Published 28th June 2017

Scott Thornbury coined the term “grammar McNuggets” in 2000 to refer to grammar being packaged into bite-sized chunks of language in preparation for teaching. Considering that fast food is generally not very high on any list of dietary recommendations, we can safely assume that Thornbury is not being complimentary in his usage of the term.

So what’s all this about then?

On the one hand it may seem like cutting up language into manageable chunks would benefit our learners. Rather than be overwhelmed by learning English as a whole, they can focus on learning a specific language structure, like the present perfect or the first conditional.

This does make sense, to a certain degree.

However, what Thornbury is trying to get at is that this is being done to grammar in particular at the expense of teaching and learning the language as a whole – in other words, grammar exists independently of other aspects of language like vocabulary and pronunciation.

Publishers especially like to package grammar like this because it makes putting together a syllabus for a book much easier. It provides teachers with a very clear idea of the progression of the course and it identifies specific structures to be taught in specific lessons – Today, we are going to look at modal verbs.

Teachers are lulled into a false sense of trust in the publishers, believing that things are as they are because adequate research has been done on the subject, when in fact coursebooks are not really based on research, or at least not the most up-to-date research. The fact that coursebooks can take years to produce surely also plays a part. Essentially this means that not only can the content of coursebooks seem a bit dated, but also the learning theory behind it.

The bottom line?

Coursebooks are a resource and should be utilised as such. Coursebooks are great sources of materials for our lessons but don’t feel obliged to do everything your coursebook tells you to, when it tells you to or the way it tells you to. Use it any way you wish. Pick and choose language points which are suitable and necessary for your learners and think of how you can merge your grammar teaching into language teaching.

Remember that our learners don’t learn grammar in a linear and discrete fashion, as suggested by coursebooks. Grammar McNuggets are useful for our teaching purposes but not so much for learning purposes, so utilising them needs to be done with our eyes open to the possibilities they give us and the restrictions they pose on us.

Indulging in the use of McNuggets should be done the same way you would indulge in fast food: not every day and only when you’ve run out of other options.