Do ‘they’ have to learn grammar?
Jun 24, 2012 Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) 2941 Views
During the past century or so, the focus of classroom instruction and the practice of language teaching have shifted depending on prevailing, customary methodologies and theoretical foundations of language teaching and learning. This has provided us with both interesting and varied interpretations of how best to teach a foreign language. Over the past few decades there has been a change of focus from an emphasis on language forms to more functional language within a communicative context. Initially, as mentioned by Brown (2000), the adoption of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) in the 1980s and 1990s witnessed a significant loss of focus on the forms of language. This approach introduced ‘real-life’ communication, characterized by authentic materials, true-to-life simulation and meaningful tasks. Learners were given a clear reason for communicating in the form of role plays and simulations. Accuracy of the language was seen to be of less importance than fluency and communicating successfully. The Communicative approach highlighted the importance of functional language as opposed to focusing specifically on grammar and vocabulary as was done in the past.
This was in stark contrast to the earlier traditional methods such as the Grammar Translation Method with its focus on vocabulary and grammar. This method did very little to encourage a learner’s communicative ability in the foreign language and is synonymous with memorizing and regurgitating countless and tedious lists of grammar rules and vocabulary. Brown (2001) explains that despite the obvious shortcomings, Grammar Translation still remains extremely popular even today and cites a few reasons for this apparent popularity. This method requires that teachers possess few specialized skills and grammar tests are easy to formulate and design and also easy to mark objectively. Another reason for its popularity is that many standardized tests of foreign languages do not test communicative abilities, so many students have little motivation to go beyond the immediate needs of grammar rules and translations. Richards and Rodgers (1986) note that the Grammar Translation Method has no supporters and that it is not based in any theory nor is there any justification for it.
With the general acceptance of Communicative Language Teaching as the most recognized, contemporary approach to language teaching, the question of the place of grammar or what has been termed form-focused instruction seemed uncertain within the curriculum. Spada (1997: 73) defines form-focused instruction (FFI) rather simplistically yet relevant to our purposes as, ‘any pedagogical effort which is used to draw the learners’ attention to language form either implicitly or explicitly.’ Brown (2000) distinguishes between the two different approaches to form as implied in Spada’s definition. Firstly, there is the implicit reference to form which includes what Richard Schmidt (1990) refers to as noticing (where the learner pays attention to certain linguistic features in input) and consciousness raising (including forms into communicative tasks). Closely tied to implicit reference to form, noticing and consciousness raising is discovering language. Secondly, there is the explicit discussion of rules and curriculum based on sequenced grammatical categories. The current universally held view is that some form-focused instruction is indeed important within the communicative framework, including explicit reference to rules as well as noticing and consciousness raising. We will consider these approaches to form in further detail in subsequent sections of this essay.
Brown (2001) states that grammatical competence is an important component of communicative competence. He goes on to describe organizational competence as a complex set of rules which govern both sentences (grammar) and how we link these sentences together (discourse). It is this organizational competence which is seen as necessary for communication and to ensure that the language used is not disorganized and muddled. Diane Larsen-Freeman (1991) points out that although grammar provides us with the form or structures of language, these are inconsequential or meaningless without, at the same time, considering semantics (meaning) and pragmatics (meaning assigned given the context). These three aspects are interconnected and each is dependent on the other. It is in this light that it should become overwhelmingly clear that grammar is not irrelevant and that it is both important and needed within a CLT framework.
In further exploring the question, ‘Do ‘they’ have to learn grammar?’ we will begin with a focus of attention on: the implicit reference to form and the explicit reference to form within the context of the communicative approach and the generally held belief that some form-focused instruction is indeed important within such a context. This will be followed by an examination of the role of grammar in language teaching and how to teach grammar. It is these subsequent issues which are also important when considering the importance attached to the teaching of grammar and which cannot be divorced from any discussion of whether learners have to learn grammar.
Implicit reference to form
Earlier interpretations of CLT advocated an ‘indirect’ approach, which promoted incidental learning or an implicit reference to form. Harmer (2001) raises the issue of whether traditional language teaching techniques such as drills, repetition and controlled practice of language items have any benefit to the language learner at all. Some linguists, as mentioned by David Nunan (2004), believed that an explicit focus on form and grammatical structures was unnecessary and that the acquisition of a second language would develop almost automatically if learners focused on meaning while completing tasks. Krashen (1982) divided language learning into ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’ prompting the notion that ‘language learning would take care of itself. He claimed that language which is acquired subconsciously is instantly available when we require it and can be readily used in spontaneous conversation. This is in contrast to language (grammar and vocabulary) which is learned and which is not available for spontaneous use. Krashen further stated that successful second language acquisition was dependent on the language input received by learners and whether this language was understood and received in a relaxing and conducive learning environment. A further attack on what we will refer to as the traditional forms of language teaching was launched by Willis (1996: 48) who described as a misleading notion, the idea that drilling or controlled practice of a particular item would lead to the acquisition of that item or the mastery of the grammar.
Krashen considered the explicit teaching of grammar as merely language appreciation. Krashen’s claims were questioned as it is not possible to ascertain whether a person’s language has been ‘learnt’ or ‘acquired.’ Furthermore, his suggestion that ‘learnt’ language could never be ‘acquired’ language was observably false as stated by Rod Ellis (1982) who maintained that communicative activities were the catalyst which transferred language from the ‘learnt’ to the ‘acquired.’ Skehan (1998: 12) responded by suggesting that Krashen’s views ‘have been influential within second language education and have had considerable impact on the nature of pedagogic provision. Not surprisingly, therefore, they have been subjected to searching criticism, and it would now seem that the claims that were made cannot be substantiated.’ Although controlled practice may not lead to the mastery of grammar, as expounded by Willis (1996), Harmer (2001) however ascertains that it may encourage motor skills in oral production and may provide learner motivation. Harmer (2001) refers to the considerable ease at which children subconsciously acquire language as opposed to adults. Even though teachers avoid teaching grammar to children as experience shows that it has little effect; form-focused instruction for adults is seen as both useful and desirable.
A premise which is closely related to the idea of incidental learning or implicit reference to form is often referred to as consciousness raising. It would seem that the majority of researchers today are advocates of consciousness raising as a means of facilitating second language acquisition. This is based on the concept that if repetition and controlled practice do not work as well as they should then the teacher should attempt to make the learners ‘aware’ of the language instead of actually teaching it. It is this proposed awareness which is thought to aid acquisition of the language so that when learners need it, they can produce the language both accurately and fluently. Consciousness raising aims to teach the learner how to learn and take responsibility for their own learning. There are various techniques available to raise awareness with many of these focusing on the relationship between form and function. Willis (1996) offers a list of consciousness raising techniques including cross language exploration and reference training amongst others which are beneficial to the learner. Consciousness raising adopts an organic view of teaching, thereby rejecting the linear view that suggests that once something has been taught it has been learned (Nunan 1991: 149). Furthermore, consciousness raising encourages learners to form their own hypotheses about the language, by linking and associating language that they have already acquired with the new.
The term ‘noticing’ as coined by Robert Schmidt (1990) refers to the idea that unless a student notices new language and is hence able to process it, there is little likelihood of them learning the language. Batstone (1996) refers to noticing as the ‘intake of grammar as a result of learners paying conscious attention to the input.’ Van Pattern (1996) notes that it is the kind of input received that would appear to be crucial to noticing. Schmidt adds that foreign language learners will notice new language constructs if they are regularly exposed to them or they are noticeable in some way. It is important to recognize that learners will need to have attained a certain level in order to notice various language constructs. Schmidt further adds that some people will be able to process input more effectively and therefore will be more adept to noticing. Moreover, this ability to notice will be affected by the learner’s readiness to attend to certain language at the time. Furthermore, it is suggested that very difficult and unfamiliar tasks will also affect a learner’s ability to notice.
This emphasis on consciousness raising and noticing suggests that instead of teaching a language item, the teacher should encourage students to notice it when it arises so that it is subsequently processed and learnt (Harmer 2001). Even though the language may have been noticed, this does not necessarily mean that it has been acquired or learnt or that it can be used immediately or spontaneously. This may require further processing time or structuring on the part of the learner.
Another school of thought interconnected with implicit reference to form and the concepts of consciousness raising and noticing, is that of discovering language. Lewis (1986: 165) suggests that this conceptual understanding is arrived at through a process of exploration and thereby leading to true understanding. It is widely accepted that the things which we discover ourselves are more effectively taken in than those things that we are taught. Harmer (2001) outlines the practical implications of this particular view whereby instead of teaching learners a linguistic item; teachers expose learners to examples of it, allowing them to figure out how it is used. This also encourages students to become more autonomous learners. Discovery learning may not however be suitable for all learners or cultures, nor is it certain whether it works well with all items of grammar. A further problem which might arise is that if a language item is too difficult or complex, learners may find it difficult to make meaningful analysis of it on their own.
Explicit reference to form
As already mentioned, the current universally held view is that some form-focused instruction is indeed important within the communicative framework. This includes both implicit and explicit reference to rules. Having dealt with implicit reference to form in the previous section, we will now consider explicit reference to form.
In our earlier discussion on implicit reference to form, David Nunun (2004) mentioned that some linguists believed that an explicit focus on form and grammatical structures was unnecessary and that the acquisition of a second language would develop almost automatically if learners focused on meaning while completing tasks. Nunan further proclaims that this focus on content at the expense of attention to form, has come under increasing challenge in recent years resulting in a widespread acceptance that form has a place in the classroom. This has sparked debate as to the extend to which grammar should be included in the curriculum. Some argue that a focus on form should only be an incidental activity within the communicative language classroom while others believe that there should be an explicit reference to form. Littlewood (1981) makes a distinction between a weak and a strong interpretation of Communicative Language Teaching, where the strong interpretation avoids a focus on form and the weak interpretation recognizes the need for such a focus. Littlewood, in his support of the weak interpretation, argues that a number of skills need to be considered:
- Learners must attain a high degree of linguistic competence so that it can be used spontaneously and flexibly in order to convey the intended message.
- A learner should distinguish between form learnt and the communicative functions which these forms perform.
- Learners must develop both language skills and strategies for communicating in real situations using feedback to check success and using different language when faced with failure.
- Learners must recognize the different social meanings of language forms, thereby using accepted forms for different circumstances and avoiding offensive or inappropriate ones.
Unlike earlier interpretations of CLT which advocated an ‘indirect’ approach, Brown (2001), like Littlewood, is in favour of the ‘direct’ approach with a more effective application of CLT principles that sequences and structures tasks for learners, offering the best possible intervention to assist learners in language acquisition. This earlier interpretation of CLT led to its own set of problems with little attention being given to the importance of form as teachers strived to present authentic, meaningful language in the communicative classroom. As noted by Brown (2001) we simply moved from one extreme to another where vocabulary and grammar took center stage with little regard to language forms, to vocabulary and grammar teaching being given very little attention. He further adds that we now seem to have a new gained respect for the place of teaching form in the interactive classroom which allows the teacher to find better techniques for presenting vocabulary and grammar in the communicative classroom. Dianne Larsen Freeman (1997) cites Pienemann (1984) who demonstrated that learners that received explicit grammar instruction progressed at a much more impressive rate than those learners that were not exposed to such explicit instruction. Although it was noted that only a small number of subjects were involved in this study; if corroborated would provide evidence that teaching grammar is beneficial as opposed to allowing grammar to be acquired implicitly.
Krashen’s (1982) recommendation that the teaching of grammar be abandoned faced another problem as many learners and parents in different countries are convinced that learning grammar rules are of value and central in acquiring a second language. In Taiwan, for example, learners and parents alike will often complain to educational institutions if teachers are perceived not to be teaching sufficient grammar. Harmer (2001) adds that the Communicative approach, with its emphasis on pair and group work and minimal intervention by the teacher may in fact offend educational traditions that it initially aimed to displace. In Taiwan, tests are viewed as being incredibly important and surprisingly a high percentage of students either like or expect tests. In a society which is performance driven (and tests results are seen to reflect this) much of the motivation for completing a language course, is to score well in the test. Failure to score well in a test is seen as a ‘loss of face’ and in some instances a failure on the part of the educational institution or teacher. This highlights an important issue, touched upon in the introduction, regarding standardized tests of a foreign language. As many of these tests such as the TOEFL do not test communicative abilities, students have a desire to learn grammar rules in the classroom in preparation for these tests.
Further research by Swain (1985) reveals that learners in immersion classrooms that have been exposed to ample target language continue to make many grammatical errors. This observation would therefore seem to disclaim the notion of forms being acquired incidentally. The idea that Communicative Language Teaching with its implementation of fluency-based activities would develop communicative competence and linguistic competence did not always occur. It was soon realized that CLT programmes which applied extensive use of authentic materials, witnessed learners who often developed fluency at the expense of accuracy. This situation resulted in learners who were competent communicators but who had a poor command of grammatical structures. It is important that fluency should not be encouraged at the expense of unambiguous and clear communication.
The role of grammar in language teaching
Following our discussion of the two different approaches to form-focused instruction in the communicative context, we will now explore the role of grammar in Communicative Language Teaching. Larsen- Freeman (1997) adds that grammar is often misunderstood and that this misconception is perpetuated by the idea that grammar is simply an assortment of arbitrary rules concerning static structures. She further questions the claims that learners will in fact acquire structures on their own and that they do not have to be taught. Consequently, Larsen-Freeman believes that communicative and proficiency-based teaching approaches may indeed limit grammar. Brown (2001) notes that there should be no question as to whether we should teach grammar to adults and offers the following grammar-focusing techniques:
- Grammar should be included in communicative contexts
- Grammar should play a positive role in communicative goals
- Grammar should attempt to encourage accuracy within a fluent communicative environment
- Grammar should not confuse learners with complex terminology
- Grammar should be intrinsically motivating and interesting
Marianne Celce-Murcia (1991) provided a number of variables which will assist in determining the role of grammar in language teaching. The first variable is that of age. Young children are seen to benefit from a focus on form if it is incidental and offered through indirect error treatment. Older children may benefit from simple generalizations and concrete illustrations. Adults, on the other hand, are able to improve their communicative abilities through grammar instruction as they have developed abstract thought. The second variable which concerns us is that of proficiency level. Too much focus on grammar at the beginner level will restrict acquisition of fluency skills. At the advanced level, it is suggested that grammar is less likely to interrupt communicative fluency. It is uncertain as to whether grammar is more important and is dependent on the level of accuracy already attained. The next variable concerns the educational background of the learner. Those learners with little or no formal educational background may struggle understanding and grasping complex grammatical terminology. Educated students however are cognitively more receptive to grammar focus. The fourth variable refers to language skills and the idea that grammar focus is more effective in improving writing skills as opposed to the other skills. Another variable, as proposed by Celce-Murcia, is that of register. Informal contexts (writing an email) have fewer demands on grammatical accuracy as opposed to more formal contexts (talking to a teacher). The final variable relates to the needs and goals of the learners. Those learners who are learning a foreign language in order to pursue professional goals will need to focus on formal accuracy more so than those at survival level.
Brown (2001) emphasizes that these variables should be viewed simply as general guidelines when deciding on whether grammatical focus is required in the classroom.
How to teach grammar
Many of the differences in the adoption of past methods and approaches to language teaching have stemmed from the importance and role of grammar within these contexts. Having firmly established the importance form-focused instruction and the fact that most professionals would pay credence to this importance, there are differences in opinion as to the sort of instruction that should be available to learners. Brown (2001) refers to four important issues which are central to this prevailing professional debate. The first of these questions in this ongoing discussion is whether there should be an inductive or deductive approach to presenting grammar. With the inductive approach, language forms are practiced and the learners induce the rules for themselves. The deductive approach, on the other hand, advocates the presentation of grammar rules by the teacher followed by practice of language examples to which the rules apply. Brown notes that the inductive approach is more appropriate in most cases for a number of reasons:
- It follows the process of natural language acquisition, with rules being grasped subconsciously
- It is consistent with the notion of interlanguage development with learners acquiring rules at different rates
- It provides learners with a communicative sense of the language before being confronted with complicated grammatical explanations
- It creates intrinsic motivation with learners attempting to discover the rules for themselves
In the previous section, we referred to Marianne Celce-Murcia’s (1991) suggestion that young children seem to benefit from an inductive approach to grammar. It is further mentioned by Brown (2001) that sometimes a deductive approach or a blend of the two is required. This is evident when teaching adults as a deductive approach may serve to improve their communicative abilities due to the fact that they have developed abstract thought.
The next question raised is whether we should focus on grammatical explanations in the CLT classroom. We should avoid confusing learners with reference to complex grammatical explanations and terminology. Brown (2001) offers a few simple guidelines when providing grammatical explanations to your learners:
- Explanations should be short and simple
- Use visual stimuli and graphical depictions
- Illustrate by using clear and unambiguous examples
- Consider the cognitive styles of your learners remembering that analytical learners find it easier dealing with grammatical explanations compared to holistic learners
- Do not concern your learners with ‘exceptions’ to rules
- If a student asks about a grammar point that you are unsure of, tell them that you will get further clarification and ‘shed some light’ on the language item during your next meeting. This will give you an opportunity to do some relevant research. The teacher’s books are often extremely useful in assisting the teacher explain and understand certain grammar points.
This brings us to the question of whether grammar should be taught independently and in separate classes. Research and CLT practice would suggest that grammar be included in a general language course and as a component of communicative competence instead of approaching it as a separate skill. Teaching grammar separately may prove useful when teaching intermediate to advanced learners, where a certain degree of fluency is already apparent. The conditions for such grammar teaching are outlined by Brown (2001) as follows:
- The grammar course should be integrated into the overall curriculum
- The curriculum determines the content of the grammar course
- Grammar is contextualized in meaningful language use
- The grammar course is designed to deal with specific problems the learners may have encountered in the curriculum
- Assessing the success of such grammar courses should be evident from the learners’ performance outside of the grammar class and not by grammar tests
The final question, relevant to the issue of what kind of instruction that should be available to learners, is whether teachers should in fact correct grammatical errors. Although evidence shows that overt correction of grammar does little to improve language, there is evidence which demonstrates that certain attention and treatment of grammar errors does have an effect. Vigil and Oller’s (1976) feedback model implies that cognitive feedback should be optimal in order to prove effective. An excess of negative cognitive feedback (interruptions and corrections) may stifle a learner’s attempts at communication. At the other end of the scale, an excess of positive feedback (little correction) may reinforce errors and could eventually lead to the fossilization of such errors. It is important therefore to evaluate when and how to deal with errors in the classroom environment. Hendrickson (1980) suggested that teachers attempt to differentiate between global and local errors. A local error does not usually have to be corrected as the message is clear and correction may impede the flow of communication. Global errors, on the other hand, need to be corrected as the message is incomprehensible as it is. The crux of this issue is that teachers should avoid overcorrecting learners’ attempts at productive communication, even though students generally expect errors to be corrected in the classroom. The language teacher should attempt to find an optimum medium between overt correction and ignoring errors.
During our examination of the place of grammar within the context of the communicative approach, it is reasonable to conclude that grammar is certainly not irrelevant and is indeed important within a CLT framework. Our discussion of the two approaches to form-focused instruction would indicate and support the universally held view that some form-focused instruction is necessary. Although it is difficult to generalize the diverse findings promulgated by research on form-focused instruction, it may however be fair to make a number of deductions as illustrated by Brown (2001). Research suggests that form-focused instruction may in fact improve a learner’s level of attainment, but that the practices followed by earlier methods such as the Grammar Translation Method are not justified. The treatment of grammar errors and attention to language forms are clearly most effective when integrated into a communicative, learner-centered curriculum and least effective when the correction of errors takes central dominance in the classroom.
There has been few research studies undertaken which enable us to determine at what stages learners are more disposed than others to internalize form-focused instruction. In our preceding discussion on the role of grammar in language teaching, Marianne Celce-Murcia (1991) determined that young children gain from a focus on form especially if it is incidental. Adults, however, are able to benefit from grammar instruction. Furthermore, it is suggested in the course of this essay and a study by Lightbrown and Spada (1990) that a teacher should refrain from interrupting learners while they are in the process of attempting to communicate. In line with this finding, Tomasello and Herron (1989) have found evidence which supports the notion that it is best to offer corrective feedback after a communicative task.
Our in depth discussion of the implicit and explicit references to form provided us with some interesting arguments which highlighted the advantages of both approaches when considering a variety of potential contexts. DeKeyser’s (1995) findings suggested that explicit instruction was more suited to the easier stated grammar rules and implicit instruction was best suited to conveying the more complex rules. What is more, the extensive research on learner characteristic, styles and strategies clearly reinforces the conclusion that some learners benefit more than others from form-focused instruction. These variables include: age, proficiency level, educational background, language skills, register, and the needs and goals of the learner (Celce-Murcia 1991). In addition, analytical learners find it easier to process grammatical explanations compared to holistic learners.
In conclusion, it could be said that ‘they’ do have to learn grammar in the communicative context, although this focus on form may be realized either implicitly or explicitly. Even though there is ongoing discussion and differences in opinion on the sort of instruction to be employed in teaching grammar, most professionals would agree on the importance of teaching grammar in the communicative context. Dianne Larsen- Freeman (1997) aptly sums it up by saying that, ‘if the goals of language instruction include teaching students to use grammar accurately, meaningfully, and appropriately, then a compelling case can be made for teaching grammar. Instead of viewing grammar as a static system of arbitrary rules, it should be seen as a rational, dynamic system that is comprised of structures characterized by the three dimensions of form, meaning and use.
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