Should we teach grammar? No but yes but

Teach the grammar that adds the most value.

In my last post, I suggested that it was not an efficient use of EAP class time to teach grammar because it was almost impossible to meet all the needs of students with varying language proficiency and it was difficult for them to see how the grammar point could transfer to their writing. I was responding to a question about grammar from a course designer who gave me some examples of grammar: ‘active and passive voice, conditionals and modal verbs’, i.e., the structural, sentence-level, verb-focused grammar that underpins theories of Second Language Acquisition. While I certainly would not teach that type of grammar in an EAP class, I would teach functional grammar and, in particular, the writer-responsible grammar of sentences as they unfold in paragraphs and texts to meet the needs of a reader. Rather than a system of rules and constraints on what can be said, the orientation of functional grammar is towards language as a system of choices for meaning making (Halliday & Martin, 1993, p. 22). When I have taught a particular aspect of this functional grammar, students have often responded to say: ‘Why hasn’t anyone taught us this before?’ It is one of the key ways that students can become aware of their reader and make their writing more academic.

Two main principles of functional grammar at sentence, paragraph and whole text level are:

  1. Give your reader the Big Picture before you give them the detail
  2. Give your reader familiar information before you tell them something new.

I set out these principles in chapter 2 of EAP Essentials and in Alexander (2019). I expected readers to be unfamiliar with the terms Theme and Rheme and to need definitions:

The term Theme is used to name the first element in a clause or sentence. This element is important because it is “the point of departure” (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004, pp. 64ff and 579ff), which orients readers to the message they are about to receive. Theme is developed within Rheme, which is the remainder of the sentence. Rheme is the point of the message and shows where it is heading. In simple one-clause sentences, Theme is normally the subject and Rheme [is] the predicate.

Analyzing the paragraph above using the two main principles: it develops from a general statement defining Theme to more specific details about the function of Theme and its relation to Rheme. In the paragraph, I have underlined Themes and used italics for the new information. Themes tie a text together to make it cohesive, e.g. in sentences 1-3: The term Theme > This element > it > which > Theme. New information is presented in Rheme, when it first appears but is then summarized in Theme so further new information can be added, e.g. in sentences 2-4 point of departure > which > Rheme > which > Rheme. The movement of information from Rheme (new) to Theme (familiar/given) creates coherence in the text and helps the reader to build a picture of the ideas the writer wants to convey. Further signals in Theme position, which help a reader understand the text, are because in sentence 2, which signals that what follows is a reason, and In simple one-clause sentences, which specifies a context (circumstances) for the information in the sentence.

Patterns in text are like patterns in nature ,
each level replicates the structure of the ones above and below it.

These patterns of general to specific and familiar to new repeat across sentences, paragraphs and whole texts so that “smaller units of discourse [are] ‘scaffolded’ within larger units” (Martin & Rose, 2007, p. 199). Titles and section headings are the highest level, providing an overview of a whole text or section. At the next level, introductions provide an overview of a whole text, while the beginnings of sections and paragraphs summarize the main point of the section or paragraph. At sentence level, noun phrases in subject position contain given information, which provides a summary of previous ideas and a jumping off point for the new message in each sentence. The beginnings of paragraphs and sentences remind the reader of the developing message and predict certain kinds of detail later in the sentence or paragraph. The ends of sentences or paragraphs deliver new information, the point of each message.

This grammar is transferrable because all well-structured academic text – no matter the discipline – follows these principles. Once these ideas have been introduced to students, they can be used to give feedback on their writing, e.g. by asking them to underline all the themes of their sentences to see how information is flowing through their text from general to specific and given to new. They can try reformulating sentences to move information from the beginning to the end, thus improving the cohesion of their paragraph. Both Alexander (2019) and EAP Essentials chapter 2 have examples of classroom materials that can be used to teach this functional grammar of texts.

So why wouldn’t you teach this grammar if students can clearly see the benefit? Although it forms a key component of the Access EAP coursebook series, it rarely appears in other coursebooks. Publishers tend to be conservative and to supply the market (teachers) with what they find familiar. So these ideas rarely find their way into coursebooks, most of which are still based on structural theories of grammar. Teachers who are prepared to move outside their comfort zone, away from teaching well-understood structural verb grammar, can add much more value and transferability to their writing classes with this functional approach.

Alexander, O. (2019). The contribution of Halliday to EAP writing instruction: a personal journey. Journal of English for Academic Purposes. Volume 41.

Halliday, M.A.K. & Martin, J. (1993). Writing science: literacy and discursive power. London: The Falmer Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. revised by Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. (2004). A introduction to functional grammar (3rd ed.) London: Arnold.

Martin, J. & Rose, D. (2007). Working with discourse. London: Continuum.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

One thought on “Should we teach grammar? No but yes but”

  1. This approach to grammar is also valuable in marking, critiquing and giving feedback, not only on the work of students and second-language writing but in improving native speaker writing. The whole concept of the unfolding text at overall, paragraph and sentence level is revelatory if you are trying to work out why a text is easy or difficult to read. Contrary to what the algorithms of sites like Grammarly will tell you (primed on the banal simplicities of the three paragraph essay) this has nothing to do with sentence length and everything to do with how the different levels of the text maintain and develop themes and topics through structure and lexical and thematic cohesion.
    That is why Dickens impossibly verbose unfolding ode to fog, smoke and gaslight in the opening page of Bleak House makes a riveting and readable opening to the story, as well as setting the metaphors for the plot themes. In contrast writers lie Steinbeck who favour the staccato style of short sentences can be difficult to read, as the reader is constantly trying to do their own navigation (although the style is meant to reflect the disjointed nature of the characters’ lives). The functional approach to grammar allows these insights to be included in teaching and also gives student writers more independence. Being reader aware is an important step to autonomy as it enables the writer to take control of the conversation they want to have with the reader.

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