Guest piece – What has grammar teaching ever done for us? by Jo Gakonga

Grammar teaching gets a bad press. It’s old fashioned, it is said, and it doesn’t help in actually using the language.  Scott Thornbury sums it up beautifully in verse herewe teach them the form, but they can’t actually use it.  This kind of realisation, together with work from linguists such as Krashen with his Input Hypothesis and Pradhu’s task based learning experiments in India seemed to have it all sewn up in the 80s.  All we need to do, they argued, was to ensure that learners are exposed to lots of the target language in meaningful situations at a level that they can understand and Robert will be your proverbial mother’s brother.

Now, there is little doubt that these are important parts of the language learning process (and perhaps that there is still a lack of communication for real purpose in many language classrooms worldwide), but there is plenty of empirical evidence that points to the fact that after early childhood, there is a real advantage to an element of explicit grammar teaching.  A lot of this evidence is based on the work done in Canada on immersion school programmes for English speaking children learning French.  After years of what we would probably call CLIL now, with subjects all taught in French but no focus on error or explicit language instruction, the students ended up with excellent comprehension but a rather truncated version of productive French.  It worked, but it wasn’t necessarily what a native speaker would say – a kind of ‘French-lite’ – and it was very influenced by L1 grammatical structures.    Catherine Walter in her IATEFL plenary of 2011 put these arguments together much more coherently than I am able to (!) and is well worth a look for some background reading on the subject. 

Does all this only apply when learners are not getting enough exposure, though?  Maybe with enough of the language in their lives, they’ll ‘get it’ without explicit teaching?  It’s true that most of the grammatically-based research is in situations where learners are in a an L1 context  (even in the Canadian situation they went home to their L1 speaking families ) but the same is often true for learners in English speaking environments, such as the ESOL learners that I teach, and they often can’t or don’t access the opportunities for practice that exist outside class.  As such, I think the same findings often still apply and are valid.

Added to this empirical evidence, we have learners’ expectations. How often have you asked a class what they want to study or what they feel they need and, despite the fact that the truth is probably more realistically ‘Vocabulary’, they cry ‘GRAMMAR!’?

So, given all of the above, I’m happy to stick my neck out and say that grammar teaching is important and the main question is perhaps not ‘Should we teach it explicitly?’, but ‘How should we explicitly teach it?’  Back to Scott Thornbury again, and in his brilliant, (but now sadly discontinued) blog, the A-Z of ELT, he reminds us of the work of Gatbonton  and Segalowitz  in a post entitled ‘A is for Automaticity’.  This focuses on what we usually call ‘controlled practice’ but puts an emphasis on the idea of making this both meaningful and creative, so that whilst there is repetitive practice of formulaic grammatical structures, this is done within a situation where there is real communication and the content is engaging.

Sounds good?  Want some practical ideas on the subject?  There are a few here in this video presentation– feel free to comment and add yours!

Jo Gakonga is a teacher trainer and runs the site which has a ‘Grammar for language teachers’ course which attempts to make the subject easy, and free monthly training videos on a range of ELT subjects.

Comments and volunteers to do more guest pieces below please, or click on the Guest Writers tag below for similarly great contributions to TEFLtastic.

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One Response to Guest piece – What has grammar teaching ever done for us? by Jo Gakonga

  1. I think asking students what they want to study in class is a great idea but any answers must be viewed with caution.

    If they demand ‘grammar’ it is probably because they are over tested on grammar – often obscure grammar. Also grammar feels like it is possible to learn the whole system while vocabulary is a never ending struggle – in English as least.

    Often, teachers prefer to teach grammar because it is easy to generate formulaic lessons and repeat them over and over. Vocabulary is a much more difficult area to teach. Many teaching strategies seem to sidestep this issue – E.g. pre-teaching vocabulary for a reading/listening task seems to defeat the object. I’ve done it and it has a place but if it becomes the habit the students will not learn how to mine texts for new and useful language.

    However – I’m not arguing for a no-grammar approach. Just that vocabulary should be the primary focus of our lessons, even if the students hate it (and they often do!)

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