Jelena Bobkina

Teaching Grammar in Context

Spanish national curriculum standards in foreign language teaching are being reformed nowadays in order to meet new social demands towards preparing communicatively competent students. These new requirements are changing the way English is being taught in our classrooms. There is a clear shift from practising grammar exercises and memorising language forms towards introducing different conversational practices, doing listening comprehension activities and using authentic texts. The communicative approach requires a new fresh glance on teaching of speaking, listening and reading abilities.

But what about grammar? Does it have to be taught at all? If yes, in which way do we have to change our traditional understanding of grammar in order to teach it more effectively? In fact, we can teach students about grammar and develop their

grammatical understanding through exercises and drills. But how do students then transfer that understanding into reflecting on their own work or responding more accurately to the text they read?

In this paper we will try to find the answers to some of these questions, as well as to give our own experience of teaching grammar with adolescent students.


All forms of testing in English require an explicit knowledge of grammar. Students without that knowledge find themselves at a considerable disadvantage. The question for teacher is: how much grammar do students need to know?

Traditionally grammar has been considered as one of the pillar elements in foreign language teaching, and English language teaching in particular. The Grammar translation method, the Audio-Lingual method, as well as other non-functional methods, which dominated language teaching in 1940-1960, were based mostly on teaching form as language basic element. The synthetic syllabus, characteristic of that epoch, required teaching one grammatical item at a time, as well as careful pre-selection of discrete elements of the language to be taught. It was believed, as well, that the grammar learnt explicitly is changed into implicit knowledge inside the student´s brain.

The Krashen´s researches in applied linguistics changed the perspective of language teaching in an absolutely new way. According to Krashen, foreign language learning should be approached to child´s first language acquisition. No explicit grammar is to be taught as far as it does not contribute to language acquisition. Instead, he defends the idea that most of the language is learnt implicitly, so in class a lot of authentic language should be provided.

The investigations realized in 80-90es by Long, Ellis, Schmidt, and other scholars, as a part of the communicative approach development, clearly indicate the necessity of teaching both form and meaning. In practice, it means that teaching grammar is necessary, although there is no way back to traditional grammar teaching methods characteristic of the first half of the 20th century.

In the latest researches on the Communicative approach the focus on form is tried to be incorporated with the focus on meaning. Such, for example, Schmidt in his Noticing Hypothesis indicates that noticing of linguistic forms is crucial for their subsequent processing. The process of acquisition happens when noticed information is stored in our memory and later leads to restruction of the interlanguage system.

Finally, the advances in discourse analysis and the development of functional grammars made it clear the necessity of introducing grammar as a part of a bigger whole: a context. By context we understand not only the immediate semantic environment of any given lexical item, but the whole text surrounding (co-text) as well as the situation in which the discourse is produced (context). Teaching grammar in context supposes teaching forms in their relation to functions. Grammatical attention to texts can help students to understand text better, write more effectively and use grammar rules in a more meaningful way.


The Grammar-Translation Method

The Grammar-Translation Method is not new at all; in fact, it was the dominant methodology of foreign language teaching in the 19th century, based mostly on teaching practices and procedures elaborated to study Greek and Latin in public schools.

According to the Grammar-Translation Method the fundamental purpose of learning is to be able to read literature written in a target language. In order to do this, students need to learn about the grammar rules and vocabulary.

Grammar is studied deductively; that is, that students are given the grammar rules and examples, are told to memorize them, and then are asked to apply the rules to other examples. They also learn grammatical paradigms such as verbs conjugations.

Conscious memorising of grammar rules and lexical items was considered to be the best way to achieve the learning objectives. The basic unit of study was the sentence, so students were manipulating language mostly on the level of sentence.

Grammar is learnt through the following type of activities:


Translation of a literary passage Deductive application of rule


Fill-in-the-blanks exercises Memorization Use words in sentences Composition

Although being highly criticized for lack of the communicative activities, and strong emphasis on memorizing and practising grammar rules, this method is still widly used in Spanish language classrooms.

The Direct Method

The disillusionment with the Grammar-Translation method and the increasing interest in child language learning led to the development of the Direct Method in the first decades of the 20th century. The focus on oral interaction and avoidance of the mother tongue became the basic principles of the method.

Being oral communication the main goal of the learning process, the role of grammar is seen to be reduced to a kind of a complementary tool. Grammar is taught inductively; that is, the students are presented with examples and they figure out the rule or generalization from the examples. An explicit rule may never be given.

Grammar is learnt through the following type of activities:


Getting students to self-correct Fill-in the blank exercises Dictation Paragraph writing

The Audio-Lingual Method Audio-Lingualism saw itself as a first “scientific” language teaching methodology. The linguistic principles of the method are based on those of structural linguistics: language is primarily oral and it is a rule-governed system understandable in terms of increasing

levels of complexity (Charles Fried). These principles were most famously outlined by Bloomfield in a number of works between 1914 and 1942i.

The other important strand of Audio-Lingualism was that of a behaviourist psychology. Behaviourist models of learning essentially saw language as a behavioural skill where learners receive a stimulus (such as a cue in a drill), respond (by providing the correct utterance) and then have correct responses reinforced. Error was not tolerated as it was thought that this will lead to the errors being reinforced (“bad habits”).

The main goal of the method is to teach students to use the target language communicatively. This objective is to be achieved by learning to use the language automatically through drills practising.

Grammar is introduced through structural patterns that are presented through dialogs. The dialogs are learned through imitation and repetition. Explicit grammar rules are almost never given, students are supposed to induce the grammar rules from the examples given.

Summarizing, the acquisition of grammar rules happens by repetition of dialogs, their memorization and construction the new ones, in the process of habit formation.

From these roots, Audio-Lingualism developed into a system which is still used in many parts of the world, including Spain. The continued publication and success of textbooks based to a large degree on audio-lingual principles, such as Streamline series (Hartley and Vine, 1978), show that Audio-Lingualism has no disappeared.

Grammar is learnt through the following type of activities:

- Dialog memorization - Repetition drill - Chain drill - Single-slot substitution drill - Multiple-slot substitution drill - Transformation drill

- Complete the dialog - Grammar game

Humanistic Methods

Although people did learn languages through Audio-Lingual Approach, one of the major problems of the method was students´ inability to transfer the rules they have acquired in the classroom to the real life situations. The idea of language as a habit formation was challenged by Naom Chomsky in early 1960s. Chomsky reasoned that language must not be considered a product of habit formation, but rather of rule formation. Accordingly, the language acquisition must be a procedure where people use their own thinking processes, or cognition, in order to discover the rules underlying the grammar system of the language. The emphasis on cognition led to the establishment of the Cognitive Approach in early 1970s that caused the appearance of a number of innovative ways of teaching, broadly labelled as “Humanistic”, among others the Silent way, Suggestopedia, Community Language teaching and the Total Physical Approach. Generally speaking, this label applies to the methodologies which see the learner as a “whole” person and the classroom as an environment where more than the transfer of “knowledge” occurs.ii

The Silent Way

The Silent Way´s goals could be defined as self-expression in the target language, learner independence and the development of the learner´s own facility to evaluate correctness. These goals are rather typical for modern teaching; it is the way they are achieved in the Silent Way that makes them different.

Grammar is regarded to be a necessary tool for effective communication, although explicit grammatical explanations are usually avoided. Learners are expected to be responsible for their own learning, to make their own generalisations and apply them on practice. Peer correction is also highly encouraged. Typically grammatical explanations of language structures are introduced through Cuisenaire rods (coloured wooden rods of different lengths) and the fact that the teacher is silent whenever it is possible.

Grammar is learnt through the following type of activities:

- Teacher´s silence - Peer correction - Self-correction gestures - Rods


Suggestopedia, the system originated by Georgi Lozanov, is one of the best known humanistic methods due to the media interest towards it. It is also famous for its use of music to create a non-threatening atmosphere conductive to learning. It focuses on creating the appropriate mental state that facilitates language learning. Grammar is dealt with explicitly but minimally. In fact, students’ attention is focused mostly not on the language forms, but on using the language. It is believed that the linguistic rules will be absorbed by “paraconscioius” mind. Unconscious acquisition of grammar aspects of language is promoted. It is claimed, for example, that by putting posters containing grammatical information about the target language on the classroom walls, students will absorb the necessary information without any effort.

Grammar is learnt through the following type of activities:

- Peripherial learning - Role play - Creative adaptation

Community Language Teaching

Community Language Learning is the name given to a teaching methodology developed by Charles Curran in the 1970s based on psychological counselling techniques. The teacher acts as the counsellor, meanwhile the learners are the clients. In practice it means that the teacher provides translation of what his/her students want to say, making

possible their interaction in a target language. These dialogues are recorded and form the basis for further studies. Let’s have a look at the place grammar occupies in this teaching method. Language is viewed to be the means of communication, so no explicit grammar explanations are provided. A teacher usually ask student to analyse the language they have used in the class. This analysis may involve looking at the form of tenses and vocabulary used and why certain ones are chosen. In this way students become totally involved in the analysis process. Higher level students can themselves decide what parts of their conversation they would like to analyse, meanwhile lower levels are usually offered to analyse the most common problems of the recording stages.

Grammar is learnt through the following type of activities:

- Tape recording student conversation - Reflection on experience - Small group tasks

Total Physical Response

Total Physical Response is a language teaching method proposed by James Asher in 1970s. Its most important feature is the linking between physical activity and the movement. TPR also draws on models of the first language acquisition, in particular the idea that comprehension comes before output production.

As in a case of the first language acquisition, the oral modality is primary. The learning of a language takes place mostly through speaking activities. Vocabulary and grammar structures are emphasized over other language areas. The last are introduced in most cases through imperative structures and multi-word chunks. No explicit grammar is given either. Students are supposed to acquire grammatical structures by listening, repeating and doing actions.

Grammar is learnt through the following type of activities:

- Using command to direct behaviour - Role reversal (students command their teacher) - Action sequence (several commands connected)

Communicative Language Teaching

Communicative Approach can be said to be the current dominant methodology of teaching English through out the world. In the 1070s some educators and linguists observed that the students could produce sentences in a rather accurate way in a lesson, nevertheless could not use them properly outside the class in real life situations. In fact, being able to communicate required more than linguistic competence. It required to know how to perform certain functions, such as promising, inviting, or declining invitations (Wilkins 1976), as well as to know how to say what to whom, in other words being communicatively competent (Hymes 1971). These works, among others, made it possible the shift in the late 1970s and early 1980s from a linguistic structure-centred approach to a communicative one.

The concept of communicative competence, proposed by Hymes, helped to design new models of language teaching and learning. Communicative Language Teaching has been described than as an approach that aims to a) make communicative competence the goal of language teaching and B) develop procedures for the teaching of the four language skills that acknowledge the interdependence of language and communication (Richard and Rogers 1986:66). Let’s have a look now how grammar is treated by the defenders of the Communicative Approach. As far as the final goal of learning is communication, the students need the knowledge of the linguistic forms, meanings, and functions. They need to know that many different forms can be used to perform the same function, and also that a single form can often express a variety of meanings. They also must be able to choose from among these the most appropriate form, given the social context and the roles of the interlocutors.

So, linguistic forms are usually taught in relation with language functions. At the beginning some simple grammar forms are introduced, but as students get more

proficient in the target language, the functions are reintroduced with more complex grammar forms.

Students work with grammar on a suprasentential or discourse level. They work with cohesion and coherence, learning about the way sentences are connected in a meaningful way.

To conclude, being an umbrella term, the communicative approach include a number of variations as far as the methodology concern. It is still being questioned among some scholars and educators whether a variety of language terms should be presented at a time or it would be more preferable to concentrate on one language form; do we have emphasize fluency over accuracy or both of them should be worked equally on.

Grammar is learnt through the following type of activities:

- Scrambled sentences - Language games - Picture strip story - Role play

The Natural Approach

The Natural Approach came to life in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was partly based on a model of learning developed in Canadian immersion programmes. The theoretical guidelines and their practical applications in the classroom were designed by Krashen and Terell (Krashen and Terell 1983).

Krashen and Terell saw the Natural Approach as a similar to other communicative approach as far as it sharing the same goals as the CLT (Krashen and Terell 1983:17). The Natural Approach uniqueness lies in its model of acquisition. Krashen makes a distinction between conscious learning and acquisition. Only the language that is acquired is seen to be used in a natural way. On the other side, language that has been learnt can be used mostly as a monitor to control and correct the learners´ output.

In this way, the importance of grammar instruction in the method is less relative. According to Krashen, language forms are acquired mostly through authentic language input in a way similar the native language is being learnt. Direct grammar instruction is sometimes necessary to activate the Monitor function that is used to control the accuracy of the language.

Also according to Krashen, new grammatical structures should be introduced in a certain order that is known as Natural Order Hypothesis and is based on studies of children learning their first language.

Though many of Krashen´s ideas have been questioned and criticized, the Krashen´s model of learning has “acted as a spur for a great deal of subsequent thinking and debate” (Candlin,N. and Mercer,N. 2007).

Other Communicative Approaches: Genre-based Learning and Text-based Teaching.

Genre-based Learning and Text-based Approach are the teaching methods that have been developed on the base of the communicative approach. In fact, both of them consider communication to be their central point of the teaching methodology.

Actually, the difference between these two approaches and the Communicative one is the matter of their focus. If the CLT method centres mostly on giving the students opportunities to practise language forms using communicative functions, the Text-based and Task-based Approaches are not organized around any language items at all. They give priority to the process of learning itself. According to Howatt, they represent the so called “strong” version of the CLT model. If the “weak” version, characteristic of the CLT, “could be described as “learning to use” English, the latter entails “using English to learn it” (Howatt 1984:297).

Task-Based Learning

Task-based learning currently attracts a lot of attention among scholars and teachers in different parts of the world. Though no fixed definition of this methodology has been given yet, all of TBL methodologies share a common idea: “giving learners tasks to transact, rather than item to learn, provides an environment which best promotes the natural language learning process” (Foster 1999).

The task-based approach in it traditional version, designed by Prabhu, is organized around a syllabus which contained a series of tasks in the form of problem-solving activities. Learning of language forms takes place indirectly, in the process of the construction of meaning. The acquisition of language takes place gradually and arbitrary.

In one of the latest versions of task-based approach, proposed by Long and Crook in their model of Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT), a “focus on form” is encouraged (Long and Crooks 1992:41). In no way it could be considered as a step backward towards a traditional structural syllabus approach, but rather an “acknowledgement that acquisition can be accelerated if learners´ attention is drawn to specific linguistic features of the target language” (Long 1991).

Grammar is learnt through reasoning-up activities, involving the processes of inference, deduction, practical reasoning, and perception of relationship.

Genre-based teaching

Genre-based teaching is the other post-communicative approach that grew out of Systematic-Functional Grammar, developed by Halliday, as well as the latest advances in the field of Text linguistics and Discourse Analysis. The genre-based approach can be summarised in the following observation: “Language occurs as whole texts which are embedded in the social contexts in which they are used. People learn language through working with whole texts” (Feez 1998:31).

So, language is explained in relation to the context in which it is used, while at the same time taking into account language at the levels of whole text. Learning is seen as a process of acculturisation into the culture of the target language which students perceive as going through the process of learning as they become more self-confident and independent.

Grammatical structures and other language forms are analysed in the context, different social and cultural factors are taken into account to explain them. Grammar is treated on the level of a text. Isolated grammar explication on a sentence level could be done from time to time when it is considered to be necessary.

Grammar is learnt through the following type of activities:


Authentic texts Text modelling Joint negotiation of text Independent text construction








Summarising, there have been two important tendencies in teaching English grammar throughout the last century: a traditional way, consisting in teaching grammar on a level of sentence, through memorization and repetition; and an “organic” one, giving priority to a whole text, and treating linguistic forms in their social context. The first approach is associated mostly with a Grammar-Translation method, as well as the other nonfunctional methods, meanwhile the second one is characteristic of the communicative approaches.

Let´s have a brief look at both of them.

The traditional approach In the traditional way of teaching grammar, defined also by some scholars as “the linear approach” (Nunan 1996), the teaching is based on the premise that grammar items should be learnt in a subsequent way, one item at a time. In fact, David Nunan compares learning grammar with constructing a wall, where linguistics “bricks” are put one at a time. The easiest grammatical bricks should be put at the bottom of the construction, to create a foundation for the more complicated bricks.

Considering learning grammar from the liner perspective, it necessarily supposes “getting the bits in the right order at the level of the sentence” (Nunan, 2007). In fact, the students mastering foreign language are trying to learn to put the bricks at the way similar to native speakers.

You cannot start a new line of bricks unless the previous one is perfect. Language item is being mastered until students have no mistakes, so this is the moment to start with the next grammar item.

Grammar is treated at the level of isolated sentences, without taking into consideration the context in which they occur. This is the reason why grammar rules that are given to students are often overgeneralised. Students usually manipulate grammar in a highly mechanical way, without thinking on the functional or stylistic changes these grammatical shifts may provoke.

In fact, in most cases there is little sense to talk about linguistic facts at the level of isolated sentence as far as greater part of them will be conditioned by the context in which they occur. Without reference to this particular context, it often makes no sense to speak about grammar correctness.

The liner approach still is highly frequent in a variety of English textbook, as well as in teaching practice of a number of English teachers in Spain.

Teaching grammar through context

The Communicative Language Teaching has played an important part in revolutionising language teaching in general, and teaching grammar forms, in particular. Quite a number of English teachers said that they did not longer equate the learning of a second language with the learning of traditional grammar. Grammar still should be taught, but new more efficient ways of teaching should be found.,

In the past, grammar has been rooted too much at word level. This can probably work if there is no greater purpose in knowing about grammar. Fortunately, this limited view of grammar is being nowadays replaced by a broader one. Grammar in context emphasizes the sentence and discourse levels of grammar: analyzing how writers organize their texts structurally and in sentences. Geoff Barton considers it to be “a more rewarding approach for students because they begin to develop an understanding of the way writer´s linguistic decisions –such as choice of sentence types – have a real impact on the effect of their texts” (Barton, 1999).

The importance of context is crucial in teaching of most of the grammar elements. When talking about context dependent teaching, David Nunan describes it as an “organic approach”, comparing learning grammar with growing a garden. The linguistic flowers of the garden are growing at a different speed and appear at different time of the year. The way these flowers grow will depend on the number of different linguistic and extralinguistic factors, among others, pedagogical factors (Pica 1985); acquisitional processes (Johnston 1987), contextual environment (McCarthy 1991).

In this way, the supporters of the context dependent approach defend the necessity of teaching a number of different grammar elements at a time: learning a range of grammar items simultaneously and imperfectly.

The acquisition of grammar items happens in the way similar to the one native speaker got it: through abundant listening input, authentic texts and real life situations.

The practice of teaching grammar from a sentence-level, through context-free approach has been attacked recently by a number of eminent linguists representing different

linguistics field. Such, for example, Levinson (1983), a specialist in pragmatics, points out that there are very few context-free rules, and a great majority of ruler-governed choices are in fact context-dependent. A language educator Celce-Murcia also maintains the idea that most of the grammar items are affected by the discoursal context in which they occur.

It seems that most of the scholar and teachers nowadays agree that traditional way of teaching grammar is rather obsolete and should be replaced by a context-dependent approach. The question is how to do it practice. What could be the practical implications of the “organic·” approach in the English classroom?

As we have seen on the previous pages, context dependent approach to teaching grammar has been adopted by most of the modern teaching methodologies, having as its aim teaching to communicate. Among others we should mention the Communicative approach in all its variations, the Task-based approach, the Genre-based approach and the Inquiry method. All of them seem to treat the question of teaching grammar in a similar way: through the context.

The pedagogical implications of the organic approach have been formulated by David Nunan (Nunan, 1996). In particular, he points out that teaching grammar communicatively should be guided by the following principles:

1. Teach grammar as a choice. 2. Provide opportunities for learners to explore grammatical and discoursal relationships in authentic data. 3. Teach grammar in ways that make transparent form/function relationships. 4. Encourage learners to become active explorers of language. 5. Encourage learners to explore relationships between grammar and discourse.

In continuation we will try to demonstrate how these principles could be applied in real life conditions of teaching in Spanish secondary school students.

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