Making up Grammar Rules by Georgios Chatzis

18/01/2017 - 16:07

Are you sure that grammar and imagination can’t go together? In his webinar next Sunday, March 13, Georgios Chatzis will show us how students can become active and engaged participants in grammar lessons – something guaranteed to interest all teachers! He tells us more about the talk in this post.

Making up Grammar Rules by Georgios Chatzis

Georgios Chatzis has been teaching since 1997. He is a co-owner of the Karayanni-Chatzi Schools of English in Corinth and an EAP tutor with the University of Sheffield. He holds a CELT level II, RSA dip, a DTEFL and an MA in ELT from the University of Essex. He has a particular interest in testing impact as well as L1 interference in the teaching of grammar and materials design. As of March 2015 he is the TESOL Greece Newsletter Editor.

In my experience, grammar is one of the most demotivating parts of the syllabus. For most students it is just the process of memorising forms and rules that make little, if any, sense at all, and seem to have no underlying reason. Is there anything that we can do to motivate our students during ‘grammar hour’? What follows is inspired from Ken Wilson’s ‘Motivating the Unmotivated’ adjusted accordingly to fit my context.

Ken suggested 10 ways to get your students to Do Something! From those I focus on the following 5.

Let students use their imagination.

Find out what they know and what they are good at.

As a teacher I have always thought that it is useful to get to know a few things about your students before you try to motivate them. If the aim is to present grammar in such a way that it is something the students can relate to, then it might be useful to learn a few things about their interests, as in my opinion, what they are interested in is where they draw most of their schematic knowledge from.

Make them curious

One common trait of all young students is their innate curiosity. They all want to learn what makes the world spin and how things around them work. That applies to almost every aspect of their lives, and it is a trait that a good teacher can exploit in the classroom. If almost every question they ask starts with the word ‘Why’, then it is up to the teacher to explain (or rather come up with an explanation of) the underlying mechanisms behind language structures and if possible to show them that there is, at least some, logic in grammar.

Challenge them

How does one challenge their students? In my context what has worked is the following three things; ‘Elicit, Elicit, Elicit’. Eliciting grammar requires mental effort and therefore makes grammar more memorable. It also develops problem solving abilities and stimulates critical thinking, leading to greater learner autonomy and self reliance. (Thornbury,1999)

If the deductive approach uses the formal introduction of a rule which leads to the demonstration of the target language through examples, and the inductive approach uses examples to lead to a rule (Thornbury,1999), then what can one elicit from intermediate level students who already know the rule and have encountered plenty of examples? Elicitation in this case can help provide an explanation for the rule and to help make the rule into something the students ‘own’. In my context there have been many cases that the students have named rules based on their schematic knowledge. Some examples are the Double Jeopardy rule, Mr Grumpy, the V.I.P. rule and the Tzatziki effect. Just to give an example; The Double Jeopardy rule was named by a student, who had seen a film with the same title on television the previous night. This rule accounts for the fact that we do not use a question syntax after a reported question. Through elicitation, the students came to the conclusion that since the reported question starts with the word ‘asked’; ‘she asked me what time the train arrives’ then we do not need the interrogative form ‘does the train arrive’ because that would mean that we would have two questions. Accordingly, the same principle can explain why a double negative is a mistake, why we cannot say ‘I didn’t studied’ or ‘this is my parents’s car’.

Devolve responsibility

There have been many cases when I have heard teachers frustrated with unmotivated students say, ‘If only I could teach them one thing!’ Then why not teach them one thing? Students often find the plethora of grammar rules overwhelming and give up on any effort of learning. During such a moment of feeling frustrated about a student who would not do anything, I asked him to remember only one thing; that we use words like ‘yesterday’ with the past simple. I told him that he would be the expert, the person the rest of the class would go to, when we come across these words. A few days later I asked him why he had used the past simple in a sentence and for the first time he replied that it was because ‘it said yesterday’. Soon after, most of the students wanted to be the ‘experts’ of something. As an experiment in the classroom each student (who wanted to be an ‘expert’) was assigned one rule they were responsible for. One student would be responsible for remembering the time expressions used with the past simple, another for the auxiliary verb of each tense or the stative verbs. Each student held a piece of the puzzle, thus entering a cooperative learning mode, or one could even say that it is quite similar to what in computing terms is described as a ‘collective intelligence’. (Lévy,1999)

In purely linguistic terms the notion of making up rules may seem highly inappropriate. But, and this is a big but, it is important to keep in mind that the teacher’s aim is not to train linguists but to motivate students and turn them into effective language users. I cannot say if this ‘experimental’ approach will work in other contexts, but it has certainly produced some encouraging results in mine.


Lévy P. : Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. Perseus Books, 1999

Thornbury S. : How to Teach Grammar. Pearson Educational Limited 1999

Wilson K: (accessed on 15/02/2014)

The extended version of this article is in the TESOL Greece Newsletter 122 pp. 25-27.