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Ivor Timmis, England/Leeds Metropolitan University

5. Introduction:
Teaching Grammar
While some practitioners and theorists have regarded it as axiomatic that grammar
teaching is central to effective language teaching, others have seen at best a minimal
role for grammar teaching, and a variety of positions between these two extremes have
been proposed. This chapter considers the theoretical arguments and empirical
evidence cited in support of the various approaches to the teaching of grammar which
have been advocated over the years. The chapter considers the main arguments in
relation to the necessity of teaching grammar, and discusses the relative merits of
proactive and reactive grammar teaching, input-based and output-based approaches,
and implicit and explicit teaching. The chapter also outlines the factors we need to
consider when deciding on an appropriate approach to teaching grammar, and
concludes, along with Ellis (2006), that what is fundamentally needed is a broad view of
what constitutes grammar teaching and a context-sensitive approach to the issue.

1. Introduction
For those outside the field of language teaching, the degree of controversy which
surrounds the teaching of grammar probably comes as a surprise given that, for many,
learning a language is almost synonymous with learning grammar. The uncertainty
around grammar teaching is, however, emphasised by Borg (1999: 157): "In ELT,
grammar teaching clearly constitutes [...] an ill-defined domain: the role of formal
instruction itself has been a perennial area of debate, and more than 20 years of research
have failed to yield firm guidelines for grammar teaching methodology". There is
certainly no doubt that grammar teaching continues to excite intense and even fractious
debate (see for example the exchange between Ellis (2006b) and Sheen (2006) in the
pages of TESOL Quarterly). The aim of this chapter is to add some definition to what
Borg (1999: 160) describes as the "ill-defined domain" of grammar teaching. This will
not, however, take the form of definitive answers to questions about grammar teaching:
as we shall see, language teaching research is some way from being able to offer
conclusive evidence in favour of particular approaches or positions. What I hope to
offer, however, is a set of options which will be useful in developing an informed and
principled approach to grammar teaching, and a set of factors which need to be
considered in considering those options. The chapter begins by addressing the
fundamental question of whether we need to teach grammar at all. The chapter then
discusses a number of different approaches to teaching grammar. The approaches are
discussed separately for the sake of clarity, but, as will become evident, the suggestion
is not that they are mutually exclusive, despite what some of their more extreme

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advocates may say. Finally, the factors which might influence the approach or particular
combination of approaches to teaching grammar we might adopt are discussed.

2. The Non-interventionist Position on Grammar


Teaching
The position that grammar teaching has, at best, a peripheral role in language
teaching has, in recent times, been most commonly associated with Krashen. Krashen
(1981) argued that exposure to comprehensible input - input just above the learner's
current level - was both a necessary and sufficient condition for acquisition to take
place. Krashen (1981) distinguished, in this sense, between acquisition, a subconscious
process triggered by exposure to comprehensible input, and learning, a conscious
process triggered by instruction. Most controversially, he argued that learning, while it
might be useful for monitoring the accuracy of one's own output, could not translate
into the acquired store of language available for spontaneous use. Proponents of this
view cite research showing that learners tend to follow a common developmental route
in grammar - the internal syllabus - which does not seem to be much affected by
instruction. They can also point to the analogy with first language acquisition, where
most children achieve fluency in their first language without explicit instruction. While
Krashen may have popularised such views on the peripheral role of grammar teaching
in recent years, it is worth noting, along with Thornbury (1999) that such views are by
no means new. As far back as 1622, a school teacher called Joseph Webbe (cited in
Thornbury 1999: 14) had this to say: "No man can run speedily to the mark of language
that is shackled [...] with grammar precepts [...] By exercise of reading, writing, and
speaking [...] all things belonging to Grammar, will without labour, and whether we
will or no, thrust themselves upon us". The non-interventionist position in terms of
grammar teaching is also associated with what Howatt (1984: 279) calls the "strong"
version of Communicative Language Teaching. The strong version of CLT essentially
holds that language is learned through the act of communication and, as Ellis (2003)
notes, finds echoes in some versions of task-based learning.

3. The Interventionist Position on Grammar Teaching


T h e non-interventionist position on grammar teaching has, however, come under
sustained challenge on both theoretical and empirical grounds. Gregg (1984), for
example, in a sustained theoretical attack on Krashen's hypotheses, argues that Krashen
shows that learning need not precede acquisition but does not show that learning cannot
precede acquisition. Scheffler (2009: 5) argues that "assuming that L2 development can
proceed largely implicitly and incidentally may not be valid, at least as far as adult
learners are concerned", as adult L2 learning is fundamentally different from child L2
learning. Scheffler (2009) cites Bley-Vroman's (1989) proposal that adults possess a
powerful problem-solving mechanism which is domain-independent and used by adults

in L2 learning. In this sense, L2 acquisition for adults is analogous to the acquisition of


other complex cognitive skills such as playing chess. Krashen's almost exclusive focus
on input has been challenged by Swain (1985), who argues that output can facilitate
acquisition by helping learners to notice gaps between what they want to say and what
they are able to say, and by allowing them to test out hypotheses about features they
have noticed in input.
In empirical terms, a substantial amount of evidence from French immersion
programmes in Canada suggests that, while non-interventionist content-based teaching
leads to significant gains in fluency and in receptive skills, it does not produce
comparable gains in accuracy of output (Ellis 2006). Ellis (2006) also refers to Norris
and Ortega's (2000) meta-analysis of 49 research studies which indicates that some kind
of instructional focus on grammar is beneficial. In the light of both theoretical
arguments and empirical evidence, there now seems to be a consensus that grammar
teaching does make a difference, even though the exact relation between the teaching
and the outcomes is difficult to predict. There is far less agreement on what kind of
grammar teaching makes a difference, and it is to this question that we now turn.

4. Proactive Grammar Teaching


One of the fundamental choices facing the teacher of grammar is between proactive
and reactive grammar teaching. Proactive grammar teaching entails planned treatment
of specific grammatical features and is often associated with the PPP (Present-PracticeProduce) paradigm. This procedure typically involves the presentation of the target
structure in some kind of illustrative context and the explanation and/or elicitation of the
form, meaning and use of the target structure. This is followed by controlled practice where the learners manipulate the target item in drills or exercises - and free practice,
where the focus is still on the target form, but the learners have more freedom over what
to say. It is important to note, however, that a proactive approach to grammar teaching
does not necessarily involve either explicit instruction or, indeed, active practice. In the
Direct Method, for example, target features were presented in context and practised, but
learners were expected to arrive at the rules inductively - indeed, no explanation was
allowed. In the Audiolingual Method, rule acquisition, based on a behaviourist model of
learning, was seen as essentially habit formation. In a Total Physical Response
approach, the meaning of structures is demonstrated through actions and comprehension
is checked through learners' physical responses to stimuli which include the target
structure. There is, however, no explanation or even oral production of the form.
Arguments in favour of proactive grammar teaching centre around breadth of
coverage of grammatical items and depth of treatment. In terms of coverage, Swan
(2005 : 393) argues that the kind of reactive teaching that typifies task-based
methodology cannot be guaranteed to include key features:
While, clearly, in a task-based programme, language relevant to the performance of the
chosen tasks will be foregrounded, other important items that fall outside this framework
cannot be guaranteed to occur naturally under normal time constraints, and may not
therefore become available for learning.

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Teaching Grammar

In terms of depth of treatment, Ellis (2006: 94) notes the advantages of intensive
grammar teaching involving practice: "[...] recent research (e.g. Spada/Ltghtbown
1999) indicates that even if learners are not ready to learn the targeted structure,
intensive grammar teaching can help them progress through the sequence of stages
involved in the acquisition of that structure".

that what they term "integrated form-focused instruction" with young learners led to
more successful acquisition of certain forms than purely meaning based instruction with
no focus at all on grammar. Spada and Lightbown (2008: 191) cite a number of other
studies which, they claim, offer support to "the hypothesis that attention to language
form within the context of communicative practice can lead to progress in learners'
language development. Although this progress has been observed in the short term for
most studies, long-term improvement has also been reported [...]".

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5. Reactive Grammar Teaching


A reactive approach to grammar teaching is often associated with Long's (1981)
distinction between "focus on forms" - proactive, planned instruction of discrete items'
and "focus on form", where grammar points are dealt with as and when they create
difficulty in the context of a communicative activity. As Spada and Lightbown (2008)
note, there is often an assumption that reactive teaching in the context of
communicative activities means only implicit teaching or very brief explanations.
Implicit teaching in this context may be carried out simply by supplying the correct
form or by recasting the learner's utterance while maintaining the communicative flow,
as in the following example:
Learner: / goed to the. cinema yesterday.
Teacher: Oh, you went to the cinema, did you? What did you see?
However, as Spada and Lightbown (2008: 187) go on to point out, there is no reason
why more explicit and intensive grammar work should not be carried out in response to
a problem noticed in the context of a communicative activity: "Both isolated and
integrated FFI [Form-focused instruction] can include explicit feedback on error,
metalinguistic terminology, the statement of rules, and explanations". We can also add
that there is no reason why reactive teaching should not occur in response to written
work.
Arguments in favour of reactive teaching rest partly on negative evidence. Much
SLA research has shown that acquisition of structures is partial, cumulative and
simultaneous rather than a straightforward discrete, incremental procedure: "Learning
linguistic items is not a linear process - learners do not master one item and then move
on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve
is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings." (Larsen-Frceman 1997:
151). If there is no clear relation between the order of acquisition and the order of
instruction, the argument runs, with echoes of the natural order hypothesis, then there
would seem to be little point in teaching to a discrete item, fixed grammatical syllabus.
Long (1991) argues that grammar items are most effectively taught in the context of
communicative interaction and Spada and Lightbown (2008: 190) cite research on
"transfer appropriate processing" which supports this position: "According to TAP,
learners retrieve knowledge best if the processes for retrieval are similar to those that
were used in the learning condition [...]".
In terms of empirical evidence, Ellis (2006) cites research to show that grammar
teaching through corrective feedback can lead to the treatment of a wide range of
grammatical forms. Spada and Lightbown (2008) report their own research that showed

6. Assessing the Merits of Proactive and Reactive


Teaching
The debate about the relative merits of proactive and reactive teaching has
sometimes been quite polarised, particularly when proactive teaching is conceptualised
only as PPP and reactive teaching is conceptualised only as 'light touch' corrective
feedback in the context of communicative activities. Swan (2005), for example, refers to
the condemnation of planned discrete item teaching by some advocates of task-based
learning on the basis that it is a "discredited, behaviourist model". Sheen (2003) argues
that comparative studies consistently show that proactive, explicit instruction works at
least as well as other approaches and is often shown to be superior.
There would seem to be two main ways in which the debate could be made less
polarised. Firstly, there could be an acknowledgement that there is a wealth of anecdotal
evidence that an approach such as PPP is not very effective in the way it was originally
intended to work, i.e. intensive practice does not seem to lead immediately to fluent and
spontaneous production of the target form. However, this is not the same as saying that
PPP is ineffective per se: it may be as effective, or more effective, than more reactive
and implicit approaches in producing longer term gains by priming learners to notice the
feature in future input. Sheen's (2003) call for more comparative research seems apt
here, despite Ellis' (2006b) reservations about the validity of comparative research
given the large number of variables. Secondly, it needs to be emphasised that planned
reactive teaching represents a third possibility alongside proactive and reactive teaching.
Spada and Lightbown (2008: 186) draw attention to this possibility:
More recent interpretations of focus on form have expanded the definition to include
instruction in which teachers anticipate that students will have difficulty with a particular
feature as they engage in a communicative task and plan in advance to target that feature
through feedback and other pedagogical interventions, all the while maintaining a primary
focus on meaning [....].

7. Input-based Approaches
A further choice facing teachers is that between input-based approaches and outputbased approaches. As we noted above, output-based approaches tend to be associated
with proactive approaches, but this is not a necessary equation: input-based approaches

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can also be proactive. Input-based approaches, as Ellis (2006; 98) summarises "seek to
draw learners' attention to the targeted structure(s) in one or more ways: simply by
contriving for numerous exemplars of the structure(s) to be present in the input
materials, by highlighting the target structure(s) in some way (e.g. by using bold or
italics in written texts), or by means of interpretation tasks [...] directed at drawing
learners' attention to form-meaning mappings". The theoretical rationale for inputbased approaches rests on a computational model of language acquisition in which
acquisition occurs as a result of processing input (Ellis 2006). It could also be argued
that an element of the rationale for input-based approaches lies in the negative evidence
that intensive practice of a structure does not generally lead to immediate automatic
control in spontaneous production. An area of primary interest in input-based
approaches is the relationship between 'input' - the language the learner is exposed to and 'intake' - that part of the input which becomes part of the learner's potential
productive repertoire. Schmidt (1990) argued that the crucial link between input and
intake was the process of "noticing", whereby learners become conscious of the gap
between what they are able to produce and the second language input. In other words,
learners need to pay conscious attention to form in input in order for it to become
available as output. Approaches which emphasise noticing from input have a good deal
in common with "consciousness-raising" (Willis 1996) and "language awareness
approaches" (Bolitho et al. 2003): there is an emphasis on drawing students' attention to
a contextualised target feature and asking them to 'discover' its form, meaning and use
inductively. Students are not necessarily required to produce the target form.

8. Output-based Approaches
Output-based approaches are of two distinct kinds: those in which output is
fundamentally about practising a particular target feature or features intensively, and
those in which the output is seen as a general stimulus to acquisition where different
learners might actually acquire or notice different features in the course of the same
activity. The case for output as practice of a particular feature reflects the view of
language as essentially a skill. The argument (DeKeyser 2003) is that learners can,
through intensive meaningful practice, develop automatic control of structures which
have initially been learned explicitly. It is important to emphasise here that the practice
needs to be meaningful - practice is not just a matter of quantity, but also of quality. As
Swan (2005: 383) notes, it is the simplistic equation of 'practice' with the behaviourist
drilling which characterised the audiolingual method that has perhaps led to an
indiscriminate condemnation of practice: "The fact that systematic practice is associated
with 'discredited' behaviourist theory, and with a short-lived fashion for exclusively
mechanical structure-drilling which perhaps only achieved 'false automatization' (Ellis
2003: 105), has led many scholars to dismiss its use as irrelevant to acquisition".
Discrete item focused practice is not, however, the only kind of output which has
been advocated for grammatical development. There is an argument that interaction of
the right kind can itself contribute to grammatical development (Long 1991) and an
argument that activities which reflect the nature and role of grammar in communication
can promote acquisition (Thornbury 2001; Cullen 2008). Social interaction can itself

contribute to grammatical development by stimulating a number of processes


hypothesised to be beneficial to acquisition, especially when the interaction requires
negotiation of meaning, where learners are obliged to modify what they have said in
order to make themselves understood. Among the beneficial processes potentially
stimulated by interaction are self-correction, correction by the interlocutor, modelling of
the correct form by the interlocutor, further exposure to the input and 'pushed output' as
the learner has to elaborate what she has said (Ellis 1997).
Both Thornbury (2001) and Cullen (2009) stress the value of activities where
learners are asked to 'add grammar' to lexis. Such an approach is based on a view that
the essential role of grammar is to act as a "liberating force" (Cullen 2009), which
liberates the speaker from a dependence on lexis and a dependence on context to convey
meaning. In Willis' (2003) terms, lexis may convey the essential content of the
message, but grammar adds both structure and orientation (in terms, for example, of
time, place and person) to the message. Thornbury (2001) argues that analysing the
product of grammar - a complete sentence or utterance - does necessarily give us
insights into the process of grammar: how grammar is created online. He proposes that
the term grammar should be used as a verb as well as a noun and many of the practical
activities suggested by Thornbury (2001) and Cullen (2008) are indeed called
grammaring or grammaticization tasks which involve mapping grammar on to given
lexis. For Thornbury (2001: 21), the essential requirements for grammaring tasks are
that they
will need to reduce the learner's dependence on the immediate context and on words alone
and to provide an incentive to enlist grammar in order to make meanings crystal clear. At the
same time, activities will need to provide learners with the right conditions - including
sufficient processing time - so that they can marshal their grammaring skills. Finally, they
will need clear messages as to how precise they have been: feedback must be explicit and
immediate.
For Cullen (2009: 221), the essential features are "[...] learner choice over which
grammatical structures to use; a process of 'grammaticization' where the learners apply
grammar to lexis; and opportunities to make comparisons and notice gaps in their use of
grammar". Both writers give practical examples of activities which reflect the theory.
Thornbury (1997) focuses particularly on reconstruction and reformulation tasks.

9. Explicit and Implicit Teaching


It will be apparent from the foregoing discussion that there is a further choice for
teachers, between explicit and implicit teaching, and that this choice, though it is
perhaps not widely enough acknowledged, cuts across the other choices between
proactive and reactive teaching, input based and output based teaching. Ellis (2006: 95)
defines explicit knowledge as knowledge which "is held consciously, is learnable and
verbalisable, and is typically accessed through controlled processing when learners
experience some kind of linguistic difficulty in using the L2". He then distinguishes
between "analysed knowledge" - conscious knowledge of how a structure works - and

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"metalinguistic explanation", the ability to explain that knowledge using grammatical


knowledge. Implicit knowledge, on the other hand, is defined (Ellis 2006: 95) as
knowledge which is "procedural, is held unconsciously, and can only be verbalized if it
is made explicit".
We have already seen that Krashen disfavoured explicit instruction on the grounds
that conscious learning could not become part of the acquired store available for
spontaneous production. Reservations about explicit teaching have also been expressed
(Tomlinson 1998) on the grounds that it is only likely to help learners with analytical
learning styles who are in a minority compared with experiential and kinaesthetic
learners. However, we also noted above Gregg's (1984) contention that Krashen had
failed to show that explicit learning cannot become acquisition, and DeKeyser (1998)
has argued that explicit knowledge can become proceduralised if sufficient meaningful
practice is provided. Ellis (2006) adopts what he calls a "weak interface" position in
arguing that explicit knowledge can convert to implicit knowledge if the learner is ready
to acquire the feature and if acquisitional processes such as noticing and noticing the
gap are triggered. In terms of learning styles, it could be argued that implicit teaching
actually places a greater analytical burden on the learner as they try to impose system on
the data without the help of explanation.
As we have seen above, there are choices to be made in grammar teaching, but they
are not mutually exclusive or absolute choices: it is possible to combine and/or vary the
approaches. There are also many factors to consider before making a choice. As there is,
in general, a dearth of empirical research on the influence of most of these factors, there
will inevitably be a somewhat subjective element to the arguments I put forward here.

10. Learning and Teaching Context


Age
Adult learners, because of their cognitive maturity and cognitive style are highly
likely to be better able to cope with, and better disposed to an explicit approach than
children. As Cameron (2001) shows, however, this does not mean we need to abandon
planned grammatical development for young learners through implicit methods and
covert practice of structures where the pill of repetition is sugared in entertaining ways.

Level
Opinion is divided as to whether beginner programmes should feature intensive
treatment of basic grammatical structures or whether they should accelerate learners to a
communicative threshold through vocabulary teaching and communicative practice
(Ellis 2006). It seems reasonable to suppose that learners' aims should play a role here
and that there will be more of a place for intensive grammar teaching in longer term
programmes. There is also a case, I would argue, that as learners move up the levels
there will be a stronger tendency to use reactive approaches as the learners are more
likely to have encountered a particular item previously and perhaps even to have
received explicit instruction on the point.

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Learners' Expectations
Borg cites an interesting argument put forward by one of his research subjects.
This respondent argued that he taught grammar, not because he believed it made much
difference to his learners' communicative ability, but because meeting their
expectations in this regard motivated them more for other aspects of the course. Willis
(2003) makes a similar point in relation to grammar practice, emphasising that it seems
to meet a psychological need. While a programme based only on meeting learners'
expectation would produce stasis, there would seem to be a case for taking account of
these psychological needs.

Learner Abilities
Spada and Lightbown (2008) suggest that learners' literacy in their first language
and knowledge of grammatical terminology will influence how far we can adopt
explicit approaches. We also noted above the case that analytical learners may be better
able to cope with inductive approaches.

11. The Nature of the Language Point to Be Taught


There has been surprisingly little discussion of what seems to me to be a fundamental issue. Willis (2003) makes a case for using proactive, explicit approaches for
points which are conceptually straightforward and where the form can be taught quite
quickly, e.g. past simple with ' - e d ' ending. However, points which are conceptually
more subtle such as the use of past simple versus present perfect, might be more
amenable to gradual consciousness-raising through input. One of the difficulties in this
area is in determining what constitutes complexity. Third person V, for example, would
seem to be both conceptually and formally straightforward, but it is generally quite late
acquired because of the difficulties in making the link between verb and inflection when
processing online. Scheffler (2009) proposes that students' perceptions of rule difficulty
are one factor to take into account when deciding on what kind of grammatical
treatment would be appropriate for a particular item. In monolingual groups, as Spada
and Lightbown (2008) note, there is a case for focusing proactive, explicit instruction on
those areas of grammar where there are clear differences between LI and L2. They also
make a case for what they call "isolated" treatment of features which are not frequent in
the type of input or output which the learners are exposed to in the classroom, and for
features which are not salient in input, i.e. not easily noticed.

12. Conclusion
In conclusion, it can be seen, as Borg (1999: 160) writes, that grammar teaching is
"a complex decision-making process, rather than the unthinking application of a best

method". One of the factors that makes the decision-making process complex is the
range of options available if one takes a broad view of what constitutes grammar
teaching such as that proposed by Ellis (2006: 84): "Grammar teaching involves any
instructional technique that draws learners' attention to some specific grammatical form
in such a way that it helps them either to understand it metalinguistically and/or process
it in comprehension and/or production so that they can internalize it". In deciding on an
appropriate option, teachers then have to consider a range of factors, as we have seen
above, in relation to the learners and the structure to be taught. A further complicating
factor is the state of the research evidence. As Sheen (2003: 227) puts it, "our
knowledge of the nature of the process of classroom SLA is so limited that
theoretically-driven advocacies are not sufficient to justify unquestioned acceptance"
(my italics). The empirical evidence, on the other hand is inconclusive. It neither
sanctions a "back to basics" approach, as Spada and Lightbown (2008) note, nor, as
Swan (2007) argues, does it suggest that such approaches should be outlawed. As Swan
(2007) points out, proactive explicit approaches are often caricatured, but there is no
reason why they should involve endless repetition and meaningless drills. What the
research evidence does sanction, I would argue, is 'principled eclecticism'. Teachers
need to be critically informed about research findings and able to use this information to
guide their choice of approaches. The challenge is essentially to match the approach
with the type of learner and the type of language structure. It is a challenge which is
considerably easier to state than to meet, but that is the nature of language teaching and
therein lies its enduring interest.

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Rules,

Patterns

and

Words:

Grammar and Lexis

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ELT.

Summary; Teaching Grammar


Key Terms & Definitions:
Grammar Teaching
teaching a foreign language is often directly associated with teaching grammar
an informed and principled approach to grammar teaching is required
the effectiveness of grammar teaching is a hotly disputed issue among researchers
The Non-Interventionist Position
states that grammar teaching plays only a very minor role (input is seen as essential)
The Interventionist Position
states that a focus on form (grammar teaching) is beneficial (form-focused activities)

ML ^
G r a m m a r JVsn-liinfi A p p r o a c h e s
.
Proactive Grammar Teaching
-> PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production): grammar is presented by the teacher, then practised
and produced by the learners (a traditional approach)
Reactive Grammar Teaching
Long (1982): "focus on form" (proactive planned form of instruction) vs. "focus on forms"
-> grammatical items are dealt with when they create difficulty in a communicative activity
Planned Reactive Grammar Teaching
-> the teacher anticipates what students will have difficulties with and plans tasks accordingly,
yet focusing primarily on meaning
-> represents a third "alternative" approach (Spada/Lightbown 2008)
Input-based Approaches
-> theory: computational model of language acquisition -> acquisition occurs as a result of
processing input (Ellis 2006); the teacher seeks to provide rich input
Output-based Approaches
theory: learners can develop control of structures which have been learnt explicitly through
intensive meaningful practice (DeKeyser 2003); die teacher provides productive activities
-> grammaticisation tasks which ask learners to 'add' grammar to a lexical skeleton
Explicit Versus Implicit Teaching
explicit knowledge = conscious knowledge of grammar (learnable and verbalisable)
implicit knowledge = procedural (can only be verbalised if it is made explicit)

Considering the Learning and Teaching Context


Age
-> adult learners are more likely to cope with an explicit approach than young children
Level
-> more advanced levels: reactive approaches are suitable because learners are more likely to
have encountered language forms previously
Learners' Expectations & Learner Abilities
learners' expectations of a language course and their learning styles must be considered
The Nature of the Language Point to be Taught
-> the approach chosen for grammar teaching depends on the specific linguistic item to be taught
(e.g. explicit approaches for simple items such as the past simple '-ed' ending)
Conclusion:
> grammar teaching is "a complex decision-making process, rather than the unthinking
application of a best method" (Borg 1999)
principled eclecticism

Anthony Hall, Austria/


Alpen-Adria-University Klagenfurt

Comfort Grammar for English Tense Use


Post-school and adult learners of English openly state their bewilderment at the number
of verb forms that exist in the language, and are often resigned to never improving their
use of them. The standard approach to teaching the tenses anatomically dissects the
body of the tenses into its constituent parts, analyses the different uses to which they can
be put, and gives the learners appropriate contexts in which to practise applying the
distinctions. The order in which the tenses are listed constitutes an implied or tacit
understanding of their frequency, usefulness or learnability. Exercises consist of a list
of separate items completed in writing, which means time is available for thinking and
correction. Once learners move outside this training environment into free oral
production, they find themselves overwhelmed by the number of forms and choices
available. Comfort Grammar therefore proposes a homeopathic approach in which a
minimal set of essential, functional choices provides the step-by-step basis for
developing the learners' ability to initiate and respond accurately and appropriately.
Metalanguage is limited to a minimal set of abstract terms used for explaining and
discussing the choices in terms of the particular meaning the learners intended to
convey, or the purpose they wished to achieve.

1. Introduction
Comfort Grammar assumes that learners aged 15+ and upwards have experienced
proactive grammar teaching within a school system, which has given them a grounding
in the forms and structures of English, but left them with further work to do.
Unpublished research by MA students in Klagenfurt, Baden and Salzburg (BIFIE:
2007-2010) working to produce empirical data on the language levels of Austrian
school-leavers (18+) has indicated Common European Framework of Reference
(CEFR) levels of Bl to B2, a lower level than commonly assumed. Inaccurate tense use
being one element of this performance, Comfort Grammar aims to gradually eradicate
the errors arising in live production caused by the dual burdens of mother tongue
interference and tense construction overload. It does not seek to cover all error types nor
to make the standard grammatical explanations for tense use more palatable by, for
example, using humorous examples (Bosewitz/Kleinschroth 2002) or by attempting to
enter learners' minds through an organic, colour-coded combination of text and image
(Warr 2003). In part, it mirrors the process undergone by Emmerson (2002, 2006) in
reducing the original Business Grammar Builder (implicitly already a reduction of the
full canon) to the 'Essential' version, where essential is taken to mean greater focus on
business examples rather than distilled into a shorter version.

132

Anthony Hall

A relaxed, reassuring, essentially conversational atmosphere is created in the classroom,


in which errors can occur and be noticed, then discussed in terms of how they affect
meaning (Havranek 2002). The techniques described have been used in university ESP
(English for Specific Purposes) classes in Business and Computer Science (CEFR levels
Bl to C I ) , short-course, small-group training for businesses (A2 to C2), as well as in
EFL group and individual tuition with adults (Al to C2). The students are
predominantly German mother-tongue (Austrian and German nationals), but the
Erasmus exchange programme for students in Europe, together with the global mobility
of Asian students have broadened the range of language backgrounds with which
Comfort Grammar has come into contact, and been beneficial. Teachers operating in
meaningful (Byrne 1976), discursive (Thornbury 2005), dialogic environments should
find it of interest. It achieves a similar level of concision (two pages) in describing verb
use as the "email English" textbook (Emmerson 2004), but is not restricted to being
effective and convincing in a particular communications medium or genre. It is intended
to be relevant and to apply to all language use and therefore to be appropriate to EFL
and ESP learners alike.
The formal setting for this work is Developing Learner Dialogue (DLD) (Hall
2007), a methodology which places the learner at the centre of the talk process. Within
it, working in pairs initially, students learn first to determine topics and formulate ideas
relevant to their own situation, beliefs and wishes, and second to report those ideas to
the larger group and respond critically. Students monitor themselves within the largely
private pair work, before reporting in plenum, where the instructor manages the
discussion, providing the continuity between the reports and intervening for
grammatical, lexical or pronunciation reasons. Lexical and pronunciation improvements
can usually be handled quickly. Grammatical explanation within a dialogue is handled
like a "time-out" in sports (maximum two to three minutes). This means the error has
been clearly identified as such, but equally it ensures that the overall thread and purpose
of the learner's conversation is not lost and that grammar remains subordinate, i.e. does
not monopolise the discourse. Within DLD there is also room for prepared input and
digression. Digression often occurs as a result of an association with a given lexical
item and may take the form of a personal experience or memory. Prepared input may be
a student presentation, a set text or a consolidated teacher statement on a grammatical
point. One example of the latter is the Five Block (Link-Subject-Verb-Object-Message)
Sentence Analysis approach (Hall 1994). This is used to help students analyse good
samples of writing, in order to put their own written work on a stronger footing. In
addition, it provides a straightforward context for introducing the notions of left-toright-processing, avoiding repetition, and smooth progression, all of which underpin
English information structure (Hall 2010).
Within this dialogic setting verb use is, initially, a regular source of error. For most
learners there is a trade-off between fluency and accuracy in free language production.
Accuracy means deliberating over the means of expression and monitoring the flow.
Fluency means not allowing the thought of error to impede the flow of words. Under the
banner of communicative teaching there has been an emphasis on fluency which has
been successful in making learners say more and usually speak more rapidly. This has
been at the expense of accuracy. Comfort Grammar represents an approach which sees
recognition of error as a prerequisite of improving accuracy, but within a context of
language production where personal learner talk, i.e. speaking freely from and about
their own experience, is the dominant input and output. In contrast to other languages,

Comfort Grammar for English Tense Use

133

English tense use has the distinct difficulty that it incorporates the notion of "personal
attitude", as part of the verb's meaning. Therefore learners must be made aware that
their choice of tense has functional and attitudinal overtones. It is not just a descriptor of
time.
The order in which the tense choices below are presented reflects both the
regularity with which the learner is faced with the particular choice, and,
correspondingly, when an error occurs, the probable frequency with which their
instructor needs to refer to it in their corrective feedback. This does not mean that they
need necessarily be taught in this order, and certainly not that they should be taught en
bloc.

2. Choosing Between Past or Present Tense


Learners have to come to terms mentally with the linguistic fact that different
languages see and map the world and life differently. It may be that two languages'
maps coincide in parts, but generally difference is the dominant feature. The concept of
tense as a mapping element is particularly abstract and notional, and therefore harder to
grasp than other elements of difference such as gender, lexis or word order. A
dictionary definition only hints at this complexity - defining "tense" as follows: "any of
the forms of a verb that show the time, continuance, or completion of an action or state
that is expressed by the verb. 'I am' is in the present tense, 'I was' is past tense, and T
will be' is future tense." (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English 2003: 1709).
It is the teacher's task to provide a functional map on how to proceed, and such
maps differ depending on the audiences and on their creators. In Teaching Tenses,
Aitken (2002) chooses to begin with the present continuous, explaining all forms
(including tag questions) in commented dialogic gobbets, and grouping it together with
the present simple and the present perfect (2002: 10-22). In his school grammar Newby
adopts the order present, past, present perfect, explaining both the simple and
progressive forms for each tense in turn (1989: 69-90). The Collins Cobuild English
Grammar introduces the present simple and continuous, then the past simple and
continuous, then the present perfect, as "the past in relation to the present" (1990: 246
251). These three not contradictory but nevertheless differing views on how and where
best to start in facilitating the student's learning of the English tense system usefully
illustrate the complex, possibly learning-changing decisions that, of necessity in a
textbook-driven environment, have already been taken before the learner is involved.
Comfort Grammar shifts the focus onto the learner by posing the little asked question
shown in the figure below:
What do you want to do?

Tell a story
Past

Discuss something
Present

Figure 1: The functional distinction between past and present tenses

Comfort Grammar for English Tense Use

Anthony Hall

134

The learner needs to know that at any given point in the conversation their choice of
tense is their decision. They must decide what they want to do. Is it to tell a story, or is
it to discuss something? Making a diagram of this choice reinforces the reality of that
choice, and effectively of the power they have as one of two people in a conversation.
The diagram (Figure 1) is deliberately simple so that it can be drawn quickly whenever
necessary. It is accompanied orally by the additional information that a) you use the past
tense to begin the story, and stay in the past tense until the story is complete; and b) to
discuss something, you use the present tense.
Figure 2 shows the next step in which the function of the present perfect tense is
added to the diagram.
Tell a story

Discuss something

Past

Present
4

Present Perfect
Figure 2: The bridging function of the Present Perfect
Again, the drawing is accompanied by an explanation: The present perfect tense is a
bridge between the two functions and times. It allows the speaker to include
experience, facts, or effects from the past within their discussion or elaboration.
Managing this separation and mixing of the tenses in open, free conversation is not
easy. The tense system of the learner's first language is happy to interfere. Rather than
binary, contrastive exercises, extended opportunities for free dialogue must be given in
which the learners exercise their understanding. Initially, the stronger member of a pair
will dominate the choice of topic and tense. This is due in part to the weaker member
remaining the more passive partner but also to the Residual Speaker Syndrome, which
posits that once a speaker is in control of the dialogue it requires some effort for them to
relinquish it, since, as the last person to have spoken, responsibility for filling the
silence of a pause falls back on them. However, the weaker member will eventually
decide they have the confidence to help in contributing to the course of the dialogue
(Krashen 1981). Error-free performance is not the aim; rather the willingness to provide
spoken material that is personal and meaningful. Written assignments can also be used
to give learners the opportunity to write their own sentences or mini-stories.
Finally, in the third step, the other tenses are added to the diagram (Figure 3). The
allocation of the majority of the tenses to the discussion function is again a
simplification, but highly motivating. An explanation can be given that the Past Perfect
relates to the Past in the same way as the Present Perfect to the Present. The use of the
term Conditionals may seem surprising, as many linguists would not classify
conditionals as a "tense". Comfort Grammar uses the term nevertheless since it is a
form which expresses the notion that two ideas or activities are in a relationship with
each other, i.e. one is conditional upon the other. Secondly, the term fits the function of
discussion or deliberation exactly. Many learners give this area of grammar the name
"if-clauses", a conceptual simplification which will be discussed further in chapter five.

TELL A STORY

DISCUSS SOMETHING

Past
Past Perfect

Present, Present Perfect


Future tenses
Conditionals

135

Figure 3: Adding the other tenses

3. Distinguishing between Simple and Continuous


Tense Use
Signal words such as time phrases may be satisfactory as an initial pointer in tense
selection, but make little impact on the learner's understanding of the underlying
concept, and provide no guidance for other cases in which the signal word is not
present. In particular, learners may be unaware of the meaning being added
"automatically" to their choice of tense, and of the contradiction that may arise in their
utterance between the main proposition and their choice of tense. In contrast, the binary
choices presented by Comfort Grammar are not restricted to particular cases, but are
applicable across all the tenses. The descriptive terms used lay no claim to originality.
They are useful, generalising descriptors which summarise and contrast the alternatives,
in language that is accessible to the learner.

Adding Meaning I: Regular Versus Temporary


The continuous (marked) form is used to add meaning. Speakers of languages for
whom such a choice is new tend to overuse the new form in comparison to the
unmarked form, i.e. select the continuous rather than the simple tense. However,
because the simple form is used to express the regular, the routine, the standard, or the
permanent, simple forms occur more frequently in real life. It should therefore be
recommended to learners that, when in doubt, they choose a simple form. In open
conversation it has a greater chance of being correct - but not in an exercise or test
format. The continuous form contrasts with the concepts above to express the
temporary, the out-of-the-ordinary, the exception, or the unexpected.

Adding Meaning II: Plain Fact or Added Intensity?


The speaker may also choose to add intensity by using a continuous tense, in
comparison to the plain fact of the simple tense. This is a more refined usage than the
regular/temporary distinction, and it may be that when shown the contrastive pair below
a learner might still see or feel no difference between the utterances: "I have worked all
morning on it" (plain fact: simple report) and "I have been working all morning on it"
(added intensity: e.g. defensiveness, weariness, or protest, and consequently,
pragmatically, an unwillingness to continue). The Cobuild Grammar assigns the
function of "emphasising duration of event" to this use of the present perfect continuous
(1990: 251), which is of course accurate but neutral, and therefore still requires

Anthony Hall

Comfort Grammar for English Tense Use

interpretation for the attitudinal aspect to be revealed. In "The Difference Box", Newby
(1989: 88) gives the explanation that with activity verbs the - i n g form is nearly always
used, with the simple form only being used on rare occasions to draw particular
attention to the length of the activity (author's translation and juxtaposition). This is the
reverse of the Comfort Grammar view that the simple tense presents the unmarked case.
For learners who have been able to convert grammatical samples, explanation and
practice into consistently accurate production, Comfort Grammar may be superfluous or
at best an add-on. For those who switch off at the thought of grammar it is a relief that
its explanations are brief. For the large group of learners between these two poles it is a
positive experience to be offered a skeletal, summary plan or map which they can
follow. They are using grammar to discuss alternatives, and to enrich their quality of
expression. This bears comparison with the way they learnt their first language, and
learners respond appreciatively to the notion that self-generated dialogue is a powerful
medium for improvement, especially for those who use the present tense to cover
present, past and future.

occurred" (2002: 63ff) represents a more complex task than summing the choices onto a
single scale from 0 to 100. Placing the tenses and their perceived attitudes on this scale
is a productive pedagogical task, encouraging debate and interaction, which in turn
blurs the boundaries between input-based and output-based approaches. I am indebted
to Prof. D. Gabrovsek, Ljubljana University, for introducing me to the concept of clines
of meaning at a staff seminar in Klagenfurt in 2007. Applying the concept to functional
semantic options was my own idea. Newby also distinguishes three basic positions, with
the German terms, Ungewissheit (Weak Attitude) and Uberzeugung (Strong Attitude)
offering a stronger conceptual polarisation around the central Neutrale Haltung (Neutral
Attitude) (1989: 93-97).

136

4. What Comfort Does the Future Hold?


The Pragmatics of (Un)Certainty

X
0%to20%

firm intention
X
40% to 60%

The Added Meanings outlined below are thus a response to the unasked question:
"How firm or concrete is the plan?" Their position on the cline may be elicited,
presented explicitly, or deduced. Students should justify their decisions. For the EFL
classroom this means moving away from textbook-guided teaching with its emphasis on
storylines and characters, on role play and unconvincing texts, and on right and wrong
answers, gap-filling, and other puzzle-style grammar practice. In its place an ad hoc
discussion is held about differences in meaning - in the sense of Sinclair's grammar of
meaning - with samples evolving out of a dialogue, and practice occurring through
continuation and completion at the learners' level of performance within a context of
their own making.

Added Meaning I: The Fixed Arrangement

When talking about a future action the speaker expresses, through his or her tense
selection, an attitude concerning the certainty of that action. In Comfort Grammar terms
the future clearly falls under the category of discussing rather than telling a story, but
what is its particular contribution? The functional description proposed here is that of
informing, of telling the story before it happens. We select from the different future
forms the one that best expresses our understanding of, reasons for, and wishes and
beliefs about what is going to happen in the shorter or longer term. This includes saying
what we can or cannot do and what may or may not be possible. This puts our
conversation partner(s) in the picture, and they can respond by mirroring our view or by
modifying it. Thus, they may choose to confirm our assessment by using the same tense
form, or they may take a different view, and hence opt for a different future form. The
range of choices is presented as a cline of definiteness, as shown in Figure 4.
vague wish or belief

137

fixed arrangement
X
9 0 % to 100%

"We'll do it (next week)". Without a time marker, the simple 'will' future form
constitutes an offer, and with the time marker a promise, and we assume the speaker is
being genuine, hence the 90%+ certainty rating. However, offers and promises do fail to
materialise, because we cannot fully control the future. Illness, commitments, the
weather, the economy, mobile phones, these all conspire to reduce the certainty that the
job will get done.

Added Meaning II: The Firm Intention or Prediction


"I'm going to sell my car"; "It's going to rain". With the 'be going t o ' future we
read the signs that financially or meteorologically something will have to or is going to
change. Depending on our skill at reading the signs, we might want to qualify our stated
intention with certainly or probably or possibly, thus moving the percentage of
likelihood along the cline. Note that qualification with not ("I'm not going to sell my
car'V'Tm probably not going to sell my car") can convert the firm intention into a fixed
arrangement or into a vague belief.

Added Meaning III: The Vague Wish or Belief


Figure 4: A cline of definiteness
For a learner, engaging with Aitken's list of seven (four main, three implicitly less
important) different verb patterns for "referring to events or plans which have not yet

X marks the position on the cline of any given exponent

"Don't worry, this time next year we'll be eating caviar". This use of the 'will
future' places the time focus clearly in the future, though without substance, in order to
reassure. The use of the continuous form has the further effect of adding intensity by
transporting the listener 'live' to the action in that distant future.

Anthony Hall

Comfort Grammar for English Tense Use

In a further activity suitable for the E F L classroom, we can first interpret the pragmatics
of the tense selected, and then use the cline as a prompt to propose alternative responses
to those given.

In the link-subject-verb-object-message sentence analysis system those four words


clearly belong at the beginning of the sentence in the link block. However, we also need
to include in that block the remaining words in the subordinate clause they introduce. So
at this point we are moving away from the verb block as the sole carrier of tense
meaning to a new combination where there is inter-dependency between the tense in the
verb block (in the main clause) and the tense of the verb in the preceding link block. In
accordance with the left-to-right processing of English, the tense of the verb in the link
block determines that of the verb in the verb block.
To practise these conditional combinations we take the text picture from Figure 5,
decide on a sample starting point, e.g. "I go to school", combine that with each link
word, and complete the sentence meaningfully, as shown in the examples below:

138

(i)

"I have an appointment at ten o'clock" (= pragmatically, "I can't see you
before midday"). Response: "OK, so I'll see you at one".
(ii) "The plane arrives at four in the afternoon" (= pragmatically, "can you pick
me up?"). Response: "Oh dear, I don't finish work till five".
(iii) "When is she coming next?" (Straight request for information). Response:
"We'll arrange that at the first meeting" (Effectively, "I don't know, but I will
do tomorrow". Thus the exchange postpones the point of time at which
knowledge or certainty will be achieved.)

The function of informing and the cline of definiteness imply involvement and
dependence on what is still to happen, with the aim of managing its effect on the present
or the future. If we adopt the perspective that the future is "what has not happened yet"
(Ward/Woods 2007: 36) we might be more tentative and talk of clines of likelihood or
probability. This in turn would lead to the inclusion of verbs such as to doubt, believe,
hope, trust, understand, etc., of adverbial qualifications (possibly, probably), of
negatives and of modals and of verbal structures after likely and unlikely. Altogether
that would probably overload the cline, reducing the clarity of and separation between
the three meanings and consequently its usefulness to learners.

5. Practising Conditionals
Connecting Thinking to (Un)likelihood
If tense use in a single verb sentence has its pitfalls, then a conditional sentence
which links two ideas, and contains two verbs, must be twice as tricky. No wonder then
that learners place "if-sentences" high on their list of unfathomable English grammar. In
Comfort Grammar this association of " i f with previous learning difficulty is broken by
listing it as a vertical image (see Figure 5), with three other words which introduce
conditions, namely once, when, and whenever. For "comfort" reasons (brevity,
memorability, and avoidance of the additional complexity introduced by the negative),
if not, unless, as long as, every time etc. are not included in the list at this point.
The teacher can then explain that each of the four link terms adds its own semantic
perspective on how the two parts of the sentence are linked, as shown:

once
when
if
whenever

a time restriction
a general truth
all other cases of likelihood
repeated event

Figure 5: Extending the options for introducing conditionals

139

"When I go to school, / take all my books with me. "


"Whenever I go to school, I feel a bit ill. "
"Once I reach school, I feel OK again. "
"If I go to school without my books, then I know the teacher will complain. "
We can almost build a mini-story. Or, we can swap the completions around and look for
cases where the meanings of the two parts do not quite fit. "Whenever I go to school, I
feel OK again." or "Once I go to school, I feel a bit ill." Explaining why these pairings
jar can be quite testing, but students are often inventive when asked to help in solving
unusual problems. Depending on the suggestions, small adjustments to the original
condition can be made (reach school, without my books) to show variety of expression
while maintaining meaningfulness and allowing the situation to develop. A final step
might be to add further (two-word) links to our list, e.g. any time, every time, as long as,
etc., producing a sample like: "Any time I forget my books, I can always share with my
friend."
Instead of analysing "foreign" examples the learner is now thinking about the exact
meaning they wish to express or complete in a context they have developed. By adding
to the equation the choices between telling a story, discussing/deliberating and
informing we get a clearer picture of what we want to express with our conditional pair.
Because this process is organic the sentence grows naturally and may also become quite
complicated, depending on either the presence of negative link words or modality, or on
the addition of tense sequence as a result of changing the chosen function.
As mentioned earlier, digression is part of the DLD method. In that context I
introduced a small ESP group (IBM staff) to table croquet, a game combining the
accuracy and technique of snooker with the strategic patterning of chess. It proved to be
a rich source of conditional sentences in context. Hearing my students developing their
thoughts and plans in the deliberate manner below was very pleasing. Croquet's slow,
turn-taking pace makes it suitable both for the planning element of conditions while
playing, as well as for discussion after the ball has been struck. The following samples
give a little of the flavour of the game: assessing ability/"Whenever black takes a long
shot, he always misses"; assessing the situation/"As long as yellow is behind the hoop,
blue can't roquet (hit) it"; prediction/"Once black has gone through the hoop he'll go
back for blue"; in-match analysis (reflecting on the opposing team's turn)/"If black
hadn't missed red, red would never have had this opportunity".

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Comfort Grammar for English Tense Use

Anthony Hall

6. Handling the Passive


Creating Room for Emphasis and Expansion
There is a body of opinion which claims that choosing the passive form is a tactic
for hiding the subject, and thus for avoiding responsibility for the subject's actions. This
interpretation is said to reflect the strategy of report writers in the Pentagon. Ward and
Woods (2007: 244) offer an alternative view: "Everyone accepts that if you don't know
the facts the passive comes in handy." This may be true in certain cases, but is only one
reason out of six that the Cobuild Grammar gives for the function of "not mentioning
the agent" (1990: 404). It certainly does not apply to technical reports and instructions,
a process-description genre, nor to academic writing, where the passive suggests
objectivity. In Grammar for the Soul, Using Language for Personal Change, Weinstein
adopts an alternative stance, using the title "Getting Out of One's Own Way" for the
chapter on the passive (2008: 33). In it he compares "I won the Oscar for Best Actress"
with "I was awarded the Oscar for Best Actress", arguing that the humility of "I was
awarded" is preferable to the over-agency of "I won" (= I'm wonderful). Weinstein
further argues that the passive form allows our natural talents to flourish, and is thus an
instrument of creativity (ibid.). Overall, it can be said that specific groups have reasons,
possibly tactical, possibly personal for choosing passive constructions. In aiming to join
such groups EFL learners will have to acquiesce to their ways, but the majority of
learners, while probably understanding the passive when they encounter it, will and do
not use it that actively.
Comfort Grammar sees the passive as a means of replacing the strong, central,
standard bond between the verb and the object in the five-block (Hall: 1994) English
sentence with either a subject-verb, a verb-message, or a subject-verb-message
structure. In all three cases the verb is the dominant semantic element. The removal of
the object from the sentence enables emphasis to be shifted, either through an element
being repositioned or through sentence-final space being created. In case one, through
being moved to subject position, the object is fronted, thereby achieving greater
prominence, e.g. "We were snowed in." or "Two more soldiers have been killed." In
case two, the verb-message relationship, the effect is one of opening up space for a
further verbal construction and hence for more information, e.g. "The game was called
off when two inches of rain fell in one hour." Learners are receptive to the mechanical,
visual explanation involved in rearranging the elements of the sentence. They can grasp
that, for reasons of style and emphasis, the internal organs of the sentence's body can be
rearranged. They can see that using a passive verb form creates a central pivot in the
sentence around which the subject and the message can grow almost without limit.
Journalists skilfully exploit the potential of manipulating the information structure to
maximise the power of their images. An example of case three would thus be: "One of
America's most sophisticated weapons in the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and
Pakistan, the unmanned drone, has been successfully penetrated by insurgents using
software available on the internet for $26 (16)."

141

7. Conclusion
This article has introduced a methodology for EFL and ESP which addresses both
the what and the how of foreign language teaching, while making the learners partners
in the process. The purpose of Comfort Grammar is thus three-fold. For those learners
effectively without or with only rudimentary grammatical knowledge it offers a concise,
summarising, alternative route to understanding verb use in English. For other learners
who have already been taught grammar to varying levels of expertise it offers a
different, simplifying perspective from which to reappraise their existing skill and
upgrade their language performance. Finally, for the classroom teacher or private
language trainer engaged in open-ended, dialogic teaching it is a case-based means of
responding supportively to error, ambiguity, and ambivalence in their learners'
language expression.

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