If you read my my first article on May 14, 2014, on achieving English fluency through personalising phrases and collocations, this article on the incidental learning of grammar should be a useful extension for you.

Throughout primary and secondary school, and even later at private language schools, grammar is forced upon students in a very prescriptive way. It seems to be the passion of most curriculum managers and language school directors to force a structural syllabus upon teachers.

This means that students must first learn the verb to be, then the present continuous, present simple and past simple forms of regular verbs and so on. However, the learning of English is never so perfect and predictable. When I think of my learning of Serbian, I was never opposed to learning supposedly difficult grammar items before, for instance, the present tenses if they came up during conversation. That is the point: grammar learning should be incidental!

It's difficult for learners to get away from this enforced system when they have to go to school. They have to do the same kinds of exercises for ten years and they still, often, cannot use the grammar properly. So they must become autonomous learners who are responsible for developing their language skills. They can do this by creating and regularly updating the table I referred to in my first article. Let's have another example to show how you can update it with grammar items. The word on the left is in Serbian and the items on the right contain the target English word or variations of it:

These examples have everything:

  • target word + preposition
  • present perfect tenses + useful time phrase (for weeks)
  • a semi-fixed phrase (an exciting adventure)

It is not necessary to translate all the sentences into the first language as it is important to read and evaluate the sentences in English. The learning of grammar is very much a thinking exercise where learners analyse personalized sentences, and work out rules for themselves, called the inductive learning approach. The method is also about boosting learners' exposure to English and getting away from direct translation from the first language.

We can now look at the teaching and learning process more closely. Let's imagine the word cruise has come up incidentally during a lesson for a Serbian learner of English:

  1. For deep learning to take place, the word should be drilled a few times for pronunciation
  2. The teacher can now ask a few questions using the target word, without mentioning tenses. For example: Have you ever been on a cruise? I think it would be a mistake to start learning the rules for the present tense here. Treat Have you ever ...? as a fixed lexical phrase and not as a discrete grammar item.
  3. The teacher can now offer some typical collocations and help the learner to personalise language/grammar. For example, book a cruise and go on a cruise around the British Isles

I really recommend that students on italki work with their teachers for ten minutes per week to update their tables and get help with personalising grammar and lexical items. The vocabulary and grammar items go hand-in-hand. They should not be seen as two separate entities. If a new word comes up during a lesson, the teacher could offer some typical collocates, and work with the student to put the language together and personalise it.

I am not saying that doing grammar exercises should be totally avoided. Sometimes it is necessary to help a learner with a grammar item that is difficult to grasp. However, ministries of education, curriculum managers, and, most importantly, teachers, have a responsibility for getting out of their comfort zones and helping learners personalise language and demonstrating language learning strategies.

Hero image by Ruben Alexander (CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)