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Humanising Language Teaching
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Humanising Language Teaching

For more on the subject by Simon Mumford see: Using Metaphor to Teach Grammar. Humanising Language Teaching May 2005

Making Grammar Memorable

Simon Mumford, Turkey

Simon Mumford teaches at the Izmir University of Economics, Turkey, where he also works in the Academic Writing Centre. He enjoys designing language learning activities, and has been working with creative thinking for several years. E-mail:


Connecting language, creating contexts
Personalising grammar
Creating grammatical mnemonics
Metaphors as mnemonics
Combining logical and creative thinking


The role of memory is language learning is paramount, and Thornbury (2006:26) points out grammar presentations which are not retained by the students will not be effective. In fact, ideally, any information given by teachers, or activity performed by students should have something to make it memorable.

I would like to suggest two broadly different ways to make grammar more memorable for students. The first is by enabling the practise of language items in contexts that clearly illustrate their meanings and by asking learners to choose between items to reflect personal attitutes and expectations. The second way is to use mnemonics, devices which are designed to aid memory, ranging from poems, rhymes, puns and other word play, and including metaphor.

A major theme related to this division between the creation of contexts on the one hand, and playing with language on the other are two different ways of thinking. The first, logical thinking is relevant when relating grammatical structures to contexts and to other structures, finding or creating language connections. The second, creative thinking, takes a wider view, and makes a deliberate attempt to find different, unusual and innovative ways of making language memorable. I will suggest that both these different but often complementary ways of thinking are useful when generating new ideas for teaching. After looking at how each way of thinking can help in developing ideas, I make some suggestions as to how the two can be combined.

Connecting language, creating contexts

Thinking logically about language often means considering the purpose of a language item and its relation to other structures, in order to create a context for learning/practise. This can include using information given in grammar texts, but also our own observations of how language ‘behaves’, the intentions of speakers when they use specific structures, and the meaning of structures in relation to each other. The following three dialogues give some examples: When practising First and Second Conditionals, we can exploit the fact that an action is seen as either a real possibility or unlikely, using a dialogue:

S 1: If we get married, we’ll be so happy!
S 2: Yes, but how would we live if we got married?
S 1: We’ll find something. We’ll be the most beautiful couple!
S 2: If we did, where would we live?
S 1: We’ll live with my brother.
S 2: He wouldn’t want us!

In this case S1 uses First Conditional to show he thinks something should and will happen, and S2 uses Second because she believes it should not. This draws attention to the different implications of the two tenses, and can be further practised by giving students a situation, asking them to consider positive and negative aspects and create a parallel roleplay/dialogue.

A dissatisfied customer and used-car salesman arguing about a recent sale provides a context for practising Past Simple and Continuous:

Customer: You said it did 12 kilometres per litre.
Salesman: It was doing 12 kilometres per litre when I had it!
C: You said the brakes worked.
S: They were working when I tried them.
C: And you said the oil didn’t leak.
S: It wasn’t leaking last week!
C: It did 170 kph, you told me.
S: No, I actually said it was doing 170 kph when the last owner had it.

The salesman uses the Continuous to protect himself by refering to a situation that was temporarily in progress at the time of the sale, in other words, he was not claiming that it was a permanent feature of the car.

When contrasting Past and Present Perfect, we can describe the latter as the vague tense, since there is no need to commit to specific times. A detective examining a suspect provides a situation where vagueness suits one but not the other, as the suspect tries to avoid giving the specific information the detective wants:

Detective: Where have you been this week?
Suspect: London.
D: Where exactly did you go?
S: I’ve been to lots of places, stayed with a friends.
D: Who did you stay with?
S: I’ve stayed with several different people.
D: OK, who was the last?
S: Well, I’ve just come back from John Smith’s in North London.
D: Did you buy a new car there?
S: Well, in fact I have bought several cars recently.
D: Oh yes? Where did you get them from?
S: I’ve bought them from various people I know in the trade.

These dialogues all focus on a conflict of interests between the speakers, making the dialogues dramatic and thus memorable. They can be practised, extended, and used as models for students’ own dialogues or conversations.

We can also contrast other pieces of language. Any, some/a, and the can be related in terms of definiteness: any is less definite in questions because there is no expectation that the answer will be positive, unlike some, which suggests a positive answer is anticipated (Carter and McCarthy 2006: 367). Thus, we can construct a game: Student 1 has to find out what is in Student 2’s picture, using Yes/No questions only.

S 1: Are there any animals?
S 2: Yes.
S 1: Is there a dog/some dogs?
S 2: Yes.
S 1: Is the dog/Are the dogs brown?
S2: No.
S1: Black ?
S2: Yes.

Any is appropriate for the first question because Student 1 has no idea what is in the picture, and so he uses animal, a noun covering a class of other nouns. In the second question Student 1 uses a/some, because dog is a common member of the class animal, and there is a reasonable expectation of a positive answer. Finally, having established that the picture contains at least one dog, Student 1 uses the definite article. This process could be made more game-like by setting a target of three adjective+noun phrases (eg a black dog, a red flower and a young man) to be found within a limited time or number of questions.

Personalising grammar

Language items have meaning in relation to others and there is good reason for selecting one form rather than another. This can be exploited in drills; in the following, students choose between (not) going to or will/won’t:

T: Eat out this weekend.
S1: (who has planned to eat out this weekend) I’m going to eat out this weekend.
S2: (who has not, but has been inspired to by the suggestion) I’ll eat out this weekend.
S3: (who is definitely not) I’m not going to eat out this weekend.
S4: (who is undecided) I probably won’t eat out this weekend.

Students decide for themselves which is the correct form, based on their own plans, bringing a note of realism into the drill. A similar drill could be constructed for the First and Second Conditional.

T: Go abroad this year...
S1: If I go abroad this year, I will probably go to England.
S2: If I went abroad year, my bank manager would be very angry!

Again, students select language to show their own attitude; S1 sees it as a real possibility, S2 as possible but extremely unlikely.

Information about language from corpus-based grammars can be incorporated into personalised grammar practise. In selecting the Present Perfect, ‘the speaker chooses to mark the event as relevant to now’ (Carter and McCarthy 2006:616), therefore, I have seen the latest Harry Potter film implies the speaker is still being affected by it, whereas I saw the latest Harry Potter film suggests that any effects have disappeared and that it has perhaps been forgotten. Thus, students can show their attitudes:

T: You know the latest (James Bond film)...
S1: (positive attitude) Yes, I’ve seen it (and I still remember enjoying it.)
S2: (indifferent attitude) Yes, I saw it (but I’m not thinking about it any more.)

This distinction between the use of the tenses is certainly one that would be memorable for students because it involves their personal preferences.

The ‘relevant now’ factor could be connected with the pronouns this/these and that/those, which can convey not only physical distance, but also emotional distance according to Carter and McCarthy (2006:370). They note that That/those is more detached (and therefore presumably less favourable) and this/these is more involved. Students can create dialogues or conversations where each implies an attitude to an object not physically present:

S1: You know this/that new Renault.. . (depending on how they feel about it)
S2: Yes, I’ve seen it/I saw it... (depending on the effect it had)

As already noted above, the use of some or any in questions depends on the speakers expectation of the answer, with some suggesting that the speaker expects a positive answer (Carter and McCarthy 2006:367). Therefore, we can encourage students to decide which form to use based on their expectations when questioning classmates, giving a new twist to the Find someone who... activity:

S1: (To teenager) Have you got any cassettes?
S2: No, of course not!
S1: (To older person) Have you got some cassettes?
S3: Yes, I have.

Creating grammatical mnemonics

Mnemonics, a general term refering to any technique that helps people remember information, are used in many different educational fields, including science, history, music and geography (Hobbs). Regarding Language Teaching, however, the lack of published material on grammatical mnemonics seems remarkable, considering the amount of information to be remembered, and the potential benefits of these techniques.

Russell (1997:124) describes the factors that can be exploited in mnemonics as ‘uniqueness, exaggeration, the senses, simplicity, interactivity, creativity, vulgarness and involvement’. While few teachers are in a position to be vulgar, all are able to create visual images, and exploit interactivity between grammar and linguistic features including sounds and spelling of words, as well as non-verbal communication.

In devising mnemomics, creative thinking is useful since there is a need to get a different perspective on language. ‘Creative thinking’ in its broadest sense should not be confused with any one particular technique, but covers any method that leads to innovation, including giving old ideas a new lease of life, and combining existing ideas to produce new ones (Harris). The following section is in three parts, describing, firstly, short mnemonics for individual grammar points, secondly, a way of remembering example sentences and metalanguage terms, and finally, a three verse Limerick.

i. Short mnemonics for specific grammar points

  • The form of a structure itself can act as a mnemonic. The difference between stop doing something and stop to do something can be illustrated as follows: doing is one word, to do is two words; stop doing means finish one action, stop to do means stop one action and start a second.
  • Puns can be the basis for mnemonics, and double meanings can be connected in a sentence, for example: One Sat(urday), red Rose drove through the new court, and took the left road. This reminds students of (the pronunciation of) the irregular past forms of win, sit, read, rise, drive, throw, know, catch, take, leave and ride.
  • No/any/some/ every/body takes a third person singular verb, eg Everybody knows. Knows sounds like nose, which is part of the body.
  • Sounds can act as a mnemonic for meaning when contrasting the Simple and Continuous of regular Past and Present Perfect forms. The -ing sound can be extended, as in He was/ has been playinggggggggg, and is associated with duration /continuation. Simple forms end in –ed, a plosive sound which is impossible to lengthen, suggesting completion.
  • Alliteration can be used. When we were waiting for water, Ian interrupted an interesting insect contrasts Past Simple and Continuous. The repeated w draws attention to the occurence of this letter in when/while and was/were, both features of this structure. The repeated i represents the interrupting action. In time lines, the Continuous is often represented as a wavy line interrupted by a single straight line representing the Simple, therefore the w represents the Past Continuous, and the i words the Simple:

ii. Remembering sentence patterns and metalanguage meanings.

Mnemonics can help students remember sentences exemplifying particular structures. In the following, the first letters of each word in the sentence make a word themselves. Drill the sentences, then clean the board, leaving the first letters of each word as cues for students to remember. Later, if students can spell the words, it will help them to remember the sentences, and vice versa.

HYENAS: Have you ever noticed anything suspicious? (present perfect question)
ILLNESS: I like living near East Street Station (like + gerund)
CITIES: Could I take it easy, Sir? (polite request)
MIGHT: May I go home tomorrow? (polite request)
MISTY JAM: May I speak to you just a minute? (polite request)
DYES: Do you eat sausage? (Present simple question)
WATCH: Why are they calling him? (Present continuous question)
HIMALAYAS: He is meeting a lecturer at your aunt’s school. (Present continuous)
LAYOUTS: Listen, are your officers used to singing? (be used to question)
HISTORY: He is starting to operate real yachts. (start + infinitive)
HUTCH: He used to clean houses (used to)

The very unnaturalness and inauthenticy of some of these sentences arguably make them memorable. If we insist students use only ‘authentic’ language, we may in fact be doing them a disservice, since authentic language, because of its everyday nature, is not usually particularly notable (Cook 2000:197).

In a similar way, linguistic metalanguage terms can become acronyms describing their functions or rules of use.

STATIVE -Simple Tense Acts, Take –Ing Very Exceptionally.
GERUND- Goes Everywhere Real, Usual Noun Does.
ARTICLES- ‘A’ Reads ‘The’ In CLearly Established Situations.
PERFECT- Past Experience Reaches Forward, Effects Continue Today.
PRONouns- Pronouns Replace Other Nouns.
TAG questions- Take A Guess questions (since you already have an idea of the answer).

iii. A Limerick.

Limericks are used to practise rhythm and stress, but their content is usually not particularly useful to students. However, a Limerick’s rhyme and strong rhythm can be used to focus on the content. The following Limerick explains the three types of Conditional, giving information on both form and use, as well as examples:

English conditional tenses are three,
The first is a real possibility.
It’s ‘if’ plus will,
For example: ‘you’ll be ill,
If you eat too much’, you see.

Next comes the second conditional,
Which is imaginary, unlikely, unreal,
It’s ‘If’ plus past and ‘would’
A sentence like this is good:
‘If I were poor and hungry, I’d steal’

The third conditional comes last,
For an unreal situation in the past,
‘If I’d had a car
Doing 200 miles an hour
I would have been out of there that fast!’

Metaphors as mnemonics

Metaphors can create a new and potentially more engaging way of thinking about of grammar (Mumford 2005). Metaphors relate abstract grammatical concepts to real word objects and processes, and so act as mnemonics.

  • Have something done: a double-edged sword
    Some students like to learn proverbs and sayings, which are types of metaphor. The structure to have something done could be described as a double-edged sword because it can mean asking someone to do something for you: I had my car cleaned, or it can be someone else doing something, usually unwanted, to you: I had my car stolen. This saying can help more advanced students understand and remember the two contrasting uses of this structure.
  • As ... as and scales
    The structure as (good) as is well-balanced, with as either side of the adjective, and of course it shows an equal comparison, and so can be represented as a pair of scales. Putting not in front of the first as upsets the balance.

    as ____ good_____ as
  • do as a question mark
    In the question Do you like football?, do cannot be said to mean anything in itself. Its role is a kind of lexical question mark, showing the interrogative form. Some languages have an upside-down question mark at the beginning of questions. In fact, do, when not capitalised, has similarities with an upside-down question mark (the mark is the d, the dot is the o)
  • Arrows and active and passive adjectives
    When illustrating active and passive adjectives, arrows are often used, for example The programme was interesting, the man was interested can be shown diagrammatically:
  • the programme, interesting → the man, interested
    The arrow is a concrete symbol of an abstract relation. Think of an actual arrow, flying from the programme and hitting the man, and the sound an arrow makes; the ing sounds like the arrow being released, ping! The –ed sounds like the thud! of the arrow hitting its target. Thus, sound, form and meaning combine to create a memorable image.

Combining logical and creative thinking

I have suggested two ways to make grammar memorable. First, thinking about specific language items and their interrelationships can help us create contexts that are memorable because they can be dramatised, contain an element of conflict, or may also reflect personal preferences. This can be loosely described as a rational or logical thinking.

The second is more creative. When constructing mnemonics, we take a different approach in making connections between language items, and other language and other concepts. In this sense we seem to do the exact opposite to logical thinking. We deliberately look for ways of taking language out of context, perhaps making it inauthentic, to produce memorable images. This need for a more playful use of language in teaching, including rhyme, alliteration, puns, poems, and metaphor has been recognised (Cook, 2000).

Although seemingly opposite, logical and creative thinking can, in fact, be seen as two complementary ways of arriving at new ideas. The distinction is perhaps somewhat artificial; many activities described above actually contain elements of both. As these further examples show, it is often the combination of logic, in the form of serious grammatical analysis, with an element of play and randomness, that leads to the creation of interesting and striking activities.

  • the structure used to, which contrasts two states, past and present, can be matched with comparatives, eg I used to be fitter (than I am now) . This appeals to our logical side. However, from a more creative and playful perspective, we notice that used to and fitter sound similar in normal speech since they both contain /t / followed by schwa. This could make a memorable drill: He used to be fitter/madder/sadder/odder. Going a step further, we can create a rhyme: Mister Foster used to be faster.
  • The word I’ll is used for offers, which often occur in service situations. I’ll sounds exactly like Aisle. Aisles also are found in many service situations- supermarkets, cinemas, planes, and coaches. We could use one of these situations to practise offers, eg a steward offering drinks, food, blankets and newspapers to passengers on a plane. Logic tells us to teach I’ll in service situations. Creativity shows us how to find a situation and practice the pronunciation at the same time.
  • If only is used for regrets, so it seems logical to teach it while sighing. A creative suggestion is to make the words themselves into a sigh by lengthening and stressing if and the first syllable of only: Ifffffffffffff OOOOOOhhhhhhhhnly (I were richer!).

I believe that concentrating only on one type of thinking is limiting, as creativity for its own sake, detached from logic, can cause confusion. However, a purely rational approach, denying the need for looking at language in innovative ways, may mean missed opportunities.

A knowledge of grammar is at the heart of language teaching and learning. Teachers and material designers need a detailed knowledge of how language items are used, and this is becoming easier with corpora. I believe we also need to think about language ourselves, and make connections, both those that already exist between items of language, and the ones that an open mind, creative thought and serendipity present to us.


Carter, R. and M. McCarthy (2006). Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press.

Cook, G. (2000) Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford University Press

Harris, R. Introduction to Creative Thinking

Hobbs, P. Mnemonics

Mumford, S. (2005) Using Metaphor to Teach Grammar. Humanising Language Teaching

Russell, P. (1997). The Brain Book. Routledge

Thornbury, S. (2006) How to Teach Grammar. Longman


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Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

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