The Difficult-Easy Matrix: 
Analyzing Grammar From Two Points of View

Pat Byrd
Applied Linguistics & ESL
Georgia State University
Atlanta, Georgia USA

Hear the Lecture

Easy/Difficult to Learn/Teach

We know from our experience as teachers and learners that there are no absolutes of "ease" and "difficulty" in language learning.  Perhaps a more accurate way of talking about "ease" and "difficulty" might be to think in terms of a scale of "easier" to "more difficult."

Yet we sometimes talk and write about language learning and grammar teaching as if some absolutes did exist. One of the truisms of curriculum design is that we are supposed to start with easy things and then move on to difficult things. However, that truism seems to be misleading because it assumes a distinction that is very difficult to make.  Difficult for whom?  Easy for whom? 

Indeed this approach to "ease" and "difficulty" does not clearly articulate the  place of the teacher in the system and perhaps mixes up the difficulty of explaining grammar with the difficulty of learning it.   Upon reflection, it seems to me that "ease of learning" intersects in some important ways with "ease of teaching."  And that we need to be clear when we talk about a grammar item being "easy" that we know who it is easy for--the learner or the teacher.

Let's think first about what makes a part of grammar easy or hard to teach.  Then, about what makes grammar easy or hard to learn.  Finally, we can put those two concepts together in a matrix with four subdivisions: easy to learn and easy to teach, easy to learn but hard to teach, hard to learn but easy to teach, and hard to learn and hard to teach.  The matrix can help us to understand why our work with our students sometimes seems to flow along easily and why we sometimes seem to be working at cross purposes to each other.

Difficult to Teach: The Teacher-Centered Point of View

"Difficult to teach" has various possible interpretations because of the many meanings of "teach." It includes "difficult to explain to my students" but could also include "difficult to find activities that lead to my students learning rapidly to do this thing consistently." The difficulty for teachers can also arise from our own lack of knowledge. For example, on the whole, no explanation of the English article system has led to my feeling confident that I truly understand how articles are used in context and that I can explain every example that students might find in authentic contexts and might ask me to explain to them. 

Difficult to Learn: The Student-Centered Point of View

"Difficult to learn" refers both to the time a student takes to learn a particular structure and the consistency with which s/he uses it. We all are aware that language learning takes time (and energy and support and input and opportunities for output) with some aspects of the new language coming earlier in the process and with less effort--and therefore being called "easy"--while other aspects of the language come later with more effort and with inconsistencies in production--and therefore being called "difficult." 

As learners we have experienced and as teachers we have observed, the change in "difficulty/ease" for a particular item in different contexts. Students can handle a particular bit of grammar "easily" in exercises--especially in sentence-level drills and short bursts of production but cannot handle that structure in expanded contexts such as in writing whole pieces (paragraphs, essays, etc.). The same student might find subject-verb agreement a snap in drills but cannot identify the subjects of her/his own sentences and cannot consistently decide which verbs needs to have an added -s

Some students also think that certain items of grammar are "easy" not because they can use them consistently but because they have heard so much about them over so many years. The concept of the grammar is familiar to them--even when their ability to produce the grammar is inconsistent. 

Naturally enough, learners from different linguistic backgrounds will have different nominees for the "ease/difficult" matrix. While speakers of Chinese and of Spanish will all have difficulties with the English article system, their problems come with different aspects of the system.

Easy to Teach

These are the aspects of teaching that don't require huge effort.  We feel confident that we understand the material and have interesting ways of presenting the lessons.  We don't feel worried or tentative or in need of more study.

Easy to Learn

This kind of learning seems so simple for us as learners.  Something magical happens--and we can understand or do whatever it was that we focused on.  We don't have to struggle and we can consistently produce what we've learned. 

Easy to Learn and Easy to Teach: Basic Word Order in Sentences

While some students continue to have trouble with word order in sentences, most students learn the basic order early in their study of English and do not have major difficulties with sentence level order. (Some students will continue to have trouble with noun + adjective ordering but that is not the same as getting subject + verb + object in the correct order.) 


Easy to Learn and Difficult to Teach: Passive Sentence Formation

Formation of the passive sentences is not especially difficult for most students. Of course, learning to use passive sentences appropriately is a problem for many writers--not just ESL students but native speakers of English, too. Nevertheless it does seem that understanding the passive patterns and following them seems to be relatively easy for most students. However, linguists continue to argue about the correct explanation for the formation of the passive sentence: it is a transformation of the active? is it something different from and parallel to the active sentence? Those of us listening to these discussions find that we are not as positive as we used to be about how to explain the formation of the passive. Since students are not having as many problems with formation as well use perhaps we need to focus on their problems by working with use in context rather than explanations about sentence formation that are of doubtful accuracy and usefulness. 


Difficult to Learn and Easy to Teach: Subject-Verb Agreement

The rules for subject-verb agreement seem straightforward for most teachers, but accurate formation of verbs in the context of certain subjects remains a problem for many students even when they have mastered many other features of English. 


Difficult to Learn and Difficult to Teach: English Articles and Present Perfect Verb Tense

Many teachers seem to have shared my experience that the English articles are difficult for us to explain and difficult for many of our students to learn to use accurately. Present perfect verb tense is another topic that many teachers find difficult to explain and that most students find a puzzle to learn to use accurately. 


Please send your questions and comments to me at  I would be especially interested to know your own experiences with areas of teaching/learning that fit into this matrix as easy to teach/learn, easy to teach/hard to learn, hard to teach/easy to learn, or hard to learn/hard to teach.  Thanks!