You are on page 1of 6



QUESTIONS by Ilsabeth Hidalgo Hermanni
Thank you so much Jack for this opportunity to talk about grammar. In my case, i teach Spanish most of
the time, i can not expect my students to be fluent or make complex sentences, but, i do expect them to
learn how to conjugate basic verbs like present, past and future tenses. When you talk about grammar for
primary level they always think that is boring. There is any way or activity that you suggest? I try to put the
topic in context, real life and not too long. Thank you so much!
23 May 2014 05:41

RESPONSE by Jack Richard
Young learners like to learn through the experience of using the language, rather than through studying
rules and practicing them. This means that their learning will be based on activities and using language
as it occurs as a part of doing things. They also enjoy learning socially useful language, including phrases
and longer utterances, without understanding exactly what they mean. They learn language in chunks, or
whole phrases, and may have little interest in knowing how the phrases are constructed and what their
grammatical components are. So make the most of games, skits, dialogues, songs and other activities
that provide repeated opportunities to practice new language and expressions.
26 May 2014 02:40

QUESTIONS by Muhammad Shujaat
How do you think grammar teaching should be organised across a curriculum/course? Is there any
recommended/ best workable order? Do you think complexity activities alone can help learners acquire
grammar without explicit teaching?
22 May 2014 11:58

RESPONSE by Jack Richard
Central to an approach to grammar teaching is the distinction between grammatical knowledge and
grammatical ability. Grammatical knowledge refers to knowledge of the rules that account for
grammatically correct language. Its unit of focus is the sentence. In traditional approaches to language
teaching it was typically viewed as an independent component of language ability and assessed through
discrete point tests that assessed mastery of different grammatical items. Correct language use was
achieved through a drill and practice methodology and through controlled speaking and writing exercises
that sought to prevent or minimize opportunities for errors. Grammatical ability refers to the ability to use
grammar as a communicative resource in spoken and written discourse and requires a different
pedagogical approach. Its unit of focus is the text. Text here is used to refer to structured and
conventional sequences of language that are used in different contexts in specific ways. For example, in
the course of a day a person may use English for a variety of interactional and transactional purposes,
both spoken and written, such as casual conversation, telephone calls, requests, reports, discussions and
so on. Each of these uses of language involves the use of texts, that is, stretches of language that consist
of a unified whole with a beginning, middle and end, that conform to norms of organization and content,
and that draw on appropriate grammar and vocabulary. Grammatical ability thus involves using grammar
as a resource to create different kinds of spoken and written texts for use in specific contexts. These
contexts might include studying in an English-medium university, working in a restaurant, working in an
office, or socializing with neighbors in a housing complex. Students often develop a good understanding
of grammatical knowledge through traditional teaching methods that focus on grammar as a somewhat
isolated collection of rules - rules that exist independently of their use in the production of authentic
written or spoken language. They may have spent many hours practicing the rules for correct sentence
formation but lack the ability to use grammar as a resource in communication. However in order to
develop grammar as a communicative resource it needs to be taught and assessed as a component of
communicative ability and performance particularly in relation to the productive skills of writing and
speaking. In planning an English curriculum therefore the kinds of texts students need to become
proficient in is the starting point, and grammar can be introduced in relation to the spoken and written
texts the students need to master.
26 May 2014 02:47

QUESTIONS by Muhammad Shujaat

Hi Jack I heard in the video you talk about grammar in detail. It was great. You mentioned complexity,
which if I understood rightly, is the feature of grammar structures of an upper level than the current level.
What about range? Could you spell out the difference between the two? Also, what do you think should
the focus of grammar teaching at different levels: fluency vs accuracy?
22 May 2014 11:55

RESPONSE by Jack Richard
The development of fluency in language use may mean greater and more accurate use of known
language forms, but it does not necessarily imply development in the complexity of the learner's
language. For the learner's linguistic system to take on new and more complex linguistic items, the
restructuring or reorganization of mental representations is required, as well as opportunities to practise
these new forms. Several factors can facilitate restructuring, most notably change in communicative
needs. As the range of topics and contexts for language use changes, different grammatical resources
are needed. Describing daily routines will require less complex grammar than discussing hypothetical
situations, for example. Learners whose use of English is restricted to a very limited range of contexts,
situations and activities are unlikely to have the need to develop a more complex knowledge of grammar.



Thank you for this great talk on Modals. I find it difficult to teach the different modals when they have
similar meanings. Have you got any ideas to help?
13 May 2014 20:42


"I find it difficult to teach the different modals when they have similar meanings. Have you got any ideas to
help?" writes Anne. Good question: here are two suggestions.. (1) Try to keep the meanings separate
initially by selecting modals that have quite different meanings, and associating them with very specific
notions or functions, e.g. CAN (for ability); SHOULD (for advice; MAY (for permission). (2) Use a chart or
diagram to show how modals with similar meanings are related - this is especially useful when teaching
the 'probability' meaning of modals. So, arrange the modals along a chart from HIGHLY PROBABLE to
HIGHLY IMPROBABLE. It's best to provide a little context, e.g. 'She must be Australian', 'She may be
Australian', 'She could be Australian', 'She might be Australian', 'She might not be Australian...' 'She can't
be Australian'. You can show that may/could/might overlap.
15 May 2014 10:11


Scott, how is the meaning of modals different from their concepts? Incidentally, do we have any
difference between meaning and concept? Also, where does notion fit in? I would hope they are the


Hi Muhammad: I don't make a distinction between 'meaning' and 'concept', when talking about 'the
meaning/concept of a particular modal verb', no. 'Notion', on the other hand, has perhaps a more specific
sense, in that it is commonly used to describe the elements of a semantic (i.e. meaning-based) syllabus.
a notion being a semantic category (such as FREQUENCY, QUANTITY, CERTAINTY ETC) which can be
expressed in a range of lexical and grammatical ways. Does that make sense?


The video ends in : What to teach and when (and of course Scott's proverbial smile)? Whenever I have
asked this question the answers have varied: coursebook does this for you, you cannot decide this as it is
not going to be learner-centred and so on. How best can we organise our teaching of modals, in which
order: should start by will based on its high frequency or should be start with 'can' that my student needs
immediately to ask permission? Which approach will be more beneficial? And the same question in
respect of the other grammar content of course?
13 May 2014 14:57


Muhammad asked: 'should start by will based on its high frequency or should be start with 'can' that my
student needs immediately to ask permission?' You make a good point, i.e. that immediate utility should
perhaps be the first priority in teaching modals - or anything, for that matter - and it's certainly the case
that 'can' for requests and permission has a lot of utility in the classroom. One way of feeding it in would
be in the form of posters around the room with such expressions as 'Can you repeat that, please?' 'Can
you spell that?' 'Can I leave the room?' etc. However, I also think that 'will' could be fed in, in a similar
way, with expressions like 'I'll bring it tomorrow', 'I'll see you on Monday' etc. What do you think?

Modals are an important component in an effective English communication. Confidence has to be
increased about this part of speech that is not obvious for non natives.
12 May 2014 17:27


One reason that the modal system in English is 'not obvious', I think, is that, while every language has
some means of expressing modality, these do not easily map on to one another. So, if a language has
modal verbs, it will have some that translate easily into English and function in similar ways, but you can
pretty sure it will have others that either translate less easily, or function differently.
13 May 2014 15:39

I feel that in class. Once you teach modals, the students understand their meanings but they dont know
exactly which one to choose in the conversation.
12 May 2014 18:42


"...they dont know exactly which one to choose in the conversation". True, Fernanda. And one possible
reason is that they have been taught too many - so that there are too many to choose from. Maybe if we
limited the number of modals that we taught for production to just four: can (permission & ability), will
(future and requests), would (requests and hypothetical meaning) and 'have to' (obligation), while
teaching 'maybe' and 'probably' for talking about possibilities?

Hi Scott, Interesting that you choose "will" for requests. This is something I tend not to teach. I get the
impression that "could" and "would" are more common....... and sound more polite to me. I agree that may
and might are not strictly necessary. Students can (and do) get by with perhaps and maybe, which are
easier to use. Finally, I find that my students never use should to say that something seems a good idea,
or advisable. They tend to use "have to". What would you suggest as an alternative? Your table showing
the frequency of the different modals was really interesting. Thanks for that.


Hi Sarah... yes, you're right, i.e. that 'will' may be a little too assertive for requests. I think I meant to say
'offers', as in 'I'll give you a lift'. Of course, the thing with all these 'interpersonal' functions is that their
appropriacy depends as much on other factors, both linguistic and non-linguistic, as it does on the correct
choice of modal. I'm referring to ways of mitigating the force of a request, for example, by adding 'please',
or by the use of intonation, gesture and so on.


Master, I use to present this subject with a map with two axis, 'Burden' and 'Relief'. Then, i trace 3 lines
crossing those two axis. These lines have two sides, Obligation / Non-Obligation, Prohibition / Permission
and Certainty / Possibility. I teach that all sorts of Obligations and Prohibitions are "burdens" and all
Permissions and Non-Necessity are relief. Afterwards, I present 2 forms (one changeable (Have to) and
other thar doesn't change (must). But i don't know how to include Modality for Abilities and Advice in this
functional context. Have you heard something closer to this approach?
13 May 2014 19:03


Nice idea, Gabriel. To accommodate 'can' (for ability) you would need to design another chart which deals
with the 'possibility' meanings of the modals - i.e. not their interpersonal meanings. 'I can play the guitar'
means 'I have the potential to play the guitar', just as 'it may rain' means that there is the possibility of
rain. As George Yule notes, of 'can' for ability: 'It is important to recognize that it is the potential to perform
the action that is being expressed in these sentences, not the actual performance'. (Explaining English
Grammar, OUP,1998, p. 92).
14 May 2014 06:22


I'm so glad you had replied my message! Thank you so much! I'll definitely check the tip out! MASTER,
another misconception i'm facing now, is different 'labels' that authors use like: Possibility / Probability -
Assumptions / Deductions. Can I use Should instead of Must for Possibility in the case below?
(Diminishing the certainty level of my guess?) He had worked hard, So he Must be exhausted. (I call it "A
High Possibility" / "Almost Certain") (Some people say: It's Probability and is a deduction based on logical
thought) "He had worked hard, So he should be exhausted."
17 May 2014 13:23


Hi Gabriel... as I said in my video, all modals can express different degrees of certainty but there are
(sometimes subtle) differences between them. The general rule is that 'must' expresses 'logical
necessity', as in 'Today is Tuesday so tomorrow must be Wednesday' , while 'should' expresses a
'reasonable probability' (hence is weaker than 'must'), as in 'The weather forecast is good: it should be a
nice day tomorrow'. (Notice that you can't really use 'must' here because predictions about the weather
are less 'logical' than 'evidence-based'. Notice also that what is 'reasonable' is generally 'desirable'. It
would be unusual to say 'The weather forecast is bad. It should rain tomorrow'). Regarding your example
('He should be exhausted'): this sounds untypical, because being exhausted is not desirable. On the other
hand, the combination: 'He has worked hard. He should get good marks' does sound a more plausible
combination. Hope this helps.
17 May 2014 20:04

QUESTION BY Christine Sautereau-Chandley

Thank you Scott for this interesting discussion. What about any suggestion of role play for practising
these four modals? Obviously, using these verbs in context is the best and easiest way to understand
meaning and structure. Also, could we have any other teaching tips for giving SS confidence and
accuracy to use them?
13 May 2014 17:54


Thanks, Christine.- Yes, any language area that involves 'getting people to do things', e.g. making
requests, asking favours, giving or withholding permission, lends itself to role play, not least because
these kind of language functions usually require some kind of negotiation. E.g. A: 'Excuse me' B. 'Yes?' A.
'Sorry to bother you, but is that your dog?' B.'Yes, it is. Why?' A. 'It's biting my leg. Could you ask it to
stop?' B. 'Is it bothering you?' A. 'Just a little, yes'. B. 'I'm so sorry. Pongo, stop it. Now!' etc.