Michael Chugani talks about the place of grammar in second language teaching in his column today (March 26). He points out that grammar is religiously taught in private schools in the US, but it is not taught in public schools. His view is that grammar is important but should not be the exclusive focus of language teaching and learning.
When I was a schoolboy, the common belief was that if you knew a lot of grammar rules, one day, you would be able to apply your grammar knowledge and use the language correctly. Today, we know that this is not necessarily the case. The communicative approach, which began to be widely promulgated from the early 80’s, put a lot of emphasis on communicative training in language teaching. That attention to communication led some people to (wrongly) think that grammar teaching was not needed. Some people blamed it on communicative language teaching when learners displayed many grammatical errors in speaking and writing. But to my knowledge, communicative language teaching has never ruled out grammar instruction.
In fact, from my observations, teachers in Hong Kong have never stopped teaching grammar, or relegated grammar to a lesser position. If students are still showing a lot of grammar errors, one reason may be that today we encourage students to express themselves in speaking and writing. And of course, the more they try to express themselves, the more errors they will be producing. And I will not rule out the possibility that today’s students are less concerned about grammatical accuracy. (Even my own student teachers training to become English teachers display that inclination.)
But from a pedagogical perspective, the way that we teach grammar needs rethinking too. Today, I still have to occasionally joke that English teachers sometimes teach grammar as if they were teaching algebra – a(b + c)= ab + ac – that is, treating grammar as simply mechanical manipulation of language form. They may present grammar as purely linguistic rules, and rely on verbal explanation in presenting the ‘rules’. This approach is not only uninteresting to school learners (adult learners, on the other hand, will favour learning through rules and hence benefit from it) – How often do you see a primary or secondary student totally absorbed in listening to the teacher giving lengthy explanations on a grammar rule? Moreover, the nature of grammar is such that sometimes the more you explain something verbally, the more confused students will become. Try giving a comprehensive explanation to students on the use of the definite article ‘the’, and you will know what I mean.
That is why I would advocate a more language-awareness approach to teaching grammar. Ronald Carter defines language awareness as an ‘enhanced understanding of, and sensitivity to, the form and function of language’. I particularly like the idea of sensitivity. There is just so much grammar we can teach in the curriculum; we just don’t have time to deal with the many nuances and subtlties of grammar – Do you still have time to explain to students why we say ‘Beware of pickpockets’ but not ‘Beware of your hands’; what is the difference between ‘I love reading’ and ‘I love to read”; why is it OK to say ‘a relaxed holiday’ while we say ‘an interesting book’ ..? If we use a more language-awareness approach, we not only make grammar learning more fun for today’s students since it is cognitively more challenging to them, it also trains them to become more independent learners since they will be able to pick up a lot of grammar patterns on their own. Think of the most successful L2 learners – Do they acquire all their grammatical competence from their teachers?
But the starting point is – How metalinguistically-aware are we as language teachers?