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Author Insights

Teaching Spoken Grammar

Ken Paterson, co-author of A Handbook of Spoken Grammar, shares his
insights into spoken grammar and how to go about teaching it to your
What is spoken grammar?
Spoken grammar is the term thats been given to a certain number of language features that
we know are common in everyday speech, but havent really found a place in traditional
grammar syllabuses. For a quick flavour, take a look at the italicized language in the
examples below:

I've done all my emails. ~ So you're ready to go?

More coffee? ~ No, thanks. I've got a bit of a stomach ache.
My Dad's buying a sort of artist's studio. ~ He's what?
Anyway, I missed the train. ~ Oh dear. Were you late, then?
Where are we eating, guys? ~ Don't know. They say the Italian place is good.
That white coat, is it yours? ~ No, mine's pink.
Right, shall we go in? I mean, there's no point standing out here all day.

As teachers, weve been aware of this kind of language, but in terms of a formal description,
weve had to wait for the publication of corpus-based grammars such as the Longman
Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999) and the Cambridge Grammar of
English (2006).

Why should I teach spoken grammar?

I think there are at least four reasons why you might want to introduce students at
intermediate level and above to some of these features. Firstly, when they are used
together, the features of spoken grammar help to create a personable, easy-going style of
English that is acceptable in most situations these days. Secondly, spoken grammar is often
easy: its simpler, for example, to say Any luck? and So I said to her, look are you are sure?
than Did you have any luck? or So I asked her if she was really sure. Thirdly, spoken
grammar is often a polite grammar because we use it to be less direct, as in a request such


as: I was sort of hoping you might come with me. And finally, it offers students who are
ready a number of buttonholing techniques that are typical of the interplay in social
conversation, e.g. Its so expensive, London.

Where can I find a syllabus of spoken grammar features?

You cant really because, although a number of articles and book chapters have been
written on the subject (see Further reading at the end of this piece), the area is still evolving.
In A Handbook of Spoken Grammar, we sifted through all the material we could find
(including a word bank of reformulated student language built up at the University of
Westminster) trying to locate features that we believed were useful and teachable. We
came up with twenty. In our book, we focus on one language feature per unit, devoting two
pages to an explanatory section called About the language, two to a Practice section, and
finishing off with an Extension activity such as a simulation.

How can I bring spoken grammar into my classroom?

Just like any other grammatical item! Once youre familiar with the rules and purpose of the
features, its up to you to decide on an inductive or deductive approach, and whether to use
boardwork, texts, tasks, tests, reformulation or fluency activities etc. But here are some of
the techniques that we found useful and which are featured in A Handbook of Spoken
1. Compromise dialogues
These are short conversations that are deliberately loaded with the target feature. In unit
14, for example, we explain how people often report what someone has said not by
changing tenses, pronouns etc. but by introducing direct speech with a marker word such
as listen, oh or well. In the dialogue we use below, we ask students to listen, identify the
three marker words, and notice the stress that is placed on them:
Elsa: I finally managed to get through to Tim on the phone today.
Jacob: Good. How did it go?
Elsa: Not very well. I started by saying to him, Look, if we dont find a way of working
together, well never get the product launch ready in time. And he said, Oh, I didnt
know we had a problem. So I said, Well, you havent replied to any of my last three
Jacob: And how did he respond?
Elsa: He just told me to relax!
But you could also use a dialogue like this simply for raising awareness or for reading aloud,
or you could gap it as an exercise.


2. Written exercises
Written exercises offer a good way for students to practise working with new features on
their own or in groups, without the pressure of real-time production. In unit 19, we take a
look at how bits of language (called heads) are taken from their normal place and put at
the front of sentences, e.g. Your new pink dress, did you wear it to Jos party? (rather than
Did you wear your new pink dress to Jos party?). The exercise below appears in our
Practice pages (written by Caroline Caygill and Rebecca Sewell):
Rewrite the sentences in two parts using the underlined heads and the pronouns in
1 Could you pass me that jug of water please? (it)
That jug of water, could you pass me it please?
2 Is the book youre reading at the moment any good? (it)
3 Are the swimming baths far from the school? (they)
4 Did you see those amazing documentaries on Africa? (them)
5 Do you remember the name of the Russian girl in your evening class? (her)
6 I cant find my memory stick anywhere. (it)
3. Creative practice
A spoken grammar lesson wouldnt be complete without the students getting a chance to
make their own conversations, using one two of the new features. Below are some
examples from the Extension sections at the end of each unit in A Handbook of Spoken
A. Practising direct speech with marker words:
(from unit 14) Choose some of the topics below, and write them down using reported
speech. Then record your piece. Make the intonation as dramatic as possible.
1 Report a real conversation you had yesterday.
2 Tell a joke.
3 Describe a complaint you made in a restaurant.
4 Describe an argument you had with an old friend or family member.
5 Describe a bad experience in a shop.
6 Describe a conversation that shocked or amazed you.
B. Practising the interjections Oh, Ah, Ooh, Wow, Aha, Aah, Oops, Ouch, Ow and Yuk:
(from unit 12) Imagine you are at a very luxurious party. Practise the conversation you
might have with your friend about the food and drink you taste and the people and
clothes that you see. Use some of the new words you have learnt in this unit.


C. Practising the use of statements as questions:

(from unit 13) Finish the following statements as questions.
So youve been to ?
Well meet at ?
Youre a then?
But you
didnt ?
Prepare and practise some short dialogues using the sentences above, where one person
needs to confirm something the other person says, or needs to express surprise or doubts.
Use statements as questions in your dialogues. Afterwards, record your dialogues, paying
particular attention to stress and intonation.

Interested in learning more about spoken grammar?

A Handbook of Spoken Grammar is of course a good starting point for any teacher (or
indeed student) interested in teaching and learning spoken grammar. We also recommend
the following titles for those wishing to delve further into this fascinating area.

Further reading
Biber, D., S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad and E. Finegan. 1999. The Longman Grammar
of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Longman
Carter, R., R. Hughes and M. McCarthy. 2000. Exploring Grammar in Context. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press
Carter, R. and M. McCarthy. 2006. Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press
Carter, R. and M. McCarthy. 1997. Exploring Spoken English. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press
Gavioli, L. and G. Aston. 2001. 'Enriching reality: language corpora in language pedagogy'.
ELT Journal 55/3: 238-46
McCarthy, M. and R. Carter. 1995. 'Spoken Grammar: what is it and how can we teach it?'.
ELT Journal 49(3): 207-218.
Swan, M. and C.Walter. 2001. The Good Grammar Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Timmis, I. 2005. 'Towards a framework for teaching spoken grammar'. ELT Journal 59(2):