The Confessions of a Grammarphobic ELT

I have a confession to make, I’ve been hiding it for about 3 1/3 years, but it’s time I got it off my chest, my knowledge of grammar is absolutely terrible, just awful. Yep, that’s right, I’ve been teaching EFL for over 3 years and yet my knowledge of English grammar is appalling. Just to be safe I think I should clarify exactly what I mean here, by lack of knowledge I mean that similar to most native speakers, I know what’s wrong and what’s right, I just don’t know why!  Now, before you judge let me make my excuses! To start with, I was never taught any outright grammar at school, and even if my English teacher tried (which I genuinely don’t think she did) I probably wasn’t listening, as I would have had no interest! From there I did my BSc Sociology & Criminology, all essay based, all essays were completed on a word processor that corrected my grammar for me, and beyond swearing at my computer for telling me I’d produced yet another fragment I just went with it and didn’t question it.

My first classroom based teaching job was teaching elementary level students in an academy for a year, my grammar did improve a bit over the course of that year. I then did my CELTA, again my grammar improved a fair bit, however well I tried to hide my lack of grammar knowledge (I somehow swindled only doing two assessed classes that involved teaching grammar) my tutor did pick up on it, and I was told it was the reason for being given a ‘pass B’ instead of a ‘pass A’. From there, I’ve taught high school for two years in a system where not only am I not expected to, but I am discouraged from explicitly teaching grammar. That is the job of the Korean teachers, and they do a mighty fine job of it, my god they know some incredible grammar rules I would never have even been able to guess existed! I’m now coming towards the end of my M.A TESOL, which has focused much more on methodology and issues in teaching ESL/EFL than outright grammar, as (in my opinion) we shouldn’t need an M.A course to teach us grammar.

Over the course of my education I have never been taught why we structure the English language the way we do and my career, meanwhile, has happened to allow me to hide my grammarphobia. The problem is that the longer I’ve hidden it the more fearful of it I’ve become! A teacher of one month not knowing his grammar, no big deal! A teacher of over 3 years, that is embarrassing! Now, at this point I should probably state that, despite my lack of knowledge, I’ve always tried to be as professional as I can, I will never guess a reason if a student asks me, and I will never just not give them an answer. I always reply with the same answer, “come and see me in the morning, you research it, I’ll research it, and we’ll see if we come up with the same answer.” It definitely does have some negative effects on my teaching though, for example I’m fearful of open and outright error correction, I always try to structure it in a way that avoids me having to explain complex grammar structures as I don’t want to deal with that embarrassment in front of my forty 16 year old students of having absolutely no idea why we use what might be a common structure!

So why have I decided to publicly embarrass myself by openly admitting my grammarphobia? Well, there are a number of reasons, first of all, I think grammar is important, it is something students want to be taught, need to be taught and that I absolutely want to be confident teaching them. If we are professional English language teachers we should be able to confidently explain more than just the common structures of the language. Secondly, I don’t think I’m alone, in fact, I know I’m not alone. I have met many other professionals in the EFL/ESL industry who have the same feelings towards grammar as I have. Thirdly, I’m considering changing jobs in the next year or so, well I’m considering moving countries actually. When and if I do I want to be as confident as possible in every aspect of my teaching, including grammar. But the main reason I’ve chosen to admit this now is that I have a one month holiday coming up, in which time I will have no studying towards my M.A TESOL to do, no lessons to plan, no syllabus to write and probably no blogging to do! I will have a lot of time sat on various planes, busses cars and trains though, so I want to use that time productively, I want to improve my grammar.

This brings me to the point of this blog; I would like to know how you improved your grammar knowledge? I’m sure most native teachers, when they enter the industry, have relatively poor knowledge, so how did you go about improving yours? What tips would you give me? As native speakers are there efficient ways of improving our knowledge? Do you think it’s important for us, as English language teachers, to have a good knowledge of English grammar? Can we call ourselves professionals if we don’t?

We have one month to turn this grammarphobic teacher into a grammar genius! I’m ready and willing to take on any advice you have!


22/06/2012 19:17

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the suggestion, I think that book is going to be my holiday reading!

Appreciate the advice!


Sophia Khan
21/06/2012 06:46

Hey Alex, we’ve all been there, and you also learn what you need to learn at the time. For me early on I found myself with an advanced mixed nationality class in the UK, and we were using the Headway Advanced CB (v.1). There was a FABULOUS short grammar section at the back. Not only did I read the whole thing, but before every lesson that involved grammar/patterns I checked in the back, did my research, did all the exercises and made sure I was ready to deal with any problems that came up. But if you want to get a good overview of “grammar” that involves you reading, thinking about things, looking at typical task types then the book you need is About Language by our man Scott Thornbury. It’s gold. Good luck and enjoy your holiday reading!

22/06/2012 19:24

HI Sophia!

I’m going to try and find a copy of ‘about language’ this weekend and make it my holiday reading!!

I think your absolutely right regarding English teachers learning what they need to learn at the time, unfortunately I’m in a job role now where I don’t really need to ‘know’ any grammar. Really looking forward to reading the book you suggested and appreciate the advice 🙂


22/06/2012 19:40

*You’re absolutely right :p (still feeling the Friday night beers!!!)

Sophia Khan
21/06/2012 06:48

Lol, great minds think alike!

21/06/2012 07:44

I think Sophia makes a great point when she says that we learn what we need to learn at the time. So far you probably haven’t really needed much grammar (whatever that word means) knowledge. About Language was recommended twice above and I would surely agree with that. @JosetteLB was recommending birds like Swan and Parrot the other day and I also recommended (the massive) “The Grammar Book” (by Marianne Celce-Murcia, Diane Larsen-Freeman). All good stuff. My best suggestion, however, is to think about what you actually need to know and why.

Do you need to know uses of present perfect for a job interview?
Do you need to know the differences between coordinating conjunctions, correlative conjunctions, and subordinating conjunctions? (Why?)
Do you need to know to explain why common errors are common errors?
I know you wrote that you want to be more confident..and that is surely reasonable in my view. I guess I am wondering what it is you’d need to know to be more confident.

(I love how I always answer a question with a question…sorry)

I also think that textbooks (as much as I love them) can be a good starting point. Not totally sure that I would recommend ur student’s standard school book but most textbooks are organized around grammatical points which might be a good start for you.
(Meaning check out popular books and see the grammar books than do your own research)

Hope this helps,

22/06/2012 19:35

*then do your research.

All grammar mistakes above were unintentional.

22/06/2012 19:38

Hi Mike,

Given the comments I think ‘About Language’ is going to be a must read for my holiday!

Regarding your questions I am planning on changing job roles next year and probably countries too, and you never know what might be asked in interviews. It is going to put me outside my comfort zone as I have only taught in Korea and I really want to be able to approach jobs with as much confidence as I possibly can. I remember when I did my CELTA with IH the instructor telling me that in their interviews they like to pick a certain grammar point and ask teachers how they would teach it, I think it is this kind of question I’m worried about. I have my beliefs on how grammar should be taught and could probably put together an effective lesson on the spot, but if I don’t know the grammar it could be an issue.

I appreciate the advice mate, my students have exams next week, I think I might well spend a couple of days checking out their text books!

Thanks again 🙂

Daniel Craig
21/06/2012 07:09

Hell, I’m still there. I’m nearly 15 years in, but I still struggle with grammar issues on a regular basis. This is particularly true with my writing classes. There’s nowhere to hide when writing. They problems are generally not about what is “correct” or not (of course that’s an entirely different conversation), but rather how I can describe the rules for WHY that particular structure is being used.

I feel a lot better now than I did 5 years ago (much less 15!), but I still struggle regularly to provide good rationales for grammar use. I note that 5 years ago was a turning point, though. It was around that time that I realized I didn’t have to have all of the answers. I simply began telling students that I didn’t know and asked them if they did. Often, our discussions would jar something loose and I’d be able to explain it better, or they would simple offer a good response (these days they are English Ed students). If we couldn’t come up with a good answer, I’d do one of two things. (1) Tell them to go figure it out (again, good for use with English Ed students). (2) I’d go figure it out and talk about it in the next class. 5 years ago is when I gave up being the Sage on the stage and started being another blind man feeling his way through the dark world of grammar.

Of course, I did have some really great training that I could fall back on. I had a couple of great Profs in my MA that really knew language and the issues that language learners had. I think I was lucky in that I happened upon the program (University of Illinois) at a time when there were some real superstars there at the same time and they were all at the top of their games in writing, pedagogical grammar, pragmatics, morphology, and socio-linguistics. It was a great experience. One, Ron Cowan, really rocked in the reading, writing, and pedagogical grammar. He wrote a book that I’ve heard great things about. I’d encourage you to check it out – It’s required for our students for one of the required classes. The Prof for the class swears by it and she is a top-notch linguist. It’s not just about grammar, but the problems that language learners have and how they can best grasp the usage.

I laugh at anyone who tells me they have mastered grammar (meaning an understanding of the underlying rules for constructing communication in a language). That’s a joke. Grammar shifts. It’s a changing beast. Regardless of the linguistic camp you are in, one can make the argument that grammar is predictable and consistent, but that is only in the abstract. Usage is a bitch and that is where pragmatics screws everything up so wonderfully.

Don’t be afraid of gaps in your ability to explain grammar, but also don’t be content. Keep learning and when you think you’ll learned it all reconsider what “all” means 🙂

22/06/2012 19:59

Hi Daniel!

First of all I really want to thank you for your comment, to be honest knowing someone with your qualifications and experience still struggles makes me feel a lot better about my grammarphobia!

The two responses you use with your students (asking them to figure it out or you figuring it out for next class) are also the ways I approach any questions I can’t answer, which is most at the moment! To be perfectly honest, if I did know the reasoning, I believe it would good practice to ask the students to go away and research it themselves anyway.

I will definitely be checking out the book you recommend, I’ll make sure I let you know how I find it.

Thanks for the recommendation and encouraging words mate, I appreciate it a lot.


Daniel Craig
21/06/2012 07:12

I should add that this book ( got me through grad school and I still go to it at least once a week.

21/06/2012 07:22

I’m not a native English speaker, but the international language has been taught to us since age 5 or younger. Grammar correction becomes instinctive when you’re choked with the same subject-predicate relationship rules, everyday, for the rest of your school life. With this experience, I should say that if for some reason my English teacher can not explain grammar rules, I’ll personally take legal action against him/her. In fact, I did it twice in middle school. In my mind, it’s like a doctor who doesn’t know the fundamentals of CPR. He/she knows the application but doesn’t know the reason behind each action.
But if it is not for teaching, I’d throw the rules out the door. Since I started communicating with native English speakers, I lost faith on the language. The rules have changed drastically and still changing really fast, to conform to current generations. It took years before “but” and “and” to be accepted as the beginning of a sentence. Now, changes happen in less than six months. Would you believe the proper use of “whom” is about to be discarded including the word itself?
Bottom line, if you’re professionally teaching the language, knowledge of grammar is a must. Else, I don’t even care anymore.
If ever one of my students ask me why such rules are important, I’d base my answers on this article:

21/06/2012 16:21

Hi Phoenix,

First of all it’s great to have the perspective of a ‘non-native speaker’ here, so thanks for your comment.

I have a couple of questions for you about your comment, and it’s probably easier to use your analogy to make them. Now, a doctor knowing CPR, let’s just take it a little bit further and say a baby is hit by a car and needs resuscitating, if you were to ask a 65 year old gynecologist the theory behind the resuscitation technique for a baby I doubt they would be able to tell you. They’ve been practicing medicine for 35 years, just as I have been speaking English for 28 years.

I think we could also use the medical field as an example of many native speaking teachers professional expertise. Most doctors specialise in a certain field, they gain expert knowledge of the specific area in which they work, just as my Korean coteacher and I have different specialisations in teaching English, if you asked her to teach a conversational English class she wouldn’t really know where to start, but ask her to teach a lesson preparing students for a grammar exam and she would be unbeatable!

Now to stay along the medicine theme, in England we have ‘general practitioners’. These are doctors who have a general knowledge of everything, but no specialisation. Their job is to refer to you to a specialist if they feel you need it, if not to offer you medical assistance there and then. It is absolutely normal for a GP to have to look up your medical condition in a book before offering assistance, especially what treatment to prescribe, and if you were to ask the GP the theory behind how that treatment works she would certainly have to refer to a book. I think this is similar to an English teacher having to go away and look up a particular aspect of grammar before offering a student an answer. I don’t feel there is anything unprofessional about that.

I hope you’re kidding about the legal action mate!

28/07/2012 14:07

Phoenix Jackson – may I suggest you find the time to read Quirk’s short book “The Fight for English”

21/06/2012 07:58

very short: my english grammar improved after i spent time studying japanese through korean… basically, comparative analysis of three languages made me understand things in more detail

22/06/2012 20:37

Hi Andee!

I think you’re absolutely right in the point you make, the little Korean I have studied definitely raised my awareness of language issues in English as well as Korean.

Thanks for the comment, always appreciated no matter how short 🙂


21/06/2012 08:10

Hey Alex,

A few book suggestions have been made already; however, I’d like to add another one if I may. My current MA course is Pedagogical Grammar and the prescribed text for it is Kennedy, G. (2003). Structure and Meaning in English. Chapters 3-7 of the book deals with English grammar; each chapter contains not only explanations but also tasks to work through and answers are at the back of the book.

You could read it during your commutes. If you’re interested, What The Book stocks it:

22/06/2012 20:39

Hi Dayle,

Thanks for the recommendation, I’m on my way down to pick up ‘about language’ now, I’ll see if the have a copy of the book you recommend and have a browse through those chapters!

Thanks again,


21/06/2012 22:21

My name is Manpal and I am a grammarphobe.

I applaud your honesty. I think many teachers are in the same boat.

Maybe the two of us should pick up some of the books others have recommended and get together regularly to help each other increase our grammar knowledge.

Of course, I think such meetings should end with chicken and beer.

22/06/2012 20:45

Manpal, welcome to my club! They say the first step is the hardest…….!!!!

I’m actually just about to go and pick up ‘about language’ and would definitely be up for some grammar get togethers (my computer is telling me that’s not a real word!), very much followed by some chicken and beer!

03/07/2012 18:40

Hey Alex,

I will ditto the previous comments. It is great to hear all you experienced teachers struggle with grammar as well. I have always resisted acquiring grammar knowledge due to a belief that proper grammar will come about of its own accord through enough use (LSRW) of the language.

After a year and a half I now realize that there is occasionally a place for grammar, and I can certainly respect the fact that many students want to know the why behind some of the language. I also believe that teachers SHOULD know the why behind it all, at least a portion of it.

You have given me some inspiration to make my own inroads into the grammar realm. I too will check out “About Language”. Perhaps we can meet after our respective summer breaks and discuss what we’ve learned…over chicken and beers of course 😉

28/07/2012 14:55

I really enjoyed reading your post, and all the comments. You may have noticed a recent upsurge of visits, sent here by @mikecorea via

You know that wish-I’d-said-it-at-the-time feeling? It came to me after the #ELTchat was over so here, just for you is the “missing” tweet and a reply 🙂

#ELTchat Grammar: problem is not “exceptions to the rule”. The prob is – over precise rules do not describe reality.

@eannegrenoble good point, Elizabeth. Sticking to 100% grammar accuracy can sometimes produce language that sounds unnatural and stilted.

Enjoy your reading, and just for pleasure, try “The language Web” by Jean Aitkinson. Though, having done an MA in the subject, I’m sure you’re just doing that typically British downplaying yourself bit!

28/07/2012 22:20

Hello Alex,

Just discovered this amazing website. Kudos on you!!

I’ll get straight to the point. I believe the main reason we native speakers (at least those from the UK) struggle with grammar structures is because we studied grammar from a different angle, we learnt grammar through ‘verbal reasoning’.

I remember my primary school days and those horrid “verbal reasoning” lessons/books. They mainly consisted of different sentences (grammatically correct and incorrect) and we had to choose which one(s) were correct. However, we rarely got an explanation as to why certain grammatical structures were correct/incorrect, just a tick or cross.I believe that is why we instinctively know correct grammatical structures, without being to explain why.

It wasn’t until I studied for my TESOL certificate that I truly realized the complexity of English grammar, and how to explain the structures. Just like you I was absolutely petrified of explaining grammar, but now I’m becoming more and more confident.

27/08/2013 22:32

Hi mate,

Books like Grammar in Use were pretty useful for me when I was trying to get the basics of grammar together before I did the CELTA. I found I learnt best from seeing examples along with the rules to consolidate it in my mind. Grammar in Use also has activities and answers so you can test yourself to see if you get the idea! If you fail, maybe English isn’t your first language haha

It’s funny you mention Korean teachers and grammar. I taught there for two years and found the opposite to be kind of true. They do know their grammar, but they apply it so rigidly they’re not always right. The subtleties of grammar go completely over their head sometimes as the rules have generally been rote learned. That’s where you come in, although it sounds like you’re lucky enough to have teachers who might be more aware of this.

Good luck with it all.

27/08/2013 22:35

I should’ve added – it took me years to get confident with the basics and I’m still not comfortable with new grammar, or able to go into in-depth explanations of complex grammar. I’m confident with stuff I’ve taught before, but that’s about it.

I think if you can go through grammar in detail and explain every single thing that comes up in a lesson you’re either wrong, or are in serious need of a decent hobby!


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