Teach Grammar as a Concept in Context

How to approach grammar in language instruction

Grammar Header

Grammar should be addressed within meaningful communicative contexts as one element of language proficiency.


Grammar should be addressed within meaningful communicative contexts as one element of language proficiency. Instead of focusing on grammar rules and diagramming sentences, teachers should guide students towards an understanding of how grammar functions. Students learn how to use the form rather than memorized conjugations that may not be applicable across contexts.


Grammar is an important element of communication, but research shows that explicit teaching of grammar has little effect on people’s language acquisition, comprehension, or writing abilities. Traditional approaches to grammar instruction that emphasize direct grammar instruction often encourage memorized, rehearsed use of language. Additionally, many methods do not require students to understand meaning in an authentic context, i.e., how grammar is actually used in communication. Thinking of grammar in terms of concepts, that is, what is the purpose of using a specific form, what is the meaning expressed through that form, will broaden learners’ understanding and use of the target language.

Research on human memory tells us that language acquisition is dependent upon two kinds of long-term memory: procedural and declarative. Procedural memory shows what a learner acquires naturally with automatic processing, through repetition and practice, as evidenced by the learning of one’s native language. Declarative memory is recollection of facts and information that a learner has acquired and stored explicitly. In order to be most effective, it is important that language development is stored in both memory systems; learners should be expected to learn grammar implicitly through target language use and explicitly through the discovery of grammatical rules through use in meaningful examples.


Instruction should be in the target language using lessons that have functional goals and objectives.

  • During these task-based lessons, when there is a need to address a gap in knowledge in order for communication to occur, learners should explicitly explore grammatical forms guided by their teacher.
  • By searching for the correct form in an effort to speak, listen, read, or write effectively, a learner has a spontaneous need for a grammatical structure and is highly motivated to use the grammar in context immediately.

This exploration, discovery, and use of grammatical concepts leads to greater understanding of the function of language and therefore leads to increased communication.

Find Out More:

Adair-Hauck, B. (1993). A descriptive analysis of a whole language/guided participatory versus explicit teaching strategies in foreign language instruction. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Pittsburgh, PA.

Adair-Hauck, B., & Donato, R. (2002). The PACE model: A story-based approach to meaning and form for standards-based language learning. The French Review. 76, 265-296.

Davin, K., & Donato, R. (2013) Student collaboration and teacher‐directed classroom dynamic assessment: A complementary pairing. Foreign Language Annals, 46(1), 5-22.

Ellis, R. (2002). The place of grammar instruction in the second/foreign language curriculum. New perspectives on grammar teaching in second language classrooms, 17-34.

Glisan, E. (2015). Core Practices Webinars. Alexandria, VA: ACTFL. Access the course here.

Krashen, S. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Leow, R. P. (2009). Input enhancement and L2 grammatical development: What the research reveals. Conceptions of L2 grammar: Theoretical approaches and their application in the L2 classroom, 16-34.

Paradis, M. (2009) Declarative and procedural determinants of second languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

VanPatten, B. (1996). Input processing and grammar instruction in second language acquisition. Greenwood Publishing Group.

VanPatten, B., & Cadierno, T. (1993). Input processing and second language acquisition: A role for instruction. The Modern Language Journal, 77(1), 45-57.

Learn More About Guiding Principles

Language learning should be a central part of any curriculum. Here's why:

Opening Statement
Opening Statement

ACTFL is committed to providing vision, leadership, and support for quality teaching and learning to prepare the next generation of global citizens.

Benefits of Language Learning

We believe that all students should learn or maintain at least one world language in addition to English. Therefore, language learning should be a central part of any curriculum.

Literacy in Language Learning

Contemporary definitions of literacy include more than basic reading, writing, listening, and speaking, adding the purposeful uses of these skills in today’s media- and information-rich environment.

Articulating Sequences
Articulated Sequences in Language Learning

In order for learners to achieve the highest level of proficiency possible, sequential study over extended periods of time is necessary.

Backwards Design
Plan with Backward Design

Backward design is one of the core practices for effective language instruction that relies on thinking purposefully about teaching and learning.

Use of Target Language
Facilitate Target Language Use

The use of target language refers to all that learners say, read, hear, write, and view – production and reception of language on the part of learners, educators, and materials.

Authentic Texts
Use Authentic Text

Interactive reading and listening comprehension tasks should be designed and carried out using authentic cultural texts of various kinds with appropriate scaffolding and follow-up tasks that promote interpretation.

Communicative Tasks
Design Communicative Tasks

Oral interpersonal communication tasks engage students for the purpose of exchanging information and ideas, meeting one’s needs, and expressing and supporting opinions through speaking and listening or signing with others.

Critical Role of Feedback
Provide Effective Feedback

The role of feedback for learners is critical in advancing language proficiency. Feedback should be provided in multiple forms including formative, summative and self-assessment.