Grammar - is it a dirty word?
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Grammar - is it a dirty word?

The #eltchat discussion today was about grammar - if, what, how, when etc etc.

It never ceases to amaze me how many differing opinions there are amongst teachers on every single argument regarding grammar. However, read up on the subject academically and many of the same points reappear, with research to support opposing beliefs. So who's right? Well don't look at me for the answers, sorry!

Here in no particular order, are some tweets that caught my attention today. Like I said, I certainly don't have answers to the big questions surrounding grammar teaching, but I am always full of questions that I like to ask myself, so I'm going to think out loud, as it were, on this post. I want to stress that I'm not trying to suggest anyone is wrong or right, I'm merely contrasting, questioning and reflecting upon my own experience and sharing it here so that it's open to feedback.

It what context? Are you sitting there now? Are you the director of a play demonstrating to an actor? Are you using the modern sense of the tense to talk about the past while putting the listener in the present? Let's go with the last one.

For me, this is an example of colloquial English of a modern variety that would be considered incorrect by many native speakers. It could be said to have an element of 'chav' about it. I can almost hear Vicky Pollard. Do we need to teach this? Are these learners living or going to be living in an English environment or interacting mainly with other non-NSs? Will it help them pass their exam? Will it confuse them?

I think so, yes. It has been proven with research based on people who have migrated to different language environments and acquired the language without any formal instruction. But then again, what is 'knowing grammar'? Even without formal instruction a learner recognises the grammar of his or her L1, despite perhaps not being able to explain its structure. A learner will naturally compare and contrast one language with another, notice patterns, employ deductive reasoning, translate and transfer from one to another, in order to make sense of the new language. While not necessarily 'teaching' grammar explicitly, surely we should be guiding the students through these processes of cognition and developing their metacognitive strategies in order that they can acquire the language more rapidly. I think this must be of even greater importance when the learner is not in an English speaking environment.

While I agree that this is perhaps the ideal, the problem for me here is that in most teaching contexts there simply isn't any possibility of any exposure, let alone 'massive' exposure. Interestingly, the teachers on my MA course whose beliefs seem most heavily reliant on grammar teaching are those who teach in contexts where there is little possibility of exposure outside the classroom, so for them, grammar is compensating for this deficiency.

Obviously not, but then can we compare the learning of L1 to L2? It's surely a dangerous comparison. Also, young learners and adults have very different learning processes. Adults have pre-existing knowledge and attitudes that can get in the way, or support learning. I'm pretty sure that grammar in isolation doesn't work, but I'm not sure there are many teachers suggesting such an approach.

I disagree, I think. 'Give me a fish' is fostering learner autonomy, an ability to learn for oneself. A knowledge of grammar can't possibly do this. Learners need much more than grammar, particularly well developed metacognition, thus giving them the ability to reflect on their learning and make informed decisions as to how they can overcome difficulties.

I am more inclined to agree with the quote below, regarding the function of grammar in learning.

Here's a good one!

In the ideal world, in the classrooms and schools we'd probably all like to teach in communication would be number one. But what about those pesky exams?! State education is commonly blamed as being a big problem here. There was reference during #eltchat to the German grammar oriented system, but what about the ESOL/EFL world - the Use of English paper in the Cambridge exams, for example? As mentioned by @bcnpaul1 during the chat.

The things is, again, I don't think anyone is saying that there is an argument of grammar versus communication. I would perhaps agree with this: @efl101 As an L2 learner who became fluent, I felt grmr was like gaining strong bones ? flesh came later

With this, I totally agree. The idea that grammar is boring is entirely false; it's not 'what' it's 'how'.

I recognise Gavin's ideas from the dogme debates, but I reckon that he's talking about doing this while living in the L2 environment. If this is not the case, then can grammar translation really help? If the students want it, should the teacher persuade gently against or accept this opinion and work with it? If so, how would you try to bridge the gap between this method and communicative fluency? It's a tricky question!

In contrast to Gavin, this is a more unplugged approach, which I tend to agree with. Scaffolding the language as it emerges rather than imposing grammar upon them just because it comes next in the book. Of course a difficulty is that with groups the students all have a different interlanguage and are ready for different things making it more challenging to ensure all the different students' needs are met.

I disagree, but I would agree that when non-native speakers use archaic grammar from an out of date coursebook, or formal grammar in the wrong context then that's possibly the issue here; it isn't grammar, it's appropriacy.

Here I'd say that the learner has acquired this grammatical structure, but it has not become automatic. However, she probably believes that in order to acquire the structure she needs to learn the grammar first, so she can monitor its use, which through practise will lead to acquisition. Of course Krashen suggests that is is never going to happen. I quite like this overview of Krashen's theories here.

Arch-dogmeist Karenne Sylvester makes a great point here, which to me highlights the danger of an over-reliance on grammar and also demonstrates why grammar is not the be all and end all of language teaching. Unfortunately, a dependence on grammar is something that occurs in some teachers, learners, parents, coursebooks, exams and institutions.

To conclude this public brainstorm, in my humble opinion, grammar is just a bunch of rules that can sometimes be used to help make sense of a language, which to be honest, after all that, I'm reminded of this.

Here is the link to the #eltchat transcript for the grammar discussion.

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