Language teachers and grammar – should we worry? (Part 1)

Please note: this post was co-authored by Steve Smith of The Language Teacher toolkit (

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  1. Introduction

This is the first of a series of posts on language teachers’ attitudes, beliefs, conceptions and practices in the realm of grammar teaching which will address the following questions:

  1. Do teachers know the target language grammar?
  2. What beliefs do teachers hold about conscious grammar instruction? Where do these beliefs come from?
  3. How good are teachers at teaching grammar?
  4. Do teachers practise what they preach ?
  5. Do L2-students want to learn grammar?

The present post will concern itself with the first of these five questions.

  1. The rise-fall-rise of Explicit Grammar Instruction

Explicit Grammar Instruction (henceforth EGI) was the primary mode of language instruction from the Romans to the first half of the 20th century. It fell out of favour in the 70s/80s with much of the international modern language teaching community with the advent of theories and methodologies based on the dogma that it does not significantly enhance L2 proficiency development. Such theories and methodologies, based as they were on experiential models of learning and on the attainment of communicative competence as the ultimate goal of language learning, inevitably marginalized the formal teaching of grammar. Nativist theories, such as Krashen’s, even advocated the total ban of EGI in the belief that a natural order of acquisition of L2 grammar structures exists which cannot be altered by formal instruction.

Recently, however, a substantive cohort of L2 educators has advocated that, whilst EGI, on its own, does not enhance acquisition, when integrated with approaches like CLT it may indeed be beneficial and a mounting body of empirical evidence seems to endorse this view (Ellis, 1990, Harley 1993, Ellis,2003). This has prompted a grammar revival that in the last two decades or so has started to creep into mainstream modern language education.

The effective integration of EGI into communicative language teaching or task-based learning is not without challenges. Steve and I believe that EGI can play an important role, however it (1) should not dominate modern language lessons; (2) should be carried out as part of a variable-focus curriculum concerned predominantly with the teaching of communicative functions and vocabulary; (3) should occur mainly in the context of interactional tasks aiming at developing fluency as well as grammar accuracy and syntactic complexity;  (4) should aim at creating procedural knowledge (as opposed to traditional approaches which focus mainly on declarative knowledge); and (5) should involve inductive learning as well as deductive approaches.


The reader should bear in mind that the body of research we shall draw upon in our attempt to answer the above questions is by no means representative of the international teacher community. To generalize the findings of the studies reported above would be unfair. However, the data that the studies we shall very concisely review below do yield very interesting findings which do resonate with our experience and do raise important issues which both governments and education providers must heed and address as part of their professional development programmes as they refer to important areas of teacher competence which, in our experience, are grossly neglected.

Please also note that for reasons of space we shall discuss only studies which we deem as representative of each research strand and topic.

4. Do teachers know the target language grammar?

Researchers refer to the knowledge of how language works as KAL (knowledge about language) or LA (language awareness). An important distinction must be drawn between Declarative and Procedural knowledge of the grammar of a language. Declarative knowledge refers to the explicit knowledge of the grammar rules, i.e. being able to articulate how a grammar rule works. Having the procedural knowledge of the grammar of a language means being able to use it in production, by-passing consciousness, so to speak (e.g. I can use the imperfect tense in French but I cannot explain why). Most native speakers of a language who have not been taught language explicitly, for instance, would possess procedural knowledge of their mother tongue but very little – if any – declarative knowledge of it.

As many language theorists and educators believe nowadays, there is a clear link between explicit knowledge of the formal aspects of language and performance when using that language. Hence, as Andews (2008: 1) puts it:

fostering learners’ ability to analyse and describe a language accurately is likely to help them become more effective users of that language. Arising from this is the belief that teachers of a language need an understanding of how that language works and an ability to analyze that language to function effectively as teachers.

It follows that it is paramount that teachers’ subject specific competence ought to include high levels of declarative knowledge as well as the ability to teach it effectively.

4.1 How much do university language students know?

Research investigating L2 teachers’ levels of KAL has yielded shocking results which raise serious concerns. First off, let us have a look at a set of UK-based studies which investigated how much metalinguistic knowledge modern languages university students know. Why should we be interested in this? Because (1) these students constitute the UK language learners elite, the pool from which language teachers usually come, hence, (2) studying them will tell us how much metalinguistic knowledge language teachers are exposed to at secondary school level.

Bloor (1986), Alderson et al (1997) and Alderson et al (2010) investigated the metalinguistic knowledge of 63 students enrolled on language courses in British universities. Bloor’s (1986) findings were the most dispiriting: most students failed to meet the Department of Education and Science target that 16-year-olds should be able to identify verb, noun pronoun, adjective, adverb, article, preposition and conjunction. The only grammatical terms they could identify were ‘verb’ and ‘noun’. Alderson et al (2009) replicated Bloor’s study to see if things had improved 23 years on. Their study confirmed Bloor’s (1986) dispiriting findings although they observed slight improvements in terms of the understanding of metalinguistic terms. They recommended that an increased focus on teaching the use of the terms rather than simply presenting them to students might ensure that they are able to fully understand them, rather than just being familiar with them.

4.2 How about teacher trainees?

Wray (1993) and Williamson and Hardman (1995) investigated the KAL of pre-service teachers at the start of their teacher training programme. Their results confirmed Bloor’s (1986). Some findings were astonishing. In Wray’s study, only 30% of the subjects could identify adverbs and; 23 % pronouns and less than 10% prepositions. Williamson and Hardman (1995) found that their informants scored only 5.6 out of 10 on a question requiring them to name parts of speech. They concluded that the 99 trainees they studies had serious gaps in knowledge about grammar, misconceptions about it and a lack of metalanguage for analyzing language use. Several other studies (e.g Chandler et al., 1988) concurred with these findings.

4.3 In-service teachers’ KAL

Andrews investigated practicing teachers’ levels of KAL in a few studies (e.e. 1994, 1999 and 2005). His findings confirmed Bloor’s (1986) and Alderson’s (2009). Andrews (1999), is particularly interesting because it compared the explicit knowledge of grammar  and grammatical terminology of 4 groups:

  1. NNS (non-native speakers) of English
  2. NNS prospective teachers of English
  3. NS (native speakers) of English with a background in English studies
  4. English NS trainee teachers of modern languages

Andrews found that on average the levels of grammar knowledge were utterly inadequate, although the NNS teachers of English did much better than the other groups. The lowest scores were obtained by the prospective teachers (group 4).

Mitchell et al (1994), in an interesting project in English secondary school settings which involved, amongst others, classroom observations of several Modern Language teachers found that generally, levels of KAL were inadequate and that

There was some evidence that the limits to teachers’ own linguistic knowledge were a constraint on the development of maximally effective KAL work. This could be seen even in some KAL focused units, which at times seemed to have conveyed inaccurate messages to pupils; more generally, teachers’ tendency to avoid technical vocabulary in KAL-related talk seemed linked at times to insecurity in using grammatical or discourse terminology.

Shuib (2009) set to investigate English language teachers’ nature and level of grammatical awareness. Questionnaire and interview techniques were used to elicit data from primary school teachers who were following their B. Ed TESOL programme in Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2006 and 2007. Her data confirmed previous findings. She concluded that in terms of training, her findings suggested that more efforts need to be made at teacher training institutions to promote grammatical awareness among aspiring teachers.

Other interesting findings come from studies by Grossman, Wilson and Shulman (1989) and Beard (1999), which demonstrated that teachers tend to avoid teaching grammar due to their uncertainty about their knowledge of grammar and inadequacy of grammatical knowledge. Beard (1999) noted that besides having much ‘intuitive implicit knowledge’ about grammar, the problem for many teachers is the inability to make the implicit knowledge explicit and to use the appropriate technical terms (metalanguage).

4.4 Concluding remarks

Although the studies just reviewed and many other investigations carried out all over the world do paint the same bleak picture, we know that there are many excellent practitioners who do have high levels of grammar knowledge. Thus, it is important to reiterate that these research findings, whilst spotting a worrying trend, cannot and should not be generalised to the whole international language teaching community. We have, however, the ethical imperative to heed these findings and, as Borg (2015) puts it,

on the assumption that an explicit understanding of language plays a major role in the effectiveness of the work of language teachers, these findings suggest the need for language teacher preparation programmes to dedicate substantial time to the development of trainees’s declarative knowledge about the language.

We would add that practising teachers should not be afraid to recognize KAL as an area of their subject specific competence requiring development. After all, as Chandler et al.’s (1988) informants stated, most teachers’ KAL was acquired during their school days. A deficit that stems from the way an educational system is run should not be viewed as something to be ashamed of. Hence, senior teachers/professional tutors/line-managers should be encouraged to address any observed gaps in their colleagues’ KAL through professional development strategies in a non-judgemental way.

The sequel to this post can be found here

You can also find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ which I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase here