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Why Teach Grammar?

Michael Swan looks at why you should teach your students grammar.

People probably argue more about grammar than about anything else in language teaching. Research and theory have a good deal to tell us in this area. So does common sense.

1. Regularities

Languages have regularities (if you don’t like the word ‘rules’) in the ways they shape and organise words for various reasons. If you’re not aware (consciously or unconsciously) of these regularities you may not be able to understand language successfully, or structure it so as to make yourself understood.

2. Can you pick them up?

Mother tongue: yes, of course, we all do.

Foreign language: some yes, some no, some maybe. (If you could pick all of them up, immigrants would speak like native speakers.) It depends which regularities and where.

3. Which?

  • Some regularities are so obvious and simple they can easily be picked up from experience. English SVO word order. Japanese question formation (put ‘ka’ at the end of the equivalent statement).
  • Some regularities are too complex to be fully learnable in a reasonable time by any approach. English noun compounding or article use. Japanese topic/subject marking.
  • Some are in between. English question formation. German word order.

4. Where?

When we talk about ‘picking up’ grammar regularities, are we talking about long exposure in a country where the language is spoken, or about three hours a week in secondary school?

5. So does teaching help?

With many of the in-between items, surely. More in the three-hour-a-week situation, fewer in an input-rich context, but some in any situation. If you’re unclear about German word order, five-minutes’ explanation will shortcut a whole lot of struggle trying to make sense of what seems to be very confusing input. What would be the value of withholding this explanation?

6. But knowing what happens isn’t the same as being able to do it.

Of course it isn’t. But it’s a start. Knowing which is the accelerator and which is the brake doesn’t guarantee you can drive. But it beats not knowing. Most skills learning proceeds in part by moving from conscious knowledge to unconscious mastery: it’s a matter of procedural learning ‘leaning on declarative crutches’, in DeKeyser’s words (1998: 49).

7. But isn’t there evidence that teaching grammar makes no difference to learning?

No. Forget Krashen. There’s good evidence in the other direction: see the important research meta-analyses by Norris and Ortaga (2000) and Spada and Tomita (2010).

8. But some people go on dropping third-person -s forever, however much you teach it.

Sure. There are things like that. The reasons are complicated and interesting.  I’ve never really got hold of vibrato when playing the violin, though I’ve been taught often enough. That doesn’t mean my music lessons were useless. On the contrary, I would play even worse, or maybe not at all, if I hadn’t had them, bad vibrato or not.

9. But is correctness really important?

This is like asking ‘Are boots important?’ It depends what kind of boots, and what you want to do. Rock-climbing? Skiing? Ballroom dancing? Having breakfast in bed? A high level of grammatical correctness is important for some purposes; less so for others. And not all aspects of grammar are equally significant. Getting some things wrong can hinder communication quite seriously; other points may matter very little one way or the other. It’s unconstructive to generalise.
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Why don’t they understand what they read?

Woman with notepad looking confusedMichael Swan, co-author of the new three-level Oxford English Grammar Course, introduces his upcoming talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton, entitled ‘Where grammar and reading meet’, with this article about why written English can be so hard to understand.

Why do people have difficulty understanding written texts?
There are various possible reasons.

For example, they don’t know the language.

Agresti, kunsti sifnit, votrin khaleddanou kaltrop. Vjux snjor!

Or they do know the language, but it’s gibberish.

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
sings below inveterate scars
appeasing long-forgotten wars.
(Eliot, Four Quartets)

Or it may not be gibberish, but it’s outside their conceptual comfort zone.

The resulting structure will then be merged with a null declarative complementiser,
and BE will ultimately be spelled out as the third-person-plural present-tense form ‘are’.
As required, all uninterpretable features have been deleted, so only the interpretable
features are seen by the semantic component.

None of these problems, however, are really our concern as language teachers. What does concern us is another kind of difficulty. Written English can put quite special grammatical obstacles in the way of a foreign reader, so that sentences which are relatively unproblematic for us may be surprisingly hard for our students to decode.

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Three Question Interview – David Baker

We have asked top ELT authors the following 3 questions:

  1. What’s your favourite ELT book?
  2. What or who has had the biggest impact on ELT in the last 25 years?
  3. What do you wish you’d known when you started out in ELT?

Here, David Baker answers these questions in a short interview:

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Three Question Interview – Michael Swan

We have asked top ELT authors the following 3 questions:

  1. What’s your favourite ELT book?
  2. What or who has had the biggest impact on ELT in the last 25 years?
  3. What do you wish you’d known when you started out in ELT?

Here, Michael Swan answers these questions in a short interview:

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