A ‘Big-picture’ Snapshot of Teaching Grammar in TESL/TEFL

I’m going to confess something here that some may find untoward for someone who identifies as an English language teaching (ELT) professional, especially one that is a second language (L2) writing specialist. I hate grammar. I hate teaching grammar (because I’m terrible at it). I hated learning it as a kid (because I was horrible at tree diagrams). I hate reading research about it…or, so I thought until I picked up the 2015 edited volume Teaching and Learning English Grammar: Research Findings and Future Directions. I chose this book for two reasons. First, and maybe foremost, I’m dedicated to my continued professional development, and that means pushing beyond my comfort zone. Second, I had a 30% discount with Taylor and Francis because of some review work I did for one of their journals (I’d never pay full price for a book about grammar).

So, you can already see how resistant I am to grammar just by reading that first paragraph. Perhaps part of the reason for this resistance is that I never really knew where to begin with studying grammar. Well, to paraphrase Rogers & Hammerstein’s (1959) Do-Re-Mi, starting at the beginning is a very good place to start. Fortunately, Celce-Murcia (2015)—which I will summarize below—provides an excellent opening for reading about and for thinking about teaching grammar in the ESL or EFL contexts. Some of her key takeaways are:

  1. Teaching grammar has had a complicated history in the field of language instruction (Nothing is really new).
  2. Communicative approaches do not eschew the teaching of grammar; they just view it differently than grammar-translation approaches do.
  3. Different communicative approaches (e.g., Focus-on-form, Sociocultural, Corpus-based, etc.) have disparate views of grammar and effective grammatical instruction.


Celce-Murcia (2015) provides a big-picture overview of the history and evolution of grammar and grammar instruction in ELT. To do so, she goes back to medieval time, showing how the purpose of Greek and Latin language instruction was to produce fluently communicative individuals. This was predicated on the abilities of fluent speakers of Greek and Latin being able to help learners acquire all aspects of the language, including Latin. Fast forward to the invention of the printing press in the 1400’s and mass-market textbooks become a possibility. With the arrival of more readily available books, foreign language instruction moves away from a Comenain (c. 1630’s) view of teaching for communicative ability (the ancestor of modern communicative language teaching (CLT)) towards a Cartesian driven, Pleotzian (c. 1850’s) grammar-translation method, with an explicit focus, first and foremost, on grammatical form and accuracy as the cornerstones of language learning. After this, the direct method emerges on the scene (c. 1880, a la Guoin) and a shift towards communicative approaches begins a slow but steady ascendency.

After outlining this brief but engaging history of grammar instruction in second/foreign language instruction, Celce-Murcia (2015) turns her focus to the role of grammar and grammatical instruction in a variety of communicative paradigms, drawing attention to the fact that grammatical competence is a crucial sub-part of communicative competence as it is broadly defined. Because of this, she calls the readers attention to Larsen-Freeman’s (2014) three dimensions of effective grammatical instruction. Namely, effective grammar instruction must account for the grammatical form, the meanings connected to it, and its range of uses. This becomes the organizer for a discussion of how approaches ranging from sociocultural views to corpus-based pedagogies and systemic functional linguistics conceive of the role of grammar in ELT and how these approaches view its instruction in classroom settings. Particularly noteworthy is the attention that Celce-Murcia gives to world Englishes and its pluricentric view of the spread of English globally. She argues that because English and its grammar are not monolithic attention must be given to just which English and just which grammar will be most useful for students to learn—this decenters English and creates recognition, value, and validation for varieties of English (and grammar) beyond Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, US, or UK English (grammar).

Closing Comments

Again, I despise grammar. Perhaps because of the poor way it was introduced to me in primary school. I often tell my students if you want to get a good grasp of grammar, don’t ask the average native speaker because for most of us it’s just too internalized. That being said, I teach professional and technical writing courses now, and grammatical accuracy has become more critical for my students. Because of this, I’ve decided to focus more of my professional development energies on learning about grammar instruction. Celce-Murcia (2015) provides an excellent introduction to the history and evolution of grammar and grammar instruction in ELT.


Celce-Murcia, M. (2015). An overview of teaching grammar in ELT. In M. Christianson, D. Christian, P. A. Duff, & N. Spada (Eds.). Teaching and Learning English Grammar: Research Findings and Future Directions (pp. 3-18). New York: Routledge, co-published with The International Research Foundation (TIRF).

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2014). Teaching grammar. In M. Celce-Murcia & M. A. Snow (Eds.). Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (pp. 256-270). Boston: Cengage Learning.

Rogers, R., & Hammerstein II, O. (1959). Do-re-mi. [Recorded by J. Andrews]. On The Sound of Music (50th anniversary edition) [CD]. New York: RCA. (March 9, 2015)

Joshua M. Paiz on Twitter
Joshua M. Paiz
Lecturer at NYU Shanghai
Joshua M. Paiz holds a Ph.D. in TESOL from Purdue University and is currently a lecturer and L2 writing specialist at NYU Shanghai. His research interests include L2 writing, SLA, identity in applied linguistics, and critical issues in TESOL.

Leave a Reply