Why you should change your approach to Grammar Instruction


In most MFL and ELT classrooms grammar is usually taught deductively following a PPP (presentation, practice, production) model. A typical PPP sequence unfolds as follows:  (1) the target grammar rule is explained through a few examples (Presentation); then, (2) the structure is practised in a controlled manner, e.g. through gap fill exercises, substitution drills, sentence transformations, reordering sentences, or matching a picture to a sentence (Practice); finally, (3) students engage in controlled activities such as, surveys, interviews and other information gap activities which will elicit the application of the target structure in real time. During this process, the instructor provides the learner with one or more grammar rules, occasionally supplemented with a heuristic (a rule of thumb), which will guide them in the application of the related structure in tasks that require increasingly higher level of processing.

In this post, I will argue that such model should be abandoned or at least integrated with an approach which (a) is more consistent with the way we process and acquire grammar in SLA (second language acquisition); (b) prepares our learners for language learning in the real world, i.e. equips them with the cognitive ‘tools’ which will facilitate effective autonomous learning when teachers or grammar books are not around. More specifically, I will advocate that:

(1) the PPP model be replaced by a PCPP sequence, where the ‘C’ refers to a ‘Comprehension Phase’ to be staged immediately after the initial input phase;

(2) the deductive approach be replaced by or integrated with an inductive approach which explicitly promotes noticing and pattern recognition;

(3) grammar instruction should include, especially at the early stages, a substantive GSE (grammar sensitivity enhancement) training component, which aims at enhancing learner awareness of the role/function words play in L2-sentences and

(4) a strong emphasis on pattern recognition skills, taught through the aural as well as the written medium;

(5) in designing the grammar curriculum and delivering grammar lessons, instructors should take into consideration Working Memory processing limitations to a much greater extent than they currently do, in order to avoid cognitive overload;

(6) as a corollary to the previous point, grammar instruction must aim at the automatization of the target structures, so as to speed up processing in Working Memory (a point that I have laboured to death in previous blogs so I will not concern myself with here)

1.From D.G.I. (deductive grammar instruction) to I.G.I. (Inductive Grammar Instruction)

As briefly mentioned above, D.G.I. consists of the traditional teacher-led approach in which the students are the recipients of an explanation of the target rule. I.G.I., on the other hand, is learner-centred; the students are given a number of sentences / texts containing instances of target structure use and are charged with the task of extracting the rule(s) governing that structure.

Scholars and researchers are divided as to which method is more effective in facilitating acquisition. I.G.I. involving more personal investment and deeper levels of cognitive processing, would seem, at least in theory, more likely to result in better retention; however, it is more time-consuming, requires more planning and resources and it is more cognitively challenging, which may result in ‘losing’ some students along the way.

The issue, though, is not so much which method brings about a better understanding or retention of the target grammar structure; rather, it refers to what we are ultimately aiming to accomplish through grammar instruction. If our goal is simply to ‘teach’ our students the L2-grammar system, then it makes absolutely no difference whether we use D.G.I. or I.G.I.; however, if our goal is to forge more effective and more autonomous learners we ought to opt for I.G.I. Why?

The answer refers to the Language Aptitude Construct of ‘Inductive language learning ability’, as conceptualised in Carroll’s Four-Factor Aptitude Model (see figure 1, below), which correlates with a stronger predisposition for L2 learning according to much research.

Figure 1. (from Dorniey and Skehan, 2003)

revised carrol table


As Figure 2 below shows, Inductive language learning ability (or Language Analysis ability) is involved in two cognitive processes which play a central role in L2 acquisition, Pattern Recognition and Pattern Restructuring and Manipulation. With this is mind, it is only logical that L2 teachers provide as much practice as possible in this aspect of their linguistic competence. After all, we want our students to be able to apply these skills as effectively as possible in immersive L2 environments or when accessing L2-input on the internet when we are not around to help them, don’t we?

Fig. 2 (from Skehan and Wen, 2011)

revised SLA cognitive.png

Personally, I alternate D.G.I. and I.G.I purely due to time considerations. If I had more time I would definitely only stick to I.G.I. The way I use I.G.I is to provide a series of sentences or short texts mostly using subsitution tables /sentence builders – with the L1 translation provided aside for less proficient groups or individuals. I get my students to work in pairs and to write up their rule-extraction process on a Google Doc or Padlet. When the time is up, we then discuss our findings and I clarify any doubts.

2. From rules to patterns; from step-by-step rule-application to chunking

For students to proceed to the most important stage in the acquisition of a grammar structure, chunking, the students must

(1st) identify a pattern (French example: « Je suis plus/moins/aussi grand que Marc ». Pattern : plus is followed by adjective + que + Noun)

(2nd) be able to manipulate that pattern autonomously but chunking in the new pattern pre-existing language ( « Je suis plus beau que Pierre » ; « je suis plus moche que lui »)

(3rd) restructure it, i.e. adapt the rule to new meanings or exceptions to the rule ( « J’ai plus d’argent que Marc »  – Plus can be followed by ‘de’ + noun + que + noun)

(4th) acquire control over it through extensive practice (to achieve automatization)

(5th ) integrate it in their L2 system by chunking it to Long-term memory

Chunking, in point 5, means that the learner at this stage does not apply the rule step by step any more; rather, has actually automatized the target pattern which s/he applies automatically at very high speed. This allows for more cognitive space to be freed up in Working Memory and to concentrate on meaning building/discourse construction.

Obviously, to get to that stage, the learner will have processed the target pattern in a wide range of contexts both receptively and productively. Every stimulus the target pattern has been extensively used in response to, is likely to automatically activate that pattern whenever it occurs – a phenomenon called ‘priming‘.

The Chunking phenomenon has the following major implications for grammar teaching.

Firstly (as already discussed above) we must focus our students on Pattern Recognition through I.G.I. in both the aural medium (Listening) and the written one (Reading).

Secondly, focusing on teaching patterns means reconsidering what we mean by teaching a ‘grammar rule’. I have often observed lessons in which the teacher sets out to teach a grammar structure whose usage requires the mastery of several rules, like the bullet-list below taken from www.languagesonline.org.uk  which details the use of the Imperfect Tense in French through a seven-point list. It is not uncommon to see teachers impart all of the below in their first lesson on the imperfect.

Figure 3 – Seven rules to form the imperfect tense in French


Yet, a teacher who aims at automatizing patterns would take a different course of action from an instructor who is focused on passing on to their students the intellectual knowledge encapsulated in those bullet points and examples.

First of all,  he would focus on one or two patterns per lesson rather than the whole rule-set in order to avoid cognitive overload ; secondly, he would present the students with ready-made high frequency chunks containing the target pattern, rather than lists of isolated words ; thirdly, after the initial I.G.I. task (PRESENTATION PHASE), he would provide masses of receptive (aural and written) exposure to those very chunks through tasks such as narrow listening / reading (COMPREHENSION PHASE),  followed by plenty of opportunities for controlled oral production such as through communicative drills, like the ones in figure 4 below  (PRACTICE PHASE); moreover, to enhance retention of the target pattern, he would ensure that the latter is associated, through substitution drills, to previously learned vocabulary (still in the PRACTICE PHASE); finally, the patterns would be used in freer communicative interactional activities such as information gap tasks (PRODUCTION PHASE).

Figure 4 – Communicative drills


(3) An emphasis on patterns entails as far as Listening and Reading practice are concerned, using texts containing lots of repetitions of the target construction(s); this may entail ‘ditching’ authentic material at lower levels of proficiency in favour of texts which sound more artificial but more conducive to retention. By the same token, in the controlled production phase, the output the teacher would want to ‘push out’ of his students would be highly patterned, too.

(4) Since in attempting to make sense of any L2 grammar pattern, learners usually use their own existing L1 patterns, it is useful in my experience to provide examples of target structure use alongside parallel texts (their L1 translation) and to get them to notice and discuss the differences. I use parallel texts a lot in the initial phases of practising any grammar structure to encourage cognitive comparison. Figure 5, below, illustrates a typical listening I.G.I. cognitive comparison activity I carry out with my students. The students are given a sentence in the target language containing incorrect use of the target structure modelled on the L1 of the student (the translation is provided in brackets). The student listens to the correct version of that sentences and writes it down below the erroneous version. Then he draws a comparison and infers the rule.

Figure 5 – Aural cognitive comparison task


  1. From PPP to PCPP

As mentioned in previous blogs, in my experience, supplementing the PPP sequence with a range of listening and reading tasks (I usually stage 5 or 6) which allow for extensive processing of the target patterns significantly enhances understanding and retention. Of course, the texts should contain Comprehensible Input, i.e. input which is 95% understandable by students with little effort. The rationale for the addition of a Comprehension phase is rooted in scores of psycholinguistic research that shows clearly that the role of input has a significant effect on acquisition of all levels of L2 proficiency” . In the words of N. Ellis et al. (2009):

‘input frequency affects the processing of phonology and phonotactics, reading, spelling, lexis, morphosyntax, formulaic language, language comprehension, grammatical sentence production and syntax […] These frequency effects are thus compelling evidence for usage-based models of language acquisition, which emphasize the role of input’

Another reason for adding in a Comprehension phase, lies in the fact that receptive processing (especially reading) is easier than oral or written production (as it causes lower cognitive demands on Working Memory).

4.Focus on Grammar Sensitivity

Grammar sensitivity refers to the ability to work out the role that words fulfil in a sentence. Hence it is linked to and helps in pattern recognition. Grammar sensitivity is recognized by research as an important determinant of Language Aptitude, in other words, the more able an L2 learner is to recognize the word-class (e.g. adjective) and function (e.g. direct/indirect object), the more likely  s/he is to be successful at language learning. Several studies (e.g. Piraud, 2008) have indicated that grammar sensitivity can be enhanced. Hence, unlike what happens in the typical MFL/EFL communicative classroom, more emphasis must be given to this aspect of grammar competence, i.e. metalinguistic knowledge and parsing skills.

Old school training in word awareness, i.e. the ability to recognize words’ function and word class based on their roots, prefixes and suffixes should be implemented from the very early days of instruction. Metalinguistic tasks whereby students need to assign words to categories or track down the occurrence of a specific word class in a text are very easy to prepare and, if used day in day out a few minutes at a time, do pay dividends in the long run.

5. Consider Working Memory limitations

I will only briefly touch on this issue as it has been dealt with extensively in several previous posts of mine. The main point to bear in mind is that Working Memory is very fragile and limited in storage. It can only process 4 items simultaneously (hence the important of chunking as much language as possible) and phonological storage only lasts two seconds without rehearsal.

Figure 6 – Working Memory


Hence, when teaching grammar we have to minimize the cognitive load our students need to handle as they grapple with the target structure(s). This means embedding examples for I.G.I. in linguistically accessible sentences; providing aural and written texts containing Comprehensible Input; ensuring that where they are asked to perform tasks in which the target construction requires mastery of a previously learnt grammar structure in order to be executed, this has been routinized sufficiently. Example, no point in teaching your students patterns such as (French) ‘Si je pouvais choisir, je vivrais au Canada’ if they have not routinized the imperfect or the conditional (where ‘routinized’ means close to spontaneity). This is the most common pitfall I have come across in my career.

6. Automatization

I have laboured this point to death in previous posts, hence I will only touch briefly on this: the ultimate goal of grammar instruction is automatization, i.e. accurate execution of a target structure at native speaker speed. Hence, practice with a specific grammar item must be recycled at spaced intervals over a long period of time. Going back to the imperfect example, I usually recycle the imperfect over a period of two years at least before I can consider it ‘learnt’.

With the above in mind, it is clear how traditional forms of grammar testing, e.g. cloze tests/gap-fills, do not assess grammar-structure acquisition, but only intellectual (declarative) knowledge and are therefore invalid. Accurate grammar testing assesses grammar-structure execution in real time, under R.O.C. (real operating conditions).

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, in this post I have argued in favour of an approach to grammar instruction which is mainly inductive in nature, in order to enhance our students’ language-analysis ability and their preparedness for acquisition in immersive or high L2-input contexts. I have also advocated the move from a PPP instructional sequence to a PCPP model where the ‘C’ refers to an intensive and possibly extensive Comprehension phase (i.e. the ‘R’ in my M.A.R.S. instructional model), in which the students are provided masses of receptive exposure to the target structure. Thirdly, I have emphasized the importance of focusing more on the modelling, analysis and automatization of patterns, rather than the intellectual explanation of rules. Finally, I have argued for the importance of going back to the basics of word-awareness, especially in terms of sensitizing our students to the role words have in sentences, as this skill is a strong facilitator of L2 acquisition.

If you would like to know more about my grammar teaching approach which incorporates the ideas discussed above and more, please read this discussion of the MARS model and this lesson plan centred on the same approach.



Why we have been teaching Listening wrongly for decades

Please note: this is the introduction to my latest article on http://www.tes.com (full article, at link below)


Listening is often described as the ‘cinderella skill’, as it is by far the area of language instruction that language teachers neglect the most. The reasons for this neglect are manifold. First and foremost, as much research has shown, listening is the skill MFL teachers understand the least and consequently do not feel confident teaching. Add to this the fact that instructional materials are often uninspiring, poorly designed and usually under-exploited by course-books. To cap it all, possibly as a result of all of the above, many MFL students fail at listening tasks, with serious consequence for their self-efficacy as listeners and their motivation in general.