11 Aug 2009

To Teach or Not to Teach Grammar? - That is the Eternal Question

This morning, while browsing around the net, I stopped on an ESL forum post that called my attention and made me think:

"I think that grammar is useless for learning to speak fluently...what do you think?" someone said.
This topic has been quite controversial for decades. Should or shouldn't we teach grammar? If the answer is affirmative, how and when should we teach it?

In the late 1970s, Chomsky, Krashen and others pointed out that the learning of a language should be like a child ´s natural acquisition. I mean, when we start speaking our mother tongue, we don ´t think or care about grammar rules. Besides, it has also been documented that teaching grammar step by step has had little effect on speaking production, that is, many people who have studied English learning grammatical rules, can ´t communicate effectively. We are not allowed to teach English to children at school because there is an age, until nine years old more or less, in which language is acquired in a natural way. But, does it work with adults who start learning a foreign language?

In the late 1980s another approach appeared, the Communicative one, which made emphasis on authentic materials instead of "traditional textbooks". This new approach, which was the product of the dissatisfaction of many educators and linguists with the audiolingual and grammar-translation methods, emphasized other really important disciplines like Pragmatics (negotiation of meaning, social context, interaction...) or cooperative learning. This is because learning a language is much more than communication, it also represents a cultural background. What is the role of grammar in this approach, then? Grammar plays an important role, as well,within this approach, but it is learned into a context, not explaining grammatical rules, since students motivations to learn the new language come from their desire to communicate in real life (travelling, at work, etc) fluently. Teaching is not essential any more, but learning. A strong point of the Communicative Approach is that it focuses on the student's process of learning and this is a great advantage. However, as the other teaching approaches and methods, it also has its disadvantages.

The Communicative Approach developed into the Task-based Language Learning Method (1990s), I mean, this method was within the framework of the Comunicative Approach and focused in the use of real language, allowing students to do meaningful tasks, like buying flying tickets in a travel agency, conducting an interview, etc., using the target vocabulary and grammatical structures. A task is " a piece of classroom work that involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing or interacting in the target language while their attention is focused on mobilizing their grammatical knowledge in order to express meaning, and in which the intention is to convey meaning rather than to manipulate form. The task should also have a sense of completeness, being able to stand alone as a communicative act in its own right with a beginning, a middle and an end." (Professor David Nunan) Is it possible to integrate grammar in this method in an effective way? It is, but not focusing on form but inferring the grammar rules from the context.

There is not a "perfect method" for teaching or studying a foreign language. However, I think it is very important to give our students as many opportunities as we can to use the new language but without avoiding grammar all time since different people have different learning styles at different times. Therefore, as there are not quick recipes, why not to use the best of each approach or method to engage our students? We learn languages listening but we learn to improve our level, our communication style also via grammar. And what is the point of fluency if we do not set a context? How would you explain these situations?
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Listening, writing, speaking, grammar, pronunciation, meaning, context... Everything is important when teaching or learning a language.


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