Grammar: how to tame the unruly beast

Pearson Languages
A young child sat at a desk in a classroom writing

“Grammar, which knows how to control even kings” - Molière

When you think of grammar, “rule” is probably the first word that pops into your mind. Certainly the traditional view of grammar is that it’s about the “rules of language”. Indeed, not so long ago, teaching a language meant just teaching grammatical rules, plus perhaps a few vocabulary lists. However, I’m going to suggest that there’s actually no such thing as a grammatical rule.

To show you what I mean, let’s take the comparative of adjectives: “bigger”, “smaller”, “more useful”, “more interesting”, etc. We might start with a simple rule: for adjectives with one syllable, add -er, and for adjectives with two or more syllables, use more + adjective.

But this doesn’t quite work: yes, we say “more useful”, but we also say “cleverer”, and “prettier”. OK then, suppose we modify the rule. Let’s also say that for two-syllable adjectives ending in -y or -er you add -er.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite work either: we do say “cleverer”, but we also say “more sober” and “more proper”. And there are problems with some of the one-syllable adjectives too: we say “more real” and “more whole” rather than “realer” or “wholer”. If we modify the rule to fit these exceptions, it will be half a page long, and anyway, if we keep looking we’ll find yet more exceptions. This happens repeatedly in English grammar. Very often, rules seem so full of exceptions that they’re just not all that helpful.

And there’s another big problem with the “rule approach”: it doesn’t tell you what the structure is actually used for, even with something as obvious as the comparative of adjectives. You might assume that it’s used for comparing things: “My house is smaller than Mary’s”; “John is more attractive than Stephen”. But look at this: “The harder you work, the more money you make.” Or this: “London is getting more and more crowded.” Both sentences use comparative adjectives, but they’re not directly comparing two things.

What we’re actually looking at here is not a rule but several overlapping patterns, or paradigms to use the correct technical term:

  1. adjective + -er + than
  2. more + adjective + than
  3. parallel comparative adjectives: the + comparative adjective 1 … the + comparative adjective 2
  4. repeated comparative adjective: adjective + -er + and + adjective + -er/more and more + adjective

This picture is more accurate, but it looks abstract and technical. It’s a long way from what we actually teach these days and the way we teach it, which tends to be organized around learning objectives and measurable outcomes, such as: “By the end of this lesson (or module) my students should be able to compare their own possessions with someone else’s possessions”. So we’re not teaching our students to memorize a rule or even to manipulate a pattern; we’re teaching them to actually do something in the real world. And, of course, we’re teaching it at a level appropriate for the student’s level.

So, to come back to grammar, once we’ve established our overall lesson or module objective, here are some of the things we’re going to need to know.

  • What grammatical forms (patterns) can be used to express this objective?
  • Which ones are appropriate for the level of my students? Are there some that they should already know, or should I teach them in this lesson?
  • What do the forms look like in practice? What would be some good examples?

Existing grammar textbooks generally don’t provide all this information; in particular, they’re very vague about level. Often they don’t even put grammar structures into specific CEFR levels but into a range, e.g. A1/A2 or A2/B1, and none fully integrates grammar with overall learning objectives.

At Pearson, we’ve set ourselves the goal of addressing these issues by developing a new type of grammar resource for English teachers and learners that:

  • Is based on the Global Scale of English with its precise gradation of developing learner proficiency
  • Is built on the Council of Europe language syllabuses, linking grammar to CEFR level and to language functions
  • Uses international teams of language experts to review the structures and assess their levels

We include grammar in the GSE Teacher Toolkit, and you can use it to:

  • Search for grammar structures either by GSE or CEFR level
  • Search for grammar structures by keyword or grammatical category/part of speech
  • Find out at which level a given grammar structure should be taught
  • Find out which grammar structures support a given learning objective
  • Find out which learning objectives are related to a given grammar structure
  • Get examples for any given grammar structure
  • Get free teaching materials for many of the grammar structures

Think of it as an open-access resource for anyone teaching English and designing a curriculum.

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