A Graphic Grammar Approach!

04 May 2017

How do children learn?

We visit hundreds of classrooms in the course of our work, and talk to thousands of teachers. The central question, which we ask over and over again, is: “How do children learn?”

Here’s what we have come up with:

  1. Young children are fantastic learners in their own language. By the age of six, a child can use about 2,500 words and understand 20,000 more. That means learning ten new words every day. They do this by observation, understanding, repetition and memorization.
  1. They can’t do this in a classroom, however. The learning environment is different, there are issues of control and discipline, and, crucially, they are being trained towards a curriculum that is based on cognitive analysis. They are moving from being juvenile learners into being adult decision-makers.
  1. Part of this process, of cognitively learning a foreign tongue, is understanding the mechanism of grammar – the operating machinery of the language. If they can’t understand how to work the controls, they don’t get the machine to move.
  1. Unfortunately, grammar is explained at a hypothetical level using complicated language and ideas, which range from the relatively simple (verbs and nouns) to the more complicated (adverbs of time) to the downright frustrating (the formation of the third conditional).  No matter how competent the young learners are, grammar can be impossible to understand.

We spent many years trying to solve this puzzle – how can we make grammar easy for young learners?

What’s ‘x’ got to do with it?

Surprisingly, we found the answer in a different discipline – mathematics. Teachers in the USA found that their students couldn’t cope with the basic equation

2x = 6.

The students just couldn’t understand what ‘x’ was. What does it all mean?

The teachers found that if they brought physical objects into the classroom – a balance scale, two bags and some toy blocks – they could show the kids a maths experiment that explained all the hypothetical abstracts in a concrete form. Here’s how they did it:

They showed the students some blocks and said “I’ve put some blocks into these two bags. Do you know how many blocks there are in a bag?”


“OK. It’s a mystery. We’ll call this bag X. Now we put X and the other bag on the scale.  Do they balance?”


“So they’re the same. They’re both X. Let’s put them on one side of the scale, and add blocks on the other side until they balance. How many blocks does it need? “


“So…  2x = 6. How much is one X?”


Once the students saw the algebra as a physical object, the hypothetical nature of the example disappeared. They saw a concrete experiment, and they understood how it worked.



How does this work with English grammar?

The simplest way to show young students is to use coloured blocks or pieces of paper in the classroom. Colour them like this:


Blue is the subject, red is the verb, and white for the rest of the sentence. Show the students a question mark on a piece of card, and ask them, “How do I make this into a question?”

The solution is to change over the positions of the red and blue cards:


Give the students the cards and get them to practice moving the cards from the statement to the question.  All they are doing is changing the position of the blue and red cards, and adding a question mark. It’s a very simple process.

We don’t introduce grammar purely by verbal explanatios, but if we did, here’s how question formation could look (picture 1):


If we wanted to do this visually, it would look like this (Picture 2):


The joy of graphic grammar is that the students keep coming across the blue and red squares, and realise that actually it’s a recurring pattern.

Exceptions to the rules

There are one or two exceptions – the Present Simple being the most obvious – but they can be explained within the overall pattern of question formation.


Once the students start seeing the patterns, then they begin looking for them in other parts of the language.  They are starting to think cognitively – without being given metalanguage, complicated descriptions, or intimidating hypothetical concepts.

For more information on the Graphic Grammar approach check out the following website: www.graphicgrammar.com




Jim Rose has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Lancaster University and an MSc in Biology and Ecology from Exeter University.

After teaching in Nigeria, Jim taught at International House London, becoming a teacher trainer and Director of Studies for Teacher Training. He set up a teacher training department in Brazil, and established a self-access centre and computer facilities at a large school in central London.

In 1991 he moved to Lancaster University to study, and then lecture before starting his long writing collaboration with Steve Elsworth.





Steve Elsworth has a BA and an MA in English from Lancaster University. He started teaching English in 1977, and has taught in Turkey, London and Algeria.

Steve has written about 40 ELT books, and two books about the environment. For five years, he worked as a campaigner for Greenpeace, and helped launch their global campaign against climate change.

Jim and Steve have travelled widely through Europe, Asia and Latin America, and have given workshops in 20 countries.  Their largest workshop was with 2,000 teachers in Buenos Aires.




Aspire to Excellence! With the clearly-structured skills and grammar syllabus, an integrated phonics programme, and a focus on natural communication, Academy Stars develops the skills and strategies children need to be confident learners, excellent communicators and to achieve success – at school, in exams and throughout their life.

Want to learn more about the new 7-level primary course, Academy Stars? Fancy downloading some free audio and flashcards, or checking out the new Graphic Grammar videos? Then visit: www.macmillanyounglearners.com/academystars or contact your local Macmillan Education Representative for more information!