by Andrew Weiler

June 27, 2012

Learning grammar without a grammar book!

In previous posts and articles, I have written about the need to get away from learning grammar rules and studying vocabulary as a way to improve the language you are studying. I have made a few suggestions about what can be done.  Here, in this post, I am going to talk about an example of a young Korean woman (YHK) I have worked with who made some phenomenal progress through reading more carefully than most language learners do.

There are various reasons why she has made such progress and so what I going to talk about here is not the whole picture BUT it will give you an insight into what has contributed, in no small way, to her progress.

I asked her to write down in her words how she goes about improving her English. She gave me the following summary describing one way she goes about improving her language:

“First, I read a lot, because personally, I think by reading a lot, I am actually getting ideas on how I use the words, and the verbs in the right way. Also when I read, I tried to break sentences into pieces. By doing so, I can get much more clears ideas what author is trying today. Also rather than just jumping into writing, I'd have a bit of time to think about definitions of the words. 

Here is an example, I go to a website of my choice, and find an article or thread that interests me, and repeatedly read them until I am 100% sure what the article is about. If there was a new word or new verb, I did not try to memorize them, rather I tried to understand why this particular word was used in the sentence. In grammar wise, I did not look at the books, I just looked at the grammars carefully.”

Clearly, she still has a way to go before she is error-free, but the difference in her level of writing now to what it was a few months back is enormous. Not only the grammar side of things but also her feel for the language.

When I saw her, I asked her to reflect if there is anything else she does apart from what she wrote. She then related that she also looked at the phrases in the sentence to see how they related to each other. Then she sa​id she has a very close look at how the first phrase of a sentence (or the sentence itself) related to the previous sentence and then examined how the last phrase or the whole sentence related to the next sentence.

She said she did this until she had no doubt in her mind at all about the meanings, relationships and the structures and forms used.  She went on to say that she doesn’t like learning grammar and usage through grammar books as she does not find them useful.

This kind of work may not appeal to everyone and indeed might not be the way some people find useful.  But it certainly does provide a perspective on ways to learn a language without using grammar books.

The other matter that is important to note here is that this young woman is learning English in Australia and she had made the necessary effort to have many opportunities to use English.  So whilst she did not say it, I would postulate that her speaking and listening is also helping her to make sense of and test what she is learning in her analysis of what she reads.

Have a go and see if you can start reading in a different way. In a way that has you notice the structures, etc of what you are reading. Then go the next step and see if you can compare what you read to what you normally would say. Why not then go and see if you can apply that to what you might say about a different situation, using what you have learned. This will help "cement" your learning into your normal speech.

Keep in mind of course that speaking ​can be different to the written form. That understanding you can also refine by doing what is suggested in this post. Only do it when you are attracted to do it. Forcing yourself will put you on the wrong path. We always learn best when our interest is doing the guiding.


About the author 

Andrew Weiler

Andrew is passionate about doing what is necessary to enable language learners to not only improve BUT to keep improving.

  • Andrew, It is very refreshing to hear this story. Thank you and your student for sharing it with us! It is also nice to know that my mantra, read, read, read, is what works. I respect textbooks, but only for ideas for the teacher to build upon. I have had students in the past who have insisted they work from textbooks. Being the facilitator that I am, I let her do it. (I almost wanted to use the plural pronoun, “them” instead of “her” 🙂 She was a Chinese student new to the U.S. and was very, no, extremely shy. She was very reluctant to speak aloud in class at all. I let her use the textbook as a way for her to lower her anxiety barrier about being in her new environment.

    After a few months of her working in her textbook, diligently mind you, she began to notice that her sister and brother, (all three in the same class of newcomers) were advancing much more quickly than she was. She is the oldest of the three and did not like that her siblings were out performing her so quickly.

    She asked me, “Why am I not learning like them?” I gently suggested that her brother and sister were reading more than she was because she was limiting herself to only textbook materials in class.

    Needless to say, she began partaking in class activities involved with reading articles, poetry, literature of all kinds. Now, she speaks fluently, has confidence, and has proven to be an exceptionally intelligent person. She ws even recommended to attend advanced English course in high school the very next year! In one short year, she was not only in regular English classes but in an advanced one, and she was successful in there, also.

    She is positive proof that reading is the fastest way to learn a new language. Now, I am living in China. Guess what I am doing during my evenings….reading children’s books in Chinese! I love it!

    Thank you again, for sharing your wonderful insights with all of us.

    Jeff Gerdes

    • That’s impressive, Jeff. Doubtlessly, reading is a shortcut to improve one’s language proficiency. I myself is an EFL teacher in middle schools in China.

      And I have to say, the most challenging part is how to get the learners ready into the state of reading English. I mean, there are basic requirements before the learners can really do reading on their own, say, fundamental vocabulary, interest in learning English, basic listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. Those are the great barriers lying ahead of most kids at school.

      One hand, they have difficulty in remembering new words, which is pretty will-challenging. And on the other, they don’t really own the language environment to practise using the language, which is crucial to language acquisition. Many kids at school spend a lot of time doing textbook reading, exercises, workbooks, grammar books. That panics. They are killing children’s enthusiasm in language learning. 🙁

      So my question is how to get learners into the English reading realm successfully.

      By the way, where do you stay in China? Perhaps we could work on it and do some research.

      Shine Huang,

      Quzhou, Zhejiang, China

  • A very interesting perspective, thank you. Might I ask: do you teach her over the Internet using a face-to-face program?

  • I am trying to learn the English language the same way for the last 10 years. I never spend my time deliberately to learn to speak or write english.I just kept my eyes and ears alert to observe and analyze , how, when and why a person spoke a particular word or a phrase. The same is true for learning English by reading books and articles. It’s a slow process, however, when you utilize words, phrases learnt that way, you are in comfort that whatever you have said or written has been tried and tested already. I have given a number of test online to gauge my language skills and scored high marks . On Cambridge website I gave 22 correct answers out of 25 and was suggest Cambridge Advance English course. Despite of it English language keeps challenging my wit with a new word and sentence everyday and keeps me on the track of a learner not learnt. I am South Asian and my native language is Urdu.

    • Interesting comment JR. Thank you for commenting. Interactions like this can help you as well as other readers.
      Sounds like you have done pretty well, but clearly you want to do better.
      Maybe you already do this, but eyes and ears can only get you so far. You need to speak. Speaking turbocharges your learning, especially if you are as attentive to what you say as you are to others!
      A lot of time people find this the most challenging, however it is an essential part of learning anything- implementing what you are learning.

  • […] Studying grammar, for example, may not prompt everyone to be watchful.  Being watchful whilst you are studying something changes the activity into something quite different. This is one reason why some people can learn the target language doing virtually anything with it, whilst someone else doing the same kinds of things gets nowhere. One is working with their awareness, whilst the other is busy doing activities but is not being attentive and hence is not really letting those activities impact who they are. […]

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