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Approaches to teaching grammar
Scris de mihaiela lazar   
Sâmbătă, 08 Aprilie 2017 08:54


Profesor lb. engleză Simedre Daniela Ana

Liceul Teoretic “Tudor Vianu”, Giurgiu

The present paper offers a few perspectives on the methods we use in order to teach grammar and its purpose, from the perspective of Traditional Grammar and Communicative Language Teaching.

Traditional grammar analyzed English sentences using rules based on Latin and considering the fact that English is a Germanic language, the rules didn’t always harmonize well. Moreover traditional grammar insisted that only certain styles were worth studying, which rejected many of the contexts in which English was used, more specific English used in everyday life, used informally.

Traditional grammar had even a more didactic aim, namely to prepare students to study Latin. It was believed that if students learned the grammar of English, they would have the required devices for learning Latin later on.

Structural linguistics and transformational-generative grammar are two divisions of linguistics developed in the twentieth century to challenge traditional grammar. Both systems are descriptive in nature, building on the speech of ordinary people to determine the rules of English. Structuralists focused on creating a more accurate depiction of the structure of English, while transformational-generative grammarians try to understand people’s biological abilities to learn language.

The structuralists were essentially behaviorists and believed that children learned language through imitation. Noam Chomsky was interested in illustrating how native speakers use their intuition about language to bring about ideas and transform them stylistically – consequently the name given to his linguistic model: transformational-generative grammar

“The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines grammar as the rules by which words change their forms and are combined into sentences. There are two basic elements in this definition: the rules of grammar; and the study and practice of the rules. The rules of grammar are about how words change and how they are put together into sentences. The knowledge of grammar also tells the learner what to do if he wants to put the some phrase into the sentence. Grammar should be called the way in which words change themselves and group together to make sentences.” (Jeremy Harmer, “Teaching and Learning Grammar”1991)

There are two important aspects to be taken into consideration when it comes to grammar teaching in second language pedagogy: the first one is if we should teach grammar and the second one is how we should teach it if we do teach it.

Krashen (1982) has claimed that formal instruction in grammar will not lead to the development of “acquired” knowledge – the knowledge one needs to take part in authentic communication.

Prabhu (1987) has tried display that learners can acquire an L2 grammar practically by taking part in meaning- focused tasks. Some others have claimed that teaching grammar does not help L2 acquisition, at least not in the way teachers think it does.

Rod Ellis in Grammar Teaching – Practice or Consciousness-Raising? considers two approaches when it comes to the question of how to teach grammar: practice and consciousness-raising.

Most teachers acknowledge that the main purpose of teaching grammar it to enable learners to internalise the structures taught so that they can be used in day to day communication. To do so, the learners are offered possibilities to practise the structures, first under controlled circumstances and then under more common communicative circumstances. There are a number of different types of practice activities: mechanical practice, contextualised practice and communicative practice.

Mechanical practice comprises different types of thoroughly controlled activities, such as substitution exercises. Contextualised practice is still controlled, but entails an attempt to encourage learners to relate form to meaning by showing how structures are used in real-life situations.

Communicative practice involves different types of gap activities which engage the learners in authentic communication while at the same time paying attention to the structures that are being used in the process.

No matter which practice is used, it will have the characteristics that follow:

1. the attempt to ‘’isolate’’ a specific grammar feature for focused attention

2. the learners are asked to ‘’produce’’ structures containing the targeted feature

3. the learners are given the opportunity for ‘’repetition’’ of the targeted feature

4. practice activities are ‘’success oriented’’ (Ur, 1988: 13) as the learners are expected to perform the grammatical feature correctly

5. ‘’Feedback’’ is given to the learners irrespective of whether their performance is correct or not.

These five characteristics define the term ‘’practise’’

Consciousness-raising involves an attempt to give the learner an understanding of a certain grammatical feature. The main characteristics of these types of activities are:

1. the attempt to ‘’isolate’’ a specific grammar feature for focused attention.

2. the learners are given ‘’data’’ which show the targeted feature; they may also be given ‘’explicit rule’’ which describes or explains the feature.

3. the learners are supposed to utilise ‘’intellectual effort’’ to understand the targeted feature.

4. Incomplete understanding of a certain grammar structure leads to ‘clarification’ in the form of additional explanation

5. Learners may be asked to articulate the rule that describes the grammar structure

The conclusion to be drawn from this list of characteristics is that the main aim of consciousness-raising is to develop explicit knowledge of grammar.

Thus, if we compare the two approaches, the main difference is that consciousness-raising does not involve the learner in repeated production. The purpose of these techniques is not to enable the learner to perform a structure correctly, but to help him to ‘‘know about it’’.

Some methodologists suggest that practice should be preceded by a presentation stage, to make sure that the learners have a clear understanding of the targeted structure, whereas practice cannot take place without some degree of conscious-raising. Consciousness-raising can occur without practice. Thus, we may infer that we can teach grammar in the sense of helping learners understand and explain grammatical patterns without engaging them in repetitive activities.

Studies which have investigated the efficacy of practice have shown that it is ‘’essentially a pedagogical construct’’ (Rod Ellis, 2002:170) and it implies that the acquisition of grammatical structures involves a gradual automatisation of production and it ‘’ignores the very real constraints that exist are the ability of the teacher to influence what goes on inside the learner’s head.’’

According to Marianne Celce ( Getting ready to teach grammar ) the grammar lesson should consist of four parts:

1. Presentation – the stage in which we introduce the grammar structure. The techniques that can be used during this step are plenty and varied, the teacher being the one who chooses it considering the type of structure to be taught, student preferences, level and age.

2. Focused practice – the stage in which all students are supposed to use the specific structure in controlled practice activity specific contexts without being pressured to use them in communication.

3. Communicative practice – using the learnt structures in communicative activities.

4. Teacher feedback and correction. Error – correction should take place throughout the lesson. In the first part of the lesson it should be immediate and direct, however communicative activities should not be interrupted – the teacher should take note of errors – so as not to demotivate students.

According Sue Wharton and Phil Race (500 Tips for TESOL, Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005) there are certain things we should consider when teaching grammar:

1. ‘‘Expect grammar errors’’ – this is a normal part of language learning and development and one cannot get rid of them just by pointing them out. Grammar improves over time provided it is contextualised and attention is paid to accuracy.

2. Another thing that helps in teaching grammar is giving students the chance to use their ‘‘full grammatical range’’. This means involving learners in ‘‘meaning-focused productive activities’’ that allow them to choose the language they want to produce.

3. Using explicit practice activities, offering students the chance to practice a recently studied form in a controlled practice environment. For example students might be asked to use the modal verb ‘‘must’’ to speak about obligations/duties and ‘‘mustn’t’’ to speak about what it is prohibited for them to be done in school.

4. Error correction should be done carefully. Taking into account the fact that students will always make mistakes, error correction should depend on the purpose of the activity.

5. Using discovery techniques as well as presentation this means the teacher shows them a grammatical form in different context and students are the ones who work out the meaning and the rules.

6. ‘‘Give clear and simple explanations’’ – when giving explanations for certain grammatical structures, teachers are supposed to adapt and adjust their presentation to the level of the learners.


Celce, M. , Techniques and Resources in Teaching Grammar, Oxford University Press, 1988

Ellis, R., Grammar Teaching – Practice or Consciousness-Raising

Harmer, J., Teaching and Learning Grammar, Longman ,1991

Krashen, S., Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, University of Southern California, 1981

Prabhu, N. S., Second Language Pedagogy, Oxford University Press, 1987

Ur, P., Grammar Practice Activities, Oxford University Press,1988,

Wharton, S. and Race, P., 500 Tips for TESOL, Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005


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