Grammar? We don't need no stinking grammar!


The Role of Grammar Teaching in the TESOL Classroom

More learned colleagues than I are putting forth the idea that pounding away at grammar is not the most effective method of teaching English as a second language. The Calla Method, among others, is not new. What's new is a more communicative approach to teaching English, with teacher as facilitator. I'm all for it, but there's also a place for good old fashioned grammar lessons as well. Without basic grammatical structural under-pinning, a learner has no chance of evolving beyond the world of Snapchat, WhatsApp and Twitter. We do a disservice to learners if we bypass the hard road of grammar teaching as a foundation. Consigning students to conversational English, stress and pronunciation guarantees the only English-speaking job they'll ever hold involves a name tag and french fries.

Here is a brief review of five scholarly articles I have read on the importance of grammar in the ESL classroom.

Richardson, J. (2002). 30 years of TESOL: A personal reflection.

RELC Journal 33,(2) 1-36

Professor Richardson reflects upon thirty years of teaching English to speakers of other languages. He analyzes key questions and issues which affect the world of language teaching, contrasting trends, beliefs and best practice. Of particular interest is his analysis of the changing role of grammar in language teaching over three decades. Professor Richardson upholds the foundational role of grammar as the means through which learners form the building blocks of language in order for the learner to make different kinds of meaning, build phrases and clauses, and generally use grammar as the basis for accurate and fluent written and spoken communication. The focus has evolved from explicit grammar instruction and accuracy towards a balance of accuracy and fluency. The emphasis now is on meaningful context, communicative competence and task-based grammar learning.

Of particular value to the TESOL teacher are his thoughts on “noticing”, wherein the learner becomes aware of the gaps between her speech and the grammar being taught; and “restructuring”, wherein the learner assimilates and integrates a representation of the new linguistic feature into her mental grammar construct. These two concepts have altered the way I teach by causing me to further value a balance between accuracy and fluency.

Chin, B. (2000). The Role of Grammar in Improving Students’ Writing Sadlier-Oxford Online Press, http://www.sadlier-oxford.com/prof_development/paper_chin.cfm

Dr. Chin illuminates the relationship between grammar and the teaching of writing, and offers as her thesis that the most beneficial way of helping students to improve their understanding of grammar is to use the students’ own writing as a basis for discussing grammatical concepts. She further suggests the value of using students’ writing in order to bring to light fossilized or recurring error patterns in their grammar. Writing is a complex, daunting task for most students, because it literally puts their mistakes in black and white for the educator to see. Focusing upon the four essentials of writing: the sentence, inflection, tense and agreement, she concludes that the best grammar instruction is that which gives the maximum value for the minimum investment of time. Instead of attempting to encompass all aspects of grammar, the writer encourages us to focus on those parts of grammar which most directly affect students’ ability to write fluently.

Dr. Chin clearly demonstrates that the best way for students to internalize grammar is to apply it to their own writing, and then teach using that writing, rather than a “top down” approach to teaching grammar. Every TESOL teacher should consider this approach.

Hinkel, E (2013). Research Findings on Teaching Grammar for Academic Writing

English Teaching, Vol. 68, (4), 3-21

The writer illuminates the evolution of grammar instruction since the 1920s, noting that the transition from accuracy to fluency has aided the progress in improving the learner’s ability to write fluently. Dr. Hinkel goes further by prioritizing some more common grammatical structures and contrasting them to structures which have fallen out of favor in modern academic writing. The paper underscores the reality that grammar instruction is essential if learners are to achieve their academic and even their professional goals. His recommendation is for teachers and learners to maximize language gains by focusing on the more common, foundational grammar structures rather than on the obscure. He places grammar into two categories: required constructions without which no writer can survive, like articles, prepositions, conditionals, gerunds, infinitives, and; outdated or conversational structures which one finds rarely in academic prose, like past perfect continuous, future perfect passive, and the teaching of noun clauses as sentence subjects (e.g. That she called today is very important).

Dr. Hinkel brilliantly displays the connections between grammar teaching and proficient academic writing. Every TESOL teacher can benefit from a better grasp of this connection.

Faizah, M. (2014). Internet-based Grammar Instruction in the ESL Classroom International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning, Vol. 68, (4), 3-21

In this study, two competing grammar methods were tested in order to learn which of them was more effective. The first one was conventional pen and board instruction (CPBI). The second was Internet-based grammar instruction (IBGI). Tested were 50 college-level Malaysian students. The study took place over 10 weeks and measured such things as errors per hundred words of writing. The results showed that the students who were subjected to internet-based grammar instructions out-performed the students who were only exposed to traditional marker and board instruction. The study also found that students subjected to IBGI made fewer errors in their essays compared to the students taught with the traditional method. The study demonstrated empirical support for the claim that the internet is a powerful and useful tool for the teaching of grammar.

This study has prompted me to explore ways to incorporate more technology in the classroom. For teachers, technology is at once daunting and a double-edged sword. Students are more likely to waste time on social media sites if they are allowed to use their tablets and smartphones, so it’s important for teachers to control how the technology is used.

KeeMan, C. (2013). Thinking Big on SMALL: Social Media-assisted Language Learning Conference Paper – January 2013

Mr. Chuah’s initial premise is that The Net Generation relies more upon web-based tools than they do teachers in the language learning process. He also supposes that the Internet is an excellent tool for motivating learners to use English in their daily lives in order to provide functional experience and context for learning grammar, vocabulary and written fluency (LeLoup & Ponterio, 1997; Means etal., 2009). SMALL is an acronym which stands for Social Media Assisted Language Learning. This utilizes social media as a vehicle to promote English language learning. The study included 102 ESL students who were made to engage in a series of social media networks. Their activities were observed and recorded qualitatively. At the end of the ten-week study, students were required to fill in a survey form. The survey revealed success in encouraging the students to express themselves more clearly, understand course assignments, and work better with their group members.

TESOL teachers can use this information to focus their grammar lessons in ways that will give a direct perceived benefit to learners, namely navigating social media. I have implemented these findings by doing a workshop on LinkedIn.

Richardson, J. (2002). 30 years of TESOL: A personal reflection. RELC Journal 33,(2) 1-36

Professor Richardson reflects upon thirty years of teaching English to speakers of other languages. He analyzes key questions and issues which affect the world of language teaching, contrasting trends, beliefs and best practice, then and now. Of particular interest is his analysis of the changing role of grammar in language teaching over three decades. Professor Richardson upholds the foundational role of grammar as the means through which learners form the building blocks of language in order for the learner to make different kinds of meaning, build phrases and clauses, and generally use grammar as the basis for accurate and fluent written and spoken communication. The writer points out that in 1986, the focus was on sentence-grammar, linguistic competence and accuracy. Now, accuracy and fluency hold equal status. He also notes that the emphasis now is on meaningful context, communicative competence and task-based grammar learning. The writer proposes that classroom activities should provide opportunities for authentic communication by encouraging “noticing”, wherein the learner becomes aware of the differences or gaps between their speech and the grammar input being provided. He also promotes restructuring, wherein the learner assimilates and integrates a representation of the new linguistic feature into her mental grammar.

Keywords: acquisition, communicative competence, comprehensible input, consciousness-raising content, fluency, focus on form, functional grammar, implicit approach, noticing, restructuring.

#TeachingEnglish #StevenWalterThomas #ThomasInvestLLC #ThomasInvestLLC

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