Focus on form

Should we bother teaching grammar at all?

There is nothing quite so controversial as the role of grammar in the language classroom.  For some, grammar is the cornerstone of second language teaching. Others believe that students acquire grammar naturally without the need for formal instruction (Krashen 1988).  Recent trends in language teaching have played down grammatical accuracy in favour of helping students to develop effective communication skills, but does this mean abandoning grammar altogether?  Should we dedicate time in our lessons to explicit grammar instruction, or focus on providing the right conditions for students to acquire grammar naturally? Focus on form (Long 1988), which draws student’s attention to grammatical structures as part of a broader communicative syllabus, offers an attractive happy medium. But it raises just as many questions as it seeks to answer about what, when and how (Ellis et al. 2002).

Ellis (2006) identifies some key questions about the role of grammar in the classroom:

1. Should we teach grammar, or should we simply create the conditions
by which learners learn naturally?
2. What grammar should we teach?

3. When should we teach grammar? Is it best to teach grammar when
learners first start to learn an L2 or to wait until later when learners
have already acquired some linguistic competence?
4. Should grammar instruction be massed (i.e., the available teaching
time be concentrated into a short period) or distributed (i.e., the
available teaching time spread over a longer period)?
5. Should grammar instruction be intensive (e.g., cover a single grammatical
structure in a single lesson) or extensive (e.g., cover many
grammatical structures in a single lesson)?
6. Is there any value in teaching explicit grammatical knowledge?
7. Is there a best way to teach grammar for implicit knowledge?
8. Should grammar be taught in separate lessons or integrated into
communicative activities?

What do you think about the role of grammar in the classroom? Consider the above questions, with reference to your own teaching.

ELLIS, R. (2006), Current Issues in the Teaching of Grammar: An SLA Perspective. TESOL Quarterly, 40: 83–107.

Ellis, R., Basturkmen, H. and Loewen, S. Doing focus-on-form. System, Volume 30, Issue 4, December 2002, Pages 419–432

Long, M. H. (1988). Instructed interlanguage development. In L. M. Beebe (Ed.), Issues in second language acquisition:
Multiple perspectives (pp. 115-141). Cambridge, MA: Newbury House.


38 responses to “Grammar

  1. I teach private students in Italy, so cannot really relate a classroom experience. I believe one should follow the needs of the students when teaching. Young children, for example, don’t need detailed rules about grammar and are usually very happy to copy the teacher. However, as they develop and are exposed to more “grammar” teaching at school, they will often ask me about the rules. I explain as simply as possible. Adults are different, They insist on knowing the grammar rules, bristling at anything that doesn’t follow the rule. Here again, the level of the student makes a difference. Lower level, simpler rules, and I move slowly, giving them time to assimilate and practise the structures. This site looks interesting. Thank you for visiting and following my blog.

  2. I teach grammar to college students in a community college setting. I students that the terms that describe grammar — are just that. Just terms. They already know how to write sentences, but they need to know that they are putting their words together in the correct way. They are more confused with the terms more than the concepts. Sometimes a simple analogy helps. I tell them this: If you’re going to build an engine, you have to know the parts, how they go together and what their function is; otherwise, the engine will not run properly. It’s the same for sentences.

  3. Wade

    As a teacher of EFL and German, I have wrestled with this question time and again. It seems to me that short explanations of grammar points as they arise in a communicative classroom setting work best. That being said, I do believe the short explanations need to be anticipated and fit into a larger framework of pre-existing knowledge. Unfortunately, while we in English may be less focused on grammar-based instruction, many practitioners of foreign language instruction are extremely focused on it.

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  6. teachermrw

    A thought-provoking post.

    Students learning a second language need to learn and master the structural components of the language being studied. I realize that Krashen has drilled it into generations of language teachers that the L1 and the L2 are similar. Truth be told: They are *not* similar. We learn the first language through immersion. We learn the second language though an understanding of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. If we take the classroom experience to another level, we then add an immersion component to it, which is time spent where the language is spoken as a first language.

  7. I think to really answer this question on the inclusion of grammar in the class room we have to reflect on the setting in which we practise. In some of the responses above a number of “responders” have indicated they are in an ESL setting, but many are of the EFL variety …. in numerous cases, globally, this indicates a focus on grammar as a method to learn the language, as the use of the target language may be constrained outside the class room. Those in college settings tend to focus on text within the delivery, and grammar is a quick and easy way to determine if one is successfully acquiring “use” of the language. Personally, I do not focus on grammar. We use language to communicate, and proponents of the lexical method state that “few communications errors” are caused by poor grammar usage ( although many might debate this point ). My goal is to ensure that my students are correctly understood when they use their L2. While grammar is important, I tend to use it during “teaching moments” rather than cores for lessons.

  8. Thank you for liking my blog, and thank you so much for a thoughtful, well-written blog.

  9. englishinsider

    I teach culturally diverse adult students who come from cultures who value traditional grammar activities so it is very difficult for many of them to understand the meaning within context. They would prefer the grammar exercises than working on communicating meanings although they understand that this is an immediate and great need. My approach is to teach grammar in context and to focus on the meanings they are trying to communicate.

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  11. victoriaeld

    First, I’d like to say thank you for being the first to respond to by page ( it’s a work in progress. In response to this post, grammar is essential for learning a second language. However, it should not dominate the classroom. Especially since there always seems to be an exception to the rule. You may be surprised to see that your students know the RULE better than you and could create some confusion in the class. I teach adults in South Korea, at this stage they are tired off grammar already. To put it in a nutshell(and because I hate typing on iPad). Any grammar lesson for ESL students should be relevant to their needs and goals. For speaking classes, it should serve as a reference for a target language and not a typical grammar only lesson.

  12. I’m currently a student of language rather than a teacher, and I hope that my insights on the subject will be helpful. I spent two years studying Spanish, a class in which my teacher taught me the “concrete” rules of grammar very thoroughly. I thought I understood Spanish. Then I moved on to my second year of Spanish education and my “concrete” rules were perforated like swiss cheese with exceptions. It destroyed my confidence in my abilities, as well as diminishing the love that I had previously possessed for Spanish as a whole. I stopped taking Spanish courses after that because I found them immensely frustrating, and I attribute that to my first teacher’s “concrete” rules giving me expectations that the language couldn’t meet. I now study Russian, but constantly remind myself that all languages are idiosyncratic to prevent myself from forming unrealistic expectations about the sensibility of the language’s grammar.

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  14. A student told me recently that English was pointlessly complicated in its excessive use of tenses, and that nobody could possibly need so many ways to express actions and time.
    And he was right. For communication, you really only need three tenses.
    On the other hand, “I have seen many marvels in my lifetime, but none so magnificent as those I saw in Poland…” is a great opening line. “I saw many marvels in my lifetime…” runs a chill down the spine of the average guard down native Brit – even if they do happen to be a teacher 🙂

  15. Thanks for this interesting post! I work with both kindergarten and college-level English language learners so I often think about the role that grammar plays with these very different learners. Although my methods are different, I find that my approach is very similar. For me, grammar is a tool to express your meaning more precisely. Since language learning is essentially about communication, I teach grammar when it helps my students express their intended meaning with more accuracy. For my adult students, this means explaining the difference between ‘sales of the product had been increasing’ and ‘sales of the product have been increasing’. My students study the precise meanings and constructions of each sentence so that they can choose the one that most accurately conveys their intended meaning. My grammar classes with adults are explicit but they are always focussed on improving communication rather than learning grammatical terms With my kindergarten students, I don’t teach grammar explicitly, but I do teach verb forms alongside vocabulary, give the students sentence frames, and discuss differences in the students’ L1 and L2. With younger students I find that activities to increase metalinguistic awareness generally helps them to acquire English grammar in a more natural way.

  16. I am an assistant English teacher at a middle school in Japan. The curriculum here is very heavy on grammar instruction, often presenting the English language as formulaic which seems to give the kids the false impression that there is a single “correct” way to say everything. Kids here are terrified of making mistakes and I have to go out my way to encourage them to speak at all, even formulaically. I try to convince them that they are learning English in order to use it as a communicative tool, not something that must be perfected before it can be used. I find that the emphasis on grammar over conversation is very detrimental, and I would definitely decrease its significance in the classroom if I was not just an assistant teacher. I think it certainly has a place in the classroom, but it should not be the mai focus.

  17. Wow — your post really hits on so many of the questions I have always had about teaching grammar. Plus, there are times when I need to review grammar concepts or terms and sometimes I, too, lack the confidence with grammar. I try to cover the most common errors with kids (run-ons, fragments, subject-verb agreement, correct pronoun usage etc.)

    I have always wished for some magic curriculum to help guide me when teaching a grammar unit. I always joke with other English/language arts teachers about bringing in Catholic nuns to teach grammar, because everyone I know who ever went to Catholic school seems to know grammar.

    Thanks for raising these questions and for this post with the research as well. Thank you also for following Travel Oops! Cheers, Steph

  18. Malcolm Pemberton

    I teach adult business, engineering and financial students in Finland. Most of them are at intermediate level, and the common goal is that they would like to communicate more effectively and professionally with customers and colleagues in other countries, most of whom speak English as a second language too.

    I rarely teach grammar on its own, but usually in context. For example, I relate new vocabulary items with associated prepositions and stress how a preposition can change the meaning of the word. I recommend the appropriate verb forms for different purposes, like using the imperative for instructions, or the passive for reporting etc.

    With adults, it doesn’t seem possible, or desirable, to leave out grammar, as it is important to the learners that they communicate effectively and get their message across. It is not necessary for their English to be perfect, but to be clear and understandable. Serious grammar errors can completely change meaning, or simply make their writing incomprehensible.

  19. “Should we dedicate time in our lessons to explicit grammar instruction, or focus on providing the right conditions for students to acquire grammar naturally? “

    I don’t understand why this is even a question. Those who did not learn grammar in school can be easily picked out of any group of interlocutors, and – you guessed it – they sound uneducated. It works against them in a variety of settings throughout life. And if grammar could be learned through osmosis, we would see some evidence of it in those who just wouldn’t/couldn’t learn grammar in school. Does teaching grammar make their use of English worse, preventing them from learning correct grammar naturally?

    When I went through school, you took grammar – endlessly – as a matter of course. Yes, it was kind of boring. But we learned it. And without spending more time in school than kids spend today. So why the question? Is the answer the same as that for schools that are dropping music, civics, history, and classical literature classes? What can that answer possibly be, unless there is just less interest in education throughout our culture, or the kids are less intelligent today than they were x decades ago? Teach the kids grammar, vocabulary, spelling, math, algebra, pre-calculus, geometry, literature, American history, world history, civics, music, sportsmanship, etc. Just get it done. And without throwing more good money after the bad.

  20. I am a firm believer in “teaching grammar”, but like Ellis as quoted in your post I think there are lots of questions about the best way to do it. What I think should be added to the points made in the post is why the Focus on Form theorists (see, for example, “Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition”, edited by Catherine Doughty & Jessica Williams) think it’s better than pure immersion. One major reason that I know was data from immersion experiments in Canada, where learners turned out to have good fluency in the target language but poor accuracy.

  21. I teach English in Barcelona to both kids and adults. As a speaker of several languages personally I am a bit of a grammar addict and find it fascinating. As a teacher, however, I view it as a tool for the students, enabling them to express what they want to say more accurately.
    I therefore tend to teach grammar as a ‘means to an end’ and as such I always teach it in a specific context and essentially as a basis for further expression through opportunities for practice both orally in class and in writing / e-mail correspondence outside it.

    Having said that, I am a firm believer that one should be aware first and foremost of one’s L1 grammar rules because ultimately that knowledge is the basis for all further language learning. As most people in Catalonia do in fact study Spanish and Catalan grammar they are aware of both grammatical concepts and terms, which helps greatly when it comes to them learning English grammar.

  22. As a former English and French teacher (middle and high school), I think it’s important for students to understand grammar concepts as a base tool – it also helps them to learn a foreign language, as well.

    • ramblingsofaperforatedmind

      I think grammar has a place in instruction, but it should be taught as needed to facilitate communicative language skills. I tell my students that they must know the general rules in Spanish before they can break those rules to communicate humor, etc. Good post, and thoughtful replies!
      Another thought–grammar could be taught in a flipped classroom situation as a short podcast with a few examples for the students to listen to as homework so class time isn’t focused on grammar.

  23. Though grammar is essential to learn any unknown language perfectly for the adult learner but in communicative language training we do not force to our learner on grammar much because they learn grammar while learning sentences. each day they learn 5 correct sentences that means in 30 days 150 sentences and in 60 days 300 sentences, For everyday’s communication is more than sufficient and in group conversation class they develop themselves more and more…

  24. debzywebzy

    Thanks for the follow! My students for Spanish are mostly adults and I teach them two classes according to the way my employers run the school. One class allows me to focus on grammar and important phrases for conversation; the other class is dedicated to natural conversation and letting the students go for it. My students ask A LOT of questions and I like that because it means I know where the gaps are in their understanding and I can easily mould the lessons as I’m teaching them to accomodate these issues as they arise. Their questions are often to do with grammar. I find that adults want to know the system they are acquiring. They want to hear about how to conjugate verbs, even though it might freak them out a little to begin with, and I give them lots of encouragement in this area as verbs are the meat of the language (as I like to say) and it is impossible to avoid them. And while a child may be less self-conscious and therefore try something by extension (use one word applied to a different but similar meaning, even across different lexical categories), adults will ask the question because they are curious and want to be able to fill in that gap they have just discovered in their knowledge. Obviously, this is all generalisation and not every adult or every child learns the same way but these are the patterns I have noticed in my classroom.

  25. My views on how much grammar are on my blog post.

    Request views and comments from the English experts…

  26. I remember my sister telling me about a TV programme on British TV about the London underground. One of the conductors said that when dealing with tourists she had found the most effective method of checking tickets was to adopt a Chinese accent and say, while pointing,”you, ticket?” While this might prove efficient, and both sides are able to get their point across, it is not ‘proper’ English. I am a total advocate of giving students plenty of practice of functional language and making sure they are confident communicating fluently, but grammar is one of the pillars of language and its identity and I don’t feel it can be entirely ignored. (I mean Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?” would not be quite as effective if it were, “be or no be”!) If you were to ignore grammar, why shouldn’t you ignore interesting vocabulary too. I think the crucial thing with any aspect of language learning is for the students to see it as relevant and useful.

    • Thanks Hannah I can get to the Logic of “To be or Not to be?” and That’s really the BIGer question… and it take time to understand all the rules ever written (I see your point in flash if i have enough vocab. in me!) My overall Method is to work towards engaging them in real-life dialogue (or life like situations created in my Language Lab/interactive class). They apply what they LEARN (or whatever their Mind picks-up based on their Learning style or basic grammar rule) Some need the rule even before looking at the examples. I follow ‘with grammar’ approach without answering too many ‘why’ questions as most of the times, I get students who are computer scientists. These non-poets and logical thinkers are also learning programming languages and the examples of syntax connect very well…. (I have been a computer scientist myself until I read Peter Senge and Steven Pinker). What I found is its best to give examples from ‘How i learned’ listening to BBC Radio (e.g.) and allow them to discover ‘how they learn’ and giving them an environment ‘where they learn’ are free to make mistakes… that are corrected (without referring to the rule-book again and again) … How long does it take to really LEARN English and make person a Radio Jokey? is still an open question in my mind.

      Thanks again… look forward to hear from others and learn from their ‘real’ experiences with ‘real’ people!

      • Amit khanna

        One area of focus should definitely be the identification of an array of words an individual needs to speak in his/her profession on a daily basis.

      • I agree… Now how do you practically do that in a group where there are different people from different professions… BTW, we have designed specific programs for IT, BPO, Finance, Lawyers, Hospitality… 10 such areas of ‘applied communications’ in various trades. And yes ‘as you say’ the focus there is on Active Vocabulary in the form of ‘series of words’ or expressions! Got limited success with forming batches there while I paid-up for the content licence!

  27. styvwheeler

    I’ve heard so many people say to me that they thought they knew English until they moved to London.. then they realised they couldn’t understand anyone. I think small grammatical examples of usage (not so much explanations) can be useful but really shouldn’t be the focus of every lesson. Listening, reading and immersion are best ways of learning and as a teacher we can challenge them with interesting topics for discussion and we can make students notice grammatical points in texts. The point is, there is nothing grammatically logical about phrasal verbs (as in the pairing of words usually makes no sense) or common speech in English, its something that everyone has to learn inductively; English is a creative language.

    As a result, I give a lot of group tasks, presentations, discussions, pronunciation help etc. Sometimes drilling form can be useful.

    In saying all of this, I am quite open to change haha.

  28. I agree that we learn grammar as we learn our native tongue. When I began tutoring ESL students, I knew instinctively how to structure a sentence, however I had to look up the rules to be able to explain why. So glad to have found your blog. Congratulations on good work.
    Muriel Kauffmann,

  29. I think the basic argument round grammar is that babies pick it up without being taught, but they have years of one to one tuition from carers, and they don’t really have a lot else in their lives, so this method is not really an option for the rest of us. Learning rules of grammar may not be ideal, but it is faster than just absorbing it as you go along. Also it depends I think on what the pupils’ experience has been. It is often a problem for English speakers learning another language as most of us never learn grammar, so we are confronted by both a new language and a new way of seeing language, so we often appear clumsy and slow in respect to other nationals learning languages.

  30. I am so pleased you are interested in promoting grammar. I found I learnt a lot about English learning a second language. Learning about grammar; probably the younger the better, all through primary school.

  31. As a musician I can give you an example: some people have a gift in singing. They have a beautiful singing voice NATURALLY. But these people cannot explain how their voice works and how to teach other people. They also are not able to improve their voice either. However, people who LEARNED to sing during the lifetime usually become excellent teachers and they ALWAYS know how to do a warm-up, how to improve their vocal range, etc.

    To sum up, I can say that there are people who can learn a language naturally, however they will not be able to discover the whole language. Others need to discover foreign langiages step by step.

  32. Pingback: Teaching grammar: for better or for worse? | teflresearch

  33. sp

    To my mind, language enables people to share codes and it is essential to have the same codes in order to share anything, isn’t it? That’s why I think spelling and grammar are essential, so that we really speak the same language. Grammar also gives an access to so many subtleties, I just love it! If you don’t understand grammar you are likely to make spelling mistakes (at least, it is the case in French), and to my mind all the existing rules play a social role: they are reassuring… When my little boy is not sure of the spelling of a word, he gets nervous. On the contrary, when he is sure that he has got it right, his smile broadens… He hates rules, but he knows they will help him to grow up… And they do!

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