Grammar Teaching: Implicit or Explicit?

Should we be teaching grammar implicitly, in context and communicatively, or explicitly, with rules-based grammar lessons? Or is a combination of the two the most effective way?

Larry Lynch
Is Grammar Really Important for a Second Language Learner?

Based on my 15 years of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teaching experience, the statement “grammar teaching should be implicit, not explicit” could be argued both for and against.

Whether to teach grammar as an extracted focus of ELT (English Language Teaching) or more passively as an inductive, integral topic has been the theme of countless debates on the part of institutions, professors, grammarians and language researchers for decades. Grammar is the branch of linguistics dealing with the form and structure of words or morphology, and their interrelation in sentences, called syntax. The study of grammar reveals how language works, an important aspect in both English acquisition and learning.

In the early 20th century grammarians like the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas and the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen began to describe languages and Boas’ work formed the basis of various types of American descriptive grammar study. Jespersen’s work was the fore-runner of such current approaches to linguistic theory such as Noam Chomsky’s Transformational Generative Grammar.

Chomsky, who studied structural linguistics, sought to analyze the syntax of English in a structural grammar. This led him to view grammar as a theory of language structure rather than a description of actual sentences. His idea of grammar is that it is a device for producing the structure, not of a particular language, but of the ability to produce and understand sentences in any and all languages. Since grammar is the means by which we can understand how a language “works”, a definitive study of language grammar is essential to language study.

Strictly explicit grammar study however, and even grammar-focused lessons are often not communicatively based. They can therefore be boring, cumbersome and difficult for students to assimilate. The strict teaching of grammar / structure, except with students of the Logical – Mathematical or Verbal – Linguistic multiple intelligences, can be frustrating and highly ineffective.

Grammar teaching should be implicit

In the early 20th century, Jespersen, like Boas, thought grammar should be studied by examining living speech rather than by analyzing written documents. By providing grammar in context, in an implicit manner, we can expose students to substantial doses of grammar study without alienating them to the learning of English or other foreign language. I also agree with this implicit approach of teaching grammar. The principal manner in which I accomplish this is by teaching short grammar-based sessions immediately followed by additional function-based lessons in which the new grammar / structure is applied in context.

The hypothesis is that adult language students have two distinct ways of developing skills and knowledge in a second language, acquisition and learning. Acquiring a language is “picking it up” i.e., developing ability in a language by using it in natural, communicative situations. Learning language differs in that it is “knowing the rules” and having a conscious knowledge of grammar / structure. Adults acquire language, although usually not as easily or as well as children. Acquisition, however, is the most important means for gaining linguistic skills. A person’s first language (L1) is primarily learned in this way. This manner of developing language skills typically employs implicit grammar teaching and learning.

Grammar teaching should be explicit

This does not exclude explicit grammar-teaching entirely, however. Some basic features of English language grammar structure are illogical or dissimilar to speakers of other languages and do not readily lend themselves to being well understood, even in context. In cases where features of English grammar are diametrically opposed or in some other way radically different from the manner of expression in the student’s L1, explicit teaching may be required.

Aspects of English language grammar that may offer exceptional challenge to EFL students include use of word order, determiners (this, that, these, those, a, an, the), prepositions (in, on, at, by, for, from, of), auxiliaries (do, be, have), conjunctions (but, so, however, therefore, though, although), interrogatives, intensifiers (some, any, few, more, too) and distinctions between modal verbs (can, could, would, should, may, might, must). Phrasal verbs also present considerable difficulty to Spanish speakers learning communicative English.

Some students also are logical or linguistically-biased thinkers who respond well to structured presentation of new material. Logical-Mathematical and Verbal-Linguistic intelligence learners are prime examples of those that would respond well to explicit grammar teaching in many cases.

Based on my English language teaching and on my second and third foreign language learning (L2, L3) experience, an exclusive approach using either implicit or explicit methodologies is not as effective as utilizing one or the other of these approaches as required. Although it is essential to teach elements of language and develop communicative abilities in our students, there is no one best way to introduce and provide practice in them. Young learners have more natural facility in acquisition, while adults may benefit substantially from more “formal” language learning. Learning styles and intelligence strengths are also a significant factor.

There are many generally accepted ways of introducing the sounds, structure and vocabulary of English, including colloquial forms of conversation and the four basic communication skills. Grammar provides for “communicative economy”. Grammar teaching should be implicit, or explicit, as teaching / learning conditions may dictate helping to minimize the student response teachers fear most, “Teacher, I don’t understand”.

Note: Academic references for this article are available on request.

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Larry Lynch

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is a bi-lingual copywriter, expert author and photographer specialising in business, travel, food and education-related writing in South America. His work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, South American Explorer, Escape From America, Mexico News and Brazil magazines. He now lives in Colombia and teaches at a university in Cali.

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  • W.D.Ziemer


    Yesterday, while teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to Wonbeen, a four year old Korean boy, his two and a half year old sister, Gabby, looking on, I picked up a little doll which was lying on the floor and walked it to Gabby’s bowl of M&Ms, which was also on the floor. Gabby stood with her eyes fixed on the doll. I made the doll look at the candy then turned its head to look up at Gabby, then back at the candy, back at Gabby and back at the candy. Gabby was frozen in place with her eyes on the doll. Finally, I turned the doll’s face to look back up at Gabby. Gabby, looking down at the doll, slowly nodded her head. I reached the doll’s hand into the bowl then put the doll’s hand to its mouth. Gabby smiled with glee.

    “Language flows like the wind, unbound by tradition. She is a river whose banks cannot forever hold her.”

    “Language: the tool used in transmitting ideas.
    Grammar: the scientific like definitions of the conclusions based on careful observations of the dynamics of the mechanism of language.”

    Yeah… I don’t know, I just now made that stuff up.

    I do know that my beginner students learn quicker, more and better, when I teach them conversations with minor reference to grammar first; allowing them to focus on communicating some basic, useful communicative skills. Once they can ask and answer daily, low level questions, (once they can have simple conversations), if they’re interested or have need of it to obtain documents proving they’ve studied English to a required level, they can study grammar in class or on their own.

  • Varona

    Hi! Where can I find the academic references for this text?
    I want to use the information for my argumentative essay about implicit and explicit learning.

    Best regards, Varona

    • Keith profile photo
      Keith Taylor

      Hi Varona

      Please contact the article author for academic references – you can find his email address in the author box at the bottom of the article.

  • Thomas

    I have a problem with people who think that L2 learning/Acquiring is the same as L1 acquiring. I think that L2 is similar but not the same. For one thing once you reach a certain age you know about language. You know there is grammar. You know these things and these can be used to help with the L2 learning/acquiring process. I think it also matters which language is your L1 and which is your L2. If you are a native Mandarin speaker and then are trying to learn/acquire English then your experience will be different than somebody who is a native French speaker learning Spanish. Certainly implicit learning is best but one can’t ignore the explicit or the use for certain topics.

  • Caroline

    Yes. An exclusive use of either implicit or explicit approach is not efficient. There are a variety factors could influence the use of certain approach such as students’ learning styles, purposes of learning and education systems, etc. Both approaches have their own advantage and disadvantage. I think teachers should learn to combine them depending on different situations.

  • Michael

    In my view learning English grammar in the following sequence ensures firm solid thorough knowledge of English grammar:

    1. Read a short clear easily understandable explanation of a grammar rule.
    2. Study several practical usage examples (sentences) illustrating that particular grammar rule. Check yourself whether you have mastered the examples.
    3. Do several exercises for that rule with communicative content (with sentences that most likely can be used in real life situations).

    Grammar exercises that contain dialogues, interrogative and statement (or narrative) sentences on everyday topics, thematic texts and narrative stories are especially effective for mastering grammatical structures. Grammar practice should also include exercises in listening comprehension and speaking, not just in reading and writing. Grammar exercises must help learners not only form correct sentences, but also use them correctly in context in real life situations. Contrastive and contextualised exercises give practice in form, meaning and use. It is very important to learners for practising English grammar on their own that there are answers provided to exercises (key) in their grammar practice book for self-check.

  • Majid Nikouee

    I have been teaching English for 4 years in an EFL context. I have tried both explicit and implicit approaches to teaching grammar in my classes. Based my observation, I recommend an explicit approach to teaching complex rules, and an implicit approach to teaching simple rules. My criterion for complexity of grammatical rules is the differences between students’ L1 and L2 grammatical systems. For example, I teach past simple implicitly since the counterpart of this tense is present in my students’ L1. But I found it quite impossible to teach present perfect implicitly since it hasn’t got any counterpart in my students’ L1.

  • O. Carranza

    I think both ways have a place in the language classroom. I like to challenge the students and make them participate actively in class; that is, I try to use the implicit way as much as I can when dealing with grammatical structures. I have also made use of different activities, visuals, games, CDs, etc. for this purpose. Unfortunately, there are some structures that are really complex for the students to understand just by using the inductive approach. They need to be explained mainly because the meaning and use are different in the student’s native language ( the present perfect tense ) or the same word order is used with a different meaning in another context ( the conditional clauses ). In brief, I think that the use of the implicit or explicit way depends mainly on the grammatical structure to be presented and the teacher’s creativity to find the appropriate activity for the presentation.

  • Noel

    Oh when will teachers learn that students learn in spite of us, not because of us. Yes explicit has a role – a very minor one but if you believe that language acquisition and not language learning is the way forward (and it has been proven), then implicit learning without complicated meta language, is better for the learner. I didn’t learn grammar rules in order to speak English fluently so why oh why do many teachers think that we have to?

    Some teachers above have said it’s easier to teach using an implicit method. This is only true of bad teachers. Good teachers have to work much harder to use this method. I suggest a starting point for those teachers that think an explicit approach is the best method, to consider that rules came after the language and in fact make teaching much easier for the teacher, not the learner. Then read M Lewis, ‘The Lexical Approach’ and start learning to teach learners how to learn.

  • Bruce

    Some people eat their food using a knife and fork. Other use chopsticks, whilst elsewhere, fingers and spoons help to keep the digestive juices working! Each, according to their abilities – as long as they are fed! Student-centred learning is the pivot.

  • Sibel

    I have been teaching English as a foreign language for two years. I generally try hard to teach grammar in dialogues or texts. However, many of my students have difficulty in understanding English grammar well. To my experiences in two years I realized that my students need the structure of the language in order to understand it in a speech or make a conversation by using it. So in my lessons I start with a dialogue or a text. After reading them I ask my students what is new in it. We talk about the new structure and I get my students attention to the new structure of the grammar. That is to say both of these methods are useful in my lessons.

  • Marilyn

    I think that explicit teaching of grammar is essential. Without basic building blocks one can achieve only a very shaky structure. Implicit teaching has its place but as a secondary method. I am horrified at how little progress is being achieved by the implicit teaching of grammar at the school in which I work. Students are unable to translate effectively without detailed grammatical knowledge. Could it be that the real problem lies with teachers who are unable to teach the rules of grammar?

  • Caroline

    After reading everyone’s comments, there really isn’t much more to say, except that I agree with all! My students are really struggling with some of the structures and verbal phrases – necessitating the need for explicit mini-lessons. However, the use of real literature and immediate practice puts lessons into context well. Isn’t it fascinating to look at English through the eyes of an ELL?

  • Jhoana

    Both types of presenting grammar are important in EFL environments. I am a foreign teacher and I have the chance to work in a language center in my country, Colombia. I developed Focus on form with my students and that helped them to understand the language. They gained in confidence when dealing with a second language.

    Personally I think that the implicit way encourages students to develop their own abilities when they need to respond to the different activities and materials in classroom settings. Of course we can assume one is better than the other but as teachers we can emphasize on one of those, providing students with the tools they need to master the language.

  • Michael

    Benedito more or less says it all. Both methods are necessary and at least a cursory glance at, say, the passive, will be useful to students who will then notice and observe it when they see it and then start to recognise it and use it for the rest of their lives. Unless things are explicitly pointed out to students they will take twice as long or even more time to start to use the correct form.

    There is so much emphasis on “fun” these days. The fun really begins when the correct form is pointed out, then observed and put into practice. Years and years of fun rather than frustration will follow on from the explicit “noticing” of what the students are going to see for the rest of their lives.

    The debate doesn’t have to involve academics. It doesn’t have to be an academic discussion. Ordinary people want to learn and to communicate. Most students want to know how they can learn quickly. They should have an explanation of the grammar point and then observe its usage over years and years of reading and writing.

  • Benedito

    This long lasting discussion about implicit / explicit grammar teaching is academically savoury. Like many theories in science and arts they look like two paths that do not cross. Our preferences make them like that and we take one as good, or “correct” and the other we take as a challenge, to say the least.

    I have been involved with language and teaching for over 35 years now. As the author poses, he is L2, l3 levels. I am already on L6 level and that includes Mandarin Chinese as one of them. Any language, including your mother tongue, requires some logical-mathematical approach, which means, formal grammar lessons with drills in order to enable one to master it. Boring or not, one will speak like an illiterate if he or she does not study grammar, both syntax and analysis.

    I don’t think the problem is about teaching it explicitly. The problem is the simplicity with which life and everything is seen nowadays. As teachers, we must establish good psychological contracts with our students on the very first day of class. Once we do it, teaching grammar is just a detail in the whole picture.

    Grammar structures, whether one agrees or not, comprise the material we use in building the mastery of a language. They help us become conscious of vocabulary usage. They help us generate meaningful sentences and convey messages that truly communicate.

    I have seen teachers that mostly play games with their students. They are popular indeed, no doubt about it. However, life is not only fun and games: the world is increasingly competitive and mastery is fundamental, in any field. Unless we are prone to allow the Chinese to rule the world, our future generations must be masters in all fields and that includes at least a L4 level!

  • Rachel

    Grammar is a necessary tool for all students, not just LEP students. I work with 3rd graders 20/25 are LEP and I find it necessary to teach grammar at least for 10 minutes a day in class. I am amazed at how little monolingual student understand about grammar. I believe providing grammar instruction not only helps scaffold the LEP students’ native language (all languages have grammar rules), but also provides monolingual student a broader base for if/when they decide to learn a foreign language.

    As for myself, I had no formal grammar instruction in school. It wasn’t until I took a sophomore year French class in college that the light bulb in my head went off and I said to myself, “Eureka!! I know what a subject is and why the verb needs to agree!!”–sad, but true. Unfortunately sometimes our schools, in trying to be natural about their approach to language, set students up for failure. It may be dull and boring for a group of kids to sit through language rules, but with a little game or good attitude it can be managed. I think the biggest problem is that the teachers teaching grammar do not have a strong grasp on grammar themselves. Let us all put in the extra effort, roll up our sleeves, take a deep breath, and just do it–at least when these students grow up and go to college they will know subject verb agreement means!

  • Etienne

    Professor Lynch has already addressed the point I was about to make when he says that neither approach should be used exclusively. We need to keep in mind that students learn in different ways and that what works for a particular group of students does not necessarily work for another. We teachers need to be eclectic in our approach if we want to cater to the different learning styles represented within our classrooms.

    I love to teach grammar the traditional way, that is, as a separate entity. However, I usually begin or end with a story or dialogue that presents the structure in an actual situation so that students don’t look at the structure as an isolated piece. I also teach mini-lessons with my writing students every time I return a writing assignment. In this case, I focus on a structure the students constantly trip on either individually or collectively. In sum, it is important to feed students grammar in small chunks and in a manner that connects the structure to an actual situation.

  • Micaela

    I agree that grammar should be taught in a variety of ways, both implicitly and explicitly. It really comes down to why the students are learning the language. If their goal is to know enough English to communicate abroad on short trips, then communicative lessons may be the best approach. If the student is hoping to take the First Certificate or any other similar exam, then explicit grammar lessons must be an integral part of their learning process. As teachers I think we must remember to take into account that not everyone learns languages because it is enjoyable and, in this way, help them reach their personal goals in the best way possible.

  • Muge

    I believe both implicit and explicit ways of teaching grammar are prevailing. It depends on the pupils requirements. I have a class of 2 Ss. One tries to speak and doesn’t take notes unless I warn him to but tries hard to speak. However, he makes many mistakes. The other, wants to write every detail down and asks for an explanation in L1. She speaks less and rather slow but doesn’t make mistakes like the other one. In my opinion grammar rules should be explained in detail and there still has to be another material, speaking material to make students carry this rule out.

  • Judith

    Yes, I agree. My student (after 2 years in this country) has naturally picked up a core of vocab and some basic grammar skills. However – some grammar, that differs vastly from his native language, just has to be taught. For example, he still repeats subjects twice in sentences: “the dog, he ate the bone” . Plus prepositions he has learnt through teaching and worksheets – you are born “in” a country “on” a certain date, “at” a certain time, “in” the year of…

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