Six little changes in the grammar syllabus

Umm, not sure what this has to do with grammar but I liked the image!

The Grammar Syllabus. The favourite bugbear of teachers and students of English. Many argue that it is a monolith that dominates coursebooks, exercise books and indeed language teaching. There is an element of truth in this of course, and my feeling is that many readers of this blog dislike… no, a better word would be loathe… they loathe the grammar syllabus for many reasons.

As a materials writer I’ve had to look at grammar syllabi from all kinds of coursebooks and grammar books both old and new. What I wanted to highlight here are some of the small changes I’ve noticed in the mainstream syllabus over the past twenty years.


This used to be right near the beginning in an elementary book. I’ve written elsewhere about how annoying this was to teach, especially when it was sandwiched between present simple of TO BE and present simple in general. Interesting to note then that in many recent coursebooks HAVE GOT gets pushed much further back and we get to present simple more quickly. I think this is a good thing, as students can be perfectly understood just using “have” (e.g. I have two sisters. I don’t have a car.)


For the past ten years various people have been rubbishing the idea that you can divide the conditionals neatly into 3 groups. Which is why you will see much of the new material talk more about hypothetical conditionals, or real and unreal conditionals and focus more on the meaning of would and past simple for hypothetical meaning. I know from experience that when (on a previous project I worked on) we tried to drop the words first conditional or second conditional there were howls of rage from teachers.

3. CAN for ability

Another elementary favourite: teaching CAN for ability as the first instance the learners meet it. This gives rise to all kinds of stuff like “Can you swim?”, “I can speak English”, “I can’t dance” etc. Nothing wrong with this, but I’ve started seeing CAN being presented first in the context of permission, not ability. With ability coming a lesson or two later. This comes from corpus research which suggests that can for permission (Can I sit here? You can’t use that door etc) is much more frequent.


I remember when I first taught past simple ever it was done like this. First you do the regular verbs (they are easier to explain), then negative and question forms, then the irregulars. Again, corpus work (and common sense too I think) has changed this. How to divide the past simple up over different lessons is still a huge minefield, but I am seeing more and more “first lessons” on the past simple that focus on high frequency verbs such as eat, go, see and so on. Which is more useful I think.


A little while ago a book called Rules, Patterns and Words came out. It was written by David Willis and had lots of suggestions about grammar teaching, including teaching of tenses. One of the points that I took on board, and I think many other materials writers did too judging by what’s out there, was that of time expressions. In Willis’ words: the verb phrase is the primary means of expressing time relationships, but adverbials play an important part too, and it is worth relating particular classes of adverbial to the meanings carried by the verb. (p.181). So nowadays I think you’re far more likely to see teaching present continuous accompanied by teaching expressions like for the time being, for now, just now, at present and so on.


Again, based on work done by John Sinclair, the Willis’s and more recently Scott Thornbury in Natural Grammar there has been a renewed interest in grammatical keywords and how they work. In fact, Natural Grammar is a best-seller among materials writers which is why we see more grammar sections that focus on one word, e.g. have, or would, or take and the associated patterns with them.

Have you noticed any changes in the grammar syllabus now and how it was when you started teaching? Please post a comment and share. However, please reserve any comments about how hateful, linear, boring, totalitarian, uncool and just undogme-atic the grammar syllabus is though, I’ll be trying to put together another post about this where you can do just that.

Published in: on April 13, 2010 at 7:30 am  Comments (19)  
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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Totally aggree and would like to give an example on how I deal with grammar past tense: teaching very young learners, the first thing I taught them was I played-I ate- I watched- I drank- I went. Every morning YL would sit in a circle and share their “yesterday” by using these words. Natural approach as they are YL and feeding those words with what happened to them in real life helped their acquisition.
    As for the YL aged 8-10 I do the same; I try to link the words they use to a background of “yesterday” in their lives.
    Thank you for bringing these important issues up and making us re-consider.

    • Thank you Sebnem, for your comment. I think your approach to the past simple with the YL seems very sensible. It’s almost like teaching these forms as individual lexical items in a way. And very useful.

  2. To become a teacher in the French state education system, I had an obligatory year in a French teacher training institution. Apart from the fact that 80% of the training took place in French – something of ananachronism – I was told that the term “present perfect” was verboten and had to be replaced by the description “have + en” 😎
    A quick check of a list of irregular verbs gives around 20% of past participles ending in ..en, so although this terminology seems more confusing than helpful for learners, it must be said that the “grammaire enociative” system allows one to situate clearly the difference between “time” and “aspect” of the tenses – and thus that the same event can be described using a different tense depending on the point of view of the person “speaking”.
    Swings and roundabouts 🙂

    • Hi Elizabeth and thanks for the comment. I had heard the have+en thing a long time ago, I can´t remember where. You are quite right it does not seem immediately helpful for those reasons. Interesting point about “grammaire enociative” as you say. I like that idea of differentiating in that way too, and one example I saw was in an American grammar book which did a lot of work on tense and aspect – I think it was called Grammar Dimensions.

      Swings and roundabouts, yes. Although maybe they are not moving very quickly.

  3. Considering my age 😉 I can only compare coursebooks my teachers used to teach me with the ones available now. To cut is short, the difference is huge.

    To begin with, authors tend to make sure that students can learn grammar in context which IMHO is the biggest improvement (most of my teachers some 20 years ago used grammar translation and drilling).

    What I really like is the focus on ‘real language’ – phrases, expressions and collocations. Not only does it make the course more communicative but also creates opportunities for introducing ‘difficult’ grammar points at lower levels.

    Thank you for mentioning ‘have got’ – I have always hated it and could never understand why it’s supposed to be introduced after ‘to be’. Guess the authors of ‘Global’ do it in a more refined way 😉

    On a final note, from my nonNEST lifelong learner perspective – coursebooks do need a spine in a form of a grammar syllabus. The fact that the syllabi undergo change is a step forward and a very positive sign of the improvement in TEFL.


    • Thanks Anita for the comment and nice words. I personally have not had such a problem- as teacher or learner or coursebook writer- with the grammar syllabus. I think that there is still room to move within it and have seen many teachers do so quite effectively (jumping ahead to address something that comes up, for example). More importantly, even though it does form the spine of many if not the vast majority of coursebooks it does not always have to be a big, thick spine (ie dominating all else). There are many other things now in coursebooks, not least the higher number of opportunities afforded to do speaking.
      Whether the teacher skips those and just brings in more grammar exercises (I have also seen this) is another matter.

  4. a possible addition might be continuous forms of so-called stative verbs – I’m lovin’ it et al

    • Thanks for coming by Ceri! And yes, I think we could be seeing more examples of that. Scott Thornbury has mentioned it too somewhere on his blog, which counts among its many readers probably most coursebook authors!

  5. Glad to see Miss Şebnem here! Also glad to see the end of ‘whom’ (haven’t had to teach that for at least 7 years), the relegation of ‘used to’ (now a minor point stuffed in apologetically in the middle of some intermediate books.

    Did you catch Dave Wilis’ talk at IATEFL? I like a lot of what he said, which can be summarised by saying, ‘don’t teach a lod of grammar rules that are essentially wrong.’

  6. Nice list, Lindsay, and nothing I’d disagree with, in terms of perceptible changes in the ‘canonical’ grammar syllabus. But they are fairly minor considering how much remains the same. No one, for example, seems to have taken on board the fact that “will” is by far the most common way of expressing future meaning in both spoken and written English (see the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Biber et al. 1999 for confirmation). “Going to” is still introduced first and you are lucky if you encounter “will” in any beginners course at all.

    Not so many years back, I compared the syllabuses of several popular intermediate and upper int courses, and it was dispiriting? curious? unsurprising? how much they had in common. However much you tinker with the lower level syllabus, it’s still the case that – in spite of their relative infrequency and lack of usefulness – the standard grammar macnuggets (e.g. present perfect continuous, question tags, backshift in reported speech, the three conditionals, will vs going to, etc etc) are lined up, and picked off, one by one, like ducks at a shooting gallery.

    • Hi Scott!
      Phew, well I’m glad we agree on the main points. The ducks at a shooting gallery is an interesting metaphor. Judging by the number of teachers who come up to me and demand “more grammar” in coursebooks- including those infamous grammar points you mention – I’d say that duck shooting is an extremely popular sport.
      Six issues/problems with the grammar syllabus as a possible post in the future then? Would you be interested?

    • Phew ! so I can stop telling my students NOT to use “will” all the time ?
      with no theoretical back up it not only sounds wrong most of the time, but it also seems more logical that one would speak about things which are planned (going to) than a decided-on-the-spur-of-the-moment (will) future.
      It’s back to the drawing board on this point then.
      However, what about advanced students who can take on “will” for the present? (“that’ll be the postman” – when I hear a knock on the door)
      Questions… questions…

  7. Can’t think of a specific change, but perhaps there’s been a textbook shift towards following the Common European Framework guidelines?

    • There has, somewhat. Often it is more cosmetic than anything else. In fact, I’m meaning to do another post on CEF soon on this blog. Thanks for your comment and reminder!

  8. Hi Lindsay. In fact, the sequence of grammar items is not as fixed as it seems, nor the terminology used to descibe them. For example, in China, the second and third conditional is (still) referred to as the subjunctive, and there are many more little bits of grammar taught as well, such as endless types of infitive structures.
    I suppose the more you use a corpus, the more likely you are to vary from the usual sequence of grammar items, which was not ordered in terms of frequency but of accesibility and simplicity.
    And a final thought: some changes to the grammar syllabus may also be influenced by external factors, such as political change. In the 80s we never taught (at most only tested) the article system because everyone we wrote books for had a similar article system in their own languages. When the Berlin Wall came down, we suddenly found ourselves with numerous students whose native language had no articles.

    • Simon, thanks for coming by. Always a pleasure to read your comments. It reminds me that changes occur for various reasons and not just corpus studies, as your interesting comment about materials post 1989 show.

      As for labels, yes I have seen similar things in Russian grammar books. Big Russian grammar books of English, which are chock-full of grammatical terms including many which I struggled with myself!

  9. Very interesting to read as an outsider. I wonder if anyone has complained that moving “have got” makes things sound too Americanized… 😉

    P. S. Oh, what I would do for a corpus-based Japanese textbook…sigh. The one I’m using in the class I’m currently taking was originally written in the 1960s and last updated in the 1980s.

  10. Corpus porpoise! The corpus, as I understand it, is a statistical tool. I am not so sure that it is all that relevant to the immediate needs of the individual teacher and students at any ONE time.

    Have got is a great intro to the present perfect, but I’ve never seen it shown that way. The comment posted about the present perfect being Have+en in France seems rather academic to me! I think most learners like to see patterns and consistency is one skill that teachers can offer.

    Unfortunately it is rare for teachers to get a totally virgin student, most have already been touched by some previous instruction, so in the case of the conditional, they often expect classifications such as the third, second or first, though I prefer real and unreal. Often I have GOT to teach another layer on top, often it’s not good to say that grammar books are wrong, students will generally believe books rather than a teacher. Hence the continued survival of such venerable Russian authors as Verishaggin, Faggin and Bonk…

    For instance, has anyone wondered why, apart from the verb to be, the present simple positive and the past simple positive are the only verb forms that do NOT have (or HAVEN’T got) auxiliary verbs in English? In some parts of England they DO use an auxiliary verb in the simple positive!

    What about auxiliary verbs? I can’t see a clear boundary between them and modal verbs but again I am forced to by existing books. My revenge? I introduce a fourth one; to GO. It’s a little bit like evolution (here I draw a little amoeba on the board), first you have life, to BE, then they DO something and as a result they HAVE children… but soon it’s time for the kids to GO their own way into the future and so the story goes on.

    But getting back to the point, I feel that even though there does seem to be an order to things, the eclectic approach is always best. No teacher should refrain from inventing their own ideas either. Be creative and encourage students to be curious about grammar rules themselves. Let them make up their own rules.

    “I’m lovin’ it” is a case in point. Anarchy rules! But doesn’t a stative verb in the continuous stand out? My guess is that because we as native speakers (with the possible exclusion of our cousins on the Indian subcontinent) tend to use the continuous for special or unusual cases and it seems more attractive for the language learner to use.

    The thing that concerns me is the danger that the corpus as the new direction can be misleading, quirky as it may have seemed to the old guard some twenty years ago, it’s a bit too mainstream today. how about a language learner corpus? Does it exist? I still hold an irreverant admiration for Chomsky! While there is a grammar, who’s to say that we can’t have fun?

    • Nice to see you here Yes! And to answer your question, I believe there IS a language learner corpus, I’m not sure where. There is a non native English corpus around too, it’s the VOICE project, based in Vienna (check VOICE Vienna Oxford corpus on google)

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