Grammar teaching in Estonia

NB Estonia is one of the top performing countries in the PISA rankings by the OECD, who offer this national profile. Estonia is also a founding member of the International Linguistics Olympiad.

Most of the information was provided by Martin Ehala, but Indrek Park provided the first bullet.

  • … a high school-level textbook from Estonia. It is called “The Structure of Estonian: A Textbook for High School.” … The textbook is … a study of the structure of Estonian within the framework of modern linguistic theory. It was written for high-school students who have completed ten years of mandatory Estonian , based on “traditional” methods, such as drilling the approximately 150 declensions; orthography, which can be quite tricky in Estonian, etc. The purpose of this one-year course is to show the students that there is more to the study of language than just mindlessly drilling the endless rules (there is lot of those in Estonian). The author is Dr. Martin Ehala.
  • Currently, formal grammar is not being taught from grade I but starts at grade 4  and goes to the end of grade 6, and another round from grades 7 to 9. And then there is again one course in grade 10 (altogether secondary education has 12 grades).
  • 40 years ago, it was … boring, and this is why I [i.e. Ehala] decided to write this textbook [Structure of Estonian] in 1997.
  • Meanwhile my views on L1 literacy teaching have evolved further, and I have been arguing that the primary goal for L1 teaching is functional literacy (reading comprehension, functional writing skills for wide range of text types, and good oral skills, and of course traditional orthography, too). To acquire functional skills, one needs a lot of active practice and less theory – like learning to play piano – you need to play, not only learn about history and theory about pianos and how the sound is made if you hit the key. In short – we need to teach L1 literacy in a similar manner how we teach foreign languages – less systematic study of formal grammar, but more functional study of how grammar and and meaning and style are connected – so that students become aware how using different constructions subtly alters meaning and style of their expression.  For this reason I and my colleagues have developed what we call “Practical Estonian” – a series of course books in which linguistic and grammatical knowledge is not organized traditionally from phonetics to syntax, but bits and pieces are presented when and where specific genre or styles requires attention to constructions that are particularly characteristic to it. See (Praktiline eesti keel).
  • “The structure of Estonian” is now soon 20 years old, and it is not actively used at majority of schools any more. Instead it is replaced by a new linguistics textbook “Language and society” that I wrote together with my colleagues – this book has much broader coverage than just grammar, and is what I believe really a linguistics textbook. It is also used in grade 10. See
  • What characterises Estonia (and Finland, Singapore and other top performers) at PISA tests is a high level of homogeneity of the student population …. This means that the number of slower students in the classrooms is lower, teaching can be more effective and the mean results are higher. For example, Estonia is on the top not because of many top performers, but because of low share of low performers (Finns have more high performers than Estonia, but also slightly more low performers).
  • Still learning linguistics is about as hard than physics and to give at least minimal introduction to different branches of language sciences (as we try in Language and society) requires a lot of material being squeezed into relatively few pages. It is not possible to learn all this, so we suggest that our textbook is used mainly as a text source for training reading comprehension – the goal is just to be able to understand, but we do not set the goal to learn all the stuff. Still students abilities and interests differ a lot, and to account for this, there are different types of exercises ranging from simple comprehension to trying to analyse linguistic data, compare samples, or find examples. That allows for differentiation of tasks.
  • Most of the L1 teachers graduate with Estonian philology degree (philology in our tradition means that they will learn both Estonian linguistics, Estonian and world literature, text analysis and rhetorics). Of course many teachers have graduated decades ago, so when new textbooks with modern information appear, there will be training courses – and I have also made some videos in youtube of how to use a particular textbook.
  • … the time of learning formal grammar has passed or at least lost significantly in its importance, and instead of learning we rely more on skills of information retrieval. So the situation now is even not the same as 25 years ago. Grammar and linguistics appeals to a small segment of students, but most see it unnecessary and they have little motivation. Our new book [Language and Society]  is meant to adapt to this situation – it tries to be interesting, even though it is shallow. Its main objective is to attract those who may have interest in linguistics to study further, and for those who are not, to practice their functional reading skills.
  • Teachers in Estonia have low salary and low status, their mean age is about 50 years, and there is shortage of students coming to learn to be teachers. Low status is has long history, it goes back to the soviet times. So the situation is rather critical right now.
  • Due to soviet times, Estonian school was late in engaging with student centered education, our school is still tough and demanding both discipline, homework and hard work – even though it has been liberating over the last 25 years. Our students are not as happy as students in the West, environment is more competitive. So the differences between  national settings are really large to assess what is behind success or lack of it.
  • [Dick Hudson: One positive thing that you may take for granted, and don’t mention, is that you, as a university academic, have written textbooks and supervised students who have done the same; in other words, there’s a good intellectual bridge between universities and schools. That doesn’t really exist here in the UK.] Yes, this is true, I believe, the connection between the department of Estonian language and school is strong. Almost all literacy teachers have graduated from this department, and they encourage their favorite students to enter our speciality that will result in new teachers (in some cases). There have been initiatives from university level administration to put all teacher training into the education department which would break this connection, but we have so far fought all these attempts back.
  • Actually I have also written a paper [How much grammar do we need? See below] where I argue that much of grammatical conceptual framework is unnecessary for teaching the standard language (orthography, morphology, syntax and punctuation).
  • Issues:
    • How to make grammar teaching less boring and more illuminating.
    • How to reduce the time needed (or at least given) for grammar teaching. As argued in “Kui vajalik on grammatika?” (see below) traditional grammar teaching also gives too much detail and takes too much time.


  • Ehala, Martin, Külli Habicht, Petar Kehayov & Anastassia Zabrodskaja. 2014. Keel ja Ühiskond (Language and Society). Künnimees. –  a few extracted pages
  • Ehala, Martin & Mare Kitsnik. 2011. Praktiline Eesti Keel (Practical Estonian Language) – a series of booklets for different years of secondary school. Künnimees.  a few extracted pages

Comments are closed.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.