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The why and the how of teaching English grammar
|On this page :||To teach or not to teach grammar||How
to teach grammar
Let's be quite honest. When it comes to language teaching, grammar is not an optional extra. It never has been, and it never will be.
Grammar is the architecture of language, and while anyone can communicate very basic messages without knowing any grammar, particularly in conversational style, any more formal use of a language requires a knowledge of its grammar.
Grammar allows us to string words together in such a way that they accurately express the ideas that we mean to put across. It establishes how the content of a message is situated in time, how words relate to each other, and whether the message is an affirmation or a negation, a statement or a question.
There is a popular fallacy that people acquire grammar spontaneously, without needing to learn it. That is not true. Even children learning their mother tongue learn some grammar, though they do not know that they are learning it. They learn how to form questions, how to express negation, how to put nouns into the plural, where to place adjectives, and so on; but none of this comes spontaneously. They learn by trial and error and by mimicry... and it all takes a long long time... three or four years of full time learning to master the essentials, another eight to ten before they become proficient in their language and able to express most concepts or ideas. And they are exposed to the language 365 days a year, during all their waking hours.
Second language learners do not have this time available; they may get to study a second language for a few hours a week during term time in an EFL context, with no exposure to the language outside the classroom; for ESL learners it may be much the same, except that there is greater exposure to the language outside the classroom.
To suggest that second language learners can even begin to
remotely master a language without formally learning its essential
grammar is like suggesting that a child can design and build a
And yet, there was a time, indeed quite a long time, when the teaching of formal grammar... or the formal teaching of grammar... was frowned upon in the world of English teaching. Most particularly in the world of teaching English as a first language, the teaching of grammar was discouraged not just by many teachers but also by teacher-trainers, linguists, and curriculum designers. Grammar was virtually removed from school programmes in the UK, the USA and other parts of the world, though it remained a part of EFL teaching in much of the world in countries where "grammar" was held in higher esteem.
That age is now in the past; after a couple of decades when employers and academics bewailed the poor to mediocre grasp of grammar shown by so many graduates and teachers, not to mention younger generations in general, Grammar has been put more firmly back into the school curriculum in the UK and elsewhere, and its role has been reassessed.
Looking with hindsight, it is interesting to ask the question as to why, in the English speaking countries, the teaching of grammar fell out of favour in the way it did. Why did educators reach the odd conclusion that grammar teaching was a bad idea, and that children would become more proficient in language if they were not subjected to much in the way of formal grammar teaching?
It is important to note that it was not grammar itself that fell out of fashion, just the teaching of grammar. At the same time as grammar teaching was falling out of fashion in secondary education (in particular from the 1960s to the 1980s), language itself was being studied and analysed more than ever in higher education, with the huge growth of linguistics as an academic discipline. In the wake of Chomsky, language was being analysed, reanalysed and theorised in new and far more detailed ways by a generation of linguists pioneered in the UK by John Lyons and Randolph Quirk. English went very much under the microscope, the microscopes of transformational grammar, generative grammar, cognitive linguistics, semantics and syntax and others . These scientific or pseudo-scientific approaches justifiably established linguistics as an academic research discipline, but not as something to be taught in schools or language schools.
The great mistake that
was made at this time was to confuse linguistics – a
scientific study of the mechanisms
of language – with grammar
descriptive analysis of the accetable use of a language.
For the linguists who called the shots in the worlds of academia and teaching, grammar was a discredited discipline. The problem was that, as they correctly reasoned, morphosyntaxic linguistics was definitely not a subject to put into school curricula, not something that would help children or teenagers improve their language skills. And with the study of linguistics clearly inappropriate in the school context, and traditional grammar discredited, the unanswered question was how then to teach English language skills. In the absence of an answer to this question, the fallacious conclusion was that grammar should not be taught in schools at all. The downgrading of grammar can thus be seen as collateral from the massive social and educational upheavals that took place between the 1960s and the 1980s.
The downgrading of grammar in the school curriculum was made easier by the nature of the English language itself. Unlike French or German or Spanish, English is an analytic language; this means that it has few grammatical inflexions, and that meaning is mostly expressed through the order in which words are placed, and the small link-words that explain the relation between other words. Students of English do not need to learn detailed grammar tables for verb endings and noun forms in the way that is required in order to master synthetic languages like Latin. In other words, grammar is less important to communication in English than it is to communication in French or Spanish, so its downgrading in the school curriculum in the UK or the USA was less problematic than it would have been in France or Spain or Latin America.
Nonetheless the downgrading of grammar teaching in schools in the English speaking countries was not without consequence; the consequences just took a generation to make themselves felt, meaning that it was not until the late 1980s that formal grammar began to make a reappearance in the school curriculum in the UK. The first National Curricula published in 1988 in response to a perceived fall in educational standards, put grammar back into English teaching, but only in small doses. By the early twenty-first century, in an article entitled The English Patient, published in the Journal of Linguistics in 2005 1, Dick Hudson stressed how little most young teachers knew about English grammar. Since then further reports have come to similar conclusions, though the discussion has now moved on from the "whether" to the "how" to teach formal grammar in schools today. This is the problem for the 2020s.
As mentioned above, English is an analytic language with which it is sometimes possible to communicate effectively, though not efficiently, with little or no command of grammar. However for effective and unambiguous communication, particularly in written English, a basic comprehension of English grammar is essential.
As with mathematics or geography or other subjects, the effective teaching of grammar means at first reducing it to its simplest and most easily understandable forms. The teaching of mathematics starts with simple arithmetic before moving on to any more complex fields such as algebra or geometry; so the teaching of grammar needs to start with simply explained basic concepts, such as the nature of nouns and verbs, the importance of word order, the nature of tenses. We could take as an example this succinct definition of a noun " A noun is a lexical word that represents an entity (person, creature, object), a substance, a process (action, evolution) or an abstraction (idea, concept). Nouns representing named person/s, entity, or place are called proper nouns and are capitalised. Other nouns are known as or common nouns." 2
Even this simple definition of a noun will be too complicated for some learners to understand; but for the teacher it provides a simply expressed definition which can serve as a basis for work in the classroom. The definition is complete, i.e. it accounts for all nouns.
However, the teaching of grammar will fail - or fail for all but the brightest students - if grammar is taught essentially as theory. As many critics of grammar teaching have suggested, grammar will remain something for the elite only, if it is deemed to mean the teaching of theory and principles, or the teaching of linguistics. So to make grammar teaching less elitist, the solution is not to abandon the teaching of grammar altogether (as is still suggested by some, even today), but to make it accessible to all. This means building up from what pupils or students already know about grammar, not pushing down with theoretical rules that need to be applied.
Building up an understanding of grammar is best achieved by teaching grammar through examples, working from familiar phrases, words or sentences towards the grammar rules and principles that they illustrate. One of the clearest examples of this is to show how the expression How do you do? illustrates how virtually any question can be expressed in the English language. Using How do you do as a model, teachers can invite their pupils or students to write down other questions in English and see how they fit the same model. (See Rossiter 2020 Descriptive grammar of English, §4.2.)2 .
Grammar teaching will remain elitist, and fail for many students, if teachers insist on trying to teach linguistics rather than practical grammar. A case in point is the teaching of tenses. Current conventional wisdom in the field of morphosyntaxic linguistics asserts that there are only two tenses in English, the present and the past (or according to some linguists the past and the non past.) While this definition may work for linguists, it will not work for the average school student or EFL student, who knows intuitively that there are at least three concepts of time, the past, the present and the future, and that we use verbs differently to relate actions within these time frames. Teachers who try to tell their classes that there are only two tenses in English will therefore only succeed in making grammar seem illogical, absurd or irrelevant to the majority of their students – which is not what the teaching of grammar should be about. Far better follow the semantic view of tenses in English (a view that has remained generally followed in the world of TESOL - the teaching of English to speakers of other languages) that there six or twelve tenses in English depending on how the word tense is viewed.
In the end the successful teaching of grammar in the school environment, as in the TESOL environment, depends on two vital conditions. Firstly and most importantly, the teacher must have a good and coherent grasp of the essentials of English grammar, distinguising the fundamentals from the peripherals. Secondly the teacher must concentrate on explaining and illustrating the fundamentals in ways with which pupils and students can follow, i.e. without superfluous jargon, without complicated theories and without condescention. Mastering grammar may not be as vital with regard to the English language as it was for Latin, but in an age where an ability to communicate is seen as a vital life-skill, it is perhaps, more than ever, something that needs to be successfully taught at all levels, both in the world of secondary education and the world of TESOL. After all, though it has multiple varieties, there is only one English language.
1. Hudson, R. and J. Walmsley (2005) The English Patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century, Journal of Linguistics 43.3
2. Rossiter (2020) A Descriptive Grammar of English. ISBN: 9798645611750 (paperback) ISBN : 9782958385507 (hardback)
How important is Grammar ?
A short history of the English language
Ideas for English teachers
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