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The place of grammar in the classroom

June 26, 2008

Hello again,

I always find this topic sparks lively debate. When second languages were taught by the grammar/translation method, everyone seemed fairly clear about what should be taught and in what order. Verbs in all their complexity dominated the scene and conjugations and inflections were learnt by rote. The result was that language learners understood a good deal about how the target language was constructed but had little...

... idea of how it was pronounced or used in ordinary conversation. The other drawback to this approach was that it took a very long time to master the new language system, so it was not practicable for learners with only a short time at their disposal.

Language learning methods have been bedevilled by pendulum swings and, sure enough, the grammar/translation method, patently unsuitable for the needs of servicemen in the Second World War, who needed to get out into the field and use the target language quickly, fell from favour. It gave way to a stimulus-response system, drawn from the theories of behavioural psychology, in which learners acquired a repertoire of responses to certain prompts that reflected the situations that they were likely to meet. This approach was especially suitable for the language laboratory, which allowed students to practise their drills as often as they wished. Grammar as such was not analysed in the language classroom; it entered the consciousness, if at all, by some mysterious osmosis. Among the drawbacks of this method was that students were not equipped to produce original utterances of their own.
I remember one boy I encountered who had learnt English by this method. Every time I asked him a question such as "do you drive?" or "do you take sugar in your coffee?" he would trot out the response he had learnt: "I do, but Jim doesn't". Needless to say, "Jim" existed only in the drills he had used.

Clearly the method was not adequate for an in-depth acquisition of the target language and so, in a characteristic volte face the language gurus gave us the cognitive approach and grammar was once more centre stage. It was, however, a much more interactive form of grammar than we had seen in earlier classrooms. Now students were given patterns so that they could deduce the rules from themselves. The element of discovery somehow made language learning much more exciting and the grammar easier to assimilate than anything simply learnt by heart.

But all was not well. We observed that our diligent students could devise time lines to demonstrate the subtle differences between the simple past and present perfect tenses and create original, well-formed sentences of their own based on the rules, yet they couldn't produce language that was idiomatically correct. For some arcane reason, the only sentence that was ever produced to illustrate this lacuna was "excuse me, have you got fire?" when everyone knows it should be "have you got a light?". Grammar it seemed was about to be doomed again, as the heavy artillery of the communicative approach rolled in with alarming battle cries about correctness being less important than the effectiveness of the message. In other words, no matter that your student is content to tell you that you are a "good cooker" and that she is "very interesting by British history"—the main thing is that we know what she means.

Of course, there are always some students who insist on delving into the grammar anyway. I remember one lad who wrote down a sentence he heard every evening in his host family: "bung us a fag, mate". The student had analysed this utterance to his satisfaction having discovered that "bung" was used as a synonym for "pass" or "give" and that "fag" had various colloquial meanings, but in British English was a "cigarette". What puzzled him was the use of the plural 'us' because he couldn't understand why an ordinary person would use the 'royal we'.

Old hands like myself become increasingly cynical about each new trend. I accept that functional/notional syllabuses have their attraction, and at least they seem to accord grammar a significant but not over-dominant position in language learning. The trouble is that this approach is just too literal. Unfortunately native speakers do not use a finite number of language exponents for such functions as advising or complaining or expressing spatial relationships. One of the most daunting tasks for the teacher is to help students understand the pragmatics of language with its curious principles that reflect its deep-seated cultural and psychological aspects. English in particular is highly implicit, digressive even, and when people use it over literally they can seem aggressive or rude.

The 'natural approach' has shed useful light on the cognitive processes that come into play when we learn grammar, but it relies too heavily for my liking on comparisons with first language learning. We've had the 'total physical response', which I first thought had something to do with those feelings of fear and embarrassment that render you completely dumb when you have to utter something in the language you have only just begun to get to grips with. And we've had 'suggestopaedia' and 'communicative language learning' and, most puzzling of all in a field where we encourage people to speak, 'the silent way'. More recently the buzz word was 'lexical', so presumably students are all learning great chunks of vocabulary.

Yet when it comes down to it, the perfect method just doesn't exist and never will. Personally, I find that I resort to formal grammar teaching less and less. Just as I can use my computer without understanding how it works in any great detail, or drive my car without having the wherewithal to build an engine, so I find language learners can go far with little theory. After all, how many native speakers outside this profession do you know who can tell you how many uses there are for the present simple tense? I don't avoid grammar but I don't rely on it. I find it much more helpful to look at the situations students will find themselves in and then look at the types of language that will be suitable for them. I have given up course books because the authors have not met my students and so can't devise a course for them. I teach from my favourite resource books, from experience and from my own creativity. Grammar? Well, at the end of a session I round up the most important grammar points that have cropped up. I always try to help learners grasp the key grammatical points as this helps them correct their own errors, but I don't force grammar on them. How about you?

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  1. Teacher Joe Says:

    This is an excellent summary. Thank you! I will be recommending this post on my new blog soon. Just as soon as I finish this book on overcoming procrastination. (I wish I were joking!)

    One point I would like to make re: the Silent Way. Although I don't know of any teacher who has had success using this method, I have found ways to effectively use silence in the classroom. My students here in Asia often remain silent and let the teacher, or the few most outgoing and confident students, do most of the talking. When I walk into the room and pretend to be unable to speak, however, everyone gets involved trying to figure out what my gestures and crazy facial expressions mean.

    Silence can also be used after asking questions. Pausing for 4 or 5 seconds after asking a question can encourage more responses, and more thoughtful responses, from students. Although I don't like the Silent Way as a method, as one approach to teaching, silence has some advantages!

  1. John Okumu Says:

    This was a very nice summary of the stages English teaching has gone through. The reason I have chosen to respond to this informative exposure is to make a request that your seemingly new approach be published and tried out because it sounds to me as the most appropriate.
    It would be more stimulating if you gave this new method the mentalistic angle of the Chomskyan Minimalist approach to language learning where parameters are set and the learner only taught on the application of the varying principles of the English.
    I hope I'm not out of the point but I stand to be corrected.

  1. thatcher Says:

    In a future post, please tell us about some of your favourite resource books/materials.

  1. Bob Toomey Says:

    Brenday, once again, I enjoyed your article very much. I taught in California for twenty two years, and during that time I taught grammar two years, after I had been teaching for more than ten years, to see if teaching grammar really helped any of my students. This was because I firmly believed that teaching grammar was only for English majors in college, and even that was suspect. The students I taught loved the way I taught grammar, making it as entertaining and enjoyable as I could, trying to hold back my prejudices, but in the end I discovered that it did not improve anyone's writing, speaking, reading, or anything else related to learning English. The students enjoyed learning grammar but it did not improve their English usage on any level. That was proof enough for me, and most of the staff that I worked with. What I know is that some people beat the banner over teaching grammar, and some of us simple see it as an excuse for not teaching people to speak, read, and write correctly. Grammmar is incredibly easy to teach. The other subjects are simply more difficult to teach correctly.

    During my fifteen years in China and Korea I have seen that most people need to be taught the entry level. Grammar is simply not appropriate. How could they understand the directions in English?
    In my opinion, the grammarians should learn to teach people to speak, write, and read correctly rather wasting their time explaining grammar rules.

    Robert H. Toomey
    Director of Education @ REC in Beijing

  1. Michael Waldeck Says:

    Interesting information regarding the language learning processes, which take place and the frustrations of finding a modus operandi, to suit the teaching of English as a foreign language !

    My experience is that the secret to bridging two foreign languages, lies in training the child / adult-learner to think in English. This automatically solves the problem of idiomatic English not being conveyed and or understood !

  1. Mark Morton Glasgow Says:


    Your article was a masterful recounting of the evolution in second language teaching and learning, especially focused on grammar's place in that process. No doubt for experienced teachers, themselves well-prepared by dint of both educational background and ample classroom experience, an approach such as you advocate is probably the norm...with some personal modifications, of course. However, as much as this may be appropriate for teachers with plentiful experience and academic training, it would be a nearly impossible task for the majority of minimally prepared second language teachers in the field.

    This is the sad reality of a marketplace which in many places, sacrifices quality in order to insure the bottom line. Of course this is and always has been a false economy, wherein schools profit at student expense, without providing in the end, the hoped for result. In some countries this false economy has led to a systemic failure to provide quality ESL instruction with consistent measurable results, often leaving students functionally incapable even after many years of language study. When we analyze their methods, we often find they are still using a grammar translation method, interspersed with some features of audiolingualism tossed in for good measure. Almost without exception, these courses lack sufficient opportunities for natural language production using a communicative approach, which leaves both teachers and students wondering why what is being taught, is not being learnt.

    The net effect of such dismal results manifests itself in further poor teaching with little professional self reflection, increasingly disinterested students and a collective failure on the part of all involved. Like so many things in life, the alternative will only be realized when someone breaks from the mold and offers something more productive. That requires excellent academic preparation, much experience and the courage to make quality priority number one. I live in a developing nation where quality has not been treated as the priority it ought to have been and all have suffered the ensuing consequences. However, that failure is now being recognized by some and piecemeal attempts are being made to address the failings in some small measure.

    My own journey has included synthesizing the results of all prior findings, while attempting to integrate in practice, a method which allows and encourages my students to explore for themselves the relationships inherent in authentic language contexts thereby assisting them in furthering their growing grammatical competence. For beginners, I still prefer an introductory communicative approach to grammar since it seems to represent the shortest and most efficient route to grammatical consciousness rising, improved pronunciation and vocabulary building. And oddly enough, I find that my intermediate and advanced students benefit greatly from grammar translation tasks of the sort I would entirely oppose for beginners.

    In the end, Brenda has got it right, it is important not to overstate the case for any one viewpoint/method over another, or to minimize many other factors such as cognitive style, learning style preferences, prior learning experiences, and the cultural context in which the language is being studied. We must keep our learner’s needs as paramount whilst continuing to reflect on both old and new trends in education and second language acquisition, with the goal of incorporating and at times eliminating what will ultimately improve our practice, measured by its benefit for our students.

  1. Hamed Says:

    Thank you brenda for your suggestions on teaching Grammar,We are in confusion as teachers of English in Egypt whether we teach traditional Grammar rules or not but in fact I have discovered that giving more time to teaching rules in my country is awsting of time,teachers always neglect other skills comletely and the majority of them are showing off they are the best grammarians in the city,i have alot of benefits from your exhilarating article,hoping to trnsfere it to my teachers in Egypt,Kafr el Sheikh governorate
    Hamed Hammad
    ateacher trainer,supervisor

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