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Theoretical Aspects of Teaching English Grammar

Theoretical Aspects of Teaching English Grammar


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Published by iwona_lang1968

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Published by: iwona_lang1968 on Mar 20, 2010
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During his primary education the author of this paper was faced with the need to
learn the rules of Polish grammar, which at that time sounded a lot like some mysterious
knowledge that his developing mind could barely comprehend and very often he had to
learn them by heart. At the same time he could use the language and communicate his
ideas without any real problem, so he often asked himself a question – what is the
purpose of learning something that complicated if he can manage very well without it?
In his young mind’s perception language consisted of words, so the important thing was
to learn them and not some abstract rules and he assumed that the same mechanism
works in case of foreign languages. It was only later that he discovered that grammars
of various languages differ and more elaborate ideas simply cannot be communicated in
the foreign language without a certain amount of knowledge of its grammar.
Unfortunately, such experiences seem to be quite common among learners,
resulting in their perception of grammar as something dispensable, at least in the first
stages of foreign language learning. It would probably be difficult to find a teacher of
English who hasn’t heard at least once a student saying that he doesn’t want to learn
grammar, but how to communicate.
The question is – how should the teacher actually respond to such a statement?
The situation is less complicated if he agrees with it, taking a stance which can be
actually supported by a number of methodologists. However, if he disagrees, how can
he convincingly explain to the learner that grammar is indispensable or at least very
useful? The argument, based on a common knowledge, that grammar is a set of rules of
language and that is why it should be learned might be insufficient. Perhaps the matter
must be investigated further for us to provide any more convincing arguments. A brief
inquiry into the literature concerning the topic of grammar can provide us with some
definitions of it. One of them comes from Ur (1993):

Grammar may be roughly defined as the way a language manipulates and
combines words (or bits of words) in order to form longer units of meaning.

(Ur, 1993:4)

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This definition is quite close to the common understanding of what grammar is.
The main difference is that it tells us how the rules of language actually work – they
arrange and shape words. Nevertheless, knowing what these rules do is not a very
motivating factor alone. Some additional information is provided in Thornbury’s
(2004) definition:

Grammar is partly the study of what forms (or structures) are possible in a
language. Traditionally, grammar has been concerned almost exclusively with
analysis at the level of the sentence. Thus a grammar is a description of the rules
that govern how a language’s sentences are formed.
(Thornbury, 2004:1)

Now we know that the rules of grammar are explicit. It does not only explain
how the utterances are formed, but also provides a tool to generate some possible
structures that have never been used before, which might be useful for people who
prefer to use the language in a creative way. However, since that might persuade only
the more ambitious learners, we may also refer to Komorowska (1980), who highlights
another aspect of grammar:

Commonly, the term grammar is used not only to describe a more or less
complete portrayal of a language system or, to put it differently, more or less
precise set of rules for creating sentences of a given language. It is also used to
establish a required level of correctness of the created sentences1

(Komorowska, 1980:15)

Grammar correctness – that is what students and teachers seem to be most
concerned about. There is no doubt that a foreign language native speaker might
understand a learner of his language even if his grammar correctness is rather low, but
in artificial situations such as lessons or exams, correctness is very often a binary value,
so a certain level of accuracy simply has to be reached is one wants to be successful.
Finally, there is the ‘finesse’ aspect of grammar:


Translated from Polish by the author of the thesis. All the following translations were also made by the

author of the thesis.

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At its heart, then, grammar consists of two fundamental ingredients – syntax and
morphology – and together they help us to identify grammatical forms which
serve to enhance and sharpen the expression of meaning.
(Batstone, 1994:4)

Batstone (1994) underlines an important fact here – people, when
communicating, want to be understood in a way that they intended and lack of grammar
accuracy can obstruct this objective, especially when communicating more complex and
abstract ideas. Perhaps grammar mistakes do not bring as much amusement as the
lexical or even phonetic ones, but it is safe to believe that most people would prefer to
avoid any possible linguistic faux pas.
As it can be seen from the above definitions, grammar is not an unimportant set
of rules that can be ignored without consequences. It is a very complex phenomenon
and even though learners may find it a difficult thing to master, the time devoted to that
is certainly not wasted. Making students realize it, however, is only the first step in
teaching grammar, and the following activities can take many different forms, based on
a selected approach and method. Those issues are going to be discussed in the following

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