Design of a pedagogic grammar

Author: Richard Towell


The main elements which influence the design of a pedagogic grammar are the audience (first language background, level of existing knowledge, knowledge of terminology), linguistic theory and learning theory.

Table of contents

1. Definition

A Pedagogic Grammar is a description of a given language which has been created (usually in written form but more and more are electronic) with the intention of enabling a defined set of learners to learn that language. As such, it is influenced by several external factors: it is written with an audience in mind; it makes use of one or more linguistic theories in establishing its descriptive framework; it makes a number of assumptions about how learners learn. It often includes or is accompanied by a set of complementary exercises. We will look at each of these factors in turn.

2. The Influence of the Audience

The main characteristics of the audience which have to be borne in mind are: their existing knowledge of other language(s); their existing knowledge of the language to be learnt; their age and set of interests; their knowledge of grammatical terminology.

Most pedagogic grammars are written with a group of native speakers of a given language in mind. Authors of such grammars therefore select the items to present on the basis on a contrastive awareness of where the two languages differ, modified by experience as to which differences create genuine learning difficulties.

Pedagogic grammars can be written for learners of any level: beginner's, intermediate and advanced are standard descriptors but are often interpreted differently. In each case, authors make assumptions about what learners already know (see learning theory below).

Pedagogic grammars have to explain how language works: to do so they make use of a combination of textual explanation and examples. Although grammars are not normally read sequentially but 'dipped into' in search of specific pieces of information, they will not work if they do not appeal to their audience. Therefore, the textual explanations must not use terminology which the audience will not understand; the terminology has to be within their reach. The examples have to be written to stick in the mind: they will do so if they strike a chord with the audience by addressing their set of interests.

3. The Influence of Linguistic Theory

Pedagogic grammars have to adopt a frame of reference which ultimately derives from what linguists have said about the linguistic structure of the language in question. This will vary greatly: French, English, Spanish and German have literally centuries of linguistic scholarship to draw on. Other languages may have less. For the much studied languages, pedagogic grammars usually draw on standard reference grammars and the work of descriptive linguists and re-interpret the information to be found there. For less studied languages the author of a pedagogic grammar may find him or herself also doing the work of a reference grammarian prior to the work of interpreting the analysis for the audience.

For the moment, most linguistic descriptions are still based on classical written texts but computer technology is now making available 'authentic' corpora which should provide reference points derived from a wider range of written text (e.g. newspapers and other media) and from oral language. In the main this has not yet fed through into pedagogic grammars, although some grammars have adopted a 'functional approach' which places grammatical forms in a communicative context. Other varieties of linguistic analysis, such as that adopted by generative linguists, have not in general greatly influenced pedagogic grammars. The analyses of generativists are designed to provide an account of how language may be represented in the mind: the descriptions are often highly abstract and do not lend themselves easily to re-interpretation for pedagogic purposes. It is not clear that the few attempts to base pedagogic grammars on generative linguistic analyses have been successful. Many of the insights do, however, over time force more descriptive grammarians to modify their account of the language.

4. The Influence of Learning Theory

In providing an explanation of how a given language works, authors of pedagogic grammars are already making an assumption that explanations help in learning. This is not an assumption which is without question. Throughout the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, specialists in second language acquisition research took the view that much of the core syntax could only be learnt 'implicitly'. This idea began with a comparison with first language acquisition where it is clear that children learn to speak and listen without the help of any explicit instruction. It was also shown that children learning their first language all followed the same natural route in building up their knowledge of the core syntax. The view was then reinforced by many empirical investigations which showed that second language learners also followed a natural route. Research also showed that many learners who began to learn after about the age of 7 never attained native like competence in their second language. This led to a widely accepted conclusion that core syntax cannot be learnt by second language learners in the same way as first language learners after the age of about 7. For many researchers it then followed logically that that core syntax could not be learnt through explanation either.

More recently this view has been modified. Whilst there is a lot of evidence showing that learners cannot learn in the same way as first language learners, there is also evidence that second language learners follow a definable route. This would suggest that there is still some access to Universal Grammar. In any case, the problem of how to enable learners to acquire the necessary knowledge has not lessened, even if this view is correct. Many researchers would argue that it is essential to give learners access to explicit explanations and to enable them to acquire explicit knowledge of how the grammar works even if at the same time we have to accept that the knowledge acquired in this way will not be the same in terms of mental structures as that held by native speakers. (For further discussion of UG and learning rates/routes, see under SLA, Myles, in this Guide.)

The pragmatic view is that teaching grammar explicitly may well be the only method we have available for learners over the age of seven, and therefore we must make the process as efficient as possible. This means making the explanations as clear as possible for the defined audience, as explained above. A particular feature of a successful pedagogic grammar is likely to be a fit with the existing knowledge of the learner. If the concept of a natural route of learning is correct, it follows that pedagogic grammars need to be highly 'level sensitive' and present exactly the knowledge which the learner can fit on top of their existing knowledge. Too little and it will overlap with what is already known, too much and the learner will not be able to integrate it into his or her developing language system.

5. Concluding Remarks

The initiative for producing a pedagogic grammar often lies with a publishing company as this is one area where it is believed (correctly) that reasonable sales are assured (although not nearly as many as for dictionaries). A publishing house may wish to deal with a series of languages in a 'corporate' style, i.e. by applying the formula which proved successful for the first language they have published to all subsequent languages. This can prove something of a constraint for would-be authors of pedagogic grammars who wish to experiment with new methods of presentation. Those whose research interest lies in discovering which presentation methods work best will often find their outlets through developing course materials rather than writing grammar books, especially where the former can be linked to experimentally interesting evaluations of the input. Pedagogic grammars are generally not highly rated as research outputs and therefore any research into grammar learning tends to take place through routes other than pedagogic grammars.


Bygate, M., A. Tonkyn & E. Williams (1994)Grammar and the Language Teacher. London: Longman

Engel, D. & F. Myles (eds) (1996)Teaching Grammar: Perspectives in Higher Education. London: Association for French Language Studies/Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.

Hinkel, E. and S. Fotos (eds) (2002)New Perspectives in Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. New Jersey/London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Rutherford, W. E. (1987)Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London: Longman.

Rutherford, W. E. (ed.) (1988)Grammar and Second Language Teaching. Rowley, Ma: Newbury House.

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