When more grammar drilling is the only solution to improving students’ grammar

I was doing some web surfing and bumped into a website which offers an online grammar practice programme:



I don’t have a personal grudge against the company offering this online learning resource, but how I dislike further mechanical, form-focussed, grammar drilling, when students do extra work online to improve their English.

Students in HK fully understand the importance of grammar; yet this morning when I interviewed our JUPAS candidates, many of them targetted grammar learning as the most boring part of their English learning experience in school. What we need is not more grammar drilling, but grammar teaching and learning which is interesting and cognitively challenging, and which enables students to apply the grammar they have learnt in meaningful communications.

Six years of grammar drilling in primary school; then another six years of grammar drilling in secondary school … If more grammar drilling was the solution, then all our secondary school leavers would have acquired native-speaker proficiency.

Some time ago, I was asked by a professional colleague whether the (alleged) poor English proficiency of Hong Kong students was due to a lack of attention to grammar in English language teaching  (because of communicative language teaching and Education Bureau’s promotion of task-based learning).

To me, the attention to grammar by teachers has never fallen. In fact, for many teachers, it is the most ‘teachable’ part of their teaching syllabus, because unlike listening, speaking, reading and writing, grammar consists of rules which they can impart to students. Unlike dealing with the skills areas, they can easily obtain the satisfaction that they are teaching ‘something’ to the students.

And personally, I am not against grammar teaching. But  if we relegate grammar teaching to something like ‘OK what is the answer to a(b+c); what is (a + b)(b + c) .. now practise these rules in these exercises’, and if we do that day in and day out, what fun is there for students in learning English?

Sometimes when I flip through the grammar section of English coursebooks for secondary schools, I feel great sympathy with the students. Very often, the grammar sections cover the same grammar concepts already covered in primary school. This is not necessarily a problem. But when I look at the teaching approach, the concepts, the examples, and the exercises, I feel totally disheartened, because they simply replicate what students have had in primary school. The underlying rationale seems to be that since students have not mastered these in primary school, let us repeat them.

But the students are not primary kids any more. They are adolescents and early teens; they need learning experiences which are cognitively challenging, and relevant to their thoughts and emotions.

A few years ago, I teamed up with a professional colleague and we wrote a grammar coursebook for upper secondary students in which we would adopt a more discovery-oriented approach to grammar learning. We would use simulated-authentic materials and guide students to find out how grammar was used in real-life communications. This turned out to be a long-term battle between us and the publisher, as while we believed that this approach would rekindle students’ interest in grammar and broaden their conceptions of the grammar of English, the publisher kept saying that our approach was too avant-garde, and urging us to provide more form-focussed drilling materials in the book. Their argument was: ‘This is what teachers want.”

Is that really what teachers want? And if it so happens that teachers are not wanting the right things, shouldn’t we expose them to other alternatives?

In the end, we aborted this materials development project after 5 units of battling with the publisher.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s