The role of grammar practice in foreign language learning

How can we define the aims of grammar practice activities and what are their main characteristics? What role does grammar practice play in promoting language learning?

Here are some views on grammar practice and how we can adapt these tasks to foster language acquisition

By Joanna Nifli (MA TEFL/CELTA certified EFL instructor)

    The ability to use grammatical structures accurately is seen by many researchers as “a skill requiring productive practice” (Larsen Freeman 2001:40). For Penny Ur (1996:19), the traditional view of grammar practice is that it involves the “rehearsal of certain behaviours with the objective of consolidating learning and improving performance”.

    Ellis (1994:63) defines the characteristics of effective grammar practice as follows:

    For Ellis, there is something in our minds that controls what and when we learn. As he points out, “there are psycholinguistic constraints which govern whether attempts to teach learners specific grammar rules result in their acquisition…Production practice alone is not sufficient to overcome these constraints”. There is now clear evidence to suggest that “having learners produce sentences that model the target structure is not sufficient to guarantee its acquisition as implicit knowledge”. For Van Patten (1993:436), “traditional instruction involves explanation followed by some kind of output practice” where “the learner is asked to produce when the developing system has not yet had the relevant intake data”.

Explicit learning: to what extent should learners be aware that they are practising grammar?

    Bialystok (1978: 69) describes “explicit linguistic knowledge” as all the “conscious facts the learner has about the language” and the “ability to articulate those facts”. “Implicit linguistic knowledge”, on the other hand, is “the intuitive information upon which the learner operates in order to produce responses in the target language”. This includes all the automatic and spontaneous TL use in the language classroom.

    A similar distinction can be made between teaching grammar explicitly and implicitly. Explicit learning doesn’t necessarily mean learning rules though. It means that learners are aware of the fact that they are learning grammar.

“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 does 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.

Proceduralization as the ‘goal’ of grammar practice

    Johnson (1994:126) argues that practice often fails to lead to acquisition  because of the “remoteness of practice conditions to the real skill required…The conditions of practice are so remote from what actually happens to be useless; the expected transfer from practice to production does not occur because the practice offered in class is so unlike the production of real life”. Dekeyser (1998:49-53) stresses the importance of the notion of proceduralization in grammar practice and argues that it is achieved by “engaging in target behavior”. Mechanical drills are “not what is needed to proceduralize this knowledge” as they “do not engage the learner in the target behavior of conveying meaning through language”.

From ‘form focus’ to ‘message focus’

    Johnson (1996:143)  reiterates the importance of decreasing form focus and increasing message focus as “much real communication outside the classroom is marked by a very high degree of message focus”. He defines this automatization in language as the ability to get the “how” (forms) right when full attention is focused on the “what” (messages).

    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.

    Grammar practice is therefore 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). 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 students, teachers can use fairytales or anything that is closer to their world and interests.

    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.

Which works best?

    A very useful summary on 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.

    Based on these views and on the lesson aims of our specific language classrooms, we should therefore 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.


Dekeyser, R. M. (1998). Beyond focus on form: cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition (pp. 42-63). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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. (2002a). 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.

Ellis, R. (2002b). The place of grammar instruction in the second/foreign language curriculum. In In E. Hinkel & S. Fotos (Eds.), New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms (pp. 17-34). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Published by Joanna Nifli

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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