A place for grammar in the YL classroom?

The first session of ELTchat last Wednesday (3rd November) focused on how to teach grammar with the discussion inevitably including how much grammar to teach and whether or not to do it explicitly (transcript available here). Following on from Richard Whiteside’s great follow-up post, I thought I’d elaborate on the young learner angle.

One huge difference I’ve noticed between YLs (again, I mean the kids I’ve worked with aged from 8 to 12) and adults is the amount of grammar and vocabulary they know. The adults I’ve taught were often obsessed with grammar and judged what they had learnt and how good a class/teacher was by it. By contrast, the kids are obviously not capable of handling complex “grammar rules” but they do know an amazing amount of vocabulary! I recall one lesson with adult learners where my students were stumped by the sentence “he was tied to the chair with a rope”. They got the structure but had no idea what was going on as none of them knew what ‘rope’ meant. When rope came up in a story book with kids, I was shocked to find they immediately translated the word and mimed either tying up actions or pulling out lengths of the stuff. In these examples, I believe the students who knew the vocabulary would have had a better chance of understanding the sentence than those who knew it was a passive structure.

Hand in hand
Grammar & vocab: inseparable

All of which (kind of) brings me to my first point: grammar and vocabulary go hand-in-hand. It’s no use knowing one if you don’t know the other. If vocab is the clothing of our language, grammar makes sure it fits well. Anyway, enough with the analogies. Smile with tongue out When kids (or any learners) pick up and learn vocabulary and chunks of language, they pick up parts of the grammatical system as well. They then go through a ‘messy’ process of hypothesis testing, reformulating and testing again. It’s the teacher’s role to encourage the process, providing opportunities for noticing and testing language as well as plentiful chances to recycle. So, they may pick up some adjective-noun collocations and later start to recognise that an adjective generally comes before a noun and describes it in some way before attempting to match other adjectives and nouns together and seeing what works.

So where does controlled, targeted practice fit into all this? Despite their young age, I still feel kids can benefit from some explicit grammar instruction. The key thing is to provide a meaningful context, otherwise it just goes over their heads. For example, a couple of years ago, my students were struggling with an activity in their book in which they were asked to describe items on picture cards using the target language of “I have/haven’t got…”. It was going nowhere so I started to give examples using the kids own items. I showed one boy’s pencil case to the class and said “Look! I’ve got a Spiderman pencil case.” Their faces immediately lit up and they started to show me and each other their merchandised items (that globalised kids’ culture again!). That meant they got their controlled practice together with a meaningful context. I dare say they picked up on some adjective/noun and compound nouns structures as well. At this point, I should also say that although I believe explicit grammar instruction to be of benefit, that does not mean I spend time at the board telling students about adjectives, participles and verb tenses. Such metalanguage is not necessary at this stage. When students make errors like ‘he go swimming every weekend’, I don’t remind them about ‘3rd person singular present simple’ but I may say something like ‘I go, he/she ….?’ and elicit the correct form from them, hopefully helping them notice something in the process.

where's spot
Not your typical grammar book….

I’ll finish by referring to one of my favourite grammar books for kids. Of course, I don’t mean an actual grammar book (although they do exist for kids as I have seen a particularly dry one on my students’ desks which they use with their other English teacher). Instead, I mean ”Where’s Spot?” by Eric Hill! It may not strike you as a grammar book at first but take a look inside and you’ll see pages with a target language structure of ‘Is he (preposition) the (household object)?’ repeated throughout and placed in a meaningful context by simple illustrations with moveable flaps. What a shame that we don’t use it anymore! (another problem with the ‘all-in-one’ coursebooks that include their own stories with the previous unit’s target language crowbarred in). Spot wouldn’t be suitable for the age group I work with now but there are still other picture books with similarly repeated language that could be used. I’d love to use The Gruffalo for descriptions or The Incredible Book Eating Boy for habits and routines but there just aren’t enough hours in the syllabus!

So, in short, yes – there is a place for grammar in the young learner classroom. That does not mean there’s a place for 100% grammar lessons but, given a meaningful context and the chance to experiment with the structure(s), kids can benefit from some explicit instruction to complement all the stuff they somehow pick up!

For any one working with kids, I recommend looking at either (or both!) of the following books, which have great chapters summing up grammar and vocabulary much better than I ever could:

Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching Languages to Young Learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Pinter, A. (2006). Teaching Young Language Learners. Oxford: OUP

You should also read the G for Grammar entry from Carol Read's ABC of Teaching Children blog, which contains a lot of insightful comment.


  1. Ron - Englodysiac8 November 2010 at 23:00

    Dave another 2 cents worth coming up - in my experience the younger the learner, the better it is to use the so called lexical approach. The grammar is already there in the chunk they will use the chunk - in the right places - with the right pronunciation / intonation and it'll be grammatically right as well That's the closest you'll get to L1 acquisition Fluency + accuracy without knowing the rules

  2. Scott has a really good video on youtube about the blurred distinction between grammar and lexis that I'd agree with. It's called 7 Way to Look at Grammar I think.

    With YL I don't consider it grammar teaching as much as pattern teaching. Kids will latch onto patterns very quickly and before you know it they will take those patterns apart and apply them elsewhere.

    It's sad the other teacher is using a grammar book. I can almost guarantee they are teaching what you are arguing against doing. The last Turkish teacher class I observed at a YL school had the teacher teaching a bunch of 8 year olds the passive in Turkish and then having them do sheet upon sheet of exercises. What a waste!

    Your story comparing kids with adults is great. This is really the biggest block adults have. They are very analytical. Your adults didn't know "rope" so they got hung up on it and blocked out being able to understand the sentence. Kids just role with it and pick up as much as they can. Adults that learn languages well do the same, but it seems to be an acquired skill as you have to break down the years of analytical education first.

  3. Hi David, I agree with you completely, and imagine many will too. The Spot book is a perfect example of a structure repeated for effect in a story. Nursery rhymes do it too (What big eyes you've got!), and these are perhaps the most well-remembered and loved parts of the tale. I like your lesson observations very much too. The passive example remind me of the quote: "without grammar, you can't say much. Without words, you can't say anything!"
    Ron and Nick make valid points too. Regarding the Lexical Approach, this was the first time I came across chunking and collocation, even having done the DELTA by 1998 which focused on different methods. I don't know if any other authors focused on it so much before. To me, an uderstanding of it makes grammar accessible, and useful.
    A very good post.

  4. Ron - 6 cents & counting! It's amazing what kids can pick up without focusing on the details of the language too much. More 'natural' if you will.

    Nick - hadn't thought of that until you said it. The adult learners didn't know the meaning of rope but they still managed to hang themselves with it! I find that's also an issue - when some older learners come across an unknown word or form, they hit a wall and stop instead of trying to work around it. It's all about strategy training and raising awareness I guess.

    David - I love the reptitive language in kids' stories as they pick it up so well and use it so easily. My son does it a lot with the stories we read and I'd love to get my students doing it more in class.

    Interesting that the lexical approach comes up again in your comments. I don't consider myself as teaching in that way but maybe it's time I analyse what I do in class more closely!

  5. Hi Dave

    Thanks for this great post with key points about young learners and grammar. A while ago I also wrote about 'G for Grammar' on my blog which is in tune with much of what you say.

    I completely agree with you that children initially learn chunks of language, which combine vocabulary and grammar, in a holistic, unanalysed way and that, as they grow more conceptually mature, they can benefit from explicit instruction. As you so rightly say, the key is to provide a meaningful context and your example of the picture cards, Spiderman pencil case and 'have got' illustrate this beautifully!

    The issue about whether or not to introduce metalanguage and if so, when, also depends to a large extent on how the children are being taught in L1 and whether they can transfer their understanding of metalanguage, which has been introduced in L1, to English.

    Great that you mention the power of picture books which have repetitive patterns as a vehicle for teaching grammar in an implicit and naturally embedded way. I love all the ones you mention - and the Gruffalo play and song at the back of the book are also brilliant!

  6. Hi Carol,

    Thanks again for your insight and comments. I've also linked your G for Grammar post into mine.

    I tend to introduce metalanguage on a need-to-know basis. They know the basic tense names for example, and we use words like 'preposition' on ocassion. One great site I found that motivated my learners to want/need to know such words is Wacky Web Tales. Here, you have to input words as directed (e.g. adjective, countable noun, past simple verb form), which are then placed into a story giving some 'wacky' results!

    The Gruffalo and Monkey Puzzle were big hits with my 3rd graders last year (even at aged 9, they didn't see them as too 'babyish') and this year The Incredible Book Eating Boy has been well-recieved by the 4th graders. It's one of those great books that they love to look at and touch as much as read.

    All those books have been 'borrowed' for use from my 5 year-olds story collection by the way!

  7. Hi Dave

    Good point about introducing meta-language on a need-to-know basis and thanks for the link to Wacky Web Tales - can imagine they love it!

    Monkey Puzzle is one of my very favourites too. And it links wonderfully well with content-based learning and how to classify animals using the animals little monkey meets in the story as a springboard into the topic. The rhyme and rhythm of the story help to make it really memorable too. I've also found that 3rd graders love this book and don't find it babyish and the language and vocabulary level is in any case quite challenging.

    Make sure you hang on to all your 5 year-old's story books! My kids are adults now but their childhood picture books still form the basis of my precious collection!

    Thanks for adding the link to 'G for Grammar'. I'd like to add your blog to my blog roll too.


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