Grammar is central to the teaching and learning of languages. It is also one of the more difficult aspects of language to teach well.
Many people, including language teachers, hear the word “grammar” and think of a fixed set of word forms and rules of usage. They associate “good” grammar with the prestige forms of the language, such as those used in writing and in formal oral presentations.
Language teachers who adopt this definition focus on grammar as a set of forms and rules. They teach grammar by explaining the forms and rules and then drilling students on them. This results in bored, disaffected students who can produce correct forms on exercises and tests, but consistently make errors when they try to use the language in context.
Other language teachers, influenced by recent theoretical work on the difference between language learning and language acquisition, tend not to teach grammar at all. Believing that children acquire their first language without overt grammar instruction, they expect students to learn their second language the same way. They assume that students will absorb grammar rules as they hear, read, and use the language in communication activities. This approach does not allow students to use one of the major tools they have as learners: their active understanding of what grammar is and how it works in the language they already know.
The communicative competence model balances these extremes. The model recognizes that overt grammar instruction helps students acquire the language more efficiently, but it incorporates grammar teaching and learning into the larger context of teaching students to use the language. Instructors using this model teach students the grammar they need to know to accomplish defined communication tasks.
Goals and Techniques for Teaching Grammar
The goal of grammar instruction is to enable students to carry out their communication purposes. This goal has three implications:
- Students need overt instruction that connects grammar points with larger communication
- Students do not need to master every aspect of each grammar point, only those that are relevant to the immediate communication task.
- Error correction is not always the instructor’s first
Overt Grammar Instruction
Adult students appreciate and benefit from direct instruction that allows them to apply critical thinking skills to language learning. Instructors can take advantage of this by providing explanations that give students a descriptive understanding (declarative knowledge) of each point of grammar.
- Teach the grammar point in the target language or the students’ first language or The goal is to facilitate understanding.
- Limit the time you devote to grammar explanations to 10 minutes, especially for lower level students whose ability to sustain attention can be
- Present grammar points in written and oral ways to address the needs of students with different learning
An important part of grammar instruction is providing examples. Teachers need to plan their examples carefully around two basic principles:
- Be sure the examples are accurate and ap They must present the language appropriately, be culturally appropriate for the setting in which they are used, and be to the point of the lesson.
- Use the examples as teaching Focus
examples on a particular theme or topic so that students have more contact with specific information and vocabulary.
Relevance of Grammar Instruction
In the communicative competence model, the purpose of learning grammar is to learn the language of which the grammar is a part. Instructors therefore teach grammar forms and structures in relation to meaning and use for the specific communication tasks that students need to complete.
Compare the traditional model and the communicative competence model for teaching the English past tense:
Traditional: grammar for grammar’s sake
- Teach the regular -ed form with its two pronunciation variants
- Teach the doubling rule for verbs that end in d (for example, wed-wedded)
- Hand out a list of irregular verbs that students must memorize
- Do pattern practice drills for -ed
- Do substitution drills for irregular verbs
Communicative competence: grammar for communication’s sake
- Distribute two short narratives about recent experiences or events, each one to half of the class
- Teach the regular -ed form, using verbs that occur in the texts as Teach the pronunciation and doubling rules if those forms occur in the texts.
- Teach the irregular verbs that occur in the
- Students read the narratives, ask questions about points they don’t
- Students work in pairs in which one member has read Story A and the other Story Students interview one another; using the information from the interview, they then write up or orally repeat the story they have not read.
At all proficiency levels, learners produce language that is not exactly the language used by native speakers. Some of the differences are grammatical, while others involve vocabulary selection and mistakes in the selection of language appropriate for different contexts.
In responding to student communication, teachers need to be careful not to focus on error correction to the detriment of communication and confidence building. Teachers need to let students know when they are making errors so that they can work on improving. Teachers also need to build students’ confi-
dence in their ability to use the language by focusing on the content of their communication rather than the grammatical form.
Teachers can use error correction to support language acquisition, and avoid using it in ways that undermine students’ desire to communicate in the language, by taking cues from context.
- When students are doing structured output activities that focus on development of new language skills, use error correction to guide
Student (in class): I buy a new car yesterday. Teacher: You bought a new car yesterday. Remember, the past tense of buy is bought.
- When students are engaged in communicative activities, correct errors only if they interfere with Respond using correct forms, but without stressing them.
Student (greeting teacher) : I buy a new car yesterday!
Teacher: You bought a new car? That’s exciting! What kind? •