Teach More Grammar?
Willy A Renandya, 12 May 2022
Learning a language is often associated with learning the grammar of the language. The underlying belief for this association is that one has to master the grammar in order to speak the language.
Not surprisingly, grammar has always had a special place in ELT. One of the oldest teaching methods, the grammar translation method, for example, is still alive and kicking in many parts of the world despite repeated calls by ELT experts that grammar is but one of the many other things that students need to learn the language.
If you walk into a language classroom, you will find that the lesson is often organized around a grammar point, even though the curriculum recommends that teachers use the more functional or communicative methodology.
Still, the teacher would use a PPP (Presentation, Practice and Production) approach which typically begins by providing students with detailed explanation of the target grammar point (e.g., the present perfect tense), and then moving on by giving students worksheet exercises on that grammatical point before finally giving students opportunities to engage in meaningful or communicative practice.
It is worth noting that the first two steps (teacher explanation and worksheet exercises) take up a large portion of class time, while the last step is given a much smaller amount of time. Sometimes, students are simply told to do their communicative practice outside the classroom.
Interestingly, despite the amount of time spent of grammar teaching, students seem to continue to have difficulty using the language for real communication. They may be able to do well on examinations, but have little confidence in actually using the language for speaking or writing purposes.
Does this mean that grammar teaching has little effect on students’ ability to comprehend and produce language? Should teachers teach more or less grammar?
The answer to the questions depends on what types of grammar we are referring to. Do we for example teach grammar as knowledge or as ability?
Richards and Reppen (2014) offer an in-depth discussion between these two types of grammar. They point out that teaching grammar as knowledge is not without value but it plays a minimal role in helping students use the language for communication.
The kind of grammar knowledge we teach (e.g., rules for producing grammatically correct sentences) is most useful for students to ace the grammar test, but it may be of little use when they try to use the language for authentic, real-life situations.
Richards and Reppen (2014) suggest that when we teach grammar as ability, “the focus is on how grammar is used as a resource in the creation of spoken and written texts” (p. 5).
Viewed in this way, grammar is always presented in meaningful texts and contexts, not in isolated sentences.
The teaching of this type of grammar involves the teacher explaining the correct form of the language, but more importantly, telling the students clearly how that form is used in relation to the purpose, audience and context of the communicative event.
When students learn grammar in this way, there is a greater chance that they may just be able to use the language for real communication. This is because there is a much closer link between the grammar they learned in the classroom, and the grammar they would need to use outside the classroom.
So should we be teaching more or less grammar? Well, clearly we should be teaching doing more teaching of grammar as ability but less grammar as knowledge.