The role of inductive grammar learning in the EFL classroom

How can we effectively use inductive learning in our EFL grammar lessons?

Here are the main advantages of learning by discovery and some key points to consider when designing inductive grammar activities for our language classroom.

      “Inductive learning means that examples are encountered before rules are inferred; deductive learning means that rules are presented before examples are encountered”

(DeKeyser, 1995:380)

    Even though there is not much empirical support in favour of inductive grammar learning (as opposed to explicit teaching), many researchers (Dekeyser, 1995; Fotos, 1994; Fotos & Ellis, 1991; Thornbury, 1999) reiterate the positive impact it can have on foreign language learning. For Ellis (2002:164-165), discovery work can not only encourage students to form and test hypotheses about the grammar of the L2, but can also have a ‘learning-training function’ by helping learners to develop the skills they need to investigate language autonomously. This process of discovery helps in some way towards better understanding and memorization of the rules that underlie the grammar structures. This, according to Ellis (2002) can lead to ‘powerful insights about the grammar of a language’.

   Choosing whether to focus on inductive learning or on the explicit teaching of a rule will greatly depend on our lesson’s overall aim, on our learners’ level and on what we want to achieve. Combining both could also be extremely beneficial to some language classrooms as we can satisfy our students’ various linguistic needs and learning styles in multiple ways.

    This blog post will focus on the positive impact learning by discovery can have on grammar instruction and on the main points we should focus on when implementing it in our EFL lessons.

    Inductive grammar activities, as described by many language researchers, have some specific aspects in their design and differ from explicit teaching especially in the order in which the rules and examples are presented to the students. In the grammar tasks that focus on our learners’ active involvement and the discovery of the structures, the language that illustrates the target grammar is presented to the students in the first stages of the tasks. Students are being exposed to TL data and examples before the rules are made explicit. The main activity focuses on the learners using contextual clues and making guesses in order to work out the grammar rules. Explicit focus on the TL grammar structures takes place at the end of the main task where students have the opportunity for further practice.

Below you will find some key points to consider when designing inductive grammar activities for the EFL classroom.

  1. The importance of ‘noticing’ in grammar teaching

Noticing mainly has to do with our learners being able to understand and grasp the meaning from the input they receive in terms of a newly introduced structure or grammar point. Successful learning will take place when they notice this ‘gap’ between the target language and their interlanguage and will actively try to incorporate the new structures in their TL output. The key is not just to make our students notice linguistic patterns in the TL. Something that has ‘grasped’ our attention could easily be forgotten after a while. Our goal as teachers is to create the appropriate circumstances in order to raise our learners’ consciousness, to help them successfully acquire this new knowledge and to begin to actively use it by turning input into intake and then into successful TL output.

Noticing by discovery:

Moving from explicit grammar teaching to implicit learning can prove to be very beneficial for our learners. Teachers do not give out the rules, they make no attempt to highlight the TL forms, but simply guide their learners towards the discovery of certain patterns. This makes our students more actively involved in the learning process and fosters language acquisition.

2. Focus on form/meaning

    One of the points teachers need to consider when focusing on grammar is the effectiveness of the examples used. They have to be clear, to the point and in a meaningful context. Visual materials can also greatly contribute to our students’ understanding. The language input our students will receive needs to focus both on the meaning of the new grammatical structure as well as its form.

    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 practise should not be undermined.

3. 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 ss. 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). The type of context also greatly depends on our students’ level and needs. For instance, in order to introduce the Simple Present tense to young ss, teachers can use fairytales or anything that is closer to their world and interests.

4. The role of our learners’ active involvement

     The key principle behind inductive grammar learning is the assumption that most of the times it is better for output to precede input. Learners should not be seen as mere recipients of new language input. Instead, they need to be actively involved in the learning process.

Discovering the formation and usage of the new structure

    Teachers have to judge whether they can first ‘elicit’ the new language structure from their students and have them produce it without explicit explanation. This makes students ‘notice’ the new language patterns, discover themselves what the aim of the lesson is and try to produce and make sense out of the new structures.

    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. 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.

    It is important to remember that our learners will not pick up the new grammar structures unless they feel motivated to do so. They must see a reason behind the use of the structure so that they can incorporate it in their writing and speech.

5. Focus on authentic use

Using the structures for real communicative purposes

    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 ‘production of real life’. 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.

    In many cases our EFL learners have limited exposure to the TL outside the classroom and therefore not many opportunities to practise the language. In order to foster their language development we must create the appropriate environment to help them do this during the lesson. We must help them develop communicative skills that will eventually promote language acquisition. By encouraging interaction among the students, STT (student talking time) is increased and our learners gradually begin to develop language fluency.

    We must give them the freedom to interact in the TL, to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately), to get their message across without the fear of errors. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active.

6. Combining explicit and implicit grammar teaching

   Choosing whether to explicitly give out the rules or follow a more inductive approach to grammar learning will depend to a large extent on what we want to achieve, i.e. if we merely want to introduce a grammar structure that our students will encounter with more detail in the future or focus on a certain grammatical point that is crucial for our learners and will help them achieve their goals, i.e. pass the language exams.

    Teachers therefore need to carefully consider the extent to which they will try to elicit the new structures from their students or whether they will try to explain the rules that underlie them in a more direct way. I would like to point out here that nothing is to be rejected. Certain learner groups, depending on their age and learning style may benefit from the explicit teaching of terminology and rules. Some students simply need to know the new structure by its grammar-book name. Experience has taught most of us that adult learners in particular are more likely to ask for the rules from the very first time they come across a new grammar structure. More analytically-minded learners also find the use of handouts with clear examples and bullet points on grammar rules very helpful.


Dekeyser, R.M. (1995). Learning second language grammar rules: an experiment with a miniature linguistic system. Studies in Secong Language Acquisition, 17 (3), 379-419

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

Ellis, R. (2002). Methodological options in grammar teaching materials. In E. Hinkel & S. Fotos (Eds.), New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms (pp. 155-179). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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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