Spring 2018

(Reading time: 2 - 4 minutes)

Editorial

What is Grammar?

Grammar is the body of rules which underlie a language. It includes rules which govern the structure of words (suffixes and prefixes) and rules which govern the structure of words to form clauses and sentences that are acceptable to native speakers. Without grammar, words hang together without any real meaning or sense. In order to be able to speak a language to some degree of proficiency and to be able to say what we really want to say, we need to have some grammatical knowledge.

 

Most teachers see grammar as a body of knowledge that they themselves need as professional linguists; knowledge they can use judiciously to help learners gain insights into the workings of the language.
There is an English saying that goes: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. The same could be said about teaching grammar: you can teach the students the rules 

 

but you can’t make them learn them. There are many reasons for this. The students may simply not understand the rules –this is especially the case for young learners. But even adult learners have trouble with terms like past participle, third conditional, inseparable transitive phrasal verb etc.

 

Research suggests that the learning of some grammatical strucures follows a predetermined order so the fact that students seem to ‘resist’ learning grammar may simply be due to the fact that they are not ready yet.

 

How do we teach grammar?

The majority of teachers use the deductive method of teaching grammar. The approach is simple: the teacher draws attention to an example in the textbook, the rule is explained, nearly always in the mother tongue and the students practise applying the rule orally and/or in writing. Special attention is paid to areas of conflict between the grammar of the mother tongue and that of the target language. The whole approach is cognitive, with learners considering the rules and weighing their words before they speak or write. Little attention is paid to the value of the message.

 

A number of teachers follow the inductive method of grammar teaching that is they induce the learners to realize grammar rules without any form of prior explanation. These teachers believe that the rules will become evident if learners are given enough appropriate examples.

 

Some other teachers see no need to teach and practise grammar at all. Their view is that learners will pick up the regularities intuitively, provided they meet enough samples of natural language. The teacher’s role, as they see it, is to provide a language-rich environment in which the learners meet comprehensible language as they engage in activities of various kinds. The learners are expected to pick up the language just as they did their mother tongue.

 

Although advocates of grammar-focused teaching have never claimed that their method leads to oral fluency, their way of presenting grammar need not be rejected by those, whose aims are more communicative or humanistic. The deductive approach is extremely useful when we are confronted by a grammar rule which is complex but which we are expected to cover in the syllabus.

 

With such conflicting views what should the average teacher do about grammar? As in all choices of pedagogy the middle path is probably the best. A teacher may use all three of these strategies at various times to suit the different needs and learning styles of the students.

 

However we should not expect miracles to result from grammar teaching of any kind. Even easy grammar points are easy because they are easily explained. Internalisation (understanding grammar structures and being able to produce them accurately) may take years. So allow time and remember the Latin saying: “Repetitio est mater studiorum” (“Repetition is the mother of learning”) •

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