Understanding English Grammar Through Visual and Experiential Models

Understanding English Grammar Through Visual and Experiential Models

By: Carl Eldridge

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What if we taught grammar based on the principles of the physical world from which it originates? What if we put aside the traditional approach of teaching form, explaining meaning, and having students commit this information to memory? What if we went back to physical principles, and metaphors based on them, that can be experienced and understood by all learners?

I can’t help wondering if the traditional approach to grammar teaching, based on form, usage, and memorization is actually helpful in terms of what is happening in the heads of expert speakers when they communicate.

It is true that some parts of language are set phrases that we remember and use as intact wholes. All a student needs to do with these is to remember them. However, language is a lot more than just these set expressions. Speakers actually choose how to put words together to express themselves. Sometimes we are conscious of the choices we make, thinking: “I could say it like this or like that.” At times we suddenly become aware of making an undesirable choice. We stop and rephrase. Many grammatical choices, though, are made unconsciously. As a result, the basis of our choices is often unclear to us, making it difficult to explain why we use grammar in the way we do.

Instead of having students remember rules about which grammatical forms should be used, we can help them discover the meaning of the forms instead. When they have a good understanding of the meaning, the uses—the reasons behind the choices that expert speakers make—make sense.

Grammatical meanings are basic, sketching out relationships that occur in the physical world around us or using these relationships as the basis for metaphors (what Bergen, 2012, calls embodied simulation). And when learners make good grammatical choices in context, their sentences take on more detailed meaning and nuance. In this article, I will explain how I teach grammar based on this principle, particularly focussing on:

  1. Using physical distinctions
  2. Using sketch-like images
  3. Using metaphors from the physical world



Using physical distinctions

How we think about something often influences the grammar we use when we talk about it. So, an interesting way of approaching grammar can be to ask questions to find the connections between the grammar used and what the speaker is thinking. One way of helping a learner develop this connection is through guided discovery, using questions that draw their attention to something they may not have noticed. This can be applied to many areas, but, as my first example, let’s look at countable and uncountable nouns. A conversation guiding students with questions may go something like this:

Here are two natural English sentences:

I like bananas.

I like watermelon.

Do you notice anything different about the two sentences? (Answer: The plural is used for bananas, but not watermelon. If the students don’t see it right away, you can use further questions until the students see it for themselves.)

Why? (students often don’t know)

What do you do with bananas and watermelons? Eat them.

How do you eat a banana? You take a banana, peel it, and eat it.
And if you want more? You take one more.
So do you eat banana or bananas? Bananas.
How about watermelon? You take a watermelon, cut it, and eat it.
Do you eat the whole thing? Not usually.
And if you want more? You take some more.
So do you eat watermelon or watermelons? Watermelon!

After the questions, students can then apply this to situations illustrated with pictures, e.g., someone offering apple cut up on a platter, or someone offering bags of apples, contrasting “Would you like some apple?” and “Would you like some apples?”

This approach can be particularly effective when the grammar of English highlights a physical distinction that is not highlighted in their L1. In this case, my students do not need to be aware of the one/some distinction when they speak about fruit in their native Japanese.

Using sketch-like images

Providing images can also help students understand how English grammar sees things and how this might differ from their L1. The images are tools that will help them more accurately decode language when they experience it in context. Offering visual images is important for another reason as well. By using images, activating a channel not dependant on language, learners can form L2 grammar models that are more resistant to being overwhelmed by the dominant L1 models.

However, learning grammar from images is not just a matter of looking at them. So, when these images are introduced, students need to be encouraged to explore how they relate to a range of examples.

Using images works well for prepositions. Often the grammatical choices involved in using English prepositions don’t exist in the students’ L1, so choosing the best phrasing for the situation can be challenging. Let me provide an example from where I live, Japan. If you look up a Japanese word like に(ni) in a dictionary, you’ll find a range of translations:

  1. at (place, time); in; on; during                          ​ 6. as (i.e. in the role of)
  2. to (direction, state); toward; into;                    7. per; in; for; a (e.g. “once a month”)
  3. for (purpose);                                                       8. and; in addition to​
  4. because of (reason); for; with                           9. if; although
  5. by; from​

So, it can basically be translated as any of the English prepositions. How then, can a Japanese learner understand what all these prepositions mean if they can all be translated as に(ni)?

Images are often used when teaching prepositions of place. Their use with abstract concepts, such as time, can be shown to be an extension of the same central meaning as when they are used for place (Eldridge, 2016), as in the following examples. We can use a colored line (in this case blue) to give a brief idea of how we conceptualize space—as a container, surface, or point.

The following illustration shows the use of these simple concept images to demonstrate how the same core ideas can be used with both time and space.

Sample explanation for on: If we take a basic object, say an apple, it is three dimensional. Its surface doesn’t have a clear start or end. When we peel off its surface (the skin), we can start peeling it wherever we like. With time, on is mainly used for days. We can start our day whenever we like. We can wake up and start our day at 5am, or 11am or whatever time works best for us.

Sample explanation for at: When talking about space, describing a point with at makes sense for locations and events. With time, there are also locations in time and events. Location (a clear point in time): at 10:30. Events (a time something happens): at sunset, at night.

The same core images can be used to show the differences between in and on for forms of transport.

Because students may conceptualize this very differently in their L1, the illustrations can help them see the kind of ideas that these words invoke in the mind of an English speaker.

Using metaphors from the physical world

Will and be going to are useful expressions when talking about the future, but how do we choose between them?

Traditionally, people say that will marks an action or state in the future tense. But this explanation throws up lots of exceptions: Why is it common for people to use words other than will when talking about the future? Why do people use will when talking about the present? (For example, “They’ll be at home now.”)

We can introduce a different definition of will based on a metaphor from the physical world. This perspective presents the language in a more logical light, and all the uses of will make sense. Let’s look at this example:

We use will when there are options or possibilities and a choice is made between them.

We can use the metaphor that “time is a road/path that we travel along” (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003). This illustration shows a fork in a road. There is a choice to be made. Which way will you go?


When making the choice, the speaker uses will.

This explanation fits with other uses of will, including decisions (“I’ll get her a present.”), future predictions (“It’ll rain tomorrow.”), present predictions (“Hurry up. He’ll be waiting.”), and the use of will in general statements (“Accidents will happen.”).

The metaphor for be going to comes from a different image. We often go to a place. But we can also be going to a future action/event, as though we are on a path towards it).

In be going to, “going” refers to motion.

This phrase is used when talking about both space and time.

We often make a choice to go somewhere, rejecting one fork in the road and taking another. Then we go there, moving through space.

We talk about time the same way we talk about space. We make a decision to do something. Then we move through time until it happens in the future.

Although this takes longer to explain than a traditional rule, it helps the students paint a picture in their mind’s eye and base their understanding on this helpful metaphor. This is preferable to the accumulation of seemingly disconnected rules, and provides them a visualization to counter L1 interference.

The metaphor can be integrated into their understanding of the English worldview, and applied to other contexts where they encounter will and be going to, such as choosing between “Will you marry me?” and “Are you going to marry me?” or discussing why writers choose to use one of these forms rather than the other.


"Different languages conceptualise the world in different ways, and this often results in differences in grammatical uses."
Carl Eldridge
TT Author

Different languages conceptualise the world in different ways, and this often results in differences in grammatical uses. However, all basic meanings relate to human experience. Many relate to our concrete experience of the physical world or to metaphorical extensions of these. In particular, many of the core ideas of grammar are based on our perception of space and movement, and these relate back to simple ideas like containment and direction. The way we sketch our experience of the physical world varies from language to language, as does the way we extend the usage of words for these experiences. There are often details included in the grammar of one language but not another. So, when learning a language, being aware of these details will help us form better connections between form and meaning.

When learning our first language, we piece this together by experiencing language used in context, but learners may run into difficulty when learning an additional language because of the strong grammatical system of L1 which tends to dominate the student’s thinking. In this article, I have offered several ways in which teachers can guide them towards a clearer understanding of the concepts embedded in the grammar of English.


  • Bergen, B. K. (2012). Louder than words. New York, NY: Basic Books.

  • Eldridge, C. (2016). Real grammar: Understand English. Clear and simple. Underwood, Australia: InHouse Publishing.

  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Carl Eldridge is the author of Real Grammar: Understand English. Clear and Simple. He teaches at Osaka Sangyo University and Hagoromo International University and is an English adviser for textbooks. He is always happy to talk about anything grammar related, especially accurate explanations and demystifying grammar for learners. [email protected] 

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