Is grammar really important for a second language learner?

Is Grammar Really Important for a Second Language Learner?
Should students be learning from exclusively grammar courses, communicative courses, or something in between? Is grammar important, and if so, why?

This is a typical question that I receive from many new students and website visitors. My answer is clear and simple: “indeed.”

Grammar is the backbone of a language and without it any single thing you know may be flux, in a sort of jelly without much consistency. In a nutshell, grammar provides you with the structure you need in order to organize and put your messages and ideas across. It is the railway through which your messages will be transported. Without it, in the same way as a train cannot move without railways, you won’t be able to convey your ideas to their full extension without a good command of the underlying grammar patterns and structures of the language.

I understand that many students ask this question simply because in their own experience they have always been presented with two main scenarios, and nothing in between. They want to know where they are going to be standing as regards to their learning.

Which are those two scenarios? Well, in one extreme we have those language courses that teach grammar almost exclusively, as if preparing the students to be grammarians of the second language rather than users. In the other extreme we have those “communicative” courses in which the only thing that is done is to talk about something or to read an article and comment on it. In many cases, what is seen in one class has no resemblance to what is done in the next.

In my experience, both scenarios may seem good for very specific purposes but I personally feel both are inappropriate for most language learners. For starters, by itself, a good command of the grammar of a language does not imply that the person is able to communicate effectively, as we usually see with students who have only been exposed to an all-grammar-oriented approach sometimes for many years. Many could recite the grammar by heart but if asked to express basic information, they would hesitate too much and browse through all the grammar rules in their heads before making an utterance, or simply dry up.

Secondly, just talking in class without anything else done in order to learn from the actual conversation is not good enough either. It may be helpful of course, but up to a certain point. This approach may be more useful for very advanced students who just need to brush up their second language, but for those in need of building up the foundations of a new language, it is certainly too vague and flux, without any consistency.

So then, when asked: “is grammar really important for a second language learner?” I always say “yes”, but, the real question, or issue here is not whether grammar is important or not but rather how we should present grammar to our students. You may be surprised to hear that most of my own students, even advanced ones, have very little awareness of grammar jargon and terminology, in spite of the fact that they can make a pretty good use of the second language. “How is that possible?” you may ask. First and foremost, teachers need to know precisely what they are trying to prepare their students for. I do know that what I want is to “create” users of a new language.

I want to prepare people to actually engage in communicative situations using appropriate language and patterns. I am definitely not interested in their explaining to me or making a mental list of all the grammar uses that a certain pattern has.

For example, think of your own native language. Name all the tenses that you can find in your own native tongue with their corresponding uses and structures. Unless you are a teacher, a translator or someone who needs to have a very good grasp of this meta-language, more likely than not you may feel at a loss to answer that question. And that does NOT mean in any sense that you are not a terrific user of that language. After all, you can understand and express whatever you want with ease. What is more, by being able to do so, you show an awesome command of the internal grammar of the language. If you knew no grammar patterns you would not be able to make a single sentence but you can. This means that although you may lack the conscious ability to describe how your language works (i.e. its grammar) you can use it perfectly. You are a user of the language. You make a perfect use of the grammar of your native language intuitively or unconsciously.

Again, our primary goal as second language teachers must be to create users or the language, not linguists! It escapes the aim of this article to describe how we can achieve this but basically we are going to name the main elements to consider to create “language users.”

To begin with, it should be noted that whatever we present our students with should follow a progression from the very general meaning to the very specific pattern or structure we want them to learn (or that they need to learn of course). I would like to highlight that all this takes place within the same class.

Before we start to use the material we have selected, it would be good to introduce the students to the topic you are going to work on. You can have them guess or infer what the material will say about it, they can make predictions and when they fail to use appropriate language, you may provide it. This is good to elicit vocabulary that may be necessary for them to know in order to understand the topic. After you have created curiosity in the topic and provided students with key terms on the topic, make sure you follow a progression such as the one that follows:

  1. Provide them with exposure to real language and real situations in context.
  2. Initial focus on gist, not form.
  3. Focus on more specific meaning.
  4. We can then focus on very specific meaning.
  5. Analysis and systematization: after we make sure the students have a good understanding of the whole material, you can have them focus on particular items or patterns that may be important for them to learn at their stage (i.e. grammar) You can systematize it more formally and teach them how it works. After all, they have already seen it in practice and they have also worked around meaning, now it is time for them to learn how to use it.
  6. Give them exercises for them to practice the new structure. Do not be afraid of using grammar drills and patterns. They could be VERY useful for them to fix the new structures in their brains.
  7. Give them homework to force them to revise this at a later time. The homework does not necessarily need to be communicative in nature. Profit from the time in class to communicate and interact. If possible, avoid drilling activities while you are with them in class. However, the time they are on their own could be very well used to do all the drilling and rote practice that may prove useful for them to gain a good command of the grammar form you are trying to teach them. Personally I feel that the time in class must be used for providing learners with as many communicative situations as possible, rather than making them focus on drills and patterns that they could easily practise on their own.
  8. Provide them with ample opportunities to practice what they have learned in REAL or REALISTIC communicative situations. Create situations so that they can make lots of mistakes and encourage them to improve on them by reminding them of what they have studied.
  9. Recycle and mention the topic again as many times as necessary, time and again.

This is essential for them to finally acquire the new structures in a natural way.

As you can see, I am not condemning grammar at all as some readers may feel when in my articles I complain about teachers working almost exclusively with a grammar-oriented approach. On the contrary, I feel it is essential in order to master a language. However, how grammar is presented to the students is what really matters. I utterly disagree with those teachers who come to class and tell the class: “Open your books. Today we will learn the “Simple Present Tense.”

In the suggested steps to follow in any class, you will have noticed that I have used a quite eclectic approach, starting from a communicative situation (steps 1-4) with the focus on understanding the message from the gist up to very detailed info and later, and only later, once meaning is clearly understood, we reach the grammar item we may need our students to learn at their stage. The obvious advantage of this approach is that while dealing with grammar, the students will have a clear idea of the context in which it was used and the communicative need it satisfied.

Julio Foppoli
Julio Foppoli, Teacher of English as a Second Language, Teacher of Spanish as a Second Language, Creator and owner of, an online educational website with a technological edge, specialized in the teaching of Spanish as second language via audio-conference to native speakers of English from all over the world. The website offers free listening comprehension activities with Spanish from all of the Spanish speaking world.

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  1. Great line about how you disagree with people who go to class and utter the ‘let’s learn about the simple present tense’… I totally agree. I’ve always tried to teach in a very similar way to yours and find grammatical jargon highly confusing for students. I mean it’s the ability to use the language not learn its labels that is of more concern. Great piece.

  2. Thank you so much for the article on grammar. I am currently tutoring a German Mom and 2 kids each separately. The Mom is an avid learner, uses the dictionary and thesaurus for homework. I am sure to use talking and reading for those will give her more sense of English than the grammar lessons. However, my background is teaching kids with reading difficulties and ESL. I’m educated, use my language correctly, and I’m a writer. Yet I can’t name all the parts of speech through which we are working. I haven’t needed to. I have a duplicate workbook, though, and I do the lessons too – for my own sanity! Vocabulary and meaning are what I see that my adult student needs and wants. The whole situation of doing ESL with an adult brings me to ponder the miracle of absorbing language, our own language, and that part is what my student longs to do, to be free and assured in the use of English. I admire anyone who conquers another language.

  3. Without doubt grammar is important but not for a starter. The phrase you have to learn to walk before you can run rings true. Students firstly need to have basic speaking ability before they start with grammar. When ESL learners study with English teachers of their nationality the grammar isn’t entirely based on conversation and the lesson uses 2 languages. This confuses students and isn’t a transferable skill for communication purposes on a daily basis. Once a student reaches a reasonable level then yes grammar is important. I know you stated as a second language it’s important and the backbone but in England we have not studied grammar since the 1970s as our first language so I have to disagree with you to some extent. Also I am aware it is down to the teacher style and strategy.

  4. An excellent article. I have been learning and teaching languages since 1970 and have seen so many U turns in methodology. There is no one pure way to learn a language. Communicative and grammatical methods exist alongside each other. One is not the opposite to the other. I think that at last a concensus is arising in language teaching about this.

    • Thank you for, perhaps, the most maturely thought out comment on the article.

    • Additionally, how can these be compounded in a classroom amongst all the other things we are balancing? It is integral that each of us add a piece to this pie and together, our ELs reach their potential.

    • I totally agree with you on the fact that communicative and grammatical methods are complementary.

  5. Thank goodness there are still people who believe that grammar is really important in the teaching of a second language. Those who believe that conversation can be taught without the skeleton of grammar are creating a strange being: an animal without a skeleton, a kind of slimy thing that is not consistent and not lasting. Thank you very much for giving us the support we need to continue with the hard labour of communicating properly in other languages than our own.

    • Agree with you – Grammar is important. We need to start with a base to build lego :)

    • Awesome

    • I totally agree with you. Grammar is really important. I also like your “a kind of slimy thing that is not consistent and not lasting”….it made me smile. But it’s very true. Thank you for sharing.

  6. I must agree with Julio. It seems that many ESL teachers consider it heresy NOT to teach the name of things in grammar – how many native speakers know the terms conjunction, adverb, clause, and yet still function well in all aspects of the language? It’s like learning to drive – you have no need to name all parts of the engine to drive well – you just need to know something about its function and listen to make sure it is running smoothly. In fact, worrying about naming the engine parts while driving may well lead to an accident!

  7. Great article. The hardest thing for me, as a TESL teacher, is working out how to explain to a student, the definitions, rules of the parts of speech without it going over their heads. English may be my first language but grammar has left me doubting its effectiveness. If the teacher was ever intimidated or irritated by the grammatical approach when he /she was at school, that might give some indication of how the student might feel (X100). I want them to learn English, not definitions. Grammar is a cold entity, a ball and chain. It has the potential to turn a lesson into a bottomless pit full of confused and overwhelmed souls. Depends on how deep you want to take them. I think the basic grammar framework is enough to help students keep account of the things they have covered. It helps teachers review previous lessons by eliciting specific forms, verb endings for example. Keep it concise and easy to manage. Small talk about the lesson content helps students get over the “Post-grammatic stress” and relax a bit.”

  8. Grammar (structures and vocabulary with its complexities, such as word formation, suffixes, phrasal verbs, idiomatic expressions) is essential. However, it is not an end in itself. It is a “vehicle” (or a car) for the learner to use for communication. We, the teachers, are more like driving instructors (as well as a good mechanic who knows the engine of the car) who teach our students how to drive the car, enjoy driving it and at the same time gives “knowledge on the traffic regulations” (=language function; register). And some of us may be excellent as “Formula 1” instructors, teaching learners how to speed up (TOEFL, IELTS, etc.) to get finish as fast as possible (to get higher scores), and this requires the learners to know the detail of “engine” (grammar) and the “circuits” (the tricks of the tests) so that the learners can reach the finish line as fast as they wish and yet safely.

  9. I believe what especially matters in effective teaching and learning English grammar is how clearly and easily understandable all grammar rules are explained and whether adequate supportive exercises with real life content are practised to master that material. It would take foreign learners much less time to learn grammar rules that are explained to learners than to figure out grammar rules on their own based on even numerous examples because grammar rules may have exceptions and other peculiarities. Grammar books with explanations and exercises have been published by knowledgeable language specialists to make learning grammar easier so that learners don’t have to discover grammar rules anew the hard long way.

  10. My take is that obviously the grammar aspect is crucial to learning a language but then, there is a need to grasp the basis for the pursuit of communicative competence.

    In Angola, given English is taught as a Foreign Language, the Grammar Translation Method has become the source to teaching content, context, syllabus and so on.

    Today we argue that although the grammar translation method is pivotal to teaching, the direct method is still a big deal which can be intermingled together with additional language methods.

    The outward analysis is that what matters the most is making certain that the tasks we provide can be performed to the extent that productive and receptive language skills are brought to light.

    It is also important to point out that grammar elements shouldn’t emerge as topics but rather, as I believe, risen as a subunit through language tasks.

    Thank you for bringing the issue up!

  11. Do we need to study grammar to learn a language? The answer is “no”, many people in the world speak their own, native language without having studied its grammar. Children start to speak before they even know the word “grammar”. But if you are serious about learning a foreign language, the answer is “yes”, grammar can help you to learn a language more quickly and more efficiently.

  12. Grammar, especially for those learning English as a second/foreign language, is essential, but a totally grammar-centric course is inadequate for developing the ability to communicate. As this is surely the main purpose for learning a language, an overall communicative approach is ideal, and it is within this framework that grammar should be taught, that too, in a flexible, contextualised and communicative way.

  13. Grammar is not at all necessary to speak. See, you can not speak without listening. When you listen, you always concentrate on the content of the communication rather than structure of the language. Listen… you automatically speak and of course, the next step is reading… consequent conclusion is writing…. Let anyone not learn grammar consciously. Don’t bother about grammar. Everything (vocabulary, structure and style of the language) you get subconsciously through the LSRW process. No need for exclusive grammar practice while one intends to learn a foreign language to speak.

  14. I Do agree with your point of view. Grammar is important but it should not be taught explicitly at all or else it won’t be that useful.

  15. these days , the young learners shows no care to the importance of the grammar. and they only care about learning how to speak and to exchange meaning, but they forget that each phrase we say is constructed following specific pattern of grammar,, so the grammar is the backbone of the language

  16. My concern is, how could a person understands what you are saying if the person doesn’t know any language rules. It is considered a language when it has meaning. Meaning is constructed from the rules. In a formal situation, people don’t want to waste time guessing what you meant. I am teaching English as a foreign language, and many students came to me and spoke English but none of those sentences could be understood. Only frictions meaningless sounds. Is that what you meant by grammar is not important? it might be a “shrimp language” this phrase is usually used in my country, refers to unclear meaning of a conversation.
    If you still have difficulties in teaching grammar to your students then it might be a reason that you don’t have clear mind mapping on both languages integration.

  17. To learn and teach the anatomy of grammar, or the meta-language as you describe it, is an additional and discrete learning task, and a very abstract one for many students, which often interferes with and distracts from the actual learning of a new language. There are convincing arguments that it only serves as an impediment to attaining a moderate level of proficiency in a new language. As you rightly suggest, there are ways of imparting a language’s grammatical conventions, without having to simultaneously teach grammar itself.

    However, if you are familiar with this meta-language, mastering the grammar of a new language is hugely accelerated. It also gives those people who want to invest more time in self-study an understanding of the areas they need to master – a set of known unknowns.

  18. Your article validates my teaching. I have been teaching Spanish for six years grades K-12. English is my second language and began to learn it at age 14 and mastered it after 3 years of studying through grammar, listening, reading and writing. I acquired fluency through an exchange program in the US.

    When you are teaching a language when the only time you will practice speaking it is in the classroom, the student WILL NOT reach fluency.

    I believe that what the article says is spot on when it says that our goal as teachers is to create users of the language. How? By teaching how language works and set high but realistic expectations about acquiring the language. Those who are serious will work harder and those who are not will learn what they need to learn.

    I always tell my students that becoming bilingual is possible. I am proof of it, but it is a process that requires work, persistence and bravery. My job as a teacher is to give them all the tools, resources, guidance and many chances to practice and increase their motivation to learn it and teaching them how language works, how it sounds and why and how is it is in a lot of ways similar to your native language is my responsibility as a teacher.

    My students rave about my regular classes and work really hard to be able to get into my advanced Spanish classes, as they have to be by merit.

    My elementary school students can spot mistakes and patterns because they understand the language and in the reflection forms I ask them to write they tell me that they have learned is much and have achieved more than they ever could. Are they fluent speakers and do they practice what I teach outside of the classroom? Probably not but SOME of them will become bilingual by choice and initiative in the future and I INSPIRE them and GAVE them the foundation to be great language learners to reach this goal.

    It is how I DID IT!

  19. Loved your article.
    I am a mature uni student, studying Tesol, I did not learn grammar at school so your article really resonated with me as a L2a also.

  20. Grammar is learned through consistent and meaningful reading and writing.

  21. I agree that grammar is important to learning a new language. I also agree that a differentiated approach to including grammar in your lessons to reach students where they are at as individual language learners is also very important. Setting up a system where students are provided with a structure to where they have more control over their path through language and grammar acclimation is key towards our learners gaining more confidence in understanding what works for them.

  22. Grammar is very important for any language as it is the foundation of every language. Grammar helps students to form right sentences in a proper way. Through grammar students improve vocabulary and fluency as well. Very enriching article, thanks.

  23. This is a good read! Thanks for the great article.

  24. This is such a smart article and I completely agree with your approach!

  25. Thank you very much for this article. It’s very clear.

  26. Very reasonable!


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