General Principles of Teaching Grammar

August 27th, 201112:37 pm


General Principles of Teaching Grammar

A brief account of the underlying principles of teaching grammar is given in G. Rogova’s book which include conscious, practical, structural, situational, and differential approaches. Current investigations expand the number of approaches and there is definitive information about functional and heuristic approaches that could be applied in teaching grammar.

F helps overcome the gap between paradigmatics and pragmatics of the language, i.e. the elements of language structure are judged and assessed in view of their usefulness for speech activity.

The functional approach offers a polysemy of grammatical forms. Thus analyzing the Present Continuous tense forms, attention is paid not only to dominant semantics – processivity oriented towards the moment of speaking but also to secondary meanings (a planned future action, emotional colouring, etc.). This approach allows for such organization of grammatical material as to convey a certain communicative intent. To express encouragement there is a vast range of possibilities – will you?, would you?, can you?, could you?, etc.

The functional approach to grammar reveals oppositions based on the common principle of semantic likeness. Such opposition may include Future Indefinite and Present Continuos, Past Indefinite and Present Perfect tense forms. For example, I’ll read this book and I’m going to read this book.

— Has Mary fed the cat?

— Yes, she fed him before lunch.

As it was mentioned above each method is characterised by its content and practical application. But there are some constraints that have stood the test of time and are resorted to by most teachers. These constraints include the material to be assimilated by inductive and deductive means. Each approach has its rationale and supporters and is still administered at certain stages of instruction depending on the type of a lesson, level of instruction, objectives, etc.

Although the grammar is rightly banished from elementary stage of instruction (the basis of instruction being primarily oral), it is possible to familiarise the pupils with some of its principles as soon as they have heard enough to furnish a few examples of some grammatical category.

Thus as soon as the students have met with several examples of a certain case or other inflexion, the teacher calls their attention to that category, explaining what these words have in common, as far as it is possible without using any special terminology. In the same way the pupils’ attention is drawn to the words which make up such a paradigm as I am, you are, he is. When this has gone on for some time, the teacher may expect the pupils to find out for themselves what grammatical category a word belongs. This is the inductive method of teaching grammar, or rather of preparing for the systematic study of grammar. This approach has stages of development, according to a gnostic development of pupils, and according to the grammatical categories to be defined. As already remarked, there will be no harm in varying the course of inductive grammar by an occasional application of deductive means (as in cases of irregularities, verbals, etc.) – although this ought not to be made an integral part of the course.

After all, the main thing is that the texts and the grammar should be closely associated and studied as much as possible simultaneously.

The aforesaid is consistent with Mc. Lean’s (1988) co-operative and inductive teaching strategies. In his opinion an inductive strategy of instruction is a pedagogy that brings students to infer general rules from observing specific cases. Students learn by solving problems that are meaningful to them; they are more motivated and learn more when they can verify that the knowledge they have acquired is useful.

As it was mentioned elsewhere, the acquisition of grammatical habits and skills involves the following stages: perception, recognition or identification, imitation, substitution, transformation, combination, expansion, production and construction. All these stages are recognised and practised by most teachers. An experienced teacher consults the syllabus and begins with the shortest grammar he can find. He first takes a general bird’s-eye view of the language, finds out what are its special difficulties, what has to be brought under general rules, what to learn detail by detail, what to put off till a later time.

The aim of the first stages is to understand topical texts, which involves only the power of perceiving and recognizing grammatical forms, not of constructing them, as in the further stages of writing or speaking the language. Learners in the first stages are expected to find out for themselves that men is the plural for man, and that work is the Present Indefinite tense form. He will then be able to infer from what he has learned in the grammar that the plural form of woman is women, but the inference belongs to the subsequent stages.

We have already seen how the first or mechanical, pre-grammatical stages may be utilised to convey a good deal of grammatical information not directly through rules, but indirectly through examples. In the first stages – perception, recognition and imitation – a great part of grammatical knowledge will be unconscious instead of analytic and systematic. Thus the learner has a certain understanding of paradigmatic relations, has advanced half way towards knowing them – a result which is a special help in mastering irregularities. Thus in the initial step grammar “two hands”, “two feet”, “two men”, etc. the learner finds that the paradigm of the number offers hardly any difficulties.

At an introductory level teachers of English do not question the necessity for the grammar teaching. Nevertheless, they have considerable doubts about how this grammar should be taught. The analysis of words in English reveals the following groups of words: concrete (things, actions, qualities) for example: house, hand, big, read, etc., abstract for example: love, beauty, believe, etc., structural (auxiliary and modal verbs, adverbs, etc.), functional (articles, prepositions, conjunctions).

The first principle used in English for fitting words into sentences is word order. For example:

I go, you go, two of us go, and they go?

Notice that in English the verb doesn’t change here; but a small group of words is used to show the change in meaning: did, will, does.

How do you say in your own language?

At the house,

to the house,

in the house,

from the house?

Notice again that in English the chief word house is not changed; but a small word is used before it: at, to, in, from (at the house; at my house; at the other house). Words such as the, an, a, this, by, of, etc. represent functional words or empty words, the ones that do not have a referent outside the language. Although these words are relatively few in number, they have a vital influence on English utterance [86, p. 31]. That gives the second part of the answer to the question, “What ways are used in English to fit words together into sentences?” The second part of the answer is that in English, words do not usually change when they are put into sentences, English uses helping words like do, will, can, etc.; they are called structural words because they are necessary to the structure of the English sentence.

The second principle is the use of English structures. However, there are a few changes in words, which have to be learned:

a) in verbs: I go, you go, she goes, he goes, it goes.

I answer now. I answered yesterday.

But there is no change in:

I went, you went, she went, he went, it went.

b) in nouns: one boy, two boys, a boy’s look, a day’s work.

c) in adjectives and adverbs: quick-er-est; good-better-best.

The third principle in English is the use of a small number of inflections.

The bones of the English language are therefore of three kinds:

a) word order: I know it. The man rides a horse there.

b) structural words: I go home. I go to school. I am writing. I have written.

c) a few inflections: I think I can. I thought I could.

Of these three, by far the most important is word order, because word order in English is fixed, and upon it depends the plan of each standard model sentence.

The paradigms and tabulations in an elementary grammar ought to be regarded mainly as summings-up of what has already been learnt indirectly or in the form of scattered details [122, p.133].

The second stage includes substitution, transformation and combination. The use of substitution or variation tables presumes some prior learning of specific structural elements, the possessive pronouns, the singular and the plural forms of the verb to be in the third person. The drill then focuses on contexts that involve choice in the use of the indefinite article. It serves a useful purpose in drawing together in a systematic way what has been learned and what is being learned [114, p. 125].

At a later stage substitution tables can be used to familiarize students with the logical segmentation of sentences into subject, predicate, object and adverbial modifier.


The passive voice is par excellence the grammatical structure that exemplifies the concept of transformation [cf. 111, p. 81]. For let us consider: John plays the piano. We can change the tense and aspect (or any combination of these) to produce:

John played the piano.

John is playing the piano.

John has played the piano.

John has been playing the piano.

But we cannot change the voice to give the sentence:

*John is played the piano.

Rather we need a transformation that involves a change in position of the subject and the object (as well as the addition of by):

The piano is played by John.

It follows from this that the passive is possible only with transitive verbs (i.e. those that may have objects).

There is no similar restriction on the other verbal categories.

It is possible to write a simple and general formula for the transformation of the passive from the active:

NP1 Vact NP2 NP2 Vpas by NP1

Here Vact and Vpas stand for “active verb” and “passive verb” respectively.

It was thought, before the idea of transformation was proposed, that active and passive sentences were related semantically only. But a little consideration will show that voice (with transformation) is no less formal than tense (or aspect). For transformation must take place to preserve the grammaticality of the sentence, and, with rare exceptions, every active sentence has a corresponding passive one.

There is one very important syntactic point about the passive – that there may be no second NP (the one preceded by by). The NP that is the subject of the active sentence may be omitted:

The animals were killed

The thieves were caught.


If students are to speak and write well they must be shaken out of the shelter of simple and compound sentences with and and but. One way of eliciting complex sentences from students has been the combination exercise [114, p. 302]. For example, combine the following sentences into one by using relative pronouns.

e.g. My aunt made the soup.

I ate the soup.

(Expected combination: I ate the soup (that) my aunt made.

Discrete sentences can be joined assyndetically i.e. without using and or but.

e.g. Do you see the policeman?

He is stopping the cars.

He is letting the old lady cross the road.

(Expected combination: Do you see that policeman stopping the cars to let the old lady cross the road?).

The procedure of combining sentences to form one utterance can be used for creating dependent phrases beginning with present participle (he arrived at the station: he went straight to the ticket office – Arriving at the station, he went straight to the ticket office), or with prepositions such as before and after. Where one clause will be subordinate to the other, it must be clear to the student which of the two sentences to be combined will be the main clause and which the dependent clause. Sometimes temporal relationships will make this clear [114, p. 136].


A suprasegmental level is another interesting approach that challenges the student’s ingenuity. Students are asked to think of simple sentences that are written on the blackboard. Students are then given time, singly, in pairs, or in groups, to combine these sentences in any way they like to make a meaningful paragraph. No simple sentences may be used and only one and and one but for joining clauses are permissible in each paragraph. Adverbs, adjectives, and a few phrases may be added to improve the narrative. Below is an example of how the procedure might work.

Sentences provided by students.

The man leaves the house.

The baker sells bread.

A cat chases a mouse.

The dog barks

The mother scolds her little boy.

The little boy drops his toys.

Santa Claus kisses the children.

A possible paragraph:

The baker sells bread during the day, but at night he puts on a red suit and a white beard and leaves the house to play Santa Claus at the shopping centre. He kisses the little children before he gives them toys. Suddenly a dog barks because it sees a black cat chasing a tiny mouse. As a little boy is rushing over to see the cat he drops his toys. His mother, who is very upset, scolds her little boy in front of Santa Claus.


Productivity is a function of combination. The more combinations permitted by the grouping of the material, the higher the productivity. The productivity of a structure is a number of possible combinations that it can produce from elements of its immediately inferior level [cf. 107, p. 300]. In the sense of a hierarchy, phonemes pattern into morphemes, morphemes may pattern into words, and words may pattern into phrases, clauses, sentences, and texts [86, p. 13].


A matrix of this concept evolves all previous cells, their selection, gradation and presentation as a single coherent and cohesive entity. The new forms being learned need to be incorporated into oral, reading and writing activities, where their relationship with all aspects of grammar may be observed. Construction highlights aspects of the grammar, lexis, register and style that are no longer thought of as discrete “rules” but as the elements in an interacting system. An orderly progression of study and practice, encouraging students to express themselves freely through the steps outlined above will provide them with a framework for spontaneous communicative creation.

Most classroom teachers use a mixture of inductive and deductive, situational and functional approaches according to the linguistic content of the subject matter, psychological peculiarities of the learners, methodological principles and techniques, and the degree of complication of the problems being presented.

The system of exercises in teaching grammar constitutes another problem because exercises in the methodology of FLT either belong to the media of instruction or to the functional aspect of FLT [cf. I.Bim]. V. Bukhbinder in his article speaks about three main types of exercises: informational, operational and motivational. The proponents of CC-LT speak about completely and predominantly manipulative, and predominantly and completely communicative activities which could be applied to teaching grammar. G. Rogova suggests the following types of exercises: recognition exercises, drills, and creative (speech) exercises.

B. Lapidous speaks about three sets of exercises: drills, quasi-communicative and communicative. V. Skalkin suggests two types of exercises: drills and communicative exercises. The latter are subdivided into responsive, situational, reproductive, descriptive, discussive, compositional and initiative exercises. In W. Makey’s opinion the various types of grammar exercises include: addition, inclusion, replacement, integration, conversion, completion, transformation, transposition, rejoinder, contraction, and restatement.

To sum it up the system of exercises remains a moot problem that is still to be elucidated. All methodologists agree that drills, pre-communicative and communicative exercises have a key role to play in teaching grammar.

Близнюк М.І. Курс лекцій з методики викладання англійської мови. – Чернівці: ЧДУ, 1999 – с.