Here are two quotes I found while looking through an old notebook:

“I do it because I feel like if they’ve made a big deal of it, it must be important.”

“You never find mixed conditionals in First Certificate. It’s just not there. So I just ignore it.”

Now I’m afraid that I have no idea where those came from, but these aren’t things I personally wrote or believe, they’re quotes that I heard someone say, or that I read somewhere, possibly on Twitter, or as part of a research paper, or even heard in a training session somewhere. Apologies to those who said them (let me know if you want attribution or if you have something to add!).

I do think though, that the quotes illustrate the way that many people react to the grammar syllabus which still forms the basis of most, if not all, coursebooks that are out there in the world, and thus the basis of most lessons and courses; and I wonder whether this is a “good thing”?

It seems to me that no, it probably isn’t a good thing. There are many good things about coursebooks.

  • They provide structure to a course.
  • There is a very visible sense of “progression”, which may of course be a false sense of progression as it perhaps reinforces the idea that working through the material is progression itself, which isn’t necessarily the case.
  • Publishers and coursebook writers work hard to make sure that there is sufficient coverage within each book, to make sure that key langauge points, be they grammatical or lexical, are met and that learners are at least exposed to an appropriate breadth of target language for the level.
  • Coursebooks are designed to appeal to the widest possible cross-section of society in terms of age and experience, and so the topics they include mirror that and should be generally accessible to all.
  • Most coursebooks include a range of skills development work (or do they? A question for another time!)


The problem I have with a grammar syllabus is that it is by its nature, prescriptive and pre-determined and that it does not allow for the flexibility of human need or experience, and therefore when a grammar syllabus forms the basis of a coursebook, the coursebook also does not afford that flexibility.

Now the two quotes given above perhaps reflect an approach to teaching that is more materials led and less learner led, and so shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a criticism of the materials themselves per se, but they do reflect the difficulties of working with and adhering to a grammar syllabus. I think these difficulties are exacerbated when the choice of which books to use at which level and with which groups are made at a level above the teacher.

I do understand the practical constraints at play here. An experienced teacher will have a better idea of which books / syllabus work better at which levels than a new teacher. A school may have a positive and mutually benficial relationship with one publisher and not another. Many students want and expect a book to work with. Many teachers want and expect a book to work with.

To come back to our quotes again, a reductionist reading of them reveals two positions: (1) You need to do everything in the book. (2) You shouldn’t do anything that isn’t in the book. That to me is problematic because when the book becomes the syllabus, something gets lost along the way and I suspect that is often the students.

To take an example, one of my students in an Upper Intermediate class was having problems understanding the “preparatory IT” – as in “It is commonly thought that blah blah blah” or “It’s dark in here”. Despite trying to work through it with her, she wanted more explanation and practice exercises to try and understand it better. Now she’s in a B1+ level course, but this is not something I have seen in coursebooks very often, not even in B2 / First certificate courses, which is frankly bizarre given how important referencing devices are for the Part 6 reading tasks. I eventually found a very useful section in Longman / Pearson’s “Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced and Proficiency”, which she took away to look at.

So should I have just said – “You don’t need to worry about that now, you’ll look at that later”? I don’t think so, and I suspect most of you reading this would agree with me. Surely whole idea of language teaching is to meet the students at the point of need?

I try to do this and I am happy enough to digress for half a lesson or more onto something because one student has asked a question, though I do try to reign that in because one student doesn’t make a class, equally, I feel comfortable enough dropping bits of the book because while it might be interesting, I don’t feel it is useful. One of my personal pet peeves is random bits of language focus dropped onto a page for no other reason (that I can see) than to fill the space.

But then I had a conversation with a student the other day who had missed about a month of classes – a timetable conflict meant she had joined another class with lessons at different times. I asked her how she had got on. “Oh, it was great.” She said. “There weren’t many of us. We did everything. All the readings, all the grammar exercises, even the review sections.” Did she enjoy doing that, I asked, as someone who nearly never does that? “Yeah.” She replied. “It was nice.”

Perhaps the perception of progress is more important than actual progress after all…..