the first goal of language learning.I do not believe that most of us can understand, learn or in any way master basic grammar concepts without first having had a significant exposure to the language. After exposure to input, it becomes much easier to understand and learn grammar rules. This grammar study is best done in a series of reiterations and not based on the teacher’s or the textbook’s schedule.The standard grammar books with explanations and exercises are not as useful as short grammar books with ample examples of the patterns of the language with a minimum of explanation, and no exercises, in my experience.


<div dir="ltr"><span> I hope this is a good message for you. There is no reason for us to have any hard feelings because of some differences in our opinions.<br><br>Learners can learn grammar and practice it in communicative grammar exercises with real life content</span> (with sentences that most likely can be used in real life situations).<span> It's very helpful for learners to have key to exercises for self-check. </span>Grammar exercises that contain dialogues, interrogative and statement (or narrative) sentences on everyday topics, thematic texts and narrative stories are especially effective for mastering grammatical structures. Grammar practice should include exercises in listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing.<br> Grammar exercises must help learners not only form correct sentences, but also use them correctly in context in real life situations. Contrastive and contextualized exercises give practice in form, meaning and use.<br>In my view communicative integrated skills courses that practice listening, speaking, reading and writing alongside pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are the most effective and the most comprehensive courses. Conventional communicative teaching and learning supported with <b>adequate regular long-term practice in listening comprehension and speaking</b> in a language yield effective results. Lack of such practice by learners produces speculations that conventional learning and teaching methods don’t work.<br> Knowledge of grammar rules reduces making grammatical mistakes by learners. Without adequate knowledge of grammar rules learners often cannot create their own grammatically correct sentences and often cannot understand what they read or hear in a language exactly.<br><br></div>

Steve Kaufmann

I feel it more effective and more pleasant to focus on comprehension and vocabulary first. Thereafter everything becomes much easier. Of course much depends on whether we are talking about a classroom, where the teacher is obliged to organize activities for the students, or whether we are talking abou someone who just wants to learn the language and is not committed to the idea that learning takes place in a classroom.


<div dir="ltr">I agree that there are different effective learning methods for learners that prefer different learning styles and have different language learning purposes (needs).<br>On issues other than grammar learning we may have similar views. I have created a number of articles on mastering various aspects of English and a special list of the most important English and German learning aids. I consider them more practical and more helpful than many articles for quicker and more effective mastering of English by foreign learners. My articles have been published on a number of websites but they may be of interest to users of your site (learners and teachers of English). Would you like to read them?<b> My articles are suitable for learning many languages.</b> No need to publish my articles on your site. Or perhaps you could remake my articles with your own wording and publish on your site?<br> <br>I believe that some of my suggestions can contribute to improving your own tips. I learn from tips of other authors as well. Exchange of information (thoughts, views, etc) is beneficial. I've explored many language learning and teaching websites, including those with unconventional advice like yours.<br>Below is just one of my highly practical English (ESL/EFL) learning articles. Let me know if you find it helpful for learners of English.<br><br><b><font size="4">HOW TO MASTER A REAL LIFE TOPIC IN ENGLISH.</font></b><br> <br>In my view it is expedient to master a real life topic in English in the following order: <br><br>1. Listen to and pronounce each sentence of English speech (thematic dialogues and narrative texts with transcripts). <br>    Make sure you understand everything clearly in each sentence in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.<br>2. Speaking on each conversation topic (imitation of dialogues (role play), ready-made thematic questions and answers with helpful content for using in daily life, narrations/telling stories, talking points and discussions of issues). Learners can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on the dialogue or text they listened to previously in order to make easier for them to tell the content in English. It is important to compare what they said to the transcript. It is a good idea to record one’s speech on audio aid to compare it with the original audio/video recording. <br><br>3. Learning of additional conversation sentences and vocabulary from English phrase books, conversation books and general thematic English dictionaries that provide useful usage sentences. Making up one's own sentences with difficult vocabulary for potential use in daily life.<br>My idea below may be important to you to improve your English materials.<br>As you know word combinations in speaking are unpredictable. There are different word phrases, expressions and synonyms to convey a thought in English.<br>It's possible to encompass in ready-made materials a wide variety of English phrases for each conversation topic. It is a good idea to prepare a potential list of phrases with sentences on each conversation topic, for example fixed conversational phrases that do not require English grammar knowledge (greetings, forms of addressing a person, thanks, well-wishing, apology, agreeing, disagreeing, emotions, etc).<br>Practising English with such materials can help a learner easier choose the most appropriate word combinations to convey a thought.<br>Multiple frequent reading of such sentences in English will gradually ensure firm memorisation of English vocabulary and contribute to developing good speaking skills.<br>By combining the most inclusive English phrase books, conversation books, general English thematic dictionaries, software, audio and video aids and websites you can create the most practical and thorough content for mastering each conversation topic in English for all levels including a wide selection of ready-to-use phrases, vocabulary and sentences for daily use.<br>Your own ready-made materials could be more complete and more helpful than any conversation book or a phrase book in terms of useful comprehensive content and vocabulary. <br><br>4. Extensive reading of thematic texts and materials from various sources. Telling the content of thematic texts.<br>It is better for learners to write down unknown vocabulary in whole sentences to remember word meanings easier. It would be a good speaking practice for learners telling the content of the texts that they have read. Learners can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on the text that require long answers to make easier for learners to tell the content of the text. I believe it is a good idea to read each logical chunk or paragraph of a text and to narrate each paragraph separately, and then the whole text. <br><br>5. Writing on real life topics. <br><br>It is important that learners make use of various aids on many daily life topics to improve their English language skills: audios, videos (English learning videos, travel videos, etc.), Internet resources, English (learning) magazines, newspapers, newsletters, radio programmes (especially the BBC English learning programmes/materials), TV programmes (educational programmes, documentary films, movies, news), books and e-books on a variety of subjects, online communication with native English speakers (chat, email, Skype). Good public libraries and the Internet have a wide selection of English learning aids. <br><br><br></div>


"This does not mean that grammar is the most important thing to teach: the title probably goes to vocabulary. But there is room, and need, for both vocabulary and grammar. "Who could argue with that?? I thought it interesting that the example used for languages where grammar would self-evidently be assumed necessary was Polish, similar to Czech in its morphological complexity. It may be possible to speak such languages without worrying about the "endings" – if you’re willing to sound like an illiterate, or worse. Native speakers are used to thinking in the categories that the cases are based on, and when you use endings at random, it simply makes it even more difficult to understand you. (Much less, to be taken seriously.)I mentioned once to a Russian, after a long period of not speaking the language, that saying anything at a normal rate was hampered by all those paradigm tables floating up there just above eye level, and she remarked sympathetically that it was hard for Russian kids to keep it all straight, too – that’s why they send them to school.

Steve Kaufmann

The question is not whether to learn proper or common usage (grammar) bur rather when and how. To me it is best done in bits and pieces and with more emphasis after considerable exposure to the language. So, for me, the focus is on input, comprehension and vocabulary, and increasingly on usage.


<div dir="ltr">Vincent, the developer of <a href="http://streetsmartlanguagelearning.com">streetsmartlanguagelearning.com</a&gt; has similar views to mine on grammar learning. In my view it ought to be effective to combine input (listening, reading) with output (speaking and writing). The question is in what order and amount (proportion) when learning and practicing grammar with accompanying vocabulary in communicative exercises with real life content. I agree with you that vocabulary matters much more than grammar to use a language. The more vocabulary a learner knows how to use correctly the easier it is to convey a thought in a language. I think grammar learning ought to be combined with conversational practice and vocabulary learning (first fixed thematic conversational phrases, and then free conversational practice on each topic with sentences based on known grammar (to reduce grammar mistakes) while still learning grammar). <br> <br></div>


I read the interesting article by Benkiko Mason you mention at the beginning of this post. The students made rapid progress in improving a language they had already studied, which in Japan means they could probably analyze anything they came across to a fare-thee-well without being able to introduce themselves in English (or Czech – I read about such a student who came to a Czech-language summer school). They learned the grammar first and then, in the classes described in the article, only had to put flesh on the skeleton. For adult learners, without the discipline of a school curriculum, it’s more a matter of incentivizing oneself to put in the time and effort, and here, the combination of grammar, drills, close and wide reading/listening etc. that gives the maximum payback for time expended depends on the individual.

Steve Kaufmann

Largely agree.However, Just because someone has been taught grammar does not mean they have learned proper usage. English Canadian school learners of French are unable to use tenses properly, have no sense of gender agreement, even after ten years of grammar study. All they have are the words they remember. I do not believe in the "flesh on the skeleton" paradigm. At least is does not work for me. I need lots of flesh before I can follow the skeleton.


For me there is nothing more boring than systematic studies.Yeah, I do not like to study languages, I prefer to just listen and read based on the content, trying to get the information or just have fun. Language learning is just a consequence.

This is a very interesting topic. I do agree with you on the fact that a grammar-centered kind of instruction is no use. What I believe is that, instead of a focus on formS, we should adopt a focus on form, which means trying to lead the learner’s attention on a specifici form thus integrating grammar instruction into a lesson where a lot of input is provided. The learner should become aware, independently, of the gap between what he knows and what he should know, and this would have to naturally lead him to ask questions about the language. Grammar should be a means and not an aim.


Hey, Steve. This is Mark again. I was an English teacher in Taiwan for 7 years, the last four of which I was a part owner of a school and fully in charge of its academic side.I’m a big fan of Benkiko Mason’s papers on Extensive Reading, and I’ve actually sent exactly that link to people before! That said, I found my students did a bit better with grammar instruction included as a part of the curriculum (though a smaller part than the ER). My intuition is that giving some basic grammar tools makes more of what they’re reading comprehensible and leads to more comprehensible input than reading alone. I’ve also found some grammar instruction useful in my own study of Mandarin, Japanese and later Hokkien.What I’m curious about is what do you do with a language like Hokkien that doesn’t really have a standard writing system? Some churches in Taiwan romanize it all, some older people use Chinese characters based on meaning, many subtitles take Chinese characters based on Mandarin pronunciation, many people mix romanized words and characters and the MOE even put out a modifed set of ㄓㄨ一ㄣ symbols for it! Would you ever consider abandoning extensive reading and going for extensive listening instead?


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I agree that vocabulary matters much more than grammar to use a language. The more vocabulary a learner knows how to use correctly the easier it is to convey a thought in a language in speaking, in writing and to understand the reading and listening content. I believe vocabulary is the most comprehensive and most difficult aspect of English for foreign learners to master thoroughly. They should first concentrate on learning the most frequently used and therefore most important English vocabulary for their practical real life needs.Speaking in English requires from a learner to combine his or her pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary knowledge, thinking over word and phrase choices (and good listening comprehension skills when conversing) to say good sentences as to their content.


I honestly don’t see the difference here (in the discussion of the first post)…The best points I’ve gotten from Kaufmann are:-serial reiterations of grammar study-question of not "whether" but "when/how"Kaufmann’s main point, as I read it, is that comprehensible input makes explicit grammar instruction more accessible.The point is well taken. To me, comprehensible input is still teaching grammar, but just doing it in context, by absorption, instead of out of context.But a lot really depends on the language. Nobody wants to sit down and memorise a billion weird cases for a case language (well, people don’t like memorising anything, period); if you tried, you could really get lost in the woods with it, without progressing to fluency — but I also can’t imagine a teacher actually giving 100% isolated grammar, anyway. Does any teacher do that?Concrete examples… let’s see. Latin? I may not want to spend all my time on cases in Latin, but declension would certainly be my main obstacle, coming from English, and I frankly would need a firm introduction to, e.g., -s/-a or -m for nominative or accusative (et cetera), as well as plurality and gender, and would need a reference to repeatedly return to as I went. "Comprehensible input" would obviously need to augment my gradual but consistent explicit grammar study.Korean? Tenses and conjugations are highly regular and predictable. It’s easy enough to sit down and commit the -eoss-/-ass-/-haess- past tense suffixes and so on to memory, with high enough returns, that you’d almost be stupid not to start with them, even before mastering any major set of vocabulary to speak of.Vietnamese? Like the Chinese family, Viet doesn’t do very much to verbs or nouns, and whether or not you "focus on grammar" early on is not extremely relevant. The vocabulary (and its embedded phonetics) is the big hurdle here.English? Modern English is in flux in some areas, like vowel shifting, part-of-speech variability, and the weakening, poorly taught past participle and pronoun cases; but in general it’s extremely dependent on tenses and notions of specificity, and has a complicated morphological network. These fundamentals would be profitably introduced early and returned to frequently — dependent, again, on the language of departure, learner age, and so on.So, I guess I’m not sure, first of all, what the use is of using broad statements when they may or may not apply very much to any given language. Where a grammar debate may apply, I also wonder if most grammar lovers are really not getting enough input, and whether input emphasists are actually grammar-starved. I doubt either group really is; therefore, I don’t find a ton of meaning in the discussion.


If we want to speak formally the English language, we need to study more Grammar theory and practice it through exercises., and it´ll be as important as the communicative approach.


Those with very looong posts, why don’t you share your opinions somewhere else?William, you insist on "mastering gramar structures" and such… I’m an architect, so why would I bother trying to "master" english grammar? I belive Steve is right, not just because he speaks many languages, but because what he says simply makes sense, sounds natural, goes well with my common sense. Therefore I follow his way. You are begging for attention, instead of drawing it.


In my opinion, in order to make a grammar point easier understandable an adequate number (not just a few) of daily life usage examples (sentences) with potential types of occurring patterns could be provided in listening, reading, speaking and writing practice. For example when learning English verb tenses, different types of sentences with affirmative and negative verb forms, and all personal pronouns (I, you, she. he, it, we, they) and other kinds of potential subjects (as doers or agents of actions) can be included as examples to show all types of potentially occurring patterns of use which must be dealt with sooner or later anyway.Learners of English for example should be encouraged to make up their own sentences on each grammar point taking into consideration their personal daily life activities (thus using English grammar for their potential relevant needs in realistic situations). Imagination and creativity play a major role in this practice as learners prepare for potential use of English grammar for their needs.

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