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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