is grammar and how should
we teach it ?
by Jeanette Corbett
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.
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.
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
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.
according to which lexical items, phrases and clauses are
combined, their roles and relations are identified in the
communication of meaning.(3)
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.
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
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
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.
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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the lesson plan
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