Explicit Grammar Teaching

Language is doing things, not knowing things. It is a tool for learning, not the object of learning.

Does explicit grammar teaching work? Do students just do controlled grammar tasks well, but when it comes to applying their knowledge to writing and speech, do students fail to apply the grammatical rules they have been taught?

One of the big questions of English language teaching is, does the explicit teaching of grammar lead to an improvement in grammatical accuracy in speaking and writing?

Let’s begin by thinking about what grammar is (or might be). ‘Grammars’ can be looked at as three different types:

  • prescriptive grammar: this tells people what’s right; what they should say
  • traditional school grammar:  heavily syntax based e.g. label the parts of speech, which of these words are verbs?
  • structural grammar: how words fit into phrases and how phrases fit into sentences. This emphasises phrase structure trees (e.g. a sentence contains a noun phrase and a verb phrase, etc)

The second and third of these are descriptive grammars: they attempt to explain how language works.

Grammar initially began as the study and analysis of language. It attempted to explain language, for example by defining ‘rules’ and by categorizing words into parts of speech (which doesn’t always work!) It was not intended as a way of teaching language. However, these rules and categories were later adopted as a convenient way of designing the school grammar syllabus. Hence, a school grammar is based around the conscious study of language rules and categories. However, applying these rules is a different matter.

The crucial end product of much teaching is that students should ‘know’ language in an unconscious sense.

Vivian Cook

It’s one thing to be able to consciously understand a rule (and even complete fill in blanks exercises to show it). It’s quite another thing to be able to use this knowledge when speaking and writing (when a load of other linguistic knowledge needs to be applied at the same time).

What learners need is the ability to use a language item unconsciously. Conscious knowledge of language rules does not mean it can be used correctly: some linguists may be experts in the linguistic system of Inuit, but they may be unable to hold the most basic conversations with a native Inuit speaker.

However, much language teaching is carried out on the assumption that conscious knowledge of a language item leads to unconscious production.

What order to teach language items in?

Given the findings of acquisition order studies and theories like the processability model, one might think that there should be a specific order in which language items should be taught.

What type of grammar to teach?

Cook makes the point that the kind of grammar we teach is important:

It has often been argued that the problem with teaching grammar overtly is not the method itself but the type of grammar that has been used. Most linguists would regard these grammars as the equivalent to using alchemy as the basis for teaching chemistry.

For example, the principles and parameters described in Universal Grammar are never taught to L2 learners, even though they are often quite simple and useful. Instead, learners are given a diet of descriptive and prescriptive grammar.

Discovery approach to grammar

One possibly more useful approach is to adopt a more exploratory approach to grammar in which learners try to uncover the patterns (rules) of grammar: a pupil-centred approach.

Focus on Form

Another approach is ‘focus on form’:

Focus on form…overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication.

Michael Long

In other words, when doing a communicative lesson or perhaps when looking at and discussing a text (perhaps with a bit of shared writing thrown in), the teacher draws attention to a language item that just happens to crop up, rather like holding up a magnifying glass to the language, and then removing it later so that the lesson continues apace…but with the learners now with a better understanding of some of the detail.

Focus on form probably works better with some language items than with others.

It’s something a lot of language teachers do anyway.

It can form part of task-based teaching approaches.

Tricky Bits

From my own experience teaching ELLs, I’ve found that (from analyzing their writing), they seem to have difficulty with, among other language items:

  • Determiners
  • Prepositions
  • The Past and Present Perfect Tenses
  • Modal verbs

What does research say?

The research evidence suggests that while explicit grammar teaching does result in gains in tests of grammar, it isn’t applied when completing productive tasks, although there may be some gains with simple grammatical structures. The reason for this is perhaps because when writing and speaking, students have to think about lots of different things at once: meaning tends to be prioritized over grammatical accuracy, and only those grammatical structures that have become automatic are correctly applied. Learners simply don’t have enough processing ability to apply grammatical rules that need to be thought about.

Green and Hecht (1992) gave sentences that were grammatically incorrect to 200 German learners of English and asked them to correct them. They found that if students could state a rule correctly, they corrected the sentences 97% of the time. However, they also found that only 46% of students could state grammatical rules correctly, so teaching rules was no guarantee that the rule would be learned and applied. They suggested that explicit instruction of grammatical rules was more suited to the learning of simple structures, such as those that:

  • referred to easily recognized categories;
  • could be applied mechanically;
  • were not dependent on large contexts: for example, morphological dichotomies like a/an, who/which, straightforward cases of some/any, and simple word order.

Green and Hecht, Implicit and Explicit Grammar: An Empirical Study, Applied Linguistics, 13(20):168-184

Macaro and Masterman (2009) of Oxford University investigated the effect of explicit grammar instruction on grammatical knowledge and writing proficiency in first-year students of French at a UK university. They found that while explicit instruction led to gains in some aspects of grammar tests, it did not result in gains in accuracy in either translation or free composition.

Macaro and Masterman (2009), Does intensive explicit grammar instruction make all the difference? Language Teaching Research 10(3):297-327


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