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What is spoken grammar?

A definition of ‘spoken grammar’, might be something like ‘elements of the grammar of conversation that have been noticed by teachers and described by corpus researchers, but haven’t yet become part of our everyday teaching syllabuses.’

One example is the way we sometimes relocate bits of language to the beginning of questions. Rather than saying: “Is that woman in the corner your colleague?”, we break the question into two parts, using a co-referential pronoun in the second: “That woman in the corner, is she your colleague?”

Or the way we use marker words like ‘look’ or ‘well’ when, in conversation, we’re about to report what someone actually said: “... and then I said to her, look, are you sure the train stops at Didcot?”

Or the way we use ‘nice’ and ‘lovely’ in adjective pairs: “It’s lovely and sunny outside,” or, “It’s nice and comfortable in that hotel.”


Spoken grammar: how I got involved

A spoken grammar book for students

In 2003 we launched a new, two-week EFL speaking skills course at the University of Westminster, focusing exclusively on the language of conversation. As we explored models of spoken language with the students, I became interested in a number of grammatico-lexical features that seemed to recur. Looking these up in order to understand their form and function, I came across the term ‘spoken grammar’, coined, as far as I am aware, by the corpus grammarians Ronald Carter and Mike McCarthy.

Although there were a number of published articles on spoken grammar, and sections devoted to it in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English and the Cambridge Grammar of English, what I was looking for - and couldn’t find - was a syllabus of useful, teachable items. So I began to establish my own list, presenting my findings (and getting useful feedback) at the annual TESOL Spain conferences. For a comprehensive record of this early research, written up as a journal article for colleagues at the University of Westminster, please click on this title: ‘Preparing to teach spoken grammar’.

By 2009, I had a working list of ‘18 items of spoken grammar’ and was fortunate enough, at TESOL Spain in Seville, to bump into Nick Boisseau (Managing Director at Delta Publishing), who suggested I put together a proposal for a book on natural spoken English. After I had invited Caroline Caygill and Rebecca Sewell (colleagues at the University of Westminster) to join me in the project, A Handbook of Spoken Grammar (aimed at learners of intermediate level and above) was published in 2011. In 2013, it was shortlisted for a British Council ELTon award in the category ‘Innovation in Learner Resources’.

For a YouTube video on the origins of A Handbook of Spoken Grammar, please click here.

An online spoken grammar course for teachers

In 2016, after further research into spoken grammar, I decided to write an entirely new course for teachers rather than students, offering them the explanations, adaptable materials and techniques for teaching spoken grammar in their own classrooms.

Wanting to reach as many teachers as possible, and provide them with something that would be easily digestible at the end of a long day’s work, I chose the format of an online ELT course, covering 15 features of spoken grammar under the following five headings:

  • Word order and ellipsis
  • Emphasis
  • Vague language
  • Marking spoken discourse
  • Response language

The completed course Spoken Grammar: A Guide for English Language Teachers is now available on Udemy, the Californian online learning platform.


Publications in spoken grammar

Spoken Grammar: Guide for English Language Teachers (Udemy, now available)

A Handbook of Spoken Grammar (Delta Publishing, 2011)


Reviews

For journal and website reviews of A Handbook of Spoken Grammar, please click here.


Articles on spoken grammar

Introducing your students to spoken grammar (The Teacher, Poland, 2007)

Preparing to teach spoken grammar (article written for colleagues at the University of Westminster)

Talks on spoken grammar

‘Spoken grammar’: defining it and teaching it

For details of this talk for teachers’ groups, please click here.

Talks on spoken grammar previously delivered:

  • What shall we do with spoken grammar? English UK Teachers’ Conference, London 2013
  • Teaching new items of spoken grammar, Teachers’ Conference, Kortrijk (Belgium) 2013
  • Features of spoken grammar, DiNAC, Hasselt (Belgium) 2013
  • Bringing Spoken Grammar into the Classroom, British Council, Brussels 2012
  • Aspects of Spoken Grammar, IATEFL, Harrogate 2010, Brighton 2011, Glasgow 2012.
  • Teaching Spoken Grammar, TESOL Spain, Madrid 2008, Seville 2009.
  • Designing Natural Spoken English Courses, TESOL Spain, Valencia 2003, Madrid 2004.