Tuesday, 21 July 2009

An old friend of us is again in the spotlight: Why should we teach Grammar?

According to John and Liz Soars, authors of Headway, there are five main reasons for them to give Grammar high prominence in their coursebook. They argue that:

1) It is the mechanism that generates the infinite number of sentences that we produce and receive;
2) It is a tangible system, and can provide one element of a systematic approach to teaching a language;
3) It develops students' cognitive awareness of the language. Language is rule-based, and conscious or sub-conscious knowledge of the rules is the key to 'generalizability' and creativity;
4) It conforms to students' expectations of language learning, and meets an often-heard request for 'more grammar';
5) It will be of assistance to teachers in the planning of their lessons.

First of all, I would say that the first statement sounds like an overgeneralization. It's not because I think it's wrong but simply because I don't believe that there is always 'grammar' in everything we produce. It is of course undeniable that grammar is what groups and brings words meaningfully together but what is still arguable is the extent to which we need grammar (with grammar I refer to "grammatically correct" utterances) to successfully convey meaning and put our message across. I deeply believe that grammar is important and essential in a language syllabus but I am also convinced that it is not the only language system and, therefore, should be given as much importance as the other ones i.e. vocabulary, phonology and semantics. A grammatically correct sentence with poor or not properly selected vocabulary, uttered inappropriately and structured with a correct but not adequate pattern can hardly be said to be communicatively effective.

Secondly, it is totally true, and now I definitely agree with John and Liz, that Grammar is certainly a tangible system and, if not the easiest one, one of the easiest to work on. Even though it is true that grammar rules are not always definite and absolute, they are a perfect starting point for students of English as a Foreign language (here I won’t say that dealing with grammar as a system is essential for students of English a Second language because they are immersed in an English context and have to use it daily for surviving; which does not mean, however, that formal grammar teaching is not desirable for it can speed up the process considerably). Dealing with grammar as a system is an excellent way to help elementary and intermediate students grow confident and have something to rely on when they have to speak and write. Since learning a language is an extensive and demanding process, I truly believe that, at some point and especially with adolescents and adults, it is necessary for them to make profit of their meta-linguistic abilities and explore grammar as much as they can. It is our job as teachers to make sure that their encounter with grammar is always friendly and for communicative purposes. Students need to be told that they do not have to be English grammar experts but English speakers that see grammar as a simple tool to build up the messages they want to send.

Thirdly, I must admit that I partly agree with their view on language and the influence that such a view has on language learning. It is totally true that grammar develops students’ cognitive awareness of the language and I believe that being able to understand how the language works is an essential tool to learn and use it effectively (especially, as I said before, for adolescents and adults because children are not cognitively mature enough for such analysis). Knowing the grammar rules and being able to resort to them both consciously and unconsciously is one of the key elements of language proficiency. What I feel is not that easy to teach and, therefore learn, is how to become “language creators”. It is essential for us to provide them with opportunities to use the language creatively, meaningfully and communicatively for them to be able to become efficient and successful communicators. If the only thing we asked them to do was to work on grammar patterns, they would find it extremely difficult to apply all they have learnt to a real-life conversation in which grammar rules are definitely not enough to put your message across.

It is true, however, that it is students who ask for “more grammar”. Regardless of the reasons why, most of the time, they seem to be craving for grammar rules, it is a clear opportunity for us to both conform to their expectations and provide them with a great tool to enhance their learning. What I would add, however, to this fourth statement is that students need to be warned that, if they want to become proficient and successful speakers of the language, they need to complement grammar with other language systems. Saying it correctly, uttering it appropriately, and choosing their words and the structure carefully and purposefully will help them say what they actually want to say.

Finally, I have to say that, even though planning your lessons according to grammar patterns is one option, it is not the only way. In fact, I think that lessons should be planned not according to a language system in particular but according to the group of students and their needs. However, it is sometimes difficult to write all your plans following your students’ needs because there are other factors affecting your teaching such as the institutional aims of the school/institute you are working in or the particular aims of certain courses (conversation courses, reading courses, courses in which students are to be prepared for an International exam and so on). The most important thing to remember is that grammar is not the only criterion to plan a lesson but just one element in a larger group of factors involved in language teaching.

How and why we teach grammar are probably two key concerns in language teaching. The answers of such questions, in my opinion, can only be built individually for they are intrinsically connected to your beliefs and reasons for teaching. What I deeply believe in is that grammar is nothing without vocabulary, phonology and semantics.

Can we teach our students to communicate in English if we only provide them with one of its four elements?

Discussion taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom", Chapter V, Tricia Hedge, OXFORD, 2000.


  1. Of course we can´t!!!!

    The question here is the degree of each of the components, isn't it???

    "Students need to be told that they do not have to be English grammar experts but English speakers that see grammar as a simple tool to build up the messages they want to send."
    To me, being good English speakers means being and expert in the 4 elements, one is necessary the component of the other...

    BTW...I really love your grammarian dog!!!!

    A pleasure to read U as usual!!!!

  2. Hi Yohi!
    Yes! The Grammarian Dog is so cute! (:
    Yeap, I totally agree with you. We need the four elements and we should find the best way of putting them harmoniously together, which is, by the way, not an easy task at all. But that's what were are here for, isn't it? To keep on learning! ;)

  3. By now, you Michael Lewis wouldn't agree that "grammar is what groups and brings words meaningfully together", don't you? ;-)
    Anyway, just wanted to say I really enjoyed this post of yours and especially loved the way you stated conclusions. Felt like clapping at the end of each paragraph! (family still sleeping, so I'd better not do it!).
    I also agree with Yohi when she says ideally English learners should become "experts" in all systems (and skills, for that matter). But the question is where to lay priorities, wouldn't you agree?