What is grammar?

elt grammar Aug 13, 2021

by Dr Jeremy Koay


Grammar is probably the most common word that parents, students and teachers use when they talk about English language learning. English grammar is often understood as a set of universal rules that governs the language. Where do these rules come from? Who set these rules? Are they in fact rules? Is there only one set of rules?

When Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) was introduced, some parents including teachers criticised this approach for not paying attention to grammar. This criticism, based on my observations, reflects a lack of understanding and/or poor implementation of the approach. Not many would challenge the importance of grammar instruction – it is how grammar should be taught.


Grammar is best viewed as descriptions of how human beings use language. These descriptions are useful patterns that we observe in how language is used. As language use is contextual, certain patterns are more appropriate in a particular context compared to others. For example, FYI (for your information) is appropriate for messaging on Facebook, and is increasingly becoming more acceptable in business communication (e.g., emails). Rather than being universal and static, this example shows that grammar is context specific and dynamic.

Another example, as Weber (2015) points out, is an old grammar ‘rule’ (formal British English) around the usage of shall (e.g., I shall go) and will (e.g., you will go). Is using shall exclusively for the first person (i.e., I, we) still a common practice? Perhaps, grammar has evolved.


How do we teach grammar with a meaning-driven approach? Richards and Reppen (2014) propose 12 principles to guide the teaching of grammar. I have selected two from the list that appeal to me the most as an ESOL teacher: i) Provide opportunities for meaningful communicative practice and ii) use student errors to inform instruction.

Rather than mechanical drills, tasks should be communicative driven and theme based. For example, when designing a task that requires learners to give advice and suggestions, teachers can introduce if-clauses, imperative clauses and modals (e.g., should, could).

The second principle is one of my favourite ones because it is corpus driven and learner centred. This principle allows teachers to strategically draw learners’ attention to common errors that emerge from their writing.


Richards, J. C., & Reppen, R. (2014). Towards a pedagogy of grammar instruction. RELC Journal, 45(1), 5-25.

Weber, J. J. (2015). Language and education. In Language Racism (pp. 78-93). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Feng Yu