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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Six despised bits of grammar


Teachers and students just love to hate grammar. Over the years that I’ve taught and observed others teaching I think that there are certain grammar points that are more hated than others. Here are six of the most generally despised and despicable grammar points, in my humble opinion.

1 Have got This isn’t hard to explain in terms of what it means, or even really how it’s formed. No, the problem is when you have to teach it. I always hated spending time on have got with beginner students after they had done to be and then come to present simple and have to re-explain yet another way of making negatives and questions. And THEN when the verb have came up in present simple as in have a shower, have a nap it just got more and more complicated! Fortunately, the order of grammar points is changing in many books (including my own) and have got can come later. Beginners can get by perfectly well with a simple have to talk about possession.

2 Present simple Third person s. Again, not hard to explain and not hard to understand (although I did once witness a teacher get in a terrible muddle trying to say why 3rd person singular took an ‘s’ in the present simple; the teacher said it was “because it feels kind of plural but isn’t really plural” – leaving me and the students completely flabbergasted). So why is this hated? Obviously because students keep forgetting it, and you begin to think you could spend half your teaching life simply correcting this point. In fact, this grammar point is so hated that some have suggested we could do away with altogether in an English as a Lingua Franca approach. You know, take it out and stage a public execution. Another explanation given for the constant recurring error is that it’s simply acquired later. But it’s still an important one, that I think we all love to hate.

3 Present perfect. God I sometimes hate the present perfect. It’s pretty rare to find an equivalent in other languages so it makes teaching the meaning and use of this tense often a bit of a problem. And it can be difficult to write material for too if you want to include real people. How many materials writers have done something using a real person to illustrate present perfect and then hope and pray that the person doesn’t go and die or do something horrible?

4 Present perfect continuous. This is the tense that actually prompted this blogpost. Of all the grammar points that are criticized or used to trash grammar, this is the most often quoted. I have no proof, but I also suspect that “bloody” is a pretty strong collocate with present perfect continuous. This is a despised tense because it can be hard to find lots of authentic and natural examples, it’s got all the problems of present perfect plus an –ing form thrown in and finally it’s not even that frequent. Actually I almost feel a bit sorry for the present perfect continuous. Can we all be a little less horrible about it for a while perhaps?

5 Question tags If getting the auxiliary and the negative/affirmative thing right wasn’t hard enough we also have the whole business of the pronunciation of this grammar point and the whole “are you really asking or are you just checking” thing which can easily get spun into a long-winded explanation. I think that this is another one that some have suggested be eliminated from English teaching, replacing it with an all-purpose tag like innit which kind of horrifies me. I don’t think I’ve ever said innit. Ever.

6 Any grammar point the teacher doesn’t understand. Worse than all of these are the grammar points that teachers themselves are unsure of. I saw a teacher literally have a breakdown in our staffroom because she didn’t know anything about what clauses (e.g. I think what you need is a nice cold drink) and it was in the unit of her CAE coursebook that she had to teach that day. For many native English-speaker teachers especially the lack of knowledge of their own grammar is cause for great anxiety and fear. And, as we all know, fear can lead to hatred.

Well, that’s quite enough from me. What do you think? Are there other grammar points you feel are, rightly or wrongly, generally despised, looked down on or kicked about a bit? Post a comment.

Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 10:57 am  Comments (30)  
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Six tired examples for teaching grammar


Have you ever eaten sushi? for Present Perfect being one of them!

"Have you ever eaten sushi?" for Present Perfect being one of them!

On one of my earlier postings, Scott Thornbury made a comment about certain sentences reoccurring in coursebooks. He was referring to example sentences that illustrate a particular grammar point, examples that are used or overused and have become quite tired. It got me thinking, and one of the first things I asked several teachers on Twitter was for the top overused sentences for teaching grammar. The responses came thick and fast… here are six of my favourites in no particular order.

1. Look, black clouds. It’s going to rain.

Used for teaching: “going to” to talk about a future event for which we have present evidence. The sentence Thornbury suggested could be “reduced to lawn manure” along with the book that contains it (!) 

2. I can / can’t dance. 

Used for teaching: modal verb can for ability. Submitted by Jamie Keddie of along with a video from Youtube of course to illustrate it. I agree, but feel that I can/can’t sing is also pretty heavily used.

3. While I was having breakfast, the phone rang.

Used for teaching: past continuous and past simple. God, we English teachers are always doing things when the phone rings! While I was having a shower the phone rang also feels pretty frequent. Submitted by Burcu Akyol from Turkey, who also has her own EFL blog for teachers.

4.  I’ve lost my keys so I can’t get in. 

Used for teaching: present perfect to talk about something with relevance NOW.  Submitted by Peter Travis at Splendid Speaking.

5. You mustn’t walk on the grass.

Used for teaching: mustn’t for (negative) obligation. Submitted by Mark Lloyd of The Speaking Cyclist. Mark adds that after this sentence you hear the teacher’s voice say something like: Is it OK to walk on the grass? Is it possible? No? Good. A delightfully English target sentence in my opinion.

6. If I won a million dollars (or insert other currency here) I would buy a house (or other expensive thing).

Used for teaching: second conditional. This one I felt just HAD to go in there. The second conditional is so often associated with wishing for large sums of money or winning the lottery. Maybe it’s because us English teachers are always broke!

So, there you have it. Next time you need to illustrate one of these grammar points, give these poor examples a break! They’ve been at it for a good thirty years or more! Feel free to suggest others below too.

And yes, you may have noticed that I am on Twitter now. If you want to take part in this kind of scintillating debate with me and other educators around the world then follow me at

Published in: on April 21, 2009 at 1:03 pm  Comments (12)  
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Six very original “what if” questions


Want an alternative to the usual "second conditional" question about winning a lot of money?

A little while ago we tackled the conditionals with my intermediate class. One of my students brought in a book and asked if we could use it for a speaking activity. The book is called If, you can see it here. Just flicking through it produced some excellent alternative questions for your conditional practice (specifically the second, or present unreal, conditional). If you want a fresher alternative to the tired old “If you won a million dollars/euros/pounds what would you buy?” here are half a dozen of my favourites!

1. If you could have one current writer write your biography, who would you pick?

2. If you could receive one small package this very moment, who would it be from and what would be in it?

3. If you could sing any one song beautifully and perfectly, which one would you pick?

4. If you could be the only one to hear the confession of one criminal from history who would it be?

5. If you could go back to any age and start a different life, what age would that be? Why?

6. (the last one I would reserve perhaps for the staff room, but I had to include it here) If you had to give up all sexual activity for one year, how much money would you demand (minimum) in return?

In fact, I’ve chosen some of the lighter ones in the book. Thanks to my student Sagra for pointing it out.

Published in: on February 13, 2009 at 5:21 pm  Comments (5)  
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