Discovery’ grammar learning: some pros and cons of inductive grammar teaching in the ELT classroom

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

Support for Inductive Learning

Here is a summary of some research evidence we have about the value of

inductive language learning.

    There is not much empirical support for the assertion that inductive work promotes more effective learning than deductive work in grammar learning. Shaffer (1989) is in fact the only study which makes claims along these lines. The aim of this study was “to determine if a difference exists in high school foreign language students’ understanding of grammatical concepts depending on whether an inductive or deductive teaching approach is used” (p.396). Students received either inductive or deductive formal instruction, and their performance subsequent to instruction was measured on a cloze passage in which the target grammar had to be used. Although the study produced no statistically significant differences, between the two groups, the author claims that the trend was in favour of the inductive approach and concludes that inductive methods can be useful in grammar work with students of all abilities and with both simple and more complicated grammar points.

    There is some evidence that inductive work can be at least as effective as deductive grammar teaching (Fotos, 1994; Fotos & Ellis, 1991). However most arguments in support of inductive learning are not based on evidence about its effectiveness. Ellis (2002: 164-165) suggests the following benefits of discovery work:

Designing Inductive Grammar Activities

‘Noticing’ and ‘learning by discovery’ in grammar teaching will have to be assessed by the teachers and their respective classes. It is the teachers that will decide to what extent inductive learning will be beneficial to their students, based on their level and educational needs.

Below is a checklist of some points to consider when designing inductive grammar activities for the EFL classroom.

Some further points to consider:

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.

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 ‘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.

‘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.


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

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.

Fotos, S. & Ellis, R. (1991). Communicating about grammar: A task-based approach. TESOL Quarterly, 25(4), 605-628.

Fotos, S. (1994). Integrating grammar instruction and communicative language use through grammar consciousness-raising tasks. TESOL Quarterly, 28(2), 323-351.

Gollin, J. (1998). Deductive vs. inductive language learning. ELT Journal, 52(1), 88-89.

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.

Shaffer, C. (1989). A comparison of inductive and deductive approaches to teaching foreign languages. The Modern Language Journal, 73(4), 395-403.

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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