Teaching grammar: for better or for worse?

Holding Hands. Melvin E.

The question of how grammar should be taught (or indeed whether it should be taught at all) is possibly the prickliest in the TEFL world. Belief (or scepticism) about the value of teaching grammar is central to our practice, and a subject close to many teachers’ hearts. Yet it’s surprising how little we actually understand about how grammar teaching affects the learning process. Right this very moment, thousands of linguists are gazing down at their navels asking themselves the following questions: does explicit knowledge of grammatical rules help students to use them in real, spontaneous communication? When students start to use grammar more accurately, is thanks to our teaching, or would they have improved anyway? Is electric shock therapy the only effective means of getting students to use the third person –s? While research is gradually helping us to build up a clearer picture, lack of conclusive evidence means that, for the moment, decisions about how to deal with grammar in the classroom are mostly based on a combination of historical and cultural factors together with teacher intuition about what works best.

 

The honeymoon period

This uncertainty goes some way to explaining why the relationship between grammar and language teaching has been through more ups and downs than a Hollywood romance. Love’s young dream in the late 1800s, grammar enjoyed a starring role in language lessons thanks to the ‘grammar-translation’ legacy of Ancient Greek and Latin. However, while traditional rote learning of verb tables and grammar rules were ideal when treating languages as an academic subject for translating texts, these methods were entirely unsuitable for modern language students who needed languages for communication (Whong 2011). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of grammar-translation in such classes led to generations of disillusioned students trying to learn how to speak a language without ever actually speaking it.

SJSA 2nd Grade. Contributed by Michael 1952.

SJSA 2nd Grade. Contributed by Michael 1952.

 

On and off

Right through to the second half of the 20th Century, language teaching and grammar-translation enjoyed a comfortable but somewhat ungratifying co-dependency. Fortunately, the out with the old, in with the new spirit of the 1970s led to the demise of many old and inappropriate things including President Nixon, misogyny and the grammar-translation method. The advent of communicative language teaching (CLT), which places the onus on communication instead of booting students out of the classroom for a split infinitive, has revolutionised the way languages are taught.

However, dogmatic varieties which exclude grammar entirely brought up as many problems as they sought to resolve. For a start, the possibility of teaching English without grammar meant that highly qualified teachers began to worry they might be usurped by troupes of gap year travellers who couldn’t tell a preposition from a pinacolada. A second, more legitimate concern came from immersion contexts, such as the French language programs in Canada, where learners who had been educated in communicative contexts for many years continued making grammatical mistakes.

The case for including grammar has since been strengthened by reviews of existing research (e.g. Long 1983; Norris and Ortega 2000) which report results in favour of explicit grammar teaching. However, such conclusions are far from conclusive as many reviews also reveal questionable experimental techniques and a general bias towards explicit grammar teaching in existing research. Naturally, such studies also raise more questions: if teaching grammar does indeed work, how, what and when should we teach it?

Many teachers instinctively feel that ‘Focus on Form’ (Long 1988), where students are first familiarised with the meaning and use of a language feature before grammar is introduced, offers a practical solution to these questions. However, more unbiased research is needed if we are to gain a deeper understanding of its effect on the learning process. For the moment, it looks as if grammar and language teaching are starting to patch things up, although their relationship may remain rocky for a while longer.

 

Long, Michael (1991). “Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology”. In De Bot, Kees; Ginsberg, Ralph; Kramsch, Claire. Foreign language research in cross-cultural perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 39–52.

Norris, J., & Ortega, L. (2000). Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning, 50, 417-528

Whong, M. (2011) Language Teaching: Linguistic Theory in Practice. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Teaching grammar: for better or for worse?

  1. Important topic. I believe that learning ABOUT language follows being able to USE that language. That is, that learning grammar, as a metalinguistic skills is only appropriate in the upper grades. What we see is that those students who already use correct language (i.e. have internalized many of the rules even if they don’t know how to explain them) are those who will manage the explicit learning of grammar rules better than those students whose language use is less complex, and that for the latter students learning ‘about the rules’ does not make for better use of these rules. What DOES work is many instances of being exposed to MODELING of these language structures in context and opportunities to use them in varied contexts.

    Children as young as 4 show us that they have internalized some of the language’s rules by the ‘creative errors’ they make (e.g. “I goed there” or “I can see lots of deers”). This does not mean they can break it down (or should) to explain that they have added ‘ed’ at the end to signify regular past tense, or added a ‘plural s’ at the end of the word to reflect quantity beyond one … In many cases they are too young to even have the phonological awareness, let alone reading and writing skills to see (let alone describe) those grammatical laws. However, they clearly reflect knowledge of them, implicitly.

    I do think there is merit to teach older students ABOUT their language. It is part of understanding the world, The way one one teach older students about physics, and how other things around them work. It should not, however, be part of teaching A language, but an expansion of skills for those who have mastered it receptively, expressively, in oral and written language.

    Have a great weekend!

  2. I find that grammar varies in perceived value from culture to culture. Specifically, if one’s native language doesn’t even use “words” as we understand them, grammar will be almost a foreign concept (such as Chinese, where ideograms are the written language and tonality is an intrinsic element of spoken language); if one’s native language is inflected (meaning that the grammatical function of a word is connoted primarily by the ending or prefix attached to it, such as Latin and Romance languages), then grammar is of some importance; if one’s language is not particularly inflected and word order is a basic element of grammar, then grammar is crucial (like English). As teachers, we need to make these adjustments. There’s a huge gap between understanding the concept of grammar and having to learn that of a particular language and not even understanding (on a gut level) why grammar is important.

  3. The eternal dilema….I believe that grammar should always be taught..the question is when. Great post.

  4. I like your post. I would say every teacher reading this has at one time learned at least a second language, and in the process found that reading explicit grammar rules did in fact help. Taking myself as an example, I learned French at first with grammar books which helped me form my first pigeon sentences (I was a very slow and nervous beginner). As soon as I had those few simple, comprehensible sentences I broke free of grammar-translation and started trying to socialise, leaving rules behind in favour of a torrent of badly conjugated, yet communicatively successful, sentences. I made friends this way, and my progress shot forward too fast to even consider focussing on form more than simply to keep the conversation comprehensible. Once I reached what I’d call fluency, or at least fluidity and confidence, I found myself going back to the grammar books to correct some of my now-fossilised mistakes in my everyday conversation. This genuinely helped, leading me to pause briefly and self-correct mid-conversation as a little rule popped into my head like a blinking warning light.

    If I were to put that gibbering story into a practical summary, I’d say learning the explicit language rules to get my utterances (and courage) going gave me access to language input in the real-world that would have been otherwise closed off to me. Once I had my green-card to enter the social world of French, the language affordances presented to me were enough to push my development to try to match that of my interlocutors. Once that had approximately been reached, I had spare mental energy to devote to self-correction, and returned to the rules out of curiosity and a willingness to improve. It’s as if I passed through distinct stages of development that had very different, very personal reasons for needing, or not, explicit grammar instruction.

    I would say, in conclusion, that I believe the need for grammar is holistic and unpredictable, and that students should be consulted constantly about what they feel the want to learn as a basis for when to teach grammar, as well as their learning objectives in general.

  5. I’m so glad I found your blog. I’m new to teaching ESL learners and am working with adults right now. Aspects of teaching grammar and how to incorporate it into lessons is a struggle for me at this point. I know from doing research that students who are taught grammar in isolation are less likely process the rules than when integrated into a thematic lesson on a topic. I couldn’t help but chuckle at your question: ”

    Is electric shock therapy the only effective means of getting students to use the third person –s”

    That’s what I’m about to start teaching the students I tutor this week, lol…we’ll see how that goes.

    • hi Barbara, Stephen Krashen says that second language learners are only programmed to use the 3rd person s when they are at the right developmental stage in their acquisition. so, basically, we have to teach it (obviously), but we can’t worry about it or penalise 2L speakers for not using it. I know what you mean though, as I’ve seen it myself. everyone can fill in the verb chart nicely, but when we’re chatting between activities or after class it’s like that 3rd person s never existed.

  6. Grammar is a good training wheel to help introduce concepts and provide models of accurate form, but only function to service the speaking/listening/writing/reading skills.

  7. Nice post, thanks.
    As a teacher I find grammar classes a bit dull but easy to teach. As a learner, I like grammar to be specifically focused on some aspect that have immediate need of E.g.How can I say bread AND bananas? I’ve just started to learn Arabic, and I’m blogging my progress (not pretty; ten days in and i’ve still only got a few score words at my command), So far I’m not thinking about grammar too much, and this post has pretty much validated my ‘grammar when needed’ approach, rather than grammar for the sake of it.
    Jinks

  8. Thank you for the follow especially because it has given me the opportunity to find your blog and read this great post.
    I must say it is a very interesting dilemma to ponder on as a bilingual and as a teacher of English as a foreign Language in Italian Secondary Schools. I happen to be both.
    I was introduced to English at the age of nine when my family decided to move to the U.S. from Italy. The first few months were tragic for me and I will never forget what I experienced, speaking English fluently became of vital importance, without the knowledge and the skill I was invisible, or even worse, considered blatantly stupid. Television was a great ally in the process of assimilating what I learned little by little in school, but it wouldn’t have been such a speedy and successful process if I hadn’t had a great teacher that sat next to me and patiently fed me grammar rules to associate to exposure and, of course, if I hadn’t been a child. Learning a new language is much easier for children than it is for adults and for many good reasons that I will not try to analyse here, the comment would be too long, as it already is, for that matter.
    As a teacher I believe to have found a sort of balance between grammar and communication. However, it must also be underlined that teaching English as a foreign language as opposed to teaching it as a second one poses different issues. In the first place students who do not live in an English speaking country do not have many opportunities to experiment the language itself, the exposure to English is quite limited and this is undoubtedly a draw back when it comes to communicating directly, they naturally feel shy at first. Yet, I have noticed that when they are exposed to the language on a regualr basis, a good basic knowledge of grammar allows them to feel confident enough to try and when they do their language proficiency is of very good level.
    In the second place learning English as a foreign language for Italians is not as easy as it might seem at first, many say that the English grammar is somewhat less complex than Italian grammar, maybe so. But, what I believe is not much tanken into consideration though, is that, for instance, English grammar has quite a number of exceptions, and, in the comparison with Italian, its sytactic structure is quite different, not to mention the difficulty Italians encounter in mastering a correct pronounciation and intonation due especially to the fact that not only is the phonetics different but the facial muscles used to speak the two languages are also very different.
    Thirdly, a language represents a cultural identity that buries its roots in social and historic backgrounds that determine the way of thinking and living of a people, it is not merely a way of communicating, in the process of communicating we also convey who we are and where we come from. Therefore, learning a foreign language also implies the acquisition of a new culture and this requires the deep understanding of how enhancing differences can be in order to develop a greater awareness about ourselves.
    Finally, much depends on the reasons that lay behind the learning of a foreign language; is it for personal interest, is it for the pleasure of enriching one’s knowledge, is it for survival or because it is widely believed that it is a must in today’s world to be fluent in English? All these different reasons, in my opinion, may elicit different responses to the learning proccess itself.
    In Italian Secondary Schools the study of English as a foreign language is mandatory, nevertheless, depending upon the major chosen by students, the teaching approach is tailored accordingly. This means that for example a major in Business will stress a more technical based type of language study, a major in Tourism will focus mainly on a communicating approach, whereas for an Academic major there will be a greater attention to grammar for the first two years, and English history and literature for the last three. Moreover, our school system does not favour multiple choice question tests but it is based on essays or compositions and especially oral testings that allow our students to actually use the language and to exercise it because their evaluation comprises a personal relaboration of the contents learned during lessons. This way our students, in school, are exposed to all four skills (speaking, reading, writing, listening), our aim is to make the learning process as active as possible.
    Putting it simply, personally I find it challenging both ways, whether I focus on grammar or lecture on history and literature, yet I do think that grammar is step one, it’s like learning to walk before running. One thing leads to another.
    Thank you again for the opportunity to share opinions on such an interesting topic.
    Lucia

  9. Working as a TEFL volunteer with the Peace Corps in Taïacou, Benin, one of the most fascinating things I’ve noticed is the regularity of particular “creative errors” in my students, particularly when juxtaposed against syntactic constructions employed in their native language, Nateni.

    A brief bit of background, Benin is a francophone country, less in that the population universally speaks French, and more in that French is largely the langua franca used by those individuals who have a) greater access to education, and b) any reason at all, including commerce, to leave their village or quartier in the country–a surprisingly unusual occurence, given how small the country is. But French is a second language here, and languages like Nateni are far more prevalent in their isolated communities than French (only 20% of the population in Taïacou speaks French according to statistical data from 2010, but 98% speak Nateni).

    Meanwhile, Nateni is actually similar to English in its rather rich use of modal, auxiliary verbs and syntactical constructions that allow speakers to change verbs into modal auxiliaries, depending on the context. So, many of the errors in the classroom may be “errors” (and I use this term incredibly lightly, because I actually do not think of them as such at all) in english, but are perfectly acceptable syntactic constructions in Nateni, and in fact play with english semantics in such a way that is unique to the Natemba and Natemba culture. A couple of examples that I’ve scribbled in my notebook:

    “I am walk” (in lieu of I walk, present tense as well as present tense continuous constructions. This makes sense in Nateni where adding a suffix, “-ma” is used to indicate both present and continuous tenses. The minute kids learn “to be,” this supposed “error” becomes beautifully common)

    “I run go to the market,” (which uses a Nateni constructive process where another verb is used to adverbially modify the main verb in the phrase. This basically means “I go to the market by running,” or “I go to the market quickly, because I’m running.”)

    Maybe it’s the linguist in me, but I’m actually more interested in seeing what irregular regularities the kids in my community come up with. Given time and interest, rather than focusing on prescriptive grammar rules, I think I’ve had more success in reaching communicative goals in the classroom by allowing children to synthesize, modify, and develop their own, intelligible dialect of English, than by enforcing prescriptive rules. And there’s something to be said for that, and even more to be said of the beautiful plasticity of my students.

  10. Good question. ! In learning other languages, I thrive on grammar—I eat it up like candy—but I know that some other people are just frustrated and confused by it. I think it boils down to the individual students, and I think that’s where the challenge comes in, because you can’t exactly hand out a questionnaire and tailor your lessons to each individual student if you have a room full of thirty kids.

    And then there are the people, like you mentioned, who learn to speak fluently but make dozens of mistakes per conversation, yet they feel that they’ve “mastered” the language, so good luck trying to correct them.

    It’s tricky. 🙂 Is language a science or an art?

  11. I LOVE this post. I teach a grammar class to ENL (our new moniker in New York…English as a New Language). Your line about 3rd person singular was great!

  12. Why not teach students to speak and write grammatically correctly? Thanks to sites like http://www.grammarly.com, good grammar is seen as sexy. People who speak and write grammatically correctly are seen as more attractive. Grammar is not bolt-on. It makes a difference to how you express yourself. Think of the difference between tenses. “If I were a rich man” differs greatly from, “If I am a rich man.”

  13. Great article. After ten years experience teaching ESL I have tried it all that has come to my mind. I was very focused on Grammar when I first started, and that changes dramatically when I considered a CLT approach for my classes, and I am now reinforcing grammar in some classes. Whatever works is fine, and classes differ from one to another, so it is good to change our strategies.
    I am completely ignoring grammar for the first time when I’m teaching some adults who are only interested in communication, but focusing on it with youngsters. It is true that babies do not study grammar and they don’t need it to master the language. However; they dedicate more time than us listening and repeating, and they have a brand new brain!
    To sum up I’d say a balance of both worlds would be the best, even though students hate grammar, maybe it’s just a matter of changing the concepts and teaching grammar rules without using terms such as ‘gerund’.

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