What is the point of teaching grammar?

When no-one ever seems to learn any ?

Should grammar be taught from the most basic level, should it be worked in ad hoc in lessons, or should it be left until Intermediate or above as a fine tuning exercise ?

I’ve done a CELTA course, read Harmer’s The Practice of ELT, Stephen Krashen’s The Natural Approach, Scott Thornbury’s How to Teach Grammar, Scrivener’s Learning Teaching, and taught adults and kids in Taiwan and I’m none the wiser. Why do we bother ? We had to do no less than 3 grammar lessons on the CELTA, and as far as I could see the more teacher centred it was the better. It seemed to be a case of “modern methodologies for other skills / systems, but hey when you teach grammar it has to be PPP”. Surely not ? Maybe someone can help me out because I don’t see how formal or even semi-formal grammar instruction results in students applying grammar rules correctly ?

Ouch! A hot potato!

I can’t agree the students don’t learn any grammar. When they make illformed or ungrammatical sentences, often a shake of the head is all that is needed in order for students to self correct. Hence they do ‘know’ the grammar, they just slipped up. Native adult speakers do it too. Young children learning their own language exhibit similar behaviour and it’s normal for them to to learn to say things correctly over time under continual parental correction. So we might expect adults to do the same but drawing analogies between children learning their first language and adults learning a second is always dangerous! Check out “The Ascent of Babel” by Gerry Altmann for a fascinating and very readable account of these differing learning processes.

Then again we shouldn’t expect students to come to class Monday making correct present perfect sentences just because we taught them the same on Friday evening. If only teaching=learning! PPP is great for teaching grammar except that when students get to the third P stage, they are thinking grammar first and then production. Well from the examples above it’s the other way round. You produce then use the grammar to check the accuracy of what you said, making the necessary adjustments.

More recent theories suppose that we never really ‘learn’ a language from that which we are taught. Rather, we may construct our own language model consistent with what we hear and learn around us. This is delving deeply into the mysterious world of psycholinguistics but is interesting nevertheless.

If that supposition is true, then no amount of formalised grammar teaching, through whatever approach, is likeley to suceed. What is called for is continuous exposure to and, most importantly, practice of the language in order for the language to be created.

Sound fine doesn’t it, bit what about those people who have become fluent by different methods? That’s just another problem with one fit models I guess!

Hexuan, I forget, how many of the 3 assessed lessons were grammar?


Em… there were 6 assessed teaching hours, and you had to do grammar at both levels, I had to do 140 mins of grammar lessons.

Oh Soddom, I thought you were going to go off on some MAK Halliday vs Noam Chomsky universal grammar tangent. You disappoint me…
But back to hexuan.
Why does grammar have to be taught using PPP?
(Presentation–Practice–Production) for those unfamiliar with the acronym.
Go ahead, try an integrated approach to grammar using embedded lexis and discourse functions, do LOTS OF LISTENING activities, and ultimately have learners performing and putting to task in an authentic scenario, yipeeee. No explanation necessary. But that ain’t gonna happen unless you want to confuse the hell out of your students. You’re talking about teaching a foreign language.

How DO you teach the ABCs?
PPP isn’t a bad thing, it’s just out of vogue.

By the way, you don’t need to teach grammar, you HAVE TO teach grammar.

Hmmm you say potahto I say potayto… very rare to hear anyone say “have to” over here… which is actually something I must bear in mind… Michael Swan may have to go in the bin (er trash can) when I get to Taipers… but I digress.

The reason I’m curious is because having heard all the alternatives to standing up in front of the class lecturing them on new grammar, I have not seen it in action. And I am also trying to deconstruct my own learning experience re. Chinese (propping up the bar at the Bushiban) to try and discover how the hell I managed to learn such a difficult language. My five weeks of research has led me to the conclusion that my affective filter was lowered by the liberal application of Taiwan Beer, followed by continuous exposure to incomprehensible input, accompanied by large lexical chunks of unrepeatable Taiwanese for which I still don’t know the Mandarin.

All the other areas I covered in the course (pron., listening, reading, writing, speaking) appear to lend themselves very nicely to tasks, guided discovery, and other touchy-feely learner-focussed stuff, but there was just a question in my mind about the idea of how grammar is (a) best presented, and (b) best practiced, and © whether or not it should just be dropped into lessons when necessary, in some sort of functions based syllabus.

And I guess it depends on the syllabus. Where can I find a lexical approach syllabus ? I have a reading list to find out more about what all the various gurus think, but I would be interested to hear the opinions of teachers in Taiwan who have experience of all these different methods. One thing I am also interested in is how all this is integrated. I mean as far as the Natural Approach goes, I thought it was a fascinating read (and fascinating that it’s out of print and Queen’s University only has one copy and yet does an ELT MSc, an ELT MA, DELTA, and Applied Linguistics research degrees!) but you can’t just not teach grammar and hope they all pick it up as they go along, man. Where’s the middle ground ? What’s a good student’s EFL course book ? One of the books we used was Cutting Edge which is new, task based, a bit all-over-the-place, but has nice bits on lexical chunking, discovery learning, and learner autonomy, and it seems to go down OK with everyone. So, I’ve got three months to kill - what should I be reading ?!

[quote=“hexuan”]very rare to hear anyone say “have to” over here…

What’s a good student’s EFL course book ?[/quote]

Ok, then, you MUST teach grammar. :smiley:
A good EFL coursebook? Ha! That’s debatable.

As for Krashen, his views are not widely accepted in academic circles (especially in UK), although there are some who swear by him. He’s created an ongoing debate. The main problem linguists have with him is that everytime his theories are debunked, he adds another dimension. His theories are as inconsistent as evidencing them would be.
Although, his main points deal with:
reducing learner stress
receptive learning comes before production
A gradual increase in the scale of learning, teach UPwards the language ability, but slightly, not too much.

Sounds like you’re growing into a theoretical being. Maybe you should do a Masters, eh? You could always do a Situated Development programme, otherwise known as Distance Learning.

Here’s a Linguistic reading list which spans from theory to practice:

Pennycook–The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language.
Michael Lewis–Lexical Approach
Nattinger & DeCarrico–Lexical phrases and language teaching.
Bhatia–Analysing Genre
Graves–Teachers as Course Developers
The Bloors–The Functional Analysis of English (you’ll get your grammar here)
van Lier–Interaction in the Language Curriculum
Baily and Nunan–Voices from the Language Classroom
Mcdonough and Shaw–Materials and Methods in ELT
Spolsky-- Conditions for Second Language Learning

A lot on that list is very practical and relevant to the classroom. You may also want to tear yourself away from segue and look up some info online according to theories and approaches which caught your interest on the CELTA.

That’s a great reading list and the van Lier is a very good and readable place to start. This book influenced me perhaps more than any other.

I’m not a big fan of the lexical approach. It’s useful in some scenarios but, as an overall approach, it’s fraught with problems. As to the Nattinger & DeCarrico book, It’s a joke, frankly… They talk about ‘lexical chunks’ yet thet don’t even adequately define one. Anyhow, I’m in agreement with this Amazon reviewer:

[quote] A messy mishmash of selfcontradictory nothing, December 11, 1998
Reviewer: A reader
I’m shocked this got a good review in the TESOL Quarterly. It’s really pretty awful. The basic idea is that a phrase such as “If I were you…” is psycholinguistically distinguishable from “If I were the king…” because the former has a pragmatic function (giving advice) and was therefore selected to be used as a “formula” or an unanalysed chunk. The idea is interesting, but he does an awful job of presenting it. The book is filled with contradictions. For a phrase to gain the status of being a “lexical phrase” it must have a function, and it has a pragmatic function if Natinger says so, and not otherwise. Thus “a ___ ago” has the “function” of expressing time relations, and so gets to be a lexical phrase. Likewise “How do you do?” has the function of greeting. But “Have a nice day” is not a lexical phrase, but rather a cliche, because the function of “saying goodbye” for some reason doesn’t count. It’s ironic that a man who teaches others how to communicate in English is himself barely capabale of this task[/quote]

I’m also interested in whether or not to teach grammar. I always go back to asking myself how many natural english speakers know all, or any, of the “rules”. I guess less than one percent of the population.

I’m currently teaching two classes of adults - 10 in each class. I would rate group A as intermediate and B as basic, although all claim to have previously studied english for more than 6 years. All make basic grammar mistakes, from the most simple use of articles. I tried to teach the basic article rule but then decided that was making them hesitant as they would think about the rule before they tried to speak. So I resorted to the use of teaching vocabulary with the appropriate indefinite article, on the basis that I considered that is how we learnt as children.

But I think the problem is deeper. It is because they think in Chinese.

Mostly they don’t use articles at all.

I realise that this is not a contribution, just an observation, but it’s frustrating me because I think my purpose is to improve their ability to verbally communicate in a natural way. After all I guess we communicate about 90% by speaking/listening and 10% by reading/writing.

So - do I ram grammar down their throats in the hope that this will lead to fluency, or do I persist in correcting conversation after every sentence?. Not the easiest of tasks, particularly in that their earlier learning regime has obviously indoctrinated them in the use of rote and given them scant understanding or opportunity to verbalise.

And while I’m rambling - what do people think is the best method to teach people how to retain vocabulary?.

One of the assignments for the CELTA was “Focus on the Learner”. I chose a HK student and we were directed to read the relevant section of a book called Learner English but I forget who wrote it. It has a chapter on each language (L1). If you’ve been teaching Chinese students for a while and know a bit of Chinese then you will already be familiar with their problems, but it makes a nice little summary. If you could get a photocopy of the relevant chapter…

During my teaching practice I had Libyans, Omanis, Guadeloupians (?), Italians, Bulgarians, HKers, Taiwanese, Mainlanders, Koreans, Syrians, Spanish, the whole lot. The intermediate group all had at least a year’s English and I don’t think their grammar was any better on average than a similar Taiwanese class. And they all lapped grammar rules up. Loved it. They could reel it all off pat, but not use it. It is also interesting to watch students in freer activities such as roie plays. The more they get into it, the worse their grammar gets. But unless there is a total communication failure that’s fine. It kind of shows you how long it is going to take for any of the grammar you teach to really sink in.

I had a look at an internet article based on Bob’s English Corpus or something, all about articles. Obviously just confused the total bejaysus out of me, but I would be tempted to try Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use with Answers for Teachers Like Me, but I guess you might already have done that. The other favourite is countable nouns, but the Collins Cobuild Dictionary, with its piss poor definitions (liquorice is a substance… oh brilliant it’s a substance) lists all nouns as countable or not… Has anybody used the CD version with the concordance on it ? Is it any good ?

Alien, I think I have become addicted to Segue. It’s a bit worrying. :smiley: Thanks for the list.

Hexuan, just to digress off the topic, your comment made me laugh. In fact, I’m quite sure that it’s extremely difficult to arrive at an adequate definition of something when you are using the same thing (i.e words) to define it and to avoid ambiguity also . Is that all Collins had to say on the matter? Liquorice is a stick black substance that you eat? (could still be many other things!). Look up irony in some dictionaries and it points you to sarcasm, which then points you back to irony again!! Dictionaries - you’ve gotta luv em! :smiley:

Yeah, a couple of the other candidates and myself were flicking through the dictionary and really, far too many of the entries use the very word they’re trying to define, or provide ambiguous and unhelpful definitions (some of which are wrong !). A sort of baby English… I do like the little notes down the side of the page though. Liquorice should have been defined in terms of what it is: a plant, the root of which yields a sticky juice used in medicine or as a confectionary. There are more examples - I am going to get a copy of the new edition to see if it’s any better…!

I ain’t knowed that teaching grammar was one of them subjects that needed working here in Taiwan. I was used to been a teacher aback in the misty history of when I was a teacher. I used to said to my pupils: “What you don’t a need to know, I won’t wanna be needin’ to be teachin’ ya.”
Them Taiwan students will be pick up grammar anywho if you let them just do the talking and speaking like I would do if I were to talking and speak like I do. I’ll be as natural such that we will all be natural after a fashion.
How, you are ready to be asking me, do we do the grammar to the students so they can be fluid like we?
Idiots are one good way, like:
“Share the pod and soil the child,” or “Make pay while your son pines.”
These can aid in memorizing grammar while simultaneously at the same time memorizing the rule.

Hey, I can help you some more if you like to.

Very punny.


Out of interest (obsessive compulsive behaviour?) I dredged through a few online dictionaries for liquorice.

Merriam-Webster Onine had this to say:

1 a : the dried root of a European leguminous plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra) with pinnate leaves and spikes of blue flowers; also : an extract of this used especially in medicine, liquors, and confectionery

And Longman:

a black substance produced from the root of a plant, used in medicine and sweets


a European plant of the legume family, having a strong, sweet odor and flavor similar to anise


the dried root of a Mediterranean plant which is used in medicines and for flavouring food, particularly sweets
When liquorice is eaten as a sweet it is usually in the form of a long thin soft black stick

Newbury House:

a substance used in medicine and in a red or black candy: Children love to suck and chew on licorice.

It seems that ‘substance’ is a byword for something hard to define. I think the Cambridge definition is the only one that half works for me since I can visualise it but that wouldn’t hold true from a Chinese cultural standpoint.

The Merriam definition is wonderfully detailed but even a native speaker might want to check up on ‘leguminous’ and ‘pinnate’.

What interests me here is how this seems to contradict often heard advice that learners should use English-English dictionaries. In that respect, none of these definitions adequately clarify, yet a bilingual dictionary would likely score first time.

Oh well, tedious drivel for some viewers I’m sure but I have to thank you Hexuan as you’ve given me a focus for my lexical studies assignment. Ta! :smiley:

The entry for iodine was something like: a dark substance used in medicine… not very helpful, but the entry in my ancient (1928) Nuttall’s Standard Dictionary: n. lik-or-is, a perennial plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra, common in the south of Europe, the root of which yields a sweet mucilaginous juice, used medicinally and as a sweetmeat. (O.Fr. licorice, from Gr. glykys, sweet, and rhiza, a root.) Apart from the word mucilawhatever, that’s not too bad.

And just to prove I am the dullest man on earth, I have looked it up in the OED (entry runs to two columns on p 1015) which has: (1) The rhizome (also called liquorice-root) of the plant Glycyrrhiza glabra. Also, a preparation (used medicinally and as a sweetmeat) made from the evaporated juice of this rhizome, and commonly sold in black cylindrical sticks… (continues forever)

So there has to be a middle ground somewhere. What I don’t get is the big fuss about the Cobuild dictionary when so many of the definitions are so poor. Have fun with your homework. (Are you doing an MA too ? Is there an MA sale on in Taiwan ?)

grammar is simply the rules for correct usage of a language. if you want to speak correctly, you must understand grammar on some level. given that my grade school students do not have the time or opportunity to absorb grammar through constant exposure to English, I teach them the essential grammar for any tense, sentence pattern etc. first, generally having them memorize as few rules as possible which I have made as simple as humanly possible (in Chinese.) works for me.

The key question of course is “what is meant by speaking correctly?” If you have an exam class, then correct use of grammatical rules will form a large part of the testing. But then if you have a general English class, what is more important: accuracy or fluency ? A problem I used to face was when half the class didn’t give a stuff about grammar, and the other half were obsessed with it (adults). One way around this was to get them to place cards on the desk part of their chairs, either red (for lots of correction) or green (for little correction), but that only works during freer practice or during tasks. It doesn’t help when you still need to present new language to the whole class or do controlled practice in groups (everyone should be getting it right.) It was useful on one occaision when I was accused of not correcting enough - it allowed them to choose their own level of correction and soon everyone went to green. (It also struck me at the time as a little bit silly, but the guy who told me about it swore by it.)

from wordweb

Deep-rooted coarse-textured plant native to the Mediterranean region having blue flowers and pinnately compound leaves; widely cultivated in Europe for its long thick sweet roots

A black candy flavored with the dried root of the licorice plant