Fitting Grammar into the
Language Learning Experience
Grant Goodall
The basic problem
• Given meaningful exposure to language,
learners’ implicit grammar will develop.
• Should we as teachers intervene? Should
we do more than just provide meaningful
input and interaction?
• If so, what should we do?
You might think answer is clearly
• After one year of study, most students’
abilities are still poor.
• Would they be able to survive in the target
• What kind of job could they have?
• Would anyone want to be their friend?
• Don’t they need all the help they can get?
But let’s keep things in perspective
• 1 year = 30 weeks @ 5 hours/week
• 150 hours
• For a young child (the “best” 2nd-language
learner), 150 hours = 50 days.
(Assume 3 hours of contact per day.)
• A young child will learn a lot in 50 days,
but s/he will still have a long ways to go.
Is it reasonable to expect more of
an 18-year-old?
• We know their language learning abilities are
significantly diminished compared to a young
• This does not mean that we should just sit back
and do nothing.
• This does mean that we should be cautious in
assuming intervention is needed.
What does the research say?
• Does intervention have an effect?
• That is, does grammar-focused instruction
affect students’ learning of language?
• Let’s divide this into explicit learning and
implicit learning.
Does grammar instruction affect
explicit learning?
• Yes.
• It would be very surprising (and
discouraging!) if the answer were “no”.
Does grammar instruction affect
implicit learning?
• Yes and no.
• Two complications:
-How do you measure implicit learning?
-What exactly do you mean by
“grammar instruction”?
How do you measure implicit
• Usual technique: learners produce
spontaneous speech.
• This makes it hard to test beginners,
whose ability to produce spontaneous
speech is very limited.
• So most studies deal with “intermediate”
What exactly do you mean by
“grammar instruction”?
• This is crucial.
• Research suggests that some types of
grammar instruction have an effect on
implicit learning and others don’t.
Grammar instruction that may have
an effect on implicit learning
Look for activities that encourage/force
students to pay attention to:
(1) The grammatical form
(2) The meaning
Example #1: Text enhancement
The mouse ran down the hall and jumped
onto Tom’s bed. Tom felt something fuzzy
near his ear but thought it was the corner
of his pillow. He reached up to touch it,
but by then the mouse was already in his
hair. The mouse made a nice little nest in
Tom’s hair, and neither Tom nor the mouse
woke up until morning.
Example #2: Structured input
Which of the following are true?
a) Sandwiches are usually eaten by people.
b) The computer was invented by George
c) French is spoken in Indonesia.
d) The blouse was removed by Justin
e) People are often ridden by horses.
f) Horses are often ridden by people.
Example #3: Information gap
• Student A:
The cow was ridden by the __?__ .
• Student B:
The bear rode the cow.
All of these examples encourage
students to pay attention to:
(1) The grammatical form
(2) The meaning
Grammar instruction that seems
not to have an effect on implicit
• Activities that involve:
Sentence manipulation or creation where
students do not need to pay attention to
• Add yesterday to each sentence and make
any necessary changes to the verb.
Paul eats dinner at 7:30.
Mary runs to catch the bus.
Alice breaks the record.
Create a proper sentence using the
following elements:
Choose the correct form:
The car was
(sell) for $1700.
All of these examples
• Require students to manipulate or create
• Do not require students to pay attention to
Summary so far
• Some grammar-focused activities seem to
help implicit learning, others don’t.
• The crucial distinction:
Those that help all encourage attention
to grammatical form AND meaning.
Should you do sentence
manipulation/creation activities at
• No effect on implicit learning, but
presumably do have effect on explicit
• Readily available. Most textbooks have
But keep in mind…
First, do no harm.
• Sentence manipulation activities do not
help students’ implicit learning,
• But could they actually do harm?
• I will suggest that some of them probably
How could a grammatical activity
do harm?!?
• Imagine an activity that encourages
students to focus on a misleading
• Such an activity could encourage the
students’ implicit learning to go down the
wrong path.
• Unfortunately, there are many such
An example
• Many textbook exercises focus on areas
where the target language makes a
distinction that the native language does
• For instance, many Romance languages
have two past tenses (with slightly
different meanings), while English has only
Spanish preterite vs. imperfect
• Two ways to say “Juan went to Barcelona”
• Preterite: Juan fue a Barcelona.
Action completed.
• Imperfect: Juan iba a Barcelona.
Action not (yet) completed, or action done
Why this is hard
• You must choose. There is no “neutral”
past tense form.
• English doesn’t make this same
The classic exercise
• Anoche yo _____ (ir) a un concierto.
‘Last night I went to a concert.’
• Possible answers:
(a) Anoche yo fui a un concierto.
(b) Anoche yo iba a un concierto.
• The classic right answer: (a)
What could possibly be wrong with
• Students need to learn to make the
preterite/imperfect distinction, and this
exercise addresses exactly that.
• All languages make difficult distinctions of
one sort or another, so this type of
exercise would seem to be needed in all of
But notice…
Problem #1: The subject pronoun
• Spanish verbs agree with the subject:
fui I went
fue he/she went etc.
• Subject must be included, so that student
knows how to conjugate verb:
Anoche yo _____ (ir) a un concierto.
The result?
• Almost every sentence in this exercise has a
subject pronoun.
• In real life, Spanish uses overt subject pronouns
only in specific discourse conditions (emphasis,
contrast, etc.).
• This exercise desensitizes learners to the
presence of a subject pronoun, encouraging
them to think of this as the default. Possible
long-term damage to their implicit grammar.
Problem #2: How students
approach this exercise
• Students are taught (or quickly figure out) to look
Specific point in past → preterite
Time frame in past → imperfect
• In our example:
Anoche yo _____ (ir) a un concierto.
Anoche ‘last night’ is specific point in past, so use
What would a real speaker do?
• When uttering a sentence, real speakers
surely don’t look for a time expression in
the sentence to decide between preterite
and imperfect.
• Instead, they know what each tense
means, and they choose the one that best
expresses their idea.
By training our students to look for a
time expression:
• We are training them to use exactly the
wrong strategy to choose between the
predicate and imperfect.
• Again, possible long-term damage to their
developing implicit grammar.
Problem #3: The “right” answer
• Students understandably get the idea that
there is a single right answer.
• But this is often not true.
In our example:
(a) Anoche yo fui a un concierto.
(b) Anoche yo iba a un concierto.
(a) is likely, (b) requires more imagination, but both
are clearly possible.
It just depends what you are trying to say.
Summary: why this exercise could
harm students
1. It desensitizes them to the use of subject
2. It trains them to use exactly the wrong
strategy in choosing between the two
3. It encourages them to think there is only
one right answer, when this is not true.
Summary: Will this exercise help
• Input?
• Implicit learning?
• Explicit learning?
Yes, but not very well.
Why do we do exercises like this?
• They are easy to create or find in books.
• Students feel that they are mastering
• Teachers feel that they are teaching
• Everybody is happy.
• But it’s a fool’s paradise.
How do we help students’ implicit
learning of these distinctions?
• Any activity that requires them to attend to
both the form and the meaning
For example…
Some sample activities
Matching sentences to pictures, video clips
- E.g. “The airplane landed”
Acting out sentences
- E.g. “John fell”
Drawing pictures
- E.g. “Mary was sad because John went to Barcelona”
Text enhancement
E.g. Highlighted imperfect forms in story.
Structured input
- E.g. T/F questions that crucially depend on distinction.
• Can grammar-focused activities help
learners’ implicit grammatical
• Do all such activities help?
No. In fact, some may cause harm.
• How do I know which activities will help?
Choose those which require attending
to both form and meaning.

Given meaningful exposure to language, learner’s …