The Pros and Cons of Explicit Grammar Instruction when Learning a Language

Modified on by Amanda Moritz-Saladino

explicit grammar instruction knowing the rules

What is the “right” way to teach grammar in a second langauge? The debate between implicit and explicit grammar instruction has been raging on in the academic world for almost a century now. Language teachers everywhere have argued both that grammar should be taught in a concealed, integrative manner and in an overt, separate manner.  Others are so against teaching grammar that they suggest that students simply “figure out” the rules rather than explicitly learning them.

Conflicting evidence shows that both methods have their respective logics. But how can we tell which is best for our own purposes? Since most of us are used to explicit grammar instruction since our days in elementary school, let’s look at the pros and cons of this type of instruction and determine whether it is effective or not.

To Teach Grammar, or Not to Teach Grammar?

Pros of Explicit Grammar Instruction

  • Learning a language: Explicit grammar instruction is conducive for “knowing the rules” of a language. In addition, it provides a solid knowledge of grammar and syntax In other words, this all amounts to mastering how the language works.
  • Reveals Exceptions: Explicit grammar instruction is useful for pointing out the particularities of a language, the exceptions. For example, overtly discussing word order and irregular verbs in the English language results in a greater awareness of the intricacies of the language.
  • Better for some, but not all: It seems to be the case that some people are just better explicit learners. Logical, mathematical and verbal types of intelligence seem to be more readily inclined to learn and adopt grammar explicitly.
  • Better for adult learners: Our capacity to acquire new languages declines as we age. As a result, this also means that explicit grammar instruction becomes more relevant as we get older as well. “Formal” language learning seems to be a better approach for adult learners.

Cons of Explicit Grammar Instruction

  • Acquiring a language: Implicit grammar instruction is better for “picking up a language” or arriving at a practical use of a foreign language. Implicit instruction therefore helps the learner prepare for natural, communicative situations where rules are often forgotten or broken.
  • Achieving fluency: Implicit grammar instruction is actually the way we acquire our very first language at an early age. When we are little we do not pay attention to the rules behind language but rather how it works in practical, real situations. Implicit instruction therefore promotes the gaining of basic linguistic skills that are essential to language.
  • Promoting actual memorization: Probably the greatest threat of explicit grammar instruction is the danger of empty memorization. By promoting the “knowing of rules,” explicit instruction also encourages a superficial acquisition of the language. Without knowing how to apply them, rules are pretty much useless.

Perhaps an Inclusive Approach Best

It seems that explicit grammar instruction has both its ups and downs and is not void of fault. Nonetheless, both explicit and implicit grammar instructions have pros and cons. So what are we to do? Following Prof. Larry Lynch’s advice, the best method is probably an inclusive approach to grammar instruction which includes both implicit and explicit characteristics, such as by using Brainscape’s Spanish Sentence Builder.

The reality is that one is not preferable over the other; rather each one is most appropriate in specific scenarios and individuals. The best form of grammar instruction is conditional upon the particular learning situation. You simply have to decide on a balance that is right for you.

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit or find us on the App Store .


bibo 8 years ago

to begin with I'd like explicity state that I am in favour of implicit teaching not only the grammar but the whole aspects of a language. we keep on saying that the overall objective of learning any language especailly to youngers, is to enable them to USE that language to EPRESS themsleves in daily life situations.
knwoing the whole rules of a language without being able to use that language to commuicate via it, is nothing but collecting thousands of bricks without building a single wall

Michael 7 years ago

In my view learning English grammar in the following sequence ensures firm solid thorough knowledge of English grammar:

1. Read a short clear easily understandable explanation of a grammar rule.

2. Study several practical usage examples (sentences) illustrating that
particular grammar rule. Check yourself whether you have mastered the

3. Do several exercises for that rule with communicative content (with
sentences that most likely can be used in real life situations).

Grammar exercises that contain dialogues, interrogative and statement
(or narrative) sentences on everyday topics, thematic texts and
narrative stories are especially effective for mastering grammatical

Grammar practice should also include exercises in listening comprehension and speaking, not just in reading and writing.

Grammar exercises must help learners not only form correct sentences,
but also use them correctly in context in real life situations.
Contrastive and contextualised exercises give practice in form, meaning
and use.

It is very important to learners for practising English grammar on their
own that there are answers provided to exercises in their grammar
practice book for self-check. I believe what especially matters in effective teaching and learning of
English grammar is how clearly and easily understandable all grammar
rules are explained and whether adequate supportive exercises with real
life content are practised to master that material. It would take
foreign learners much less time to learn grammar rules that are
explained to learners than to figure out grammar rules on their own
intuitively from texts because grammar rules may have exceptions and
other peculiarities.

Grammar books with explanations and exercises have been published by
knowledgeable language specialists to make learning grammar easier so
that learners don’t have to discover grammar rules anew the hard long
I think grammar learning ought to be combined with conversational
practice and vocabulary learning (first fixed thematic conversational
phrases, and then free conversational practice on each topic with
sentences based on known grammar (to reduce grammar mistakes) alongside learning grammar).

Amanda Moritz 7 years ago

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the comment! You're definitely correct that listening comprehension is an important piece of grammar learning.

Amanda Moritz

Kaaya 6 years ago

I think the Implicit is the best way to make the students feel the sense of ownership on what they are learning. Sometimes it is so important to allow students to come up with their own rules on how to learn grammar.

Ines Hijazi 5 years ago

Yes a mix of the two sounds to be a good solution as it improve our grammar practice capacity and at the same time our grammar knowledge

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