The role of grammar practice in foreign language learning

How can we design effective grammar practice activities that foster learning and encourage successful communication in the target language?

Here are 7 tips on promoting our learners’ understanding of the newly introduced TL grammar structures through meaningful practice

  1. The role of grammar practice: what do we want to achieve?

    Grammar practice has been traditionally considered as the ‘rehearsal of  certain behaviours with the objective of consolidating learning and improving performance’ (Ur 1996:19). For Ellis (1996:63), the basic characteristics of grammar practice are as follows: a) learners are required to produce sentences containing a specific TL structure b) production should be repetitive and accurate and followed by corrective feedback and c) learners are aware that the lesson’s focus is on ‘a specific item of grammar’.

    Based on these views and on the lesson aims of our specific language classrooms, we should therefore always consider what the ultimate goal of our grammar practice section will be and what we want to achieve with it. For example, we may want our learners to communicate effectively in the TL or simply to focus on the accurate and appropriate use of the newly introduced TL structures. Our tasks and teaching approach should match these goals and should be carefully tailored to match and address our students’ specific linguistic needs.

2. Meaningful context

    Grammar practice is most effective when it is meaningful and contextualized. Grammar should not be seen as a set of rules that always needs to be explicitly taught to the students. New grammatical structures should be introduced in ‘meaningful context’, using authentic input and in a way that somehow creates the ‘desire’ to our learners to want to find out more about their use (for example by giving them a text with a number of instances of reported speech instead of directly stating the rules).

     We must make sure that our controlled practice tasks (and the language used in them) are always linked to a context/situation that is relevant and meaningful to our students.

Contextualization is key in the effective practice of newly acquired grammar in the target language. We need to provide our learners with meaningful background for this new language by building up context through useful, authentic examples of language use that will highlight the TL forms and their functions. We want the language of the examples used in guided practice to be as ‘close’ to our learners’ world and needs as possible. Our students need to feel ‘connected’ to the content and meaning of the language used in these exercises and view it as a rehearsal for future use. They need to recognize the usefulness in these phrases and train themselves on how they can adapt them to real life communication.

3. From ‘form focus’ to ‘message focus’

    For Johnson (1994: 126) grammar practice often fails to lead to acquisition because of the ‘remoteness of the practice conditions to the real skill’, to the ‘real life’ production of language. And although explicit grammar teaching and focus on the accurate production of the ‘form’ of the structures can be very beneficial to learning, many researchers argue that it should be accompanied by meaningful grammar practice by shifting the focus to the actual ‘message’ which it conveys. Johnson proposes the use of language activities that prepare students for real life communication, activities which require grammar but in a way that turn our learners’ attention away from the ‘form’ and make them focus more on the meaning, on the message that they want to convey.

4. ‘Proceduralization’ and ‘automatization’

As Jonhson (1996) points out, since most communication outside the language classroom is based on ‘message focus’, our main priority in grammar practice should be to successfully prepare our learners for these real life situations and train them on how to use the newly acquired grammar structures correctly without thinking about it. Johnson (1996:143) defines this ‘automatization’ in language as the ‘ability to get the how (forms) right when full attention is focused on the what (messages)’. This proceduralization could be very beneficial for grammar practice as it shifts our students’ attention from the formation of the structures to their actual usage.

5. Focus on ‘input practice’ (‘input processing’)

    Nitta and Gardner (2005) move one step forward to this ‘focus on meaning’ and point out the benefits of ‘input processing’ to grammar practice. They argue that we should move away from the traditional approaches to grammar learning where students focus on ‘output practice’, i.e. the production of the grammatical structures (in speaking or writing) and shift our attention towards a deeper understanding of the input. To their view, this ‘input practice’ can promote grammar learning as students are not forced to think about the form but the meaning behind the newly acquired structures.

    A very useful summary of all these research theories and their benefits to language acquisition is provided in Ellis (2002:171). His conclusion is that a) input processing combined with explicit instruction can greatly improve our learners’ understanding of the new TL structures and b) input processing should be incorporated in the design of grammar practice tasks as it improves our learners’ comprehension of the TL grammar.

6. Task authenticity

      In order for our learners to become more actively involved in the learning process, we must focus on stimulating their creativity through authentic, meaningful tasks. These can be part of the guided practice or interactive follow up activities. For Penny Ur (2012:83) one of our main jobs as teachers is to help our students ‘make the leap’ from ‘form-focused accuracy work’ to ‘ fluent, but acceptable production’ by providing what she calls a ‘bridge’ i.e. a variety in tasks that familiarize students with the structures in context and give practice ‘both in form and communicative meaning’. A slight degree of unpredictability in tasks (even in the controlled practice section) will kill boredom and will boost learner alertness and motivation.  

   Our students should be given the opportunity to use and practise the new structure not only through writing (i.e. grammar activities), but also through speaking. After all they will be learning the new grammar to communicate in another language, so speaking practice should not be undermined.

7. Focus on our learners’ active involvement

     Different levels of motivation mean different performance levels. Our students have to be intrinsically motivated in order to be willing to participate more actively during the lesson and ‘absorb’ new knowledge. Active involvement is key to a successful learning environment. Learning is then more meaningful to them as it is connected to their everyday lives, their preferences and interests. Through this inclusiveness our learners become more engaged in the language tasks and turn the ‘input’ they receive to useful ‘intake’.  

     In many cases our learners will rarely find the opportunity to practise the TL outside the language classroom. It is therefore essential to encourage them to interact in the foreign language as much as possible. By working in pairs or groups in order to complete a task, our students will combine their knowledge of L2 lexis and grammar and will learn from one another. Learner cooperation even in guided practice tasks such as simple matching activities will not only increase student talking time (STT), but will also enhance our learners’ communication skills and use of the new grammar structures.

     Giving a communicative purpose to these activities is important here as it does not only promote language practice, but it also serves as a rehearsal for real life speaking in the TL. Our learners need to see a purpose behind each task and to be able to use the newly acquired grammar to achieve a particular goal, to get their message across, to exchange information with each other as they would do in real life situations.


Dekeyser, R. M. (2001). Automaticity and automatization. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and Second Language Instruction (pp. 125-151). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ellis, R. (1991). The role of practice in classroom learning. In R. Ellis (Ed.), Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Pedagogy. (pp. 101-120). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters

Johnson, K. (1994). Teaching declarative and procedural knowledge. In M. Bygate, A. Tonkyn & E. Williams (Eds.), Grammar and the Language Teacher (pp.121-131). London: Prentice Hall.

Nitta, R. & Gardner, S. (2005). Consciousness-raising and practice in Elt coursebooks. ELT Journal, 59(1), 3-13.

Thornbury, S. (1999). How to Teach Grammar. Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman. Chapter 6.

Ur, P. (1988). Grammar Practice Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

VanPatten, B. (1993). Grammar teaching for the acquisition-rich classroom. Foreign Language Annals, 26(4), 435-450.

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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