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August 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Humanizing Grammar Teaching in Indonesia

David Wijaya is currently doing his PhD at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. His research interests revolve around cognitive linguistics, cross linguistic influence, linguistic relativity, second language acquisition, and language teaching methodology. His research has been published in the Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics and the Journal of AsiaTEFL.

Jovita Gianina is a teacher at The British Institute Jakarta. She graduated from Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia majoring in English for Education. Her research interests include grammar teaching, language learning strategies, language acquisition, and cognitive linguistics.



Grammar teaching, especially in Indonesia, is mainly focused on structural pattern drilling and rule learning. Despite being teachers’ default teaching strategies, they are not very enjoyable to do. Furthermore, focusing on structural patterns and rules is not compatible with how we learn languages. Usage-based theories to language learning propose that humans learn language through usage. The theories also posit that our bodily movements and our interactions with the physical world affect the ways we create meaning in language. We argue that grammar teaching based on these theories would enhance students’ experience and their learning outcomes. In this article, we present several teaching techniques that teachers can use to teach grammar. These techniques are not new, but we apply usage-based approaches to the techniques so that learners can understand the taught grammatical meanings better and internalize them. 



Few teachers now perhaps would believe that grammar teaching is not necessary, and many would agree that teachers should employ a range of techniques to teach grammar. Grammar teaching has been found to improve students’ proficiency, and scholars have developed and tested an array of teaching techniques that can best enhance students’ grammar learning. However, surveys have repeatedly shown that grammar teaching in the classroom is still traditional in the sense that it is focused on structural pattern drilling and rule learning. One reason for this persistence is that teachers often base their teaching practices on their experience as learners. Another reason might be that the techniques are not suitable for the aim of the lesson and/or the classroom situation.      

Besides the aforementioned surveys, our limited experience as ELT teachers working with our fellow ELT teachers in Indonesia has led us to agree with the surveys’ findings that grammar teaching has always been about pattern drilling and rule learning. Our experience has also confirmed two possible reasons. Teachers in Indonesian schools are often assigned to teach big classrooms, and the English curriculum puts heavy emphasis on building students’ English literacy though reading genres and doing communicative activities such as mini role plays, allowing teachers little time and space to experiment with grammar teaching techniques. Moreover, they are so accustomed to providing rules and pattern drilling exercises that these have been their default teaching strategies. Unfortunately, one survey showed that although teachers and students alike value rule learning and pattern drilling exercises, they do not really enjoy doing them (Jean & Simard, 2011). Another problem is that pattern drilling and rule learning may not be congruent with the ways human beings learn languages.    


Language learning

So, how do we learn languages? The first thing we believe few language teachers would take issue with is that language learning is usage-based. In other words, we learn language by using it. Another thing is that we use our physical body parts to make sense of our experiences in the physical and abstract world and use language to talk about those experiences. Indeed, grammar is the backbone of that language use; we use it to make meaning and convey that meaning; and we have at our disposal a range of modes to do these. We use our perceptions and link what we perceive to our mind to discern our surroundings and generate meaning. We also use gestures to further internalize meaning into our mind and convey it too. In short, our body works hand in hand with our mind to create meaning in language, and very often we rely on them to use language in daily communicative practices.


Grammar teaching

How might this knowledge about meaning making inform foreign and second language teachers’ pedagogical practices? We are certain that grammar teaching practices based on this understanding not only will help students to learn and internalize meaning of new grammatical forms into their knowledge but also increase their enjoyment in the learning process. In what follows, we wish to present some ideas that teachers can use to develop their teaching techniques. The following teaching ideas do not belong to us; rather, they belong to applied linguistics scholars who are keen on improving grammar teaching practices.


Total Physical Response (TPR)

Many teachers are already aware of TPR as a teaching technique but its use in grammar classrooms is probably still limited and under-explored. Therefore, we would like to give some examples of TPR activities to teach grammar. Developed by James Asher (1969), this technique focuses on improving students’ comprehension of the target grammatical form by having students perform actions that represent grammatical meaning. The meanings of modals, for instance, have been known to be difficult to understand. To teach them, we can use TPR as a viable alternative to telling our students the rules. For example, we know that the modal must has to do with outside force that cannot be resisted. So, when teaching this meaning, the teacher could have one student stand in front of the classroom, tell him that the teacher is going to push him from behind and he should move forward as he is being pushed. When teaching must not, the teacher could have another student push the door in the classroom but the teacher is behind it and pushing back. The pushing activity represents external force, and since the teacher herself who does the pushing, this will allow the students to infer that the force comes from an authority that cannot be resisted, which is a core meaning of the modal must. These techniques are proposed by Giovanelli (2015) to teach English as a first language in the UK. We believe that they are also applicable in English as a second language classrooms.


Visualization strategies

Many teachers perhaps already employ some visuals when teaching grammar. For example, when teaching tenses, ELT textbooks often provide static charts and timelines to help students understand the differences between past, present and future tenses. Such visual aids could be enhanced by the use of pictures, photos and video clips. For example, we know that present continuous refers to ongoing activities in the present time. Thus, the teacher could show a larger timeline on a PowerPoint slide with a picture of a car moving from the left to the right. As the car is at the point labelled as the present time on the timeline, the teacher tells the students that the car is moving. Another example is teaching the countable and uncountable distinction. The teacher could show a picture of a live chicken and tells students that it is a chicken, with an emphasis on the indefinite article. Then, the teacher shows a picture of chicken drumsticks and breast fillets, tells the students that it is chicken, and directs students’ attention to the use of zero articles to talk about uncountable nouns. The teacher, then, informs the students that countable nouns have clear shapes while uncountable nouns do not. To further internalize this knowledge, the teacher could have students draw images based on the teacher’s prompts. For instance, the teacher could say ‘water’, and the students have to draw water of any shape. Then the teacher says ‘a water’, and the students have to draw a glass of water.


Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT)

Many teachers are likely to have heard of TBLT, either during their pre-service teacher programs or continuing professional development courses. TBLT encourages students to make meaningful and contextual communication through the use of tasks typically appearing in real life. One task that does not require a lot of preparation is a text-editing task. The teacher could provide an erroneous version of a text and have students edit it for grammatical accuracy. For example, the teacher could provide the students with a text about a famous dish and contains information about its ingredients. The text should contain instances of nouns that do not appear in correct grammatical forms (e.g. the ingredients are bay leaf, garlics, a salt, and a pepper). The students then have to supply the correct form in the text.

Many scholars have argued that these three teaching ideas are not only useful but also engaging and motivating. Further, more evidence for them are being brought in to convince ELT practitioners to start adopting these ideas. However, some may argue that the descriptions of meanings found in most ELT grammar books accessible to teachers are still in the form of rules and exceptions. Thus, we would recommend reading Larsen-Freeman and Celce-Murcia’s (2016) The Grammar Book: Form, Meaning, and Use for English Language Teachers and Radden and Dirven’s (2007) Cognitive English Grammar. These books provide comprehensive information about the meanings of English grammatical forms and are written in language accessible to people who have little knowledge about linguistics.



In today’s era, teachers are demanded to be more creative in the ways they deliver lessons. To assist deeper understanding, teachers are also expected to incorporate into their lessons activities that push students to employ resources available to them. In foreign language learning, those resources should not be limited only to prescriptive rules and drilling exercises found in the textbook. Students should be empowered to take part in the meaning making process in the classroom. Thus, in line with notable scholars in the field of ELT such as Borg (2010), Larsen-Freeman (2015), and Tyler (2012), we encourage teachers to think differently about language teaching, experiment with these ideas in the classrooms, and share their experience and views on these ideas. In so doing, we will humanize our grammar teaching, make the learning process more enjoyable and meaningful, and help our students improve their grammatical accuracy.     



Asher, J. J. (1969). The Total Physical Response approach to second language learning. Modern Language Journal, 53(1), 3–17.

Giovanelli, M. (2015). Teaching grammar, structure, and meaning Exploring theory and practice for post-16 English Language teachers. New York: Routledge.

Jean, G. & D. Simard (2011). Grammar learning in English and French L2: Students’ and teachers’ beliefs and perceptions. Foreign Language Annals 44(4), 465–492.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2015). Research into practice: Grammar learning and teaching. Language Teaching, 48(2), 263-280.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Celce-Murcia, M. (2016). The grammar book: Form, meaning, and use for English language teachers. Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning.

Radden, G. & Dirvern, R. (2007). Cognitive English Grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub.

Tyler, A. (2012). Cognitive Linguistics and second language learning: Theoretical basics and experimental evidence. New York: Routledge.


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Tagged  Voices 
  • The Irreplaceable Teachers’ Roles
    Synthia Santoso, Indonesia

  • Memorization is Important for Academic Achievement
    Siusana Kweldju, Indonesia

  • Humanizing Grammar Teaching in Indonesia
    Jovita Gianina, Indonesia;David Wijaya, Indonesia