Category Archives: Teaching Grammar

Teaching Grammar: Condemning the Explicit?…Really?

Penny Ur, an acclaimed researcher and writer of methodological literature with regard to English Language teaching states the following:

“on the whole students who receive some explicit instruction in grammar perform better than those who do not. Teachers and students also generally feel that grammar instruction is helpful.

However, there is still a place for communicative input and output, and the possibility of acquiring some grammatical features through intuitive acquisition. As with vocabulary, we need both kinds of procedures, implicit and explicit, for effective teaching and learning.”

– Penny Ur, A Course in English Language Teaching (Revised Edition), p. 79

At university, we are instructed not to teach explicitly; that learning should be incidental and implicit. If possible (which to them means ALWAYS – no matter what the circumstance), learners are not to find out that they are doing a particular tense, for instance, or that the particular language form is called ‘conjunction’ or ‘article’. During our teaching practice, we are condemned if we have a single lesson that teaches grammar explicitly; that gives learners the concrete form they are to use and then offers some guided practice before allowing them to apply freely in speech and conversation.

In the Maltese state school, children have six English lessons per week. If one is taken up by literature – which is the most beneficial lesson to the students as individuals, allowing growth and improvement of critical thought (in my opinion) – there are five lessons left to devote to the learning of language. Now, imagine using the first language lesson for reading; a reading text which uses the language form and exposes learners to its use in context. Imagine using that lesson both to implicitly expose learners to grammar and to improve their reading comprehension skills. Imagine using the second language lesson for listening; a listening comprehension which keeps to the theme/topic around which the reading lesson and the other lessons of the week revolve but which also happens to use the same language form in context; in this way, learners are being further exposed to the language form in question and improving their listening comprehension skills. In both lessons, learners would have had to use the language form in order to answer questions properly. In this way, students are unconsciously applying the language. Now, imagine using the third language lesson for spoken interaction. Imagine teaching students chunks of language they might use in a given situation or simply giving students flashcards and allowing them to come up with their own questions, answers, or statements. Imagine monitoring and eliciting from the students the correct form within the same context.

Now comes the big one; lesson number four. Imagine dividing the lesson into two parts. Imagine first eliciting from the students the language form they have been using throughout the week using several examples. Imagine then extracting and eliciting from those examples the language form and giving it a name the students may associate with it. Imagine providing to the students a couple of guided exercises in which they get to use the language in a monitored and guided way. Then, during the second part of the lesson, imagine providing learners with a situation during which they must use the language form they have just learned, having a model to follow so that they may correct themselves in the case of serious mistakes.

Imagine taking all of that, all that has been done, and then using the last lesson to compile everything that has been learned to guide the students toward a writing task with a purpose, in which they would be able to use the vocabulary and language they have learned and for which they will have a great grammatical model to follow.

What is wrong with this model? Isn’t there a lot of implicit learning taking place? Aren’t learners able to apply language in context or to try to do that? Is it really condemnable to offer to the students a structured model they may look at for guidance?

I am not claiming that implicit or incidental learning, the communicative approach and all of those have no value. To the contrary, I value these models and I believe that most of our lessons should be focusing on this -allowing learners to come in contact with language in use and within context. However, I do believe that learners can only benefit from having a structured model alongside this, as Penny Ur has stated in the quote above. If not all learners are able to focus, be motivated or even learn from such a model, I do not believe that it should be eliminated. Why?

There are some conditions such as dyslexia, Asperger’s Syndrome and autism which several students have to deal with. In the case of these conditions, students tend to excel academically if provided with a logical, structured model. While methodological training courses claim that the majority of the student body would not benefit from a structured body, I find that it is against my principles to eliminate even a single student let alone a number of students from my lesson planning process. I believe that every student should be allowed to learn in conditions wherein he or she may excel academically. I also believe in inclusive teaching, in which all students get a chance to learn with their peers rather than being segregated according to their conditions. In Malta, we get the chance to teach inclusive classes. However, I believe that training courses need to be jolted into consciousness in order to realise that eliminating an entire school of methodology from the surface of the earth is promoting exclusion and segregation within the classroom.

My biggest drive to teach is not love of the English language, even though it is the language I am most passionate about since it has given me my most beloved volumes of literature and a medium through which to express myself in writing. My biggest drive to teach is that I intend to teach every student I encounter; I intend to go over and above in terms of effort to make sure that every single student, no matter what his or her problems or inclinations toward the English language are, will get a fair chance. And yes, I firmly believe that eliminating explicit presentation of grammar completely will not benefit these students; it will hold them back. And this, to me, is the greatest injustice.


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