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October 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Explicit Grammar Knowledge Development in EFL Adult Learners

Diego Monasterio is a university teacher of EFL who holds a master's degree in English Applied Linguistics. His research focuses on exploring the role of metalinguistic analysis activities in adult EFL students as well as the role of L1 as a facilitator of automatization. Email:

William Godoy De La Rosa is teacher of EFL. He has written on corpus linguistics and material design. He is especially interested in crosslinguistic influence in SLA as well as formulaic language. Email:



This action-research study aimed at teaching grammar explicitly to adult students of EFL. The study focuses on implementing three steps to teach present simple and present continuous tense in activities such as group work analysis, pair work analysis, and individual work after the presentation stage. The results obtained from an oral evaluation and a focus group indicates that adult learners improved toward achieving oral mastery and automatization of the grammar patterns taught explicitly. Consequently, teaching grammar explicitly resulted in developing explicit grammar knowledge and in improving students’ oral communication skills.



The Natural Approach fosters the idea that grammatical structures can be acquired through exposure to comprehensible input and that no formal instruction is necessary to acquire a foreign language (Krashen, 1985). Moreover, grammar instruction is viewed as optional as well as valueless for succeeding in the target language. However, the Natural Approach does not take into consideration the fact that the language learning process in children differs from the one in adolescents and adults.  De Keyser (2003) claims that “the instructional approach should be different depending on age: full-scale immersion is necessary for children to capitalize on their implicit learning skills, and formal rule teaching is necessary for adolescents and adults to draw on their explicit learning skills” (p.335). This distinction rests on the fact that children have not developed cognitive skills to understand formal explanations of linguistic constructions because they are developing their cognitive capacities along with their first language acquisition process. However, adults have already developed more formal cognitive skills such as critical thinking and aspects of the brain’s memory register as short-term and long-term memory. This makes it easier for them to comprehend explicit explanations (Batterink and Neville, 2013). 


Adult second language learners

Another difference in the process of second/foreign language learning in adults is the process of lateralization which takes place after puberty and allows human to develop complex cognitive skills (Ipek, 2009). These cognitive skills such as critical and abstract thinking, perception, and formal thought help adult language learners to overanalyze the target language structures (Brown, 2007). With these skills, they are also able to develop explicit knowledge, which is the knowledge that adult language learners use to notice the target language rules and patterns, mistakes, grammatical descriptions of the foreign language that is being studied (Ellis, 2017)


The process of automatization

One of the goals when teaching a second/foreign language is to help language learners develop and accomplish automatization during the learning process. This process not only involves the use of the target language accurately with little cognitive effort, but also it makes the explicit knowledge become implicit allowing the language learners to lose awareness of the structure over time (De Keyser, 2003). Bybee (2008), for instance, points out the importance of grammar as an automatized behavior where students can use these structures without being aware of them, imitating native speakers who are unaware of the components or meaning of the different grammatical structures they use to communicate.


The Three P´s Framework

Grammatical structures in a second/foreign language classroom, therefore, are considered fundamental in order to acquire and learn the target language. One of the most suggested and common frameworks to teach a foreign language to adult is the three Ps approach (Criado, 2013) which is found in textbooks and used by teachers in order to plan grammar lessons (Cook, 2008).

The Three P´s framework consists of three distinct stages which have to be developed during the language lesson. First, in the presentation stage, the teacher highly controls the teaching/learning process and the target structures which are to be taught inductively or deductively. In the practice stage, on the other hand, the teacher checks his/her students’ understanding of the items presented in the presentation stage and includes activities aimed at the accuracy of patterns so that fluency can be later achieved. Then, the final production stage aims at increasing fluency in linguistic use through autonomous and more creative activities based on a freer use of the targeted structures (Criado, 2013).

Nevertheless, this framework assumes that after introducing the target structure in the presentation stage, language learners are ready to move to the practice stage where accuracy is tested by cloze activities such as filling in the gaps or multiple-choice tasks (Zavala, 2012). However, in order to succeed with these types of accuracy tasks, it is necessary that the students comprehend and obey a set of logical rules every human person is able to understand in a language (Ellis, 2017)


Purpose of the study

This research aims at exploring how EFL adult learners´oral performance is influenced by teaching grammar explicitly so as to understand the importance of explicit grammar knowledge in EFL adult learners. The question that guided this study was:

  • To what extent does explicit instruction of grammar influence on the oral language performance of EFL adult learners?




There were 12 adult learners ranging in age from 34 to 46 years old who attended a lower intermediate (A2+) General English course at a Chilean university.


Three steps were implemented after the presentation stage and the study lasted for a three-week period for 90 minutes, one session per week.

Step 1.

The first step was a group work analysis of a short paragraph, adapted to the lesson. The target structure was present simple or present continuous (focus on form). Then, through an oral activity, both the teacher and students analyzed the reasons why the author decided to use those tenses (focus on meaning). (See Appendix)

Step 2.

The second step, a pair work activity, students analyzed a different paragraph which contained the target structure. During this analysis, students in pairs had to: (1) underline present simple and present continuous sentences (recognition), (2) discuss with the partner the reasons why the author uses each tense (raising awareness), (3) write down the reasons on the space provided (metalinguistic vocabulary) and (4) make use of the L1 to raise awareness at a subconscious level (Ellis, 2017). This pair work activity may have also helped shy or introvert students who might have felt nervous or uncomfortable participating in the previous group analysis. (See Appendix)

Step 3.

The third step was an individual work where students were given an incomplete text to fill in the gaps. Additionally, students had to write down the reasons why they chose to use each tense. (See Appendix)


Data collection

Oral evaluation

A week after the intervention, students sat an oral evaluation. Two teachers took notes regarding important observations on the students’ oral performance in relation to the distinction between present simple and present continuous sentences.  Table 1 illustrates the rubric used to assess oral production.

Table 1: Oral Evaluation Rubric


4 excellent

3 good

2 basic

1 not meeting
















Total score

…. / 12





Focus Group

A single focus group with the students was carried out a week after the test was given. This process was in Spanish so as to gather as much information as possible and to avoid high levels of anxiety which could affect the elaboration of ideas (Litosseliti, 2003). The observations and students’ thoughts were written down in journal entries to be analyzed later.



Oral Evaluation

During the oral evaluation, attention was paid to students’ language performance and how well they used present simple and present continuous. Once the evaluation was finished, two teachers, the researcher and an invited teacher, gave percentages of achievement to fulfill the oral evaluation rubric and observations related to their performace. Table 2 illustrates the average percentage of each student and Table 3 illustrates the observations.


Table 2: Students’ Grammar Achievement during the Oral Evaluation





Student 1

11 / 12


6,0 - 7,0

Student 2

10 / 12


6,0 - 7,0

Student 3

11 / 12


6,0 - 7,0

Student 4

12 /12

100 %

6,0 - 7,0

Student 5

11 / 12


6,0 - 7,0

Student 6

10 / 12


6,0 - 7,0

Student 7

10 / 12


6,0 - 7,0

Student 8

12 /12


6,0 - 7,0

Student 9

10 / 12


6,0 - 7,0

Student 10

9 /12


6,0 - 7,0

Student 11

9 /12


6,0 - 7,0

Student 12

11 / 12


6,0 - 7,0

Grading system in Chile is from 1,0 (lowest) to 7,0 (highest)

The percentages show how accurate the students’ oral performance was during the evaluation.  Moreover, during the evaluation, it was possible to observe how comfortable the students felt during the process, and they seemed to produce language without much effort when using the target structures.


Table 3: Oral Evaluation Observations

Observer 1

Observer 2

Students are able to use grammar structures well, making few mistakes in terms of structure.

Students do not commit mistakes regarding third person “s” rule and verb to be.

Students use key words to set a suitable context to use each tense appropriately.

Few mistakes with subject-verb agreement. Example: People is.

Students make distinctions between plural, singular and third person subjects when conjugating verbs.

Negative and affirmative sentences are correct.


Good use of auxiliary verbs (do and does) for negative sentences.

Good context introduction to make the distinction between present simple and present continuous.


Focus group

A single focus group was carried out in order to know more about the students´ final thoughts and ideas. The discussion was in Spanish to avoid stressing the students, and to obtain as authentic ideas as possible. Table 4 illustrates the observations written in the journal.


Table 4: Students’ Final Thoughts and Reflections

“I really liked the activity because I felt I was learning more and more during all the steps in the lesson”

“Although grammar has always been difficult for me, I was able to understand well, and it wasn’t hard to do the activity. I really liked both pair and group activities”

“I am very happy because I felt I understood everything I had not understood before”

“At the beginning I thought it was going to be boring, but since we had group and pair activities, and individual activities as well, it wasn’t boring at all. I learnt a lot!”

“If I had been taught like this before, I would have defninitely learnt all of this a long time ago”

“In my previous institute, grammar was not taught at all. My teachers would say that teaching grammar was old school. I felt I didn’t learn that much, and in the end, I felt my English was the same level I had at the beginning of that course”

It was possible to observe how helpful the pedagogical intervention was for the students, and how comfortable they felt during the process. In addition, for the students who had not been taught grammar before, they found it useful for their language performance and process of foreign language learning. Furthermore, the three different steps during the explicit instruction of grammar ensured that students were not left feeling bored or unmotivated towards learning grammar.



After carrying out this action research in an EFL classroom, it was possible to conclude that the explicit instruction of grammar was a positive influence on the adult learner´s oral performance.  Therefore, it can be argued that during this 3 steps intervention (group work, pair work and individual work) after the presentation stage, students were able to develop explicit grammar knowledge which resulted in the automatization of the target structures shown in their oral performance. This awareness of patterns is crucial to help adults understand the characteristics of a new language and its abstract structures. Moreover, when adults have understood the logic of the language through grammar, it seems that their level of anxiety reduces, and they are more comfortable and self-confident when communicating in the target language (Ellis, 2017). This latter finding was evidenced in the students´ final thoughts and reflections carried out in the focus group with the adult learners. These findings may also suggest future research aiming at exploring the relationship between explicit grammar knowledge and levels of anxiety.

Although this explicit instruction of grammar was useful to help students produce a more accurate speech during an oral evaluation without affecting their fluency, it is necessaryto study its results over a longer term. Moreover, it is recommended that more studies be done in order to understand the process of foreign language learning in adult learners so as to determine whether other stages in the Three P´s framework can also be helpful to enhance explicit knowledge in the EFL classroom. Additional possible effects could be observed if students dedicate time to continue working with this grammar learning model outside of lesson time. This might help motivate students to continue their practice at home, which can ultemately accelerate the process of automatization in their EFL learning process.



Batterink, L., & Neville, H. (2013). Implicit and explicit second language training recruit

common neural mechanisms for syntactic processing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 25 (6), 936-951. Retrieve from!po=1.06383

Brown, H. D. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching. Pearson Longman.

Bybee, J. (2008). Usage-based grammar and second language acquisition. In P. Robinson &N. C. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of cognitive linguistics and second language acquisition. (pp. 216-236) London: Routledge.

Cook, V. (2008). Second language learning and teaching. (4th ed.). London: Hodder


Criado, R. (2013). A critical review of the presentation-practice-production Model (PPP) in foreign language teaching. In R. Monroy (Ed.), Homenaje a Francisco Gutiérrez Díez  (pp. 97-115). Murcia:

De Keyser, R. (2008). Implicit and explicit learning. In C.J. Doughty & M.H. Long (Eds.), The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, (pp.313- 348). Blackwell Publishing.

Ellis, Nick C. (2017). Implicit and explicit knowledge about language. In Cenoz, J.; Gorter, D. (Eds.), Language Awareness and Multilingualism. Encyclopedia of Language and Education, (pp. 113-124). Springer International Publishing.

Ipek, H. (2009). Comparing and contrasting first and second language acquisition: Implications for language teachers. English Language Teaching, 2(2), 155-163. Retrieve from

Krashen, S.D. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. New York, Longman.

Litosseliti, L. (2003). Using focus groups in research. Continuum.

Zavala, B. (2012). Presentation, practice and production versus task based learning using form focused tasks. (Masters thesis, University of Piura, Peru). Retrieve from



Step 1: Group work analysis

Present Simple v/s Present Continuous in context. Own creation

(1) The Smiths are going on holiday. They usually go on holiday by train.

They take a taxi to the station, check the timetable and get on the train.

At the moment, they are standing in front of the timetable. The train departs at 15:12 and arrives in Brighton at 16:45.

At 6 pm the Smiths are meeting Ben’s aunt in Brighton. She studies law in a London, but she is working as a waitress in Brighton during the summer holiday.


Step 2: Pair work analysis

Paragraph containing the target grammar (pair analysis). Own creation.

I am sitting on the bench, thinking about my life and all the things people say I should do. I am very sad, but I know I am doing a great effort to continue with my studies in the university. I am going to assitanships, studying with my partners, staying until the early hours in the library, but still I am not sure whether I should continue in this degree. My father always says I that this degree is perfect for me, but I think he is just thinking about the money, and the great salary I will probably earn in the future. I love Art, and I think I should be studying that right now, but I also know that I can´t dissapoing my family and my friends.


Step 3: Individual work

Fill in the Gaps Individual Activity. Own Creation

Go – organize – like – plan – bring – go – have – think – like – take

Next week, my friends and I ______ camping in the woods. I ______ the food, because I ______ cooking. Dave ______ a big car with a trailer, so he ______ the transportation. Sam ______ the tent. He ______ camping every year, so he ______ a great tent and lots of other equipment. My wife ______we're crazy. She______holidays in comfortable hotels, so she______a trip to Paris instead.


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