When Grammar Matters: Inductive Learning of Grammatical Meaning through Authentic Communicative Context

Linda Wright
Fulda University of Applied Sciences, Germany


The premise of this short article is that grammar rules become part of an L2 learner’s autonomously applied repertoire when experienced as decisive in comprehending and conveying meaning. An example of such inductive discovery of meaning for a basic grammar rule is followed by an example involving a challenging intermediate grammar rule in an authentic context.  I conclude with a brief discussion of measurability of effectiveness and opportunities for systematic data collection and evaluation via a digital evaluation system recently brought into use at Fulda University of Applied Sciences. 

Grammatical Meaning Uncovered:  The Present

Achievement of communicative competence has long been understood as the overriding goal of language learning and teaching. Since the 1990s at the latest, “all” an L2 learner (of English) needs to learn to do is understand what she reads and hears and be understood when she speaks and writes.  Given this directive and given that vocabulary is the main carrier of meaning, the role of grammar would thus seem relegated to a distant second priority:  nice, but… how necessary? As Penny Ur (1992, 4) put it, “you cannot use words unless you know how to put them together.”  The question then, is not whether grammar matters, but how it can become meaningful to the L2 learner.

Here in Germany, students are required to start learning English at the age of nine or ten.   I doubt that there are many students who reach puberty before they have learned this age-old mnemonic device:


das ‘s’ muss mit

This little rhyme is about a grammar rule and it serves as a reminder to add an “s” to verbs in the simple present when the subject is a 3rd person singular noun. Having known this rule for over a decade, a large number of the twenty-year-old students who have entered my university classrooms since I started teaching at this level in Germany in 2006 do not regularly apply it. Why not? Apart from a valid and the most obvious answer, namely lack of practice, I suspect that the purely deductive approach is also to blame: the attempted direct route from form to use bypasses meaning. They do not know why they should use it and so they are waylaid at the missing meaning on the way from theory to practice.

To remedy this, in recent semesters I have, at certain junctures when the error has been made multiple times, written something akin to

Jane love Tarzan

on the board and asked what is missing.  Everyone knows, it is:

Jane loves Tarzan

I ask them why. There is more than one possibly correct answer to this question and then some interesting theories- including that the sentence can be understood anyway and hence there is no real reason to apply this rule.  This is a theory that should be tested. I start writing more examples down until one turns up such as

Jane hit Tarzan

When we add the third person singular “s” to this example, we have

Jane hits Tarzan

and also the difference between a one time incident and ongoing domestic violence. The real world consequences for the attentive listener are as disparate as suggesting a marriage counselor or calling the police.

Admittedly, “Irregular Verbs that Maintain the Same Form in the Simple Past and Past Participle” is not a very large set, but as put, let, cost and other very frequently used words in the English language belong to it, inclusion or omission of the third person singular “s” can have a significant impact on meaning.

More significantly, having uncovered the “meaning potency” of the third person singular “s” by drawing conclusions from the examples (inductive learning), the rule is now more significant and salient and the students have more immediate access to it while speaking and writing. If students are given sufficient output and coaching opportunities (that they also choose to take advantage of!) within authentic contexts, I contend that this rule will no longer be isolated in the realm of theoretical knowledge, but incorporated into their actual competence.

Inductive Learning in Authentic Context:  The Present Perfect

At the TESOL convention in Philadelphia in April of 2012, I attended a lecture and, impressed, purchased a book by Keith Folse, a teacher trainer at the University of Michigan. In it he writes “the present perfect is probably the single most difficult verb tense in English because this one verb tense can be used for at least three different times” (Folse 2009, 281) and because “most languages do not have a tense that works like present perfect in English” (Folse 2009, 282). My experience confirms these assertions. The use of the German Perfekt form is in no way limited to meanings 1 and 2 in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Meaning and Use for the Present Perfect Form (Folse, K. S. 2009. Keys to Teaching Grammar to English Language Learners. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 281. Used with permission).


Explaining meaning 3 above to German learners is the most difficult.  In my dedication to the future careers of students of International Business Administration over the last year and a half, I have begun providing examples of real and simulated job interviews and asking the students to identify the present perfect form and to theorize about the reason for the usage.

In the interviews, the applicants very frequently use the present perfect to refer to their past work experience. Since they are trying to get a job, they obviously, as in meaning 3 above, want to link the actions of the past to the present to show that this experience is relevant now:  If they are hired, they will be able to use this experience to the benefit of their new employers. This meaning distinction seems relevant to those students who have an interest in someday securing gainful employment in a globalized business world where English is the lingua franca or trade language. We return to this notion in the course of the semester and conduct simulated interviews in pair and group work in order to use the rule that has now been inductively earned.

Conclusion and Measurability

In this article, “inductive learning” was explained as a process from examples of form (as read or heard) to meaning to rule to use (written or spoken), the word “meaning” was used to refers to ideas, nuances and associations triggered by form; and “authentic context” was seen as generated by communicative language teaching approaches as described by Richards and Rodgers (2012, 151- 241). Two concrete examples of success in my teaching practice involving the inductive discovery of “grammatical meaning” and the application of “earned rules“ in authentic contexts were provided.

More evidence is needed to determine the effectiveness of this approach in equipping students to use grammar rules accurately and autonomously. This brings me to last semester’s digital exam.   In general, as the goal of language teaching and learning is communicative competence, I limit the explicit testing of grammar. At the end of the Winter Semester 2016/17, I included a mere five explicit questions relevant to our classroom endeavors to recognize grammatical meaning, all of which yielded favorable results. For instance, as seen in Figures 1 and 2 below, 48 out of 60 of the students who took this exam (or 80%) were able to distinguish accurately between the simple past and the present perfect.

Figure 1. Group 1 EvaExam carried out by the current author with 30 intermediate Business English students.


Figure 2. Group 2 EvaExam carried out by the current author with 30 intermediate Business English students.

Given the preponderance of L1 interference for this grammar issue, this, compared to my extensive previous experience, is a success.

Further quantitative analysis is needed. We need the comparative results of students’ ability to make this distinction before implementation of “Inductive Learning of Grammatical Meaning through Authentic Communicative Context”. A control group where other methods have been implemented would also be helpful.  Naturally, qualitative analysis is also necessary.  We need to test students’ ability to accurately use these forms in their own output- in the case of a paper exam: the students’ writing. These needs can be met by the EvaExam electronic paper system now offered at Fulda University of Applied Sciences and utilized in a language or business class for the first time just this past semester. Summary reports and question analyses such as those seen in Figures 1 and 2 above are valuable tools for quantitative analysis and the evaluation of writing output is also greatly supported through this system.  In the future at Fulda, this system would not only prove invaluable in terms of expedient testing, but also for pedagogical research. With it, much of the burden inherent to measuring the effectiveness of teaching techniques and ascertaining the application of what is learned to the real world is lightened.


Folse, K. S. 2009. Keys to teaching grammar to English language learners: a practical handbook. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Richards, J. C., and Rodgers, T. S. 2012. Approaches and methods in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ur, P. 1992. Grammar practice activities: a practical guide for teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.