Thursday, January 13, 2011

Opinion: To teach or not to teach grammar?

Dear All,

To teach or not to teach grammar?

This has been  a long drawn debate in the ELT world. But to write off the old structural approach completely may not be the answer.  I was partly taught through this approach.

The communicative approach has its short comings too, like the lack of emphasis on the proper sentence structure formation to provide a precise meaning.

In my classroom, I use the electic approach. I find some explanation of the rules help to improve in the proper construction of sentences and to provide some meaning to sentence construction. This is especially helpful for students who have some working knowledge of the English language.

What do you think?

Rodney Tan

To teach or not to teach grammar?
Ravinarayan Chakrakodi

There has been a debate on the place of grammar in English language pedagogy.

Many researchers argue that grammar is acquired naturally if learners are exposed to sufficient comprehensible input, and that grammar doesn’t need to be taught. However, some educators believe that teaching can enhance the acquisition of grammar, and help speed up the process.

Two approaches to teaching grammar

If we believe that the teaching of grammar is necessary, then there are different ways of doing it. One is the form-focused teaching of grammar and the other is the functional approach. In the form-focused approach, formal grammar - rules and principles of language - becomes the starting point of teaching. On the other hand, functional grammar views language use, communicative purpose and the context as more important than the formal properties of linguistic expressions.

The form-focused teaching of grammar was the hallmark of structural approach which was based on the behaviourist views of learning. It was widely practiced until the 1970s in many countries. Structural drills, pattern practice, substitution tables and sentence-based linguistic rules were prevalent in the language classroom then. Exercises asking students to transform one sentence pattern into another were widely used in teaching English language. Although these teaching practices are still widely used at all levels - from primary to college level classrooms - in our context, there has been a major shift in the teaching of grammar.

One of the reasons for the shift is that explicit teaching of prescriptive grammar is not found effective in learning a language. Also, learners find it extremely difficult to transform the grammatical structures learned in the class to communicative contexts outside. Form-focused means of teaching grammar promote passive rather than active participation of learners in the learning process. Moreover, what is important for a language user is not only the production of rule-governed sentences but also the ability to negotiate meaning and produce coherent communication. Hence, the scope of language study has broadened from the development of grammatical competence to the development of communicative competence.

In the functional approach to the teaching of grammar, meaning is central. Grammar is seen as a resource for making and exchanging meanings. The focus is on language use rather than on the formal aspects of language.

Language awareness approach

In the functional approach, ‘language awareness’ activities play a crucial role. Here, grammar instruction takes place in implicit and inductive ways rather than in an explicit way. Instead of the teacher presenting an explicit description of grammatical structures or rules, learners are made to notice particular aspects of language. Using input-processing and consciousness-raising tasks, learners are made aware of specific grammatical features. Here, learners are required to discover the rules for themselves.

Corpus linguistics and lexical approach

Another interesting area that has important implications for understanding and teaching grammar is Corpus Linguistics. Students need to learn common/ high-frequency words very thoroughly because they carry the main patterns of the language. Massive databases for spoken and written language are available to us on websites (British National Corpus) and concordance programmes help us identify examples of particular grammatical patterns. For example, the word ‘any’ typically occurs in the following combinations:

*Any + plural noun (Do you have any brothers or sisters?)

* Not + any + plural or uncountable noun (There isn’t any milk)

* Any + of (Have you read any of her books?)

* Any + comparative (Do you feel any better?)

Using the Corpus of English, teachers/ learners can make a list of the grammatical patterns of high-frequency words. By doing this, they can learn important grammar structures in English. The classroom implication of this for English teachers is that they should pay more attention to lexical units such as words, set phrases, idioms and collocations since these units contribute extensively in developing fluency in the language.

It is useful to expose learners to high-frequency words and their high-frequency patterns as, according to research studies, the most frequent 700 words of English account for roughly 70 per cent of all English text. Which means, around 70 per cent of the English we speak, hear, read and write is made up of 700 common English words. Besides, the most frequent 1,500 words account for 80 per cent of all text and the most frequent 2,500 words account for 86 per cent of all text.

However, the words by themselves may not carry much value. For example, words such as ‘the’ and ‘of’, which are structural words, have no meaning on their own. It is only when they combine with other words that they carry meaning. Hence, the lexical way of teaching helps in understanding the meaning and use of English. It also helps in expanding the language repertoire of learners.

Learners should not be made to practice grammar in decontextualised and mechanical ways. Rather, meaningful exposure to large samples of language is necessary in learning grammar. Grammar should be practised in such a way that students learn to use the language meaningfully and appropriately


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