Arguments against grammar syllabus according to Scott Thornbury


Arguments against grammar syllabus

This is a video where Scott Thornbury is arguing against a grammar syllabus. He contends that there are eight arguments that compel us to reject such syllabus.

Scott’s Eight arguments against grammar syllabus

Here are Scott Thornbury’s eight arguments against a grammar syllabus:

Process vs. product arguments

The first argument is related to whether language should be viewed as a process or as a product.  Grammar syllabi inform us about how language is seen by linguists (the product), not about how language is actually acquired by learners (the process).

The corpus

Grammar syllabi do not reflect what grammar really is. What we now know about language through corpus is not represented in such syllabi.

Spoken or written

Grammar syllabi is about written language which is a bit different from spoken language. Is the grammar derived from written text transferable to spoken language?


Spoken language is full of phrases or chunks which represent up to 60 % of spoken language.

Emergent language

Grammar should be view as an emergent property. It is not a prerequisite for communication but a by-product  of communication.

Focus on form

Grammar syllabi focus on form and overlook meaning.

The grammar McNuggets

Grammar syllabi hold the view that language can be cut into discrete segmented bits that can be detached from context and be transmitted to learners.

The backwash effect

The language elements are chosen only because they enshrine the structural view of language of the day, not because of their intrinsic significance for learning.

Grammar or vocabulary?

Scott finally argues that he doesn’t hold the view that grammar shouldn’t be taught but he rather believes that it shouldn’t be the starting point of any syllabus.

It is true that a syllabus that focuses on grammar will not be of much help to learners. It is  also interesting to notice that tourists usually carry dictionaries with them not grammar books. Wilkins (1972) wrote that

“. . . while without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed”
(pp. 111–112).
The pedagogical implications of such a view is that teachers should discard their dependency on grammar and have vocabulary teaching as the starting point. As Widdowson, H. G. (1990: p. 95) points out:

Teaching which gives primacy to form and uses words simply as a means of exemplification actually denies the nature of grammar as a construct for the mediation of meaning. I would suggest that the more natural and more effective approach would be to reverse this traditional pedagogic dependency, begin with lexical items and show how they need to be grammatically modified to be communicatively effective.

And this is exactly what Michael Lewis advocates in his lexical approach

Finally, I invite you to watch Scott Thornbury’s video. It is thought provoking.

The video


  • Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach. Hove: LTP.
  • Widdowson, H. G. (1990) Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Wilkins, D (1972).Linguistics in language teaching. London: Arnold

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.