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.
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.