Saturday, 18 June 2011

Grammar Doesn't Have to be Grey...... says Michael Swan, so it must be true!!

I was lucky enough to be able to attend a seminar Michael gave in Venice on Wednesday, 15th June, 2011 and have blogged about my meeting with the man himself -When Andrea Met Michael.  This post is a summary of his presentation, the title of which was 'Grammar Doesn't Have to be Grey' with the byline, 'Designing Effective Grammar Teaching & Practice Materials'.


When it comes to incorporating grammar into our EFL lessons, we need to strike the right balance.  Non-native teachers tend to do too much grammar as it puts them in control of the class, especially if their sudents know more vocabulary than they do or if they have better pronunciation.  On the other hand, native teachers tend to do insufficient grammar, often because they don't know it!

Grammar teaching should be made up of the 'three x's' - explanations, examples and exercises with the emphasis always being on the latter because students learn by what they do, not what they are told.


  • Keep them short - 3 lines maximum
  • Remember that you don't need to tell students the whole truth - students need to understand from the outset that there are always exceptions
  • Make them clear - an example of how not to do it found in an English grammar book published in France: 'Modality is the coloured filter of our subjectivity through which we perceive reality.'!!
  • Use L1 especially at lower levels
  • Give visual support - use colour to highlight and use diagrams and timelines
  • The discovery method has only limited use when explaining grammar (for example, when teaching the use of for/since with present perfect).  In most cases, students want to be told!

  • Make them realistic - we have all seen ridiculous examples in text books over the years - these classics found in books used in Italy and France, for example:
                                   Birds fly high.
                                   The oxen are stepping on my feet. (To illustrate irregular plurals!)
                                   Come down from that tree so that I may kiss you.
  •  Examples do not have to be illustrated in texts - you can just use simple sentences
  • Texts are useful for certain grammar points - for example, in contextualising present perfect versus past simple.
  • Texts don't have to have something done to them - you don't always need comprehension questions or other activities - often, a no-hassle listening or reading is enough to illustrate the point.
  • Use the outside world:
                                   Signs - for example, to illustrate determiners:
                                                           Good Food Served Here
                                                           All Day.  Every Day.

                                                           Look Both Ways

                                                           No Cycles

                                   Cartoons - e.g., for negative imperative:

                                                           Marriage Guidance

                                   Quotations - these are memorable for reinforcing grammar points. e.g.:

                                                          Power corrupts - absolute power corrupts absolutely.
                                                                                                                       (Lord Acton)



  • There is a place for non-communicative exercises to concept check, particularly when you first present a point of grammar.
  • Exercises should be personalised - for example, when practising reported speech, ask the students, 'What did you think when you were small?'
  • Use bits of real text for gap fill exercises.
  • Use arrows and pictures to make students think
  • Get students to use their imagination - 'Imagine a situation............... what is being done/what is not being done.'
  • Ask student to write captions for cartoons.
  • Use the internet - both to practise a grammar point (e.g. Find some information about a person and write sentences in simple present to describe his or her daily routine) and to check what the teacher has said (e.g. Use a search engine to check which is the more normal form, 'beautifuller' or 'more beautiful').
  • Use humour up to a point - for instance, to practise will for future prediction, read some horoscopes and then get students to write their own for each other - the funnier, the better.  If students can make each other laugh in L2, it's very motivating.
  • If you are forced to use a boring textbook, hi-jack it! - for example, get students to re-write boring dialogues.
  • Use drawings - for example, to illustrate 'supposed to', get students to draw something (it doesn't matter how bad it is) and their classmates have to decide what it's supposed to be!
  • Exercises need to be a platform for more personalised and creative work by students.
Grammar and.........

Don't think of grammar in isolation.  Think of it in conjunction with other things:
  • Grammar and Culture - use poetry in the classroom.
  • Grammar and Thinking - do interesting, challenging exercises which make the students use their brains logically.
  • Grammar and Imagination - allow students to be creative.
  • Grammar and Vocabulary - how can we help students by teaching lexical chunks?
  • Grammar and Writing - for example, give students a text which uses a mixture of active and passive and get them to re-write it twice, firstly using only active and then using only passive.
  • Grammar and Reading - give sentence restructuring exercises.
  • Grammar and Informality - remember that informal and formal grammar is different and, if appropriate, teach both.
  • Grammar and Speech - highlight the differences between spoken and written English.
  • Grammar and Pronunciation - grammar consists of a lot of unstressed words - auxialiaries, prepositions, to of infinitive, etc. - which are difficult to hear, so don't forget to do lots of grammar listenings.

Grammar teaching should consist of:
  • 25% input (explanations & examples)
  • 75% output (exercises)
So, I hope I have done justice to Michael Swan's presentation.  I wanted to write up my notes for my own reference and hope that others will find them useful, too.


  1. Thanks for the great summary!


  2. Congratulations, Andrea. I agree with Leahn, fabulous summary. Did you record Swan's presentation? Surely it's impossible to have remembered or written all these?

  3. Thanks for the comments, Leahn & Chiew.

    No, I didn't record the presentation - just made copious notes & wrote them up the first chance I got! I didn't want to forget any of Michael's great tips!

  4. Hi Andrea, I had the opportunity to listen to Michael Swan in Croatia, Zagreb last year in November at Oxford ELT annual conference. It was on the same topic. I really like your summary, and I was so thrilled when Michael said that we need to use L1 to explain some chunks of grammar especially to beginners. I really enjoyed in his poem. He read some to us, they were so funny. I am just sorry for not buying his poetry book. Will have to get it soon.

  5. Thanks, Marijana! I agree with you - Michael's presentation was very entertaining as well as being informative. I'm sorry I'm not in Glasgow to hear him speak at IATEFL!