The great grammar divide

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More idea sharing is needed between teachers of EAL / EFL and of mainstream English

Willis Creek Slot Canyon, taken on June 14th, 2017 by Anna Irene

Willis Creek Slot Canyon, taken on June 14th, 2017 by Anna Irene

According to Bas Aarts, professor of English linguistics at UCL, teachers in primary and secondary schools ‘hate teaching grammar’. In a recent article for the TES, he outlines the reasons behind this aversion:

  1. Insecurity and frustration – trainee teachers are, for the most part, English literature graduates, with little formal training in English grammar. (Hands up if anyone reading this post got a good grounding in grammar at school)
  2. A lack of support in the form of guidelines from the government
  3. A lack of well-researched and reliable materials available online
  4. A conviction that the teaching of grammar is not necessary for school children


Of course, many teachers of EAL and EFL would refute that last point and put forward the following counter-arguments:

  • Teaching grammar helps teachers and students to identify where they are going wrong. Although metalanguage can be tricky for teenagers (and younger students) to grasp, it’s very useful as a ‘feedback language’ between teachers and students for discussing students’ work.
  • It helps students to learn foreign languages; some terms are transferable to studying another language. Understanding English grammar provides a mental map for comparison with another language.
  • It develops analytical skills.


But how about points 2 and 3? It’s understandable that teachers baulk at teaching grammar if they don’t have enough support, surely? Perhaps they aren’t looking in the right places for it.


Interestingly, this summary of the grammatical structures that need to be taught at Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 at secondary school is not dissimilar to a typical grammar syllabus that can be found in general English coursebooks written for EAL / EFL students. Passives, possessives, the present perfect, adverbs, relative clauses, noun phrases, reported speech and modal verbs all feature. No doubt there will be people out there who object to the McDonaldization of the English language: the reduction of its grammar to bite size, teachable McNuggets. That aside though, wouldn’t it benefit teachers of English at secondary schools to consult EAL / EFL resources? Furthermore, rather than the EAL teacher supporting individual students in their mainstream English lessons, surely it would be better to give them a whole class to teach? Why not encourage them to teach English language to students who speak English as their native language? Why are English literature teachers being forced to learn the nuts and bolts of the English language on an ad hoc basis?


A conversation I had recently with a deputy head of a secondary school suggested one answer to these questions. He pointed out that the teaching of EAL or EFL was a great deal more ‘forensic’ than the teaching of English to mainstream native speaker students. This doesn’t seem to be borne out by consulting the summary of grammatical areas referred to above but perhaps reveals more about the perception of EAL lessons – they’re seen as scientific and analytical, whereas the teaching of English language and literature to native English students is perceived as something more holistic and altogether more creative.

As a result, there isn’t a great deal of idea and resource sharing between EAL/EFL teachers and English mainstream teachers, which is a shame. I say this because, from just a cursory glance at the available resources, I think cross-pollination would benefit everyone. For EAL/EFL teachers and writers, the grammar areas taught at Key Stages 5 would provide inspiration for C1 and C2 classes and materials. There are also resources out there which would save EAL/EFL teachers a lot of preparation time. For example, englicious, ‘a web-based system for teaching and learning the English language and its grammar, built in Moodle, interfaced with the ICE-GB corpus’, published by UCL.


For their part, mainstream English teachers could consult the wealth of ELT grammar reference and resource books available.

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