Teaching Grammar

Reflections on Introduction: Teaching Grammar (chapter 5) in Basic Issues in EFL Teaching and Learning (Eisenmann & Summer:2012) by Ivor Timmis

Even though one might think, that there’s a general conception on how to teach language to new learners, there’s great debate especially concerning the importance of grammar teaching. There are two extreme views on teaching grammar; one part beliefs that teaching grammar is absolutely central to learning a new language, where the other part believes that grammar is not important at all, or even harmful to be taught or a waste of time. The two opposite positions on grammar teaching are the interventionist and the non-interventionist.

The non-interventionist has a highly input-based focus, and divides learning into two; learning (as of being taught explicitly) and acquisition (absorbing), thus saying that acquisition is more important, as it creates implicit knowledge within the student. Learning is then referred to as the conscious, traditional grammar-based process in the classroom, whereas when arguing for the acquisition-approach, the non-interventionist will refer to when we as humans learn our first language, which certainly isn’t by being taught grammar explicitly. Through listening and reading the learners are exposed to comprehensible input (Krashen, 1981), which has to be material that are both interesting and understanable. The non-interventionist beliefs that grammar has (or should have) a minor role when teaching a new language. This belief became especially popular in the 80s as sales-pitched by Stephen Krashen, that stated that a student that cannot verbalise the answer, might as well just have the answer, they are just working with their implicit knowledge in a more introverted fashion and will start verbalising as they have gathered enough implicit knowledge (just like young children learning their first language).

The interventionist empathises the importance of grammar teaching (form-focused activities) and will present studies showing how being taught grammar is very beneficial when learning a new language. The interventionist will argue the importance of explicit output-based learning as the basis of understanding and acquiring a new language. As output-based can facilitate acquisition by helping the learners to notice gaps between what they want to say and what they are able to say. They also counter-argue with the non-interventionists and say, that non-interventionist content-based teaching certainly may lead to significant gains in fluency and receptive skills, but that it does not produce accuracy of output.

So whether one fits one or the other, there are additionally different approaches to the way that one might teach grammar; proactive and reactive grammar teaching. The traditional approach is the proactive gramma teaching, this happens as grammar is explicitly presented by the teacher, the practised and produces by the learner (PPP; present-practise-produce). The procedure typically involves the presentation of the target structure in some kind of illustrative context and the explanation, meaning and use of target structure. This is followed by controlled practise where the learners manipulate the target item in exercises. The opposite and less explicit approach to teaching grammar is reactive grammar teaching which happens as the error occurs. There is a focus on form, where grammar points are dealt with as and when they create difficulty in context of a communicative activity, thus the teaching becomes implicit. This could be the teacher responding in a verbal dialog with a learner, by correcting their grammatical error in their answer. Reactive grammar teaching can both be planned and/or spontaneous.

Additionally the activities of grammar teaching can either focus on input or output. Ellis (2003) argues that input-based approaches intends to draw the students attention towards the structure of a subject in different ways, by highlighting to pointing out different structures in the input material. The theoretical reasons behind input-based approaches, rests on the computational model of language acquisition (Ellis, 2003), where acquisition occurs as a result of obtaining input. Furthermore it’s argued that the link between input and intake is the process of noticing, i.e. where the learners becomes conscious of what they already know and what input they get from their L2 (Schmidt, year), thus the learner need to be conscious of the input, in order to produce it as output. Therefor the teacher using an input-based approach should seek to provide a rich input. The input-based approach is especially linked to acquisition through listening and reading. The output-based approach to grammar teaching requires intense practise and is typically linked to explicit- and proactive teaching, though there are two kinds of output-based approaches; one includes that the that the output is fundamentally an intense practice of particular structures, and one where the learner is experiencing acquisition through practising output. By an explicit practice the learner will gain an automatic control of certain structure in their development of language (DeKeyser, 2003). Within output-based grammar teaching, the teacher anticipates what the learner will have difficulties with and plans tasks accordingly, yet focusing primarily on meaning.

Furthermore, one should be aware of the intentions behind teaching grammar either explicitly or implicitly. Explicit teaching is often designed to create explicit knowledge, which is the conscious knowledge of grammar i.e. the rule-set of grammar. Krashen (1981) would argue that explicit knowledge can be used only when learners have sufficient time and are focused on the form and know the rule. So although learners are aware of their explicit knowledge, as they hav to attend to language structures to learn them, when it comes to actual language use they face many problems because explicit knowledge exists independently of its actual use. It can be, in contrast to implicit knowledge, communicated or demonstrated on demand. Rather Krashen would favour implicit teaching as implicit knowledge is proceduralised (acquisition). Implicit knowledge is the knowledge we have without knowing why. For example the correct way of saying something, but without knowing why, maybe just sensing that it sounds right.

Literature:

DeKeyser, Robert (2003): Implicit and Explicit Learning. In: Doughty, Catherine/Long, Michael (eds.): The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 313-348.

Eisenmann, M. & Summer, T. (2012): Basic Issues in EFL Teaching and Learning. 2nd Review. Universitysverlag WINTER Heidelberg

Ellis, Rod (2003): Task-based Learning and Teaching. Oxford: OUP.

Krashen, Stephen (1981): Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.

Schmidt, Richard (1990): The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics 11, 129-58.

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