Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

November 16, 2010

Grammar is dead – Long live grammar!

Grammar seems to have featured a lot recently in discussions on language teaching:

  • Is it important?
  • Should we teach it?
  • Is it better to let it be absorbed?
  • Does it put students off learning?

At first I was quite shocked to see these discussions, as for me as both teacher and learner, grammar had been at the heart of language learning. I was probably the last generation to be taught English grammar formally at primary school and I loved it – it’s what got me hooked on language! I studied English as part of my university degree and grammar lectures were compulsory – at this level I found some of the grammar quite difficult and it was only when I began teaching that I was able to make sense of a lot of it. My training as an English language teacher was also focused on grammar and how to approach the skills, functions and notions of language within a fairly grammatical framework.

Having seen the discussions, looked at more recent course books and read various blogs and commentaries I began to feel that perhaps there had been a revolution which I had missed in language teaching and that my approaches were seriously flawed! The absence of grammar signalled something rather chaotic to me and this is what I began to see in many of the course books – a melee of structures thrown together, not enough (to my mind) practice before moving on to the next thing, a lack of concept checking and an all round failure to be really cohesive. There was, however, a riot of colour and sound, support across a myriad of supplementary books and CDs but alas it made me feel very dizzy!

During this period of doubting I watched and questioned my students very carefully on the matter of grammar. From 16 to 60 they all wanted to include grammar in their lessons. It grounded them in something familiar. Terms like imperatives, present perfect, gerund and participle were familiar to many of them and a good working jargon. Those who had not studied grammar quite so formally in their own language nevertheless expected it and felt that it was part and parcel of their language learning. In fact I think, from my straw poll, that students expect their teachers to be well-versed in grammar and might suspect those who are not.

Grammar lessons

So where does this leave things? During a recent #eltchat many teachers didn’t like the idea of grammar lessons but what exactly are grammar lessons? What is the role of the grammar book in language learning? I hope, it is a reference book and not a bible! For me grammar is a magical toolbox, the ‘hammer’ and ‘chisel’ a teacher (and student) can use to put language together. Once students know how the tools work they can take them out again and again to fix their latest language inventions. Whether they know the terminology for the present simple tense or not they will know to use the structure when they need to talk about habits, or states or facts. If they have a pressing need to tell a story they can take out their set of narrative tenses and combine this with the packet of shiny adverbs of frequency that sit next to the prepositions of place. You get the idea. The terminology is a shorthand which, for those who know it, can save time, but the actual grammar tools can be used by everybody.

So, grammar lessons (banish the thought!) would be no more than naming tools without demonstrating their use. A hammer has no meaning unless it is used to bang in a nail!

Grammar progression

Present simple to present continuous, to past simple, to present perfect simple ….. 

Do we need to start with the tacks before we move on to masonry nails? If you are fixing a chair what good is having a masonry nail? Is the past perfect really more difficult than the present perfect? Is the concept of completed actions in the past more difficult to grasp than that of actions which straddle past, present and future? After all there are ways of  expressing all these concepts in every language.

The idea of a step by step progression is an old one. Underlying it is the belief that there is a homogenous elementary, intermediate or advanced type of student and somehow they all find themselves in the same class! Language is not like that, things come from right, left and centre. Learners are not like that, they come with baggage – linguistic, experiential, emotional and personal! So why not start with the learner and their current requirements – now there is a novel idea! Even in a large class there can be some way of finding a consensus. What is it that this group is going to have to go out there and do first? A grammar toolbox needs to be full of shiny, useful tools not a collection of rusty old keepsakes!

I like grammar. I think it is important. I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all of language learning, but please don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!!

See these posts on grammar

Prepositions – pearls of great price

English verbs that confuse!

Countable and uncountable nouns

and on books

Choosing dictionaries and grammar books

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12 Comments »

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    Pingback by Tweets that mention Grammar is dead – Long live grammar! « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language -- Topsy.com — November 16, 2010 @ 1:04 am | Reply

  2. There is a balance to teaching writing. You want to let children express their thinking without a lot of correction up front. At some point you need to let them know that if they ever want to publish something, or get paid for what they write, they need to write in “Standard English.” Let them look at their favorite newspaper or website. There they should find something at least close to “Standard English”, which is probably better than what they are writing freely to express themselves. If they get the difference, they might want you to help them get from where they are to where they want to go. Motivation is the magic pill. I hope this helps. If you get a chance let me know what you think of my blog at DrDougGreen.Com
    Best,
    Douglas W. Green, EdD

    Comment by Douglas W. Green, EdD — November 16, 2010 @ 2:29 am | Reply

    • Thank you Douglas and I agree with you. This holds true for adults too – too much read ink and it de-motivates. I was thinking more about grammar as being a fundamental part of language teaching and learning but as with most things some common sense on the part of the teacher will ensure that there is a balance. In my experience some grasp of grammar (this applies to native speakers too) can be very helpful in developing the writing skills of secondary and tertiary students without killing their creativity.

      Comment by rliberni — November 16, 2010 @ 7:21 am | Reply

  3. Hi ya Berni,

    This is one of my favorite bug-bears and while I absolutely agree that grammar is important and it gives students security it’s really the way that it’s handled that gets on my nerves… and you also mentioned the order of it all, reminding me that I really need to finish a dusty draft I sketched out on this topic. It simply has never ever made sense to me… for a multitude of reasons but namely, as I truly suspect this is not tonight’s post (have to finish my prep for presentation this weekend) anyway, that, as our lives are not lined up in order… there can be nowt to back up the reasons why the present is taught before the past or future.

    It’s a nonsensical sequence born out of a habit of teaching this way and nothing more!

    Mmmm, feel the itch – I’ll try to get my post out soon!

    Karenne

    Comment by Karenne Sylvester — November 16, 2010 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

    • Hi Karenne and thank you for the comment, looking forward to seeing your post! Ironically in my current course I decided to let grammar take a bit of a back seat and concentrate on functions and vocabulary (especially business vocab). The student is very self motivated does a lot of online study so I thought the skills which are less ’rounded’ online would be best – by day 2 he was asking for more grammar! It’s a bit like a badge of honour and students like/expect to see it. So however we feel, it seems that is still fundamental! I don’t think it needs to be linear – it’s just easier perhaps in a class and we’ve mostly been trained that way. I’m taking a more random approach too in my course linking the appropriate grammar to the topics – this doesn’t seem to be an issue – so long as it’s there!

      Comment by rliberni — November 17, 2010 @ 7:46 am | Reply

  4. I love this post Berni! Great points here. I was recently reminded about the importance of making example sentences memorable. We have a new group on MyEC where we practise writing example sentences about our members and experiences within the community. The discussions are divided by topic such as present perfect or tag questions or passive form, because this is what students seem to want. They don’t have to practise in any specific order. I’m encouraging members to link to the member profiles or examples mentioned within the community inside their example sentences. Grammar has never been more fun! I could use some volunteer teachers in this group if anyone is interested. It’s difficult for me to keep up! http://my.englishclub.com/group/examplesentences

    Comment by Tara Benwell — November 16, 2010 @ 8:59 pm | Reply

    • Thanks Tara, I agree we are very led by what students’ want and they have to be central to the learning experience with the caveat that we are the ‘experts’ and there needs to be some common sense as to what might be ‘required’ in the learning. In my experience it must be a partnership, we need to remember that (in most cases) the student comes to us and they are motivated to do that for a reason, so our input has value. I agree that the closer the model sentences are to the learner, the more relevent and memorable they will be. I actually love grammar I’ve always been facinated by it and like to see how different languages approach certain concepts and ways of saying things. On Gapfillers we categorise all our grammar but members are also free to choose whatever they need/want/like.
      If anybody can help Tara jump in!

      Comment by rliberni — November 17, 2010 @ 7:54 am | Reply

  5. Your post is quite interesting about grammar. As a relatively new teacher, I can understand the argument about requiring grammar in class. Students do have expectations for the ‘covering of grammar’ or ‘grammar chunks’. The breakdown of grammar does make it easier and manageable to teach in class. However, the debate is whether it’s natural grammar used outside the classroom. If students find it difficult to communicate with those speakers, then the focus is on one of fluency and practice. There is only so many times ‘an item of grammar’ could be explicitly taught without any practice: “without application, knowledge is useless”.

    Therefore, I personally like to focus explicitly on grammar with more controlled and measured tasks (such as writing) but remember grammar is one string of written work. We would be looking at register (appropriacy), style, etc. With speaking practice, I like to focus less on grammar and more on fluency. Speaking is not rule-based and unlike grammar it can’t be broken up: it is fluid, improvised, etc. If a grammar question arises, it can be dealt with but only to complement a communicative aspect of language (particularly during error self-correction). Thus, my preferred method of grammar teaching is more natural and implicit (have a look at my blog for an example).

    Perhaps not using coursebooks has helped me develop as a more effective teacher as I focus more on students and less on grammar items. Nonetheless, your blog post is great food for thought.

    Comment by Martin Sketchley — November 17, 2010 @ 12:22 am | Reply

    • Thank you Martin, I hope I haven’t come across as a grammar teacher of the old latin type!! (though I loved this at school). I like grammar, I feel it is important but my approach would be very much as you describe here. I tend to marry grammar and function and usually begin with the latter. I agree that when it comes to writing then grammar does step forward and I work a lot with IELTS candidates looking for bands 7 and 8 so grammar becomes a key thing when trying to produce writing at that level. I have also worked with native speaker students producing disserations and theses and found that a little grammar instruction helped them to energise and develop their writing a lot! What you point out clearly here is that there are lots of balls to juggle and although, at certain times, some of these may be rather more important, the real key is to make sure they are all in the air! I like the picture of the EFL teacher as a juggler!! As to not using course books, there is no such thing as a perfect coursebook and it is necessary to draw material from various source both graded and authentic – for more on this Dogme approach might want to look at Karenne’s (her comment is below) blog if you haven’t already. http://kalinago.blogspot.com/

      Comment by rliberni — November 17, 2010 @ 8:06 am | Reply

  6. […] Grammar is dead – Long live grammar! […]

    Pingback by Is learning English becoming overwhelming? « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — April 1, 2011 @ 10:39 pm | Reply

  7. I need help on checking my grammar in this sentence, please. thanks!

    Egg cartons, frozen chickens, beef patties, turkey sandwich meat, etc represent something that once lived, but are now dead, so we can go home to enjoy a delicious omelet, burger, grilled chicken, turkey sandwich, etc.

    i’m doing a paper, and i am unsure if i did this sentence correctly or not. please help me. thanks!

    Comment by birthday parties san francisco — February 28, 2012 @ 5:52 pm | Reply

  8. Today grammar is dead in the oral communication, but when you connecting in the written communication then you can easily find your grammatical mistakes and trying to improve it so that reason English grammar is long live.

    Comment by AnnyIngram — December 18, 2013 @ 9:59 am | Reply


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