Tips for Teaching Grammar
Willy A Renandya, 4 July 2022
Grammar has always had a central place in language teaching, though the way we teach it varies quite a bit depending on our teaching philosophy, the goal of language teaching in our context, our familiarity with recent thinking in the professional literature, etc.
One key thing to remember is that students need to learn the grammar of the language in order to help them comprehend and produce the language. Without sufficient grammar knowledge, students may not comprehend the language well, and this in turn will negatively affect their ability to use the language for oral or written communication.
In other words, to paraphrase David Wilkins (1972), “Without grammar, not much can be understood or communicated”.
But we already know this! We know that grammar is of paramount importance in language learning. Isn’t this why we have been giving grammar a lot of attention in our teaching?
This is where things become a bit complicated but at the same time interesting. While we must teach grammar, we need to do it in such a way that our teaching actually facilitates rather than hampers the acquisition process.
Research tells us that we tend to over-teach grammar, especially the kind of grammar that involves students learning lots of rules, doing lots of discrete grammar activities and practicing grammar rules in artificial writing or speaking activities.
The kind of grammar teaching that many of us continue to do in the classroom can indeed help students score high on the grammar-based language tests, but it has limited use when they try to communicate in the target language in authentic contexts.
So how should we teach grammar? What type of grammar should we teach? How much grammar should we teach?
Here are some tips for grammar. The tips below are based on what is currently known about how the process of successful language acquisition.
- Reduce the amount of explicit teaching of grammar rules at the early stage of learning. Detailed explanations of the grammar rules should also be avoided.
- If possible, delay the teaching of explicit grammar rules until after students have had some meaningful experience with the language. This tip follows the meaning first principle in language teaching. Grammar rules make a lot more sense after students have already seen or heard the language in meaningful texts (e.g., stories, dialogues, etc). Not before!!
- Focus more on teaching the most useful grammar of the language (e.g., basic sentence structures, interrogative structure, basic word order, some of the tenses). The next step is to give students lots of opportunities to see how these grammar structures are used in meaningful communication. Once students have had sufficient exposure to meaningful language, they can acquire some of the more complex grammar on their own.
- Focus more on helping students learn of useful strings of words and fixed expressions (e.g., once upon a time, there is a time for everything, let’s meet again soon, etc) These formulaic expressions occur frequently in natural communication. That’s why students need a lot of these useful expressions for comprehension purposes.
- Do a lot of supported reading/listening via shared book activities at the early stage of learning. Pick super engaging stories to get students’ full attention. When students’ interest is piqued, they are more likely to learn more from the texts, both contents and language.
- Encourage students to do self-selected reading or listening outside the classroom. Students need a lot of exposure to rich and meaningful language. The classroom can provide some of it, but the bulk will have to come from students doing lots of recreational reading, listening and viewing outside the classroom.
- The 6 ideas above will help students develop intuitive/implicit knowledge of the grammar language. This implicit knowledge, according to SLA research, is what enables the students to produce the language more easily and fluently, and also with greater accuracy.