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Getting the mix right: teenagers and grammar by Wayne Rimmer

Many teachers treat teenagers and grammar like strong drinks: fine in moderation; dangerous in excessive quantities; potentially lethal if mixed. Indeed, it would be possible to form a support group for teachers recovering from harrowing experiences such as spending two weeks on auxiliaries only for the girl in the back row to repeat, ‘I no understand’. Above all, the rigour and academic discipline essential to grammar learning seem out of place with young learner methodologies and their stress on affect. However, teenagers need grammar. Communication simply will not happen without grammar. A communicative approach to teaching teenagers can and should incorporate grammar but, to return to the drinks metaphor, the mix must be right. To make the perfect cocktail you need to understand the nature of the separate components so that you can judge how best to combine them. Consequently, this article looks at features of grammar learning and teenage second-language acquisition which interact to influence a more successful teaching methodology.

Age group is a frequent variable in studies of language acquisition but the production of young, especially pre-literate, children and adults has been investigated much more thoroughly than that of teenagers. First-language acquisition is generally (see for example, Lust, 2006) considered to be complete by the time children start school in the sense that there exists a full inventory of grammatical forms and syntactical rules. Interest from researchers hence wanes at this point and studies of teenagers using their first language tend to concentrate on matters such as vocabulary, literacy and style rather than grammar per se. To illustrate, I presented data (Rimmer, 2008) of how secondary-school students in a UK comprehensive school used complex noun phrases to enhance their written style. The point was not that the teenagers could construct complex noun phrases, this was assumed, but that the choice of construction was motivated by communicative intent. In contrast, second-language acquisition has always derived most of its insights from studies of adult learners. For example, Pienemann’s (1998) influential model of syntactical development was exclusively based on university students. The research base quite clearly shows first and second-language acquisition to have different agendas: the former, young children; the latter, mature adults. Teenagers have fallen between the gap.

Why can’t teenagers learning a second language be considered as in a similar position to children learning their first? The advantage of being able to equate first and second-language acquisition would be that we could theorise on teenage grammatical development, and consequently pedagogy, using (the much more plentifully available) child-language data. Unfortunately, there are severe objections to making this comparison, the most important of which is the Critical Age (CA) hypothesis. Proponents of a CA argue that the language acquisition device which enables all children to learn their native language perfectly is only accessible to infants. After that, we have to learn a language through much less efficient routes and so the outcome is uncertain and often unsuccessful. There is too much variation to identify a precise CA, the cut-off point when children have no recourse to internal and instinctive language building mechanisms, but research (see for example, White, 2004) suggests that by the time children reach puberty they have passed the CA. In other words, teenagers are at a massive disadvantage in language learning compared to small children.

Teenagers are also in an unfavourable position to adults. The former are still developing cognitive and social strategies necessary for unlocking the intricacies of a new grammar. For example, teenagers may struggle understanding and using grammatical metalanguage; they can need more prompting to notice patterns and regularities; they might lack the motivation and industry essential to making input intake. Adults too can be deficient in these areas but they have a stronger base because they have simply had more practice, both linguistic and non-linguistic, in processing information and problem solving. Every adult has been a teenager and that experience, positive or negative, accumulates in a richer and more varied pool of knowledge, facts, and knowledge-getting tools, strategies.  

It can thus be concluded that teenagers occupy a theoretical hinterland. They are too old to enjoy the natural process of language acquisition and too young to apply the socio-cognitive strategies which adults use to compensate. What considerations for teaching grammar to teenagers can be safely drawn? The rest of the discussion is based on the research and preparation that has gone into Cambridge Active Grammar (Davis & Rimmer, 2011), a three-level pedagogic grammar designed for teenagers. A sample unit from the first level is reproduced below.

Cambridge Active Grammar was written with the close consultation of an international team of reviewers working with teenagers in many different contexts: for example, language schools, state schools, assessment, curriculum design, policy making. This wide input ensured that the syllabus and content of the grammar is relevant to teenagers. The second main ingredient in the book is the Cambridge International Corpus, which contains both native-speaker and learner corpora. Every book nowadays claims to be corpus-based and there is frequently the suspicion that the corpus is a marketing gimmick. However, in writing a grammar, the corpus is the only valid alternative to intuition. Each language point was prioritised on two principles: first, its frequency in the native-speaker corpora; second, its vulnerability to error, as shown in the learner corpora. A pedagogic grammar needs to show learners rules that are truly representative and point out typical mistakes. This combination of expert consultation and corpus input makes Cambridge Active Grammar authoritative and of genuine value. It also resulted in the following considerations.

1. Grammar teaching should be explicit

The benefit of a focus on form approach, i.e. presenting grammar explicitly, is one of the most hotly-contested topics in second-language acquisition. The balance of evidence (see Ellis, 2006) suggests that focus on form is effective. Two factors covered above make explicit instruction even more relevant to teenagers. First, whether you subscribe to CA or not, it is clear that teenagers cannot internalise grammar without considerable assistance. Second, teenagers need to try harder than adults to work things out and see patterns. A major difference between first and second-language acquisition is time: the former is quite leisurely, after all it is a 24/7 experience, while the latter operates under severe time constraints. Basically, focus on form is much more efficient in a classroom context. 

There is almost a stigma attached to deductive presentations, as if they reduce learner autonomy and involvement. However, focus on form does not mean excessively teacher-centred or boring. Interesting and motivating texts, like the girl who lived in a tree in the sample page from Cambridge Active Grammar, will give context and engage teenagers. In this example, first it has that element of the wacky and unorthodox which teenagers react to. Second, it is a true story, so teenagers could follow up on it or find similar stories of people who did bizarre things. The grammar is flagged for learners in order to help them, not to take away their contribution to the lesson. Affect, a key criterion in teaching teenagers, in no way conflicts with explicit grammar teaching.  

2. Grammar needs to be relevant to teenagers’ wider needs

Teenagers are not learning English in a void. They are involved in formal school education as well as getting plenty of information about the world from other sources, whether the media, computer games or friends. This means that grammar teaching can tap into teenagers’ wider educational experience and use content to contextualise both presentation and practice. One of the more persuasive claims made for CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) is that it is artificial to separate language learning from other areas of the curriculum. CLIL has its critics – see my article (Rimmer, 2009) – but it would seem perfectly compatible with teenagers because they are at a stage when they are both hungry for and inundated with information. Teenagers are likely to be more receptive when they are learning something more than ‘just’ grammar. Cambridge Active Grammar is not a CLIL resource as such but it does use a range of topics and contexts deemed to be relevant and accessible to teenagers. Examples are Old English, urban legends, logic puzzles, the history of money and world heritage sites. The rationale is that if teenagers are interested in the topic, they will be interested in the grammar.

3. Practice, practice and more practice!

Again, teenagers are in an unfavourable position compared to young children and adults. For this reason, extensive practice is essential if they are to master the language point. Not even the staunchest proponent of PPP would believe that a grammatical item can be learned in the space of single lesson. The reality is that teenagers will need continual exposure to the target language over a long period of time with plenty of error correction and revision points. The problem is that teenagers may lack the patience and gumption to endure what seems like endless repetition. Apart from cracking the whip (never a bad thing with teenagers, by the way), teachers can offer a varied range of practice exercises to sustain interest. Possible dimensions of variation include oral / written; easy / difficult; context-free / context-dependent; short / long; fixed response / free response; done individually / done together.  In Cambridge Active Grammar we have tried hard, given the constraints of a printed book, to vary the type and level of practice activities in order to keep teenagers involved.

4. Grammatical development will not be homogenous

First-language learning invariably results in success. Alas, this is not always true in learning a second language. Even if you teach the same class the same things in a completely lock-step approach, learners will make more or less comparative progress. Individual differences between learners are probably accentuated in the teenage years because of variation in the socio-cognitive development touched on earlier. Thus, every teacher of teenagers will be concerned by mixed-ability classes. The standard solution is differentiation of tasks, giving stronger learners more to do. Material selection can help in this process: Cambridge Active Grammar thus orders the exercises from easier to more challenging so that the teacher knows which tasks to direct to specific learners. Mixed ability is a problem that is not going to disappear so you need to find a way of dealing with it.

After all this, you might be forgiven for thinking teaching grammar to teenagers is a hopeless task and either join the support group or down the cocktail I mentioned at the beginning. Certainly, despite the enthusiasm with which I have endorsed my own book, it is much more than a question of materials. There are two practical steps you can take to develop your teaching. The first is to become more informed about the characteristics of teenagers and their grammar resource, perhaps beginning with consulting some of the references which accompany this article. The second is to try things out in the classroom and see for yourself what works. You’ll know from that heady feeling when you’ve got that mix right; similarly, that hangover effect will tell you when it’s gone wrong. Eventually it won’t seem so forbidding. Teaching teenagers is an acquired taste but quite compulsive once you’ve begun.


Davis, F. & Rimmer, W. (2011). Cambridge Active Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge

            University Press

Ellis, R. (2006). Current issues in the teaching of grammar: an SLA perspective. TESOL    Quarterly, 40(1): 83-107.

Lust, B. (2006). Child language: acquisition and growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University         Press.

Pienemann, M. (1998). Language processing and second language development. Amsterdam:       John Benjamins.

Rimmer, W. (2008). Putting grammatical complexity in context. Literacy, 42(1), 29-35.

Rimmer, W. (2009). A closer look at CLIL. English Teaching Professional, 64, 4 – 6.

White, L. (2004). Second language acquisition and universal grammar. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press

Author’s Bio:
Wayne Rimmer is Director of Studies at BKC-International House Moscow.

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