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What is grammar and how should
we teach it ?
by Jeanette Corbett

- 1

As so much has been written about grammar we could be forgiven if we admitted to confusion. Each person whether a learner or a teacher has an opinion. Likewise different styles of teaching equate to the varying opinions on how it should be taught, if indeed it should or can be taught.

So two questions with very open answers, which I will attempt to reply to in this paper. Firstly, I will look at what grammar is considered to be from the learners perspective and that of the teacher, including my opinion. Then I will answer second question looking at how grammar is being taught today, focusing on it's usefulness for the learner and my experience.

So then what is grammar ? When I asked a learner recently, the reply was a rule. He then went on to comment, it is so because it helps him construct a sentence, referring to his means to communicate (either spoken or written). Arguably the learner in general could just communicate using words but without a context or shared knowledge his words would fail to have meaning. Therefore grammar acts as his tool to create meaning. But grammar alone fails to create meaning, other elements are also necessary.
I´d like to focus on the key word - meaning, it is the most important thing in language that from which successful communication results. Does the learner understand the importance or do they tend to focus on the form regardless of the meaning it conveys? This is something I will return to later in this paper.

Teachers define grammar differently but invariably the word rule is used, which they split it 3 ways: prescriptive, descriptive & pedagogical; what we should say, do say and what we teach. Perhaps, by splitting them we have created our own dilemma, we will always question which to highlight to the learner. Quite rightly a pedagogical rule gives them a guideline as what to use, but often it is over simplified. Arguably by simplifying the rules we fail our students as we do not allow the language we use with our friends to be governed by the same rules as that produced by our students.
We constantly aim to enhance the communicative competence of our students yet we still limit them by rules. How should we create a balance ? Well Batstone suggests from the teachers perspective there is a need to view rules at different levels according to the competence of the learner. Equally for the learner, Chalker suggests that they need to accept they will constantly refine their pedagogical rules as they learn more about the language. I agree with both but I always hesitate to use the word rule when defining grammar, to me it denotes something governed. I prefer a definition by Bygate.

Conventions according to which lexical items, phrases and clauses are combined, their roles and relations are identified in the communication of meaning.(3)

Conventions evolve through custom, customs always come and go. To me this is what language is, evolving constantly according to its use. While I always provide my learners with a rule as a guide for their learning, I generally expose them to more language - their knowledge is stretched, they may not use it immediately but they may notice it for future use.

As already demonstrated, we cannot define grammar exactly, it is a different thing to different people. Likewise among teachers there are different opinions about how it should be taught. This forms the second part of my paper, here I will focus on how we are teaching grammar today and if it is of benefit to the learner. I will not discuss how grammar has been taught, but an outline of historical methodologies is available in Appendices.

In my opinion, there is no debate as to whether or not it is necessary to teach grammar - formal instruction is necessary. I say this as it is part of language, learners need to use it to communicate when words are not enough. Perhaps they could rely on their strategic competence but in my opinion leads to pre-mature fossilisation in learners. In her article Johnson (6), cites that in CLT success comes too soon for learners, the emphasis on communication means that learners use highly developed strategic competence to achieve results. As a result any subsequent language input appears secondary and unnecessary to the learner, as they have already communicated their message.
Equally, though there may be a natural order of language acquisition, formal instruction does act as a tool to speed up the process. With instruction, we can provide learners will new forms to think about, remind them that they have not mastered everything and create an environment for further language development, therefore pre-empting fossilisation before it occurs.
Finally we also need to remind ourselves why learners come to our academics, in my opinion among other things - they pay for the opportunity to get it right. The principal goal of teaching is to realise mutual goals - allow restructuring, focus on accuracy and develop fluency (3). Anyone can learn a language by post or on cassette, but with formal language instruction we give them opportunity to overuse a form in order to get it right. They may have noticed the language item outside the classroom but we create the environment to master it. Formal instruction is not only necessary it is what our learners pay for.

Today grammar teaching is focused on form and consciousness raising, there is a need to focus on form with learners to facilitate accuracy. With consciousness raising activities, we create a learning environment, where the learner notices new language and exploits it in genuine communication activities. (3)

So how then do we present it in the classroom ? We can choose between two types of presentation, either deductive or guided discovery. Though I accept that a deductive presentation may be applicable in some situations such as an intensive course or revision class but from experience I prefer a guide discovery presentation. In a deductive presentation grammar is viewed more as a product, admittedly it gives the learner a clear framework and there may be systematic learning (3 & 4). But I question the benefit to the learner and how useful is it in their learning process.

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