A Relevant Pedagogic Grammar for Today’s Classrooms

  • Beverly DerewiankaEmail author
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Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


This chapter addresses the call for a pedagogic grammar that goes beyond the familiar structurally focused grammars that tend to emphasize form and syntactic correctness. Following a brief discussion of the nature of pedagogic grammars, the ensuing section sketches some of the more influential models of grammar employed in educational contexts. Acknowledging that a pedagogic grammar needs to provide more than a description of grammatical items, the rest of the chapter explores a variety of grammars that have been developing over the past several decades whose departure point is the communicative needs of students as they operate in academic, civic, and vocational contexts. A common theme is the kinds of meanings that students need to be able to make if they are to function successfully in particular contexts of use. An extensive description of a unit of instruction illustrating such an approach is provided to exemplify some of the principles informing a meaning-oriented pedagogic grammar. The chapter finishes by considering some of the issues raised in implementing a more contextualized approach to teaching grammar.


Pedagogic grammar Contextualized grammar Meaning-oriented grammar Systemic functional grammar 


The teaching of grammar continues to excite controversy: Should we teach it? Why would we teach it? How might we teach it? How much should we teach? What type of grammar? While some teachers and education systems abandoned the teaching of grammar, others persisted, often drawing on inadequate tools for the complex literacy demands made on their students. This chapter makes the assumption that teaching students about language can make a difference – as long as it connects with the real-life needs of the students.

What Is a Pedagogic Grammar?

Defining what is meant by the term “pedagogic/pedagogical grammar” has consumed many publications over the years (e.g., Dirven 1990; Hancock 2009; Odlin 1994), and there is still no firm consensus as to its nature. Little (1994: 99) calls it a “slippery concept,” while Michael Swan is quoted as referring to it as the wild frontier between applied linguistic theory and classroom practice (Azar 2012). Traditionally, it has been regarded as a description of linguistic constructions or rules (morphology and syntax) aimed at promoting the acquisition of a foreign or second language (e.g., Nordquist 2017; Zbigniew 2010). In this chapter, however, we will be loosening these boundaries somewhat. The target audience will be broadened to include native speakers of the target language, recognizing that they too need access to a relevant pedagogic grammar. In line with most modern grammars, the scope will extend beyond the sentence to encompass stretches of discourse. No firm line will be drawn between grammar and vocabulary.

A distinction is usually made between a “theoretical” grammar (also referred to by terms such as academic, scientific, or linguistic) and a “pedagogic” grammar (also known as a teaching, learning, or didactic grammar). The former is typically seen as the province of those developing theory, while the latter is responsive to the needs of classroom practice. It is not, however, simply a matter of taking an academic grammar and simplifying it for learners. Following Bernstein (1996), we could think more of a process of transformation, where theories being produced by linguistic experts can be taken up and recontextualized by syllabus developers, course book writers, and teacher educators and then further “pedagogized” by practitioners in educational institutions (Chen and Derewianka 2009).

In the academic field of knowledge production and theory building, disciplines such as psychology, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology have spawned any number of models of language that accommodate their particular areas of interest. Only a few of these, however, are viable candidates for use in educational contexts. Pivotal players in this field are the educational linguists who seek out models that have the potential to productively support language learning and inform classroom practice. Working in a reciprocal relationship with theoretical linguists and with educators, they interrogate the model, testing its efficacy in real-world contexts and rendering it useful, accessible, reliable, and relevant to teachers and learners.

In the recontextualizing field, the specialized knowledge of linguistic theories is appropriated and refocused by education systems, policy developers, assessment authorities, materials designers, and professional learning providers. These interpret a selected model or models in relation to the needs of their end users and make them available as curriculum guidelines, teachers’ and students’ reference grammars (organized by grammatical categories), and student course books (typically organized into topics or themes).

In the field of application, educational institutions and practitioners further transform the privileged pedagogic grammar, taking into account such considerations as:
  • The learners (their age, their educational background, their mother tongue, their prior familiarity with grammar, and the expectations of students and families)

  • Institutional constraints (syllabus requirements, the duration and intensity of the program, the availability of resources, the role of the course book, and the pressure of assessment)

The fidelity with which the pedagogic grammar is implemented is mitigated by such factors as the degree of autonomy accorded to the teacher, their own experience and expertise in grammar teaching, their command of the target language, their familiarity with the model of grammar, and their beliefs about language teaching and learning.

What Are the Options?

Given the number of works available describing the various pedagogic grammars and their associated teaching practices (e.g., Chalker 1994; Derewianka 2001, 2007; Dirven 1990; Odlin 1994), it will suffice to provide here the brief sketch that follows.

Traditional school grammars are arguably what most people think of when they hear the word “grammar.” In the past, these involved such practices as parsing improbable sentences into the “parts of speech” such as noun, adjective, adverb, verb, article, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, and interjection. Traditional grammars provide at least a rudimentary way of thinking and talking about language. They are primarily concerned with the correct use of written standard English. Whether due to inertia or to the appeal of its simplicity, traditional school grammar endures in many of today’s ELT textbooks and syllabi.

Rejecting the Latinate, prescriptive basis of traditional grammar, structural linguists in the early twentieth century sought to scientifically describe languages on their own terms, identifying recurrent syntactic patterns in sentences without reference to meaning. In one of its pedagogical manifestations, American structuralism was allied with behaviorist audio-lingual pedagogy which favored imitation, practice, and habit formation and eschewed the rules and explanations of traditional grammar. A structuralist approach identified the basic building blocks of a sentence, which were drilled until mastery was achieved and increasingly complex structures could be introduced. Aided and abetted by the new technology of the tape recorder, students in language labs endlessly repeated structures until they became automatic.

Chomsky’s (1965) transformational generative (TG) grammar was seen as a revolutionary challenge to structuralism. Rather than dealing with the acquisition of the surface structure of sentences through imitation, reinforcement, and repetition, Chomsky posited an innate language acquisition device (LAD) located in the brain which contained a blueprint of universal, basic deep structures. Admitting his lack of expertise in pedagogic grammar, Chomsky suggested that “we should probably try to create a rich linguistic environment for the intuitive heuristics that the normal human automatically possesses” (Chomsky 1968: 690). Acting on the assumption that exposure to rich, comprehensible input was sufficient to activate the LAD, theoreticians such as Krashen (1988) advised dispensing with the explicit teaching of grammatical structure – reinforced by studies that purported to demonstrate that the teaching of grammar made no difference to the quality of student writing (e.g., Hillocks 1986). Embracing early versions of the communicative approach, teachers engaged the students in role-plays and scenarios, games, and group work involving the active, collaborative use of language.

In the meantime, teams of linguists were developing a range of scholarly reference grammars that sought to provide a comprehensive, in-depth account of the English language (e.g., Biber et al. 1999; Huddleston and Pullum 2002; Quirk et al. 1985). These weighty descriptive grammars draw on insights from several contemporary schools of linguistics and often exploit the affordances of immense electronic corpora to ground their descriptions in authentic data. Such grammars play an important role in the ELT field, providing an authoritative and up-to-date point of reference for the profession. They have served as the basis for a number of pedagogic reference grammars – some for teachers (e.g., Hall and Azar 2011; Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999; Parrott 2010) and some for more advanced students (e.g., Collins COBUILD Student’s Grammar and Longman Student Grammar). These are sometimes accompanied by exercises to reinforce a particular grammatical point.

While recognizing the value of these descriptive reference grammars, Bourke (2005) points out that a grammar for teaching purposes has to involve learners in applying their grammar in various contexts of use: “Pedagogical grammar is more than unapplied knowledge in the head; it is the ability to exploit one’s grammatical resources in order to make meaning” (p. 96). With this in mind, the rest of the chapter will focus on what a meaning-oriented pedagogic grammar might look like in an educational context.

A Meaning-Oriented Model of Language

While some linguistic grammars regard meaning as a distraction and separate syntax from semantics, most pedagogic grammars pay attention to meaning to varying degrees. Traditional grammar, for example, often simplistically identifies a noun as referring to “a person, place, or thing” and a verb as a “doing word.” Teacher reference grammars such as Thornbury (1997) and Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999) often include references to what a particular grammar structure means.

Other approaches have gone beyond simply designating the meaning of individual structures and have completely reimagined pedagogic grammars, placing meaning at the center. Early on, for example, Wilkins (1976) devised the notional syllabus to address the communicative meanings that students need to make in order to operate effectively in various situations. Around the same time, Leech and Svartvik (1975) published their communicative grammar of English.

More recently, Cognitive Grammar (CG) regards language as a system of complex semantic networks, shaped and constrained by the functions it serves. Langacker (2008) describes CG as having three basic features, “the centrality of meaning, the meaningfulness of grammar, and its usage-based nature” (p. 8), with grammar consisting in patterns for assembling complex meanings. Boers and Lindstromberg (2006) observe that CG is well suited to L2 learners because of its usage-based approach to language and because it seems far more natural from the perspective of language users. They make the point, however, that until recently, CG has had little impact on classroom practice and has dealt primarily with small-scale controlled experiments confined to polysemous words. Giovanelli (2014) explores the potential value of this new discipline in educational contexts.

Similarly, Rhetorical Grammar pedagogy is concerned with how meaning is created and crafted through shaping language to achieve the writer’s rhetorical intentions (Kolln and Gray 2016; Paraskevas 2006). Micciche (2004) describes rhetorical grammar analysis as encouraging students to see writing as a material social process in which meaning is actively made. She contends that this shaping of meaning through writing is intimately connected with a writer’s grammatical choices. Students are provided with tools for creating effective discourse and are asked to explain the discursive effects of their choices.

In the UK, Debra Myhill and colleagues (Jones et al. 2012) adopt a contextualized grammar teaching approach focusing on how different linguistic choices create meaning in context. They encourage extending students’ repertoires by explicitly showing them “how different ways of shaping sentences or texts, and different choices of words can generate different possibilities for meaning-making” (Myhill et al. 2012: 31). Unlike previous studies, their research offers robust evidence of a positive relationship between grammar teaching and writing when grammar is conceptualized as a meaning-making resource. Investigating the teaching of language features characteristic of fictional narrative, poetry, and argument, the findings provide empirical evidence that writing is enhanced by explicit understanding of how grammar choices can be used to shape written text to satisfy the writer’s rhetorical goals.

In the USA, Uccelli and colleagues (Uccelli et al. 2015) adopt a sociocultural pragmatic-based view that understands language learning as inseparable from social context. Students are guided to develop rhetorical flexibility – “the ability to use an increasing repertoire of lexico-grammatical and discourse resources appropriately and flexibly in an expanding variety of social contexts” (p. 5). They see the expansion of students’ academic language skills as an important pedagogical goal and have developed the core academic language skills (CALS) tool to identify high-utility language forms and functions across academic disciplines, including the prevalence of complex morphologically derived words, syntactically intricate structures (such as embedded clauses or extended noun phrases), a range of contrastive and causal connectives used to mark relations among complex ideas, the construction of referential chains, and the overall organization of expository texts.

One of the more influential meaning-oriented pedagogic grammars is that based on Halliday’s (Halliday and Matthiessen 2004) model of Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) and the associated genre approach (e.g., Rose and Martin 2012) which explores how language is used in social contexts to achieve particular goals. Halliday sees grammar as a communicative resource for construing meaning – a system of networks representing the meaning potential from which we make choices in response to a particular social and cultural context. What is distinctive about SFG is the notion that language has evolved to serve three major functions in our lives: to represent our experience of the world; to negotiate social roles and relationships; and to organize text into a coherent message. Halliday calls these language functions metafunctions and refers to them as ideational, interpersonal, and textual, respectively. Whenever we use language, we employ all three metafunctions simultaneously.

While SFG prioritizes function, it also accounts for the syntactic structure of language. Given a particular function, SFG considers the range of grammatical forms that typically realize that function – not only at the level of the sentence but in terms of building patterns of meaning in texts. It is this capacity to explicate a systematic relationship between context of use, discourse patterns, semantics, and grammatical realizations that makes SFG particularly useful in educational contexts. Students, with guidance, are able not only to recognize a particular grammatical unit but describe its function and interpret its contribution to patterns of meaning in the text as a whole (Macken-Horarik et al. 2018).

As with most other linguistic theories, SFG is too extravagant to be applied in its “pure” form. Through the process of recontextualization, however, educators select and adapt those features most relevant to their particular context. Rather than provide a full outline of SFG here, the following section will present an account of its implementation in an Australian classroom as an example of a meaning-oriented pedagogic grammar. (For those interested in further detail of the theory and its application, see, for example, Derewianka and Jones 2016.)

Implementing a Meaning-Oriented Pedagogic Grammar

The learning sequence described here is intended simply to be illustrative of certain principles rather than to report on research findings. The first part explains how the teacher planned the unit of instruction, followed by a detailed description of how the unit was implemented, focusing first on the structure of the text and then on various grammatical features relevant to the aim of the unit.

While a Hallidayan model of language informed much of the teaching, it is possible to discern commonalities with other meaning-oriented grammars (as discussed above), with contemporary literacy pedagogies, and with enduring good practices from previous eras.

Planning the Unit of Instruction

The upper elementary class consisted of a mixture of ESL learners aged 11–12 years, from recent arrivals to near-proficient speakers of English.

More specifically, the recount would take the form of an explorer’s journal entry drawing on Captain Cook’s diary, given that the history curriculum required that students work with primary sources.

The teacher’s planning included reading through several of Cook’s journal entries, noting that they typically consisted of a record of daily episodes documenting the date, time of day, location, and distance covered. Embedded within these recurrent features were less predictable phases such as descriptions of places visited, encounters with native inhabitants, and incidents involving the weather.
She also drew on the requirements of the national History and English syllabi (ACARA) and considered the identified language needs of her group of students. Table 1 summarizes the syllabus requirements, the genre demands of the task, and the related language features that were focused on.
Table 1

Identifying the language demands of the task

From the above table, it is evident that ideational resources were the primary focus, representing “what’s going on.” At times, however, attention was given to shaping coherent texts (textual resources) and interaction with the reader (interpersonal resources).

By identifying language features relevant to the task, the teacher was being proactive in anticipating the linguistic outcomes to be achieved by the students. This didn’t preclude, however, being responsive to the needs of students as they arose in the moment, reflecting Hammond and Gibbons’ (2005) distinction between “designed-in” scaffolding and “contingent” scaffolding.

The Task

With these language objectives in mind, the teacher developed a sequence of lessons spanning several weeks. This allowed time for deep learning of both the history content and the identified language features relevant to achieving the task.

The main task of the unit was to write an episode from Cook’s first voyage as experienced from the perspective of the 11-year-old stowaway, Nicholas Young. Each of these episodes, written by different groups, would be ultimately collated into a journal, along with visuals such as a timeline of Cook’s journey, a map, and drawings of artifacts .
To that end, the main task was broken down into manageable “mini-tasks”:
  • An overview of the itinerary covered on a particular stage of the voyage: Date, location, and happenings

  • A detailed description of a place investigated

  • A detailed description of inhabitants of the place

  • A recount of an incident during the day
    Fig. 1

    Breaking down the main task into smaller contributing tasks

A Teaching-and-Learning Cycle

The teacher integrated the students’ learning about language into a teaching-and-learning cycle, beginning with developing a basic understanding of the topic: the Age of Discovery and Cook’s voyages. She did this through a range of activities such as identifying students’ prior knowledge, watching videos, constructing a timeline, and examining maps and images before supporting students in reading selected texts on the topic. The stage of the cycle which dealt with learning about the genre was the main focus for exploring the historical recount genre – its structure and characteristic language features. This was followed by a stage where the teacher and students jointly constructed a text similar to the one the students would be writing independently.
Fig. 2

A teaching-and-learning cycle (after Rothery 1994)

Modelling the Genre

Following an initial introduction to the topic, the teacher cued the students into the main task by modeling an example of the final product toward which the students would be working, often referred to as a “mentor text.”
Fig. 3

Annotated mentor text (Adapted from Anderson 1790 pp. 128–139)

Representing Ideas and Events

To prepare students for the language focus, the teacher reinforced the grammar understandings established in previous years when they were introduced to the clause. In this instance, they were approaching the clause from an ideational perspective, viewing the clause in terms of how it represents “a slice of experience” – typically an event centered around something happening, as prescribed in the national English curriculum descriptor: Identify the parts of a simple sentence that representwhat’s happening?”, “who or what is involved?and the surrounding circumstances.

Following the first reading, accompanied by illustrations, the students dramatized the incident to demonstrate their comprehension as the text was read aloud. The teacher deliberately chose a text involving only “action verbs” at this stage. Other process types would be introduced later.

With teacher guidance, the students then asked questions of the clause, starting with finding the happening (“did what?”), followed by the participants in the activity (“who or what?”), and any details surrounding the activity (“when? where? how?” etc.). In line with most modern grammars, the initial focus was on relationships within the clause at the group/phrase level (“chunks of meaning”) rather than individual words.

These were color-coded using color conventions employed throughout the school.
Fig. 4

Identifying “chunks of meaning” in sentences

The questions and the color coding were sustained for a considerable time, helping the students to observe that, when representing an event, the clause could be seen as typically having just three main constituents: “a doing or happening,” “people or things involved in the happening,” and “any surrounding details.”
They would later learn to use terms that indicated the function of each “chunk of meaning”: a Process involving various Participants (animate and inanimate) and any surrounding Circumstances. Over time – and when appropriate – they would learn that a Process is realized by the grammatical form of a verb/verb group, a Participant can be realized by various forms such as a noun group or a pronoun, and Circumstances can take a variety of adverbial forms.
Fig. 5

The functions of each “chunk of meaning” and their grammatical realizations

While in practice it would be possible to employ either functional terms or formal terms, ideally students would be familiar with both.

Connecting Ideas

The students had already learnt that a simple sentence consists of a single main clause. They had also learnt about combining clauses to create compound sentences using coordinating conjunctions. But even though some were using complex sentences, the teacher decided that some explicit teaching would be opportune. To this end, she created a number of cardboard sentence strips based on an incident from Captain Cook’s Apprentice (Hill 2008). In particular, she focused on subordinate clauses of time, as these are characteristic of an historical recount.
Fig. 6

Sentence strips for a sentence-combining activity focusing on subordinate clauses of time

They were guided to identify the various subordinating conjunctions of time (since, until, as, while, as soon as, when, after, before, whenever) and discussed the different meanings they made. They then manipulated the sequence of clauses, noting that the subordinate clause could either precede or follow the main clause, unlike compound sentences. As they redrafted their incident, the students highlighted where they had revised their text to include various subordinate clauses of time and discussed their decision whether to position the time clause before or after the main clause.

Representing Time

Continuing with the “time” theme, the teacher decided to introduce other resources for signaling time – in particular, temporal Circumstances. She provided the class with excerpts from one of the primary sources, and, in the role of “text detectives,” the students found examples of time expressions.
Fig. 7

An excerpt illustrating a variety of Circumstances of time (Anderson 1790 p. 184)

The students collated their findings into a chart of time Circumstances that they could refer to when revising their own episodes. While students were comfortable simply recognizing and referring to “time Circumstances,” the teacher felt they might also benefit from being introduced to the grammatical forms that realized these Circumstances.

Rather than learning about prepositions as a list of discrete items (which made little sense on their own), the students were learning how they operate within the context of a phrase.

The students also observed that some time Circumstances consisted of single words (adverbs), along with a few “others” (which a few students recognized as noun groups).
Fig. 8

Circumstances of time organized into their grammatical realizations

Again, the students reviewed their evolving drafts, inserted appropriate Circumstances of time, and highlighted their revisions.

Representing the Participants: Noun Groups

An important stage in an expedition journal is to document in some detail the people, places, and things encountered. Key resources for representing these Participants are the noun group/phrase and the adjective group/phrase.

The teacher initially introduced the class to the noun group by modeling how she would create a description of Captain Cook. Using the smartboard, she projected a number of brief excerpts from primary and secondary sources and involved the students in highlighting those words that described Cook. They then sorted these into those relating to his physical appearance and those relating to his character.
Table 2

Attributes describing Captain Cook’s physical appearance and character




above 6 ft high



deep brown eyes

large bushy eyebrows

talented, clever

worked really hard

dark hair curled and tied behind

long nose, extremely well-shaped

compassionate, caring

heroic, brave, courageous




modest, bashful, shy




In line with the syllabus, the students were being introduced to the difference between objective and subjective reporting. That he was tall was a demonstrable fact. That he was compassionate, however, was open to argument, given the harsh floggings that he ordered and reports of his “short temper”. Here the lesson was dipping into Halliday’s interpersonal function of language and, in particular, the expression of attitudes such as judgment of human behavior (Martin and White 2005) which is dependent on a person’s viewpoint, as captured in the national history syllabus concepts of “perspective” and “significance.”

The teacher then drew the following table on the board representing the potential of the noun group for rich description. In describing Cook’s physical appearance, she provided a sentence starter (“Captain Cook was a…”) and then guided the class to select words that answered the probe questions, starting with “who” is being described and building up the noun group from there:

Captain Cook was …
Fig. 9

Building up a noun group to describe Cook’s physical appearance

This activity was repeated, now with pairs of students developing a similar description, but this time of Cook’s character. At this point the teacher started introducing some everyday terms indicating the function of each constituent.

Captain Cook was …
Fig. 10

Building up a noun group to describe Cook’s character

When describing the physical features of natives as part of their own episode, the students drew on the model provided of Captain Cook. They collected descriptive words from a variety of source materials related to their episode and wove them into expanded noun groups.
Fig. 11

The functions of each part of the noun group and their potential grammatical realizations

We saw …
Fig. 12

Student’s noun group describing local fauna (based on model)

We found …
Fig. 13

Student’s noun group describing local flora (based on model)

They later discussed when the choice of a short, punchy noun group was more effective than a long, rambling one.

Representing the Participants: Adjective Groups

The teacher also drew the students’ attention to adjective groups as another resource for description. Rather than having a noun as the head word, adjective groups have an adjective as the head.

She demonstrated that these typically occur in the context of a relational Process clause, where verbs such as “be” relate the thing being described to its description.
Table 3

Relational Process clauses linking the thing being described to its description

Thing being described

Relational Process


Their skin


delicately smooth

Their bodies


quite large

The natives


active to a high degree

The inhabitants


as modest in their behavior as the most polite nations in Europe

Their features


rather pleasing

Representing Processes

Beyond the descriptive resources of the noun group and adjective group, the teacher demonstrated how a reader comes to know human Participants by what they do. Here the teacher referred to the English syllabus indicator that requires that students understand that verbs represent different processes, for example, doing, thinking, saying, and relating and that these processes are anchored in time through tense.

We know Captain Cook, for example, as a worthy man who spent the years on board engaging in material Processes (“action verbs”): teaching, instructing, disciplining, admonishing and inspiring men on deck, or mapping, researching, and recording down in the Great Cabin.

Apart from representing activities in the material world, authors often choose to draw the reader into the inner world of the Participants by portraying what they are perceiving, feeling, knowing, or desiring (mental Processes or “sensing verbs”).

In Captain Cook’s Apprentice (Hill 2008), the reader empathizes with Isaac as he sees and hears and knows and feels the panic of his ferry trip on the Thames:

The boy knew danger was coming.
He could hear it, sitting at the prow of his ferryboat on the broad River Thames ...
He could feel it, for the boat began to kick and strain as it caught the edges of the rip …
And then he could see it. A white foaming cascade as the water swirled through the arches …
And the boy Isaac knew what he would do.
Isaac could hear the roar of water as it fell into the whirlpool below …
Isaac noticed the ferryman had shipped his oars for safety …
He saw the pointed ribs of the old bridge …
All at once he felt himself tipped backwards and forwards …
He felt half-drowned …
He hoped he’d be a good sailor …
He wished he’d had second thoughts …
He wished to his gut he had never wanted to go to sea …

The students compared this account of the departure with a similar one from the novel Stowaway (Hesse 2000), noting again how the sensing verbs provide an insight into the thoughts and feelings of the young stowaway:

I thought it could never be so noisy on a ship.
I half wish Father would come aboard and take me home.
I wish I could just shut my eyes and sleep.
I cannot see from my hiding place but I heard the cry.
I like all animals, but birds are my favourites.
My back burned, remembering the bite of his whip.
I don’t wish a quick end to our voyage. In fact, I’d like to go on a very long time.
I’ve wondered how John Charlton knew so much about the Captain.
I want only to sleep.

Here again, an interpersonal lens can be brought to the reading, in accordance with the History syllabus emphasis on perspective and empathy. The students discussed the different effects of the third person point of view in Captain Cook’s Apprentice versus the use of first person in Stowaway and contrasted Cook’s detached observations with the emotional engagement of the novels.

When the students were writing up their episodes, they were encouraged to think about how to engage the reader through their use of interpersonal resources that brought the characters to life and allowed us to experience the voyage through their eyes.

The reader also gets to know the Participants by observing how they interact with others. In the following snatches of dialogue from Stowaway, for example, we get very different impressions of Banks, Isaac, and Nick by noting what they say along with how it is said (the choice of verbal Process/“saying verb”):

‘It’s too bad,’ Banks fumed. … ‘It will not do, Sir!’
‘Can’t we have some fun?’ pleaded Isaac.
‘We shouldn’t risk it,’ Isaac cautioned.
‘I’m truly sorry, sir,’ stuttered Isaac.
‘Oh, he still don’t know nuffing much yet,’ teased Nick.

The students read aloud such snippets of dialogue in character, voicing the words as indicated by the “saying verb” ( fumed, teased).

In developing their episodes, the students were asked to consider whether to include dialogue, and if so, what might it contribute to the reader’s understanding of the characters.


Over the years, the most familiar pedagogic grammars have been those concerned primarily with identifying grammatical structures and rules, typically taught as decontextualized, sentence-level exercises. And this is a perfectly reasonable endeavor, particularly in the case of learners in EFL contexts where such exercises can provide intensive practice and exposure to several examples of a structure. There is a legitimate argument for the production of accurate, intelligible sentences and the employment of a basic shared metalanguage to refer to grammatical items. A contemporary model of language needs to do much more than this, however, if it is to meet the communicative needs of today’s learners.

Most meaning-oriented grammars are sufficiently flexible to accommodate shifts in emphasis between a focus on meaning and a focus on form as appropriate. They can handle both control and creativity (Macken-Horarik et al. 2018). Beyond a knowledge of syntax as an end in itself, a meaning-oriented pedagogic grammar asks “what do my students need to be able to do with language in this context?” It will provide resources for students:
  • To reason about the world; to build knowledge of academic, social, and vocational fields; and to represent different aspects of experience – from the everyday through to the technical and abstract (i.e., field knowledge)

  • To interact effectively with a range of audiences, knowing how and when to engage, distance, align, hedge, negotiate, share feelings, express opinions, and make judgments (i.e., tenor resources)

  • To shape texts that hang together well, employing the distinctive patterns of spoken, written, and visual modes and their combinations, in a variety of media (i.e., mode variations)

In terms of pedagogy, the point of departure is the construal of meaning. Meaning-making is seen as a social process embedded in a particular context relevant to the learners’ needs. Grammar and content are fused. The teacher selects and sequences grammatical features depending on the task, the focus text, the syllabus, and the learners’ needs.

Different levels of scaffolding are provided so that all students can use their knowledge of language to meet the literacy challenges of the curriculum:
  • Comprehending complex texts

  • Appreciating the choices that authors make

  • Critically analyzing the impact of such choices

  • Consciously employing similar choices in their own use of language

  • Creatively innovating on model texts

  • Manipulating syntax to create certain effects

  • Explaining and justifying their own choices

In implementing a meaning-oriented pedagogic grammar, however, there are a number of issues to be considered.

Is explicit teaching useful? It could be argued that much of the learning illustrated in the above unit of instruction could happen without the explicit teaching of grammar. Evidence is gathering, however, that given a meaning-oriented model of language and meaning-oriented pedagogical practices, a knowledge of how language works and a shared metalanguage can enhance students’ literacy, foster deeper content learning, and contribute to increased student participation and interest (Brisk 2015; Hammond 2016; Hodgson-Drysdale 2013; Macken-Horarik et al. 2015; Moore and Schleppegrell 2014; Myhill 2005; de Oliveira 2015).

How much grammar? The aim of grammar teaching is not necessarily to create apprentice linguists, but to provide learners with tools sufficient to successfully undertake a particular task. Ideally, these tools would accumulate over time, extending and deepening students’ repertoires. Weaver (1996) suggests that we teach a minimum of grammar for maximum benefits. Similarly, Macken-Horarik et al. (2018) recommend a “good enough” grammar – the knowledge about language that really makes a difference to students’ literacy outcomes. Swan (2006) cautions that failure to prioritize can cause valuable time to be wasted on relatively unimportant grammar points. Before including a particular grammatical feature, teachers might ask “Why would I teach this? How will it benefit the students?”

Terminology? Myhill (n.d.) notes that it is possible to draw students’ attention to grammatical features without using grammatical terminology by providing opportunities to play with patterns and structures. She points out, however, that using grammatical terminology makes visible what writers do – as long as the terminology itself doesn’t become the focus. Using terms to indicate the function and/or the form gives students something concrete to hold onto and provides a shared metalanguage that students can use when discussing texts. Schleppegrell (2013) concurs that the focus should be on using a meaning-focused metalanguage to help students participate in curriculum tasks and make effective discursive choices.

How confident is the teacher? Studies over the past several decades have revealed a concerning lack of teacher declarative knowledge of even basic traditional grammatical items, let alone the more complex grammar typical of authentic texts (Andrews 1999; Myhill et al. 2013). It is understandable that many teachers feel unprepared to teach grammar and resort to relying heavily on course books. Working with a meaning-oriented pedagogic grammar puts even greater pressure on teachers’ ability to identify the language challenges facing their students and design appropriate programs to support them in meeting these challenges.

What about different contexts? The learning sequence described above was targeted at relatively proficient ESL students in an Australian context. However, many of the pedagogical principles (as indicated throughout the description of the unit) could be readily modified and applied to the teaching of grammar to less proficient students. EFL students, for example, could still be introduced to grammatical concepts with an initial focus on meaning and function but might need greater emphasis on grammatical form with more opportunities for intensive practice. If working in contexts with constraints in terms of a restrictive syllabus or time available, the teacher would not need to work systematically through the teaching-and-learning cycle but could still profitably include such scaffolding activities as deconstructing a mentor text or jointly constructing a collaborative text.

It is nevertheless heartening to observe the advances made over the past few decades in realizing the potential of meaning-oriented pedagogic grammars, particularly in regions such as Australia, England, the USA, Scandinavia, South America, and parts of Southeast Asia, where the EFL and L1/ESL communities are drawing closer together and learning from each other while often starting from slightly different places with different constraints. Considerable research effort is going into investigating the linguistic demands of a wide range of contexts and discipline areas from elementary through to tertiary levels. Resources are being developed, professional learning opportunities are being made available, and evidence is being collected of the impact on learners of interventions. Indications are that a more relevant pedagogic grammar for today’s classrooms is in the process of becoming realized.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Social SciencesUniversity of WollongongWollongongAustralia

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