This was originally posted on May 13, 2013 at

Why study language

What does it mean to know a language? Or, more to the point, what does it mean for a teacher of English to know the language?

Without getting very technical and/or long-winded, it is my opinion that a teacher of English as a foreign or second language must be able to get his messages across –speaking or writing– with no (or very little) difficulty, being able to employ the most effective words, chunks and structures for the situations in hand, and do all that in appropriate register and with excellent (or at least very good) pronunciation. In other words, he must have sound knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, phonology, discourse, as well as excellent speaking, writing, reading and listening skills. He must also be able to describe what he knows, i.e. be able to use the appropriate terminology to describe the language, irrespective of whether he normally uses this terminology in his classes.

In his book About Language –which I’ve quoted from before and will certainly do so many more times– Scott Thornbury says that among the consequences of (…) a limited knowledge of language are: a failure on the part of the teacher to anticipate learners’ learning problems and a consequent inability to plan lessons that are pitched at the right level; (…) an inability to deal satisfactorily with errors, or to field learners’ queries; and a general failure to earn the confidence of the learners due to a lack of basic terminology and ability to present new language clearly and efficiently.

Harmer (2007, 30-31) says teachers need to know a lot about the subject they are teaching (the English language). (…) Language teachers need to know how the language works. (…) a knowledge of the grammar system and understanding of the lexical system. (…) They need to be aware of pronunciation features such as sounds, stress and intonation. He also says students have a right to expect that teachers of the English language can explain straightforward grammar concepts, including how and when they are used. They expect their teachers to know the difference between the colloquial language that people use in informal conversation and the more formal language required in more formal settings.

In a nutshell, it goes without saying that sound knowledge of what you  teach –English, in our case– is paramount, and we should be forever seeking to know more, to use it better, to be able to explain it more clearly.

In this first of a few posts on the topic of teachers studying language, I’ll begin by discussing grammar.

What’s grammar?

Grammar is partly the study of what forms (or structures) are possible in a language; the study of the syntax –the system of rules that cover the order of words in a sentence– and morphology –the system of rules that cover the formation of words. (Adapted from Thornbury, 1999, pgs 1-2).

The way I see it, there are two main problems concerning a teacher’s knowledge of grammar that need to be addressed: a) not knowing (much) about particular areas of grammar; b) an overgeneralized/incorrect grasp of some areas of grammar. Let’s look at them in turn.

a) Can you answer the following questions?

– Is there a conditional form in English that accepts will as part of the if-clause? e.g. If you will… Which ‘conditional’ would that be? Fourth?

– Can could and to be able to be used interchangeably to talk about ability in the past? Why (not)?

– What’s used to? Simple past? A modal verb? Something else entirely? Is it pronounced the same way as the verb to use? (Is pronunciation part of teaching grammar, by the way?)

– What’s the difference between who and whom?

– Do we always put the verb one stage back in the past when using reported speech? Why (not)?

What the questions above have in common is they’re all part of an A1-B2 syllabus; or, in other words, part of what the vast majority of English teachers teach on a day-to-day basis. Are you 100% sure of the answers to them? Would you say all your colleagues are?

b) Are the following teachers’ explanations true or false?

– We use some in affirmative sentences and any in negative and interrogative sentences.

– We use will for predictions based on personal opinion and going to for predictions based on present evidence.

– We double the final consonant of a word when adding a suffix if the word ends in ‘CVC’, consonant-vowel-consonant.

– Could is the past of can (overlapping with question in the above section)

– You never use verbs such as like, love, hate etc. with -ing.

I’ve again focused only on structures at an elementary/intermediate level, certainly the levels we teach the most. Are you confident about the answers in each case? Do you think most teachers would be as confident as you are?

More experienced teachers will (or are going to?), of course, have a lot less difficulty tackling the questions above than novice teachers would, but the fact that these are not absolutely clear to all of us facing real students in real classrooms out there only goes to show the importance of at least acknowledging the issue. We, teachers of English, must study English even more than our students. And manyof us don’t.

Studying grammar

As I said last week, I believe reading is the most complete exercise one can do to boost their knowledge of a language. However, thinking specifically of studying grammar, here are some suggestions I’ve tried out myself and with teacher students over the years:

Books: Researching into one area of grammar per week is a very effective way of brushing up your grammar. An even more effective way to go about it is to ask yourself questions about a certain area of grammar (such as the ones above) and then look up those topics in –preferably– more than one grammar book, as opinions and explanations tend to vary a bit. Some great grammar books for teachers I’d recommend:

– Advanced Language Practice – Michael Vince – Macmillan (especially if you’re preparing for CAE or CPE)

– Grammar for English Language Teachers – Martin Parrott – Cambridge

– Practical English Usage – Michael Swan – Oxford

– Advanced Grammar in Use* – Martin Hewings – Cambridge

*no, not English Grammar in Use. We’re discussing  advanced grammar of English, and “Murphy” –as it’s commonly called– is an intermediate grammar book!

Study groups: I’m a big fan of teachers’ study groups, and if you can put one together with fellow teachers, that’s probably your best choice.

Get together with a group of teachers and either: a) establish that each of you will be in charge of studying an area of grammar thoroughly every week (or every couple of weeks, depending on how often you meet) and preparing a presentation and exercises for the other group members; b) everybody must study a certain area of grammar and come up with questions to quiz each other when the group meets.

Courses*: Although you won’t find specific grammar courses for teachers in the market (at least not in Brazil), preparing for high-level language exams such as IELTS, TOEFL, ECPE and, in my opinion, especially CAE and CPE tends to provide you with considerable grammatical input and opportunities for practice. I would recommend seeking schools and courses which specialize in working with teachers (there aren’t many, but they’re out there), rather than those that mix up highly motivated teachers and regular students or teenagers who often have little or no interest in sitting the exam in question.

*If you want specific suggestions of courses at this level, please email me (

Thanks for visiting! We’ll soon be looking at the issue of studying phonology.

I look forward to your comments and other suggestions of how we can improve our knowledge of grammar. Also, if you can spare a few minutes, I’d love to see your answers to the questions posed here.


Thornbury, S. 1997. About Language. Cambridge.

Thornbury, S. 1999. How to Teach Grammar. Pearson.

Lewis, M.  2002. The English Verb. Thomson Heinle.

Harmer, J. 2007. How to Teach English. Pearson.

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