I teach the grammar, but they don’t learn it!

Grammar - The G word. Once taught only by unimaginative fascists, but now possibly coming back into vogue. (from Simon Barne’s deliciously irreverent TEFLese glossary)

Cinderella Grammar may have been out of fashion for some time in many parts of the world, but in Greece this has never been the case. Few English teachers in this country would even consider the notion of grammarless language teaching and, although grammar has not always been taught in the most pedagogically sound ways, it has at least never been abandoned. And while recent research (Norris and Ortega 2000, R. Ellis 2002, N. Ellis 2002) suggests that explicit grammar instruction is, indeed, beneficial, certain aspects of this research focusing on what kinds of explicit instruction are most relevant to the task of learning a foreign language are often overlooked. Grammar has always been one of the most important components of the curriculum of Greek foreign language centres, most of which devote at least a third of their course time to the explicit teaching of grammatical rules. In commercially unmistakable recognition of this fact, publishers keep churning out grammar books for all levels, including junior, while teachers keep reading out the rules and examples, occasionally throwing in a bit of a lecture on the finer points not comprehensively covered by the books in question, to classes of terminally bored students, who are then required to do countless form manipulation exercises. And yet... Nevertheless, on the rare occasions when these same students attempt to communicate in English, what most teachers (and examination boards!) would call basic errors invariably raise their ugly heads: My sister go to primary school. I am playing basketball twice the week. I had gone to the cinema last week. This may have been one of the reasons why the explicit teaching of grammar fell out of favour with many misguidedly communicative teachers a few years ago, but in Greece it has produced the opposite result: more grammar instruction was felt to be necessary. This must be the Greek approach to education par excellence: the emphasis on quantity rather than quality. If students don’t pass CPE, it is because they haven’t had enough practice, so let’s do more practice papers with them. If they can’t produce grammatical sentences, it’s because they haven’t studied enough grammar, so let’s give them more hours of grammar instruction. If they don’t display enough vocabulary knowledge in their compositions, let’s give them more and lengthier lists of words to learn by heart. The preoccupation with quantity is rarely questioned – on the contrary, it has become commonplace, and publishers have of course realised and capitalised on it; hence the plethora of supplementary books for every level: speaking books for elementary classes, readers for juniors, composition books for pre-juniors; the more books you use, the more certain you can be that you have covered everything!

And yet... A typical private language centre English course at elementary level comprises 90 or more hours of instruction. At intermediate and advanced levels the number of hours could rise to 180. Greek First Certificate students have usually had more than 850 hours of instruction over eight years, at least a third of which is grammar instruction. By the time they take the exam they’ve done the present perfect five times, and each time they’ve done dozens of exercises on it. And yet, the pass rate is the lowest in the world! What gives? Less is more I would argue that what Greek students need is less grammar, better taught. It isn’t necessary, for example, that students should know all of the grammatical terminology that describes the phenomena they are studying, nor is it necessary that they do countless gap-fill or multiple choice exercises on each grammatical item they focus on. But it is essential that they are exposed to new language items in a realistic context, that they become aware of how the target language differs from their own production, and that they are fully cognizant of their own deficiencies in using the language grammatically. What this clearly presupposes is that the grammar lesson contains some receptive skills work (: reading and/or listening) that involves realistic instances of language use, as well as a lot of productive skills work (: speaking and/or writing), which will give them the chance to see for themselves what gaps there are in their performance. Optical illusion We don’t necessarily notice everything that we see or hear. A learner might have heard and read and understood sentences using the present simple third person singular a number of times, and yet they may not have noticed that the form of the verb is different. If they fail to notice the difference, they will fail to reproduce it. This is why teachers explicitly focus on grammar, so that learners can actually notice language forms. The problem is that if this focus on grammar consists entirely in the recitation of rules and formulae, it soon becomes so boring that learners switch off. They may simply be on automatic pilot when they repeat forms after the teacher, fill in gaps accurately and make the right choices in exercises – and, in spite of the impression given that they have mastered the forms, they may in fact not have consciously noticed or internalised them. Which is one of the reasons why they will get it wrong when they next attempt to produce language freely.

Mind the gap In fact, learners need to realise not just how the grammar works in the target language, but also how different the grammar of the target language is from their own production. In other words, they need to notice the forms (Schmidt 1990, Batstone 1996), notice the gap between their own performance and that of a competent speaker of the language (Schmidt and Frota 1986), and also, and perhaps most importantly, notice what forms they lack whenever they need to express their personal meaning in the foreign language, or, in Swain’s terms, they need to notice the holes in their knowledge (Swain 1985, 1998).

To do this, learners need to be given the chance to compare their own spoken and written production with that of a competent speaker (so as to notice the gap) and they need to be given the chance to express their own meanings in the target language, using whatever linguistic resources they have at their disposal, thus realising what linguistic resources are not (yet) at their disposal (so as to notice the hole). Such procedures should, in my opinion, form the bulk of the grammar lesson. I am not claiming here that controlled practice of certain forms is irrelevant or useless, but I am suggesting that it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for learning to take place. Grammarless Grammar Teaching? This is, unfortunately, very different to most people’s understanding of what grammar teaching is about. The explanation-example-exercise cycle has become not only the de facto method of teaching grammar in Greece, but also the de facto expectation of learners (and their parents)! Greek ELT’s collective experience has sanctioned it and, of course, publishers have perpetuated it by producing ‘grammar books’ which merely contain cycle after cycle of explanation, example, exercises. Learners have come to expect that this is what will happen in the grammar lesson. Any departure from this model is likely to be considered radical to the extent that it may not even be recognised as a grammar teaching sequence. I am therefore not suggesting that this method be wholly abandoned yet, but that it should be toned down and complemented by procedures that have been found to enhance the grammar learning experience and improve the learners’ eventual output: • awareness-raising activities that help the learners actively notice forms and meanings • language production (speaking and/or writing) activities followed by explicit comparison between how the learners expressed meanings and how competent speakers express meanings • challenging language production (speaking and/or writing) activities that force the learners to use as much of the language as they have at their disposal That so much ‘free’ speaking and writing should form part of a grammar lesson may look strange at first, but let us bear in mind that it is precisely the exclusion of speaking and writing from the grammar lesson that has led to the current situation of learners who have been studying English grammar for years and years and can still only speak a severely limited, ungrammatical pidgin! References Ellis, N. C. 2002a. Frequency effects in language processing. A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 24: 143-188 Ellis, R. 2002. Does form-focused instruction affect the acquisition of implicit knowledge? A review of the research. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 24: 223-236

Norris, J. M. and L. Ortega 2000. Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning 50 (3): 417-528 Schmidt, R. W. 1990. The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11 (2): 129-158 Schmidt, R. W. and S.N. Frota 1986. Developing basic conversation ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner of Portuguese. In R. Day (Ed.), Talking to learn: Conversation in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 237-326 Swain, M. 1985. Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In S. Gass and C. Madden (eds.) Input in Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA.: Newbury House. Swain, M. 1998. Focus on form through conscious reflection. In Doughty, C. and J. Williams (eds.) 1998. Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 64-81

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