Problems with Grammar in ESL Curricula & Materials

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A Fast Tour of the Verb Phrase Possibilities in English

Grammarians show us that the English verb system involves a combination of two simple forms (the simple present tense and the simple past tense) along with 3 complex verb phrases. This system involves the following 2-part subsystem:

  Present Tense Set Examples   Past Tense Set Examples
  simple present tense She walks to class.   simple past tense She walked to class.
  present perfect She has walked to class.   past perfect She had walked to class....
  present progressive She is walking to class.   past progressive She was walking to class....
  present perfect progressive She has been walking to class.   past perfect progressive She had been walking to class....

If modals are added to the picture, then we need another table to show that modal auxiliaries can combine with all possible forms:

Modal   Examples
modal + verb   will study, might learn, can read
modal + perfect   will have studied, might have learned, can have read
modal + progressive   will be studying, might be learning, can be reading
modal + perfect + progressive   will have been studying, might have been learning, can have been reading

Moreover, a parallel set of passive forms exists. The English passive can have all the kinds of forms and meanings found in active versions of the verb phrase.

  Present Tense Set Examples   Past Tense Set Examples
  simple present tense The course is taught each semester.   simple past tense The course was taught last year.
  present perfect The course has been taught for many years.   past perfect The course had been taught in the spring but is now taught in the fall.
  present progressive The course is being taught online.   past progressive The course was being taught at the same time as the introduction to psychology.
  present perfect progressive The course has been being taught by the same person for many years.   past perfect progressive

The course had been being taught by the same person until she retired.

And there are modal possibilities with the passives!

Modal   Examples
modal + be verbed   might be taught
modal + have been verbed   could have been taught
modal + be being verbed   must be being taught
modal + have been being verbed   will have been being taught

What are we to do with this information in our language courses, curricula, and materials?

Reorganizing the Presentation of Verbs: Moving from Form to Context

First, we need to be very clear about what we have in these tables. Grammarians have looked over the entire system of English--looking for patterns in how words are formed, how sets of words are combined together into phrases, and how words and phrases are combined into larger units. These tables present a classification system to show all the syntactic possibilities. Like a chart that a botanist might make to show the types of trees or flowers.

What the tables do not tell how these words are used in communication. The tables are a highly abstract tallying up of the possible forms without any consideration of context or of use. It's all about form and a very little bit about meaning and not at all about how the forms are used.

Unfortunately, these tables have been used as the underlying system in the creation of program curricula and of materials that are widely used in ESL/EFL courses. Such programs (and textbooks) create levels based on a seemingly rational subdivision such as the following:

Level 1: students study present tense and past tense and a few modals

Level 2: students study the progressives and a few more modals

Level 3: students study the perfectives and a few more modals and maybe the passive

See the problem? or problems? As soon as we start thinking about how grammar clusters in registers, this system falls apart.

Solving this problem of how to organize the grammar in the curriculum is central to what we are trying to achieve in this course. Here's the basic topic: how is the grammar part of a curriculum best organized so that our students can be both accurate and fluent n their communication?

Please send your questions and comments to me at Thanks! I look forward to hearing from you.