Teaching grammar ‘at the point of need’

As the first post, I am very grateful to have Scott Thornbury allow me to reproduce his recent article for the excellent ELTABB magazine. (click link to jump to the magazine – http://bit.ly/1bL5V54)


Compare and contrast these two approaches:

Teacher 1: ‘Today is Tuesday so we’re going to do the present perfect continuous.’

Teacher 2: ‘Tell me something I don’t know, and I’ll help you to say it better.’

OK. I’m exaggerating, but these two approaches capture, respectively, the difference between ‘pre-emptive teaching’ and ‘reactive teaching’. In the former, the teacher assumes that there is something that the learners don’t know, and the teaching intervention is designed to fill the gap. In the latter, the teacher assumes that there is something that the learners need to say, and the teaching intervention is designed to enable them to do it. It is consistent with the view that, as Dave Willis (1990: 128) puts it, ‘The creation of meaning is the first stage of learning. Refining the language used is a later stage.’

A marvellous account of reactive teaching applied to the teaching of writing is At the Point of Need: Teaching Basic and ESL Writers, by Marie Wilson Nelson (1991). This book deserves to be a classic, not least because it’s about more than simply the teaching of writing. It makes a convincing case for a pedagogy that, rather than trying to second-guess and thereby pre-empt the learners’ learning trajectory, is entirely responsive to it: that is, a pedagogy which is wholly driven by the learners’ needs, as and when they emerge. As Nancy Martin writes, in the Foreword (ibid.: ix):

The concept of teaching only at the students’ perceived points of need, and as they arise, presents a different view of learning from that of planned and sequenced series of lessons. The former view depends on recognition of the power of the person’s intention as the operating dynamic in writing – and in learning.

The book describes a five-year experiment at a college in the US, where writing workshops were offered to small groups of mixed native-speaker and non-native-speaker undergraduates, each with a tutor, and where there was no formal writing – or grammar, or vocabulary – instruction. Instead, the students (all of whom had scored below a cut-off point on a test of standard written English) were – in the words of the program publicity – invited to:

  1. Choose topics that interest you and your group
  2. Freewrite without worrying about correctness on the first draft
  3. Revise your freewrites. Your group will help you […]
  4. Learn to copy-edit your writing for publication.

Instead of pre-teaching or modelling the skills of writing, ‘this writing program was set up on a dynamic of retrospective planning’ (ibid.: viii) whereby ‘the tutors found that the most acceptable and effective teaching was to give the help the students asked for when they asked for it – that is, as the students perceived the need’ (ibid.: ix).

The program was based on the principle that ‘less is more’ (ibid.: 189), and that effective writing instruction involves simply:

  • motivating students to want to practise and improve
  • giving students control of decisions about their work
  • limiting teaching to what students need or want to learn.

Teaching ‘at the point of need’ is, of course, a principle that underpins the whole language learning movement, including ‘reading recovery’ programs. Courtney Cazden (1992: 129), for example, writes about ‘recognizing the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print’ (emphasis added). It would also seem analogous to the reactive focus on form promoted by proponents of task-based learning, described by some researchers as ‘leading from behind’ (e.g. Samuda 2001), whereby the teacher intervenes to scaffold the learners’ immediate communicative needs. As Long and Norris (2009: 137) write:

Advantages of focus on form include the fact that attention to linguistic code features occurs just when their meaning and function are most likely to be evident to the learners concerned, at a moment when they have a perceived need for the new item, when they are attending, as a result, and when they are psycholinguistically ready (to begin) to learn the items.

‘Point of need’ teaching also shares characteristics of what are known as ‘just in time’ (JIT) interventions, as when the user of unfamiliar computer software refers to a Help menu or seeks online support. Thus, in noting how video games embed sound pedagogical principles, James Paul Gee (2007: 142) identifies what he calls the Explicit Information On-Demand and Just-in-Time Principle, which goes: ‘The learner is given explicit information both on demand and just in time, when the learner needs it or just at the point where the information can best be understood and used in practice.’

This is a principle both of good video games and of good teaching. Gee makes the point that ‘Learners cannot do much with lots of overt information that a teacher has explicitly told them outside the context of immersion in actual practice. At the same time, learners cannot learn without some overt information; they cannot discover everything for themselves’ (ibid.: 120).

Gee gives the example of good classroom science instruction, where ‘An instructor does not lecture for an extended period and then tell the learners to go off and apply what they have learned in a group science activity … Rather, as group members are discovering things through their own activity, the good science instructor comes up, assesses the progress they are making and the fruitfulness of the paths down which they are proceeding in their enquiry, and then gives overt information that is, at that point, usable’ (ibid. 120).

How does this principle apply to grammar teaching, as in the hypothetical case we started with? I.e.

Teacher 2: ‘Tell me something I don’t know, and I’ll help you to say it better.’

In teaching one-to-one, it is relatively straight-forward and easy to manage. The learner performs a task (perhaps something they will need to do in their work), and the teacher provides corrective feedback, either during or immediately afterwards. The corrective feedback may be overt (‘You said X, but you should have said Y’) or covert, in the form of a recast: Student says ‘He go to work by bus’. Teacher says, ‘Ah, he goes to work by bus’. The feedback may involve explanation (‘We use –s on third person simple present verbs’), or it may not. And the lesson sequence may require the student to repeat the task, incorporating the corrections. But with a single student, none of these procedures is necessarily very difficult to engineer.

More problematic is providing ‘point of need’ instruction with groups, while still maintaining lesson flow and engaging the attention of all learners. ‘Instructional detours’ (to use Cazden’s expression) need to be short, to the point, yet salient: a case of ‘putting the task on hold’ for a minute or two, while an error is remedied or a grammar point explained. Of course, involving other students in the intervention is often a viable means of avoiding the lesson becoming a series of one-to-ones. Ideally, too, a running record needs to be kept of these interventions, so that they can be revisited after the task, and so as to provide a ‘scaffold’ for a possible repetition of the task. A further stage, in which learners review and record the grammar and vocabulary issues that arose during the lesson, serves not only to help fix these in memory, but to persuade those who crave it that formal accuracy has not been sacrificed for the sake of fluency.


Cazden, C. (1992) Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ, New York: Teachers College Press.

Gee, J.P. (2007) What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Long, M. and Norris, J. (2009) ‘Task-based teaching and assessment’, in van den Branden, K., Bygate, M. and Norris, J. (eds), Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Nelson, M.W. (1991) At the Point of Need: Teaching Basic and ESL Writers, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Samuda, V. (2001) ‘Guiding relationships between form and meaning during task performance: the role of the teacher’, in Bygate, M., Skehan, P. and Swain, M. (eds.) Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing, London: Longman.

Willis, D. (1990) The Lexical Syllabus: A New Approach to Language Teaching, London: Collins ELT.

(This article has been adapted from a chapter in Big Questions in ELT (2013) published as an e-book by The Round).


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