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Teaching grammar implicitly vs explicitly

 The discussion about what is the best approach when teaching grammar in MFL is always a ‘hot seat’ topic and at times many of us will have to agree to disagree as we all have our own views and experiences which on a practical level, sometimes agree and sometimes disagree with the research into SLA – each learner and school context is unique therefore different approaches will be more suitable for the diversity of these contexts.  

In this post, I would like to discuss the differing points of view …

I believe that the purpose of learning a language is to be able to communicate in it. Many times, students tell me: ‘ I would love to study German in the college, but I just want to learn to speak it well so I can use it with my other STEM subjects, I don’t want to analyse literature and learn Grammar.’ However, in the practice, for many teachers and leaders in the schools, this is not as straightforward as it might seem, especially with the pressures of delivering results and achieving good grades.

Effective grammar teaching is essential for successful language learning, and it is important to build in time to our SoW to teach grammar well from the start. This can be rather difficult within the time constraints of the timetable and the lesson. 

Ergo, teaching of Grammar can take a variety of forms such as:

Lexicogrammar: a level of linguistic structure where lexis (vocabulary and grammar or syntax) combine into one, they are not seen as independent but rather mutually dependent, with one level interfacing with the other (Sardhina, 2019). This is the approach observed in Conti’s E.P.I. methodology.

Another approach which is more traditional, similar to the NCELP approach, is explicit grammar teaching – a teaching method that takes form as the centre, it puts the emphasis on purposefully learning grammatical rules so they can be used accurately and effectively as a language ingredient.

Rather than allowing students to develop grammatical awareness through application of structures or letting them to simply work out correct answers to fill in the gaps in a grammar exercise through the context, students should be taught and should learn to correctly recognise and reproduce grammar structures through their understanding of how the principles of these structures work. However, teaching it explicitly will not suit all our learners.

To embed grammar fully into students LTM, it has to be practised extensively via all four skills. From personal experience, this often happens via the reading and writing, but not as much through the listening and speaking skill. This is especially important, in a skill such as listening, where students need to be able to recognise grammatical patterns in a sentence within a speech and arrange them within the context to aid not only comprehension but also acquisition of the new structure or chunk. It is also rather common to observe lesser grammatical accuracy in spoken language than in written language.

With my Academy context in mind, this is how we approach grammar in our classrooms:

When I started to teach, some 17 years ago, my approach to grammar teaching was explicit. This is how I was taught grammar myself, as a student. On a personal level, I have to admit, it suited me as I was an academic student and I needed to understand how the language works and links, plus I had the discipline to memorise the patterns and study beyond the walls of the classroom. This was the way I was taught to teach it during my PGCE course, and it was also confirmed through the observations of my mentors and colleagues.

On reflection, it is fair to say that this approach has worked for small proportion of my most academic students. 

Some researchers (Ullman, 2006 in Smith&Conti, Memory, 2021) believe that vocabulary and grammar are processed differently. Vocabulary being stored in declarative memory, whereas grammar such as i.e., verb endings, in procedural memory. 

From the research, it is known that procedural memory takes longer to establish and even though our students may be able to recite verb paradigms and may appear to know/explain the rules from their declarative memory, I have observed too many times that they actually could not use it effectively or consistently from their procedural memory. 

Too often, I have seen students completing grammar exercises competently during lesson practice (completing their grammar worksheets correctly), thinking they have ‘got it’, only to find out when completing an independent piece of work, they have failed to apply their verb endings, tenses, or word order correctly! They could not transfer their declarative knowledge into their procedural knowledge.

As a teacher, I never see myself as a ‘finished product’! In the languages community, there is so much knowledge and good practice shared so generously which often accounts for one of the best CPDs available out there!

I learn and develop myself continuously, so when I came across the lexicogrammar approach, I was ready to learn and try it to see what impact it would have on my students’ outcomes.

As many colleagues who follow this methodology, we introduce the new language via sentence builders which are essentially chunks of language (Roshenshine’s Principles of Instruction: Principle 2). 

example of a sentence builder

These chunks of language are extensively practised during the Modelling/Awareness raising/ Receptive processing and Structured production phase (I wrote separate posts on these phases in my blog, so have a look for more detail, I have linked them) of the M.A.R.S.E.A.R.S. sequence. During the structured production phase, we start looking at patterns more closely, this is referred to by G. Conti as Pop-up Grammar. For example, our students learn the phrase ‘ich möchte’ (I would like) in year 7 when are we talking about ordering food in a café or a restaurant, however, the conditional is not taught explicitly until year 9.

I often find, that at this stage (sometimes even earlier, depending on class’s attainment) students start making observations and asking questions themselves, such as the differences in word order, verb endings or genders. 

Only after this phase, during the Expansion stage, are the structures learnt in greater depth and practised with the new and old vocabulary; we work on grammar explicitly and focus on generative processing and students expand to language patterns. We use less scaffolding (SB) and encourage our students to think deeply.

Having said that, I would not claim that there is a specific time when we should move onto explicit teaching of grammar. As mentioned at the start of this post, each context and class is different. I have had classes, where I have been teaching grammar explicitly very early on and this was to accommodate my students’ desire for wanting to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’. I firmly believe in adaptive teaching and there definitely is not a ‘one fits all’ approach. 

It is fantastic to get inspiration from other colleagues and to try different things, however, we have to bear in mind our own unique context and therefore a curriculum that is well-designed, thought through and sequenced is crucial. For our learners to embed grammatical structures in their LTM, they need to be interleaved throughout and students need to encounter them numerous times in different contexts.

For more on the curriculum and lesson sequencing see the CURRICULUM page on my blog or if your school subscribes to National College, you can watch my session on Secondary Modern Languages: Lesson-to-Lesson Sequencing and Adaptive Short-term Planning in Line with Teachers’ Standards.


Nov 28, 2023

Really enjoy reading your blog! I find it useful, practical and full of ideas and strategies which can be applied immediately!

Replying to

Thank you for your kind feedback. So pleased, you find it useful.

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