‘How to move from rules to reasons’ by Danny Norrington-Davies

Danny Norrington-Davies

In this article I will outline an alternative way of teaching grammar and argue that students should be encouraged to explore reasons rather than rules. I will suggest how you can start doing this by sharing tips and techniques drawn from my lessons and from teachers working in different contexts.

1)    What are rules and why are they problematic?

I have always believed there are compelling reasons to include a focus on grammar in the language classroom, and as I gained more experience and knowledge, I became more comfortable with the approaches I was using to do so. Over time, my teaching and reading helped me develop a strong belief in encouraging students to discover things for themselves, the importance of context, the value of noticing and the need for learners to use language items for genuine communicative purposes. At the same time, however, I found myself questioning what I knew about grammar and becoming more critical of the rules that I was teaching my students.

When I talk about rules, I am referring to the descriptions of pedagogic grammar items often found in course-books, grammars and teaching materials. The following are typical examples;

  • Use the present perfect simple to describe past actions with present effect.
  • State verbs are not usually used in progressive forms.
  • We use the past continuous to describe actions that were in progress at a particular time in the past but not completed.

Though very common, there are issues with these descriptions. Firstly, pedagogic rules such as the one describing the present perfect simple are quite abstract for students and difficult to apply. In fact, it is possible to use the past simple to describe past actions with present effect, as the sentence ‘I met my partner 14 years ago’ shows. A second problem is that the rules are not always true. Therefore, teachers end up qualifying them in some ways with words like ‘usually’ or only using examples that fit the rule. Finally, the rules often fail to take the communicative function or the genre into account. For example, the rule describing the past continuous above is certainly true, but it doesn’t teach students how it is often used at the start of a story, anecdote or news report to set the scene or grab the listener’s attention, as can be seen in the start of the anecdote below (Figure 1).

Ola’s story

Right, so this happened when I was working on the metro and Eni was staying over, do you remember? We lived in that house in Brooklyn, and….

Figure 1: Ola’s story

2)    What are reasons and why should we explore them?

Where rules provide a description of how an item of grammar can be used in general, exploring reasons encourages learners to focus on the creator, genre and context of a text to see why they are using a specific language feature in that specific instance. This helps the students to not only understand the text but also the role of the grammar feature within it

To do this, students first process a text for meaning. For example, they would read the complete version of Ola’s story and answer questions, respond to the content or predict what happens next. Once they have understood the meaning of the text, the students answer prompt questions such as those below (figure 2). These are designed to encourage them work out why Ola is using the past continuous at the start of her story rather than why the form is used in general.

1)    Why is the speaker using the past continuous in this part of the story?

2)    Why is the speaker using was + verb + ing?

3)    Why is the Ola using the past continuous?

Figure 2: Prompts to help students uncover reasons

The learner generated reasons below (figure 3) show how students at intermediate level have understood the way that the grammar feature is used in the anecdote, but also how it orientates the listener.

  • Ola is using the past continuous to describe the background and start to the story.
  • Ola is showing her friend that she tells a story

Figure 3: Learner generated reasons

3)    Teaching tips  and techniques 

As with any new skill, encouraging learners to start exploring reasons can be tricky for both students and teachers. However, there are a number of tips and techniques that teachers can use to get started and ease their students in. The following ideas were sent to me by teachers working in different contexts around the world.

  • L1 is your friend. If permissible, encouraging students to talk about reasons in their language can make things easier. It is also a good way to introduce the technique at lower levels.
  • It’s helpful to give choices or prompts. Emma, a teacher in Barcelona, and David, in Australia, found it was easier for students to work out reasons if they were given alternatives. For example, students could be asked “Why is the speaker using ‘I would like…?’ rather than ‘I want..?’ when ordering food.
  • Students benefit from interacting and negotiating. Kadir, a teacher in Turkey, found that students were able to uncover reasons far more effectively if they were given time and space to discuss their ideas in groups before they shared with the teacher. Of course, he was on hand to guide and help as he monitored.
  • Kadir also found that it is a good idea to ask students to reflect on why they looked for reasons. He found that his students thought it was useful and helped them understand texts and grammar points more effectively.
  • There is a lot of scope for using apps. Kadir found that his students enjoyed exploring reasons and were able to do so more quickly when they used web-based tools such as Socratic.
  • Don’t be afraid to start small. The first time Sophia, a teacher in china, asked her students to uncover reasons, she chose to do so when she was confident they would know the answer. She also only spent four minutes on the stage. This enabled her to get her students used to doing it without making drastic changes to her lessons.


Norrington-Davies, D. (2016). Teaching Grammar: from rules to reasons – Pavilion Publishing

You can find other talks and workshops by the author here.  https://dannynorringtondavies.wordpress.com/

Danny Norrington-Davies

I am a teacher and teacher-educator working at King’s College London and International House London. My first book, ‘Teaching grammar: from rules to reasons’ was published by Pavilion in 2016 and nominated for an ELTONs award in language Teaching and Innovation in 2018.

I enjoy speaking at conferences and giving workshops, and along with grammar, my interests in ELT are emerging language, materials design, visualization and memory and creativity, and when I’m not attending weekend conferences, I like travelling and working on my allotment.