• How do you plan for the teaching of grammar?
  • Do you contextualise this learning or focus on a decontextualised approach?

What is grammar?

Definitions of the word ‘grammar’ are wide and varied, ranging from a ‘theory of language’ to a ‘description of the syntactic structure of a particular language’ (Pachler and Field, 2001, p129).

Nonetheless, people often find it difficult to explain what grammar actually is and, as Macaro (2014) suggests, often resort to metaphors to do this. Some teachers refer to this as the ‘Lego bricks’ of learning – in other words the things that build and join together other parts of language. Other people have referred to it as the ‘glue that holds language together’ or ‘the weave of the cloth’. However, these metaphors rarely refer to the role that grammar plays in communication or meaning making. Macaro (2014) explains that grammar could be considered ‘a series of patterns in a learner’s head’ (p109) which, in L2 acquisition, is often referred to a learner’s interlanguage. Sometimes errors occur as one set of patterns and interlanguage are transferred from the learner’s L1 or the learner is not aware of the exceptions in the rule system.

Despite the manifold definitions of grammar, most people are agreed that grammatical knowledge, either through explicit instruction or implicit acquisition, is a fundamental part of language learning (Schurz and Coumel, 2020; Cushing and Helks, 2021). To have a full-appreciation of language, Mariani (1992) suggests that children need to know that language is a formal system consisting of rules (grammar or ‘form’) and also understand that it is flexible to enable us to communicate appropriately.  Norris and Ortega (2000) concur and suggest that some focus on form (the structure and content of language) was more beneficial than a focus only on meaning. Once grammar has been learnt and understood, it can provide language learners with a ‘shortcut'(Pachler and Field, 2001, p129) which enables learners to be more independent in their language use. To be beneficial, Jones (2000) suggests that grammar teaching needs to be carefully structured and consider a range of issues:

  1. Selection of structures – consideration needs to be given as to what will be useful in terms of ‘transfer value’. In other words, how can this structure be used in different contexts, in different combinations and as a springboard for independent generation of language.
  2. Sequencing – connections need to be made between language structures through a combination of inductive and deductive methods. Students should be exposed to a range of real life examples.
  3. Recycling – how can the language structure be reused in different contexts? It is important that children have an opportunity to practise new language structures through a range of games and activities to ensure that it is effectively applied, as well as ensuring that old structures are applied in new contexts.
  4. Moving from form to function – this is the transition between gaining a new skill or knowledge and applying this in practice. This also involves the transition between conscious attention and automatized use of the language structure in spontaneous conversations.
  5. Grading of input – students need to be presented with a range of examples which are progressively more complex or have more exceptions. Students should be able to infer the pattern test their hypotheses on the range of examples.
  6. Use of terminology – Knowing the names of particular structures and concepts in grammar could be considered overly abstract for children to grapple with. However, as Carter (1997) suggests, using the correct terminology allows for the  ‘efficient and precise way of discussing particular functions and purposes’  (p24).

Grammar: To teach or to acquire?

The question of whether to ‘teach the grammar’ of the target language (henceforth the second language, or L2) has been debated internationally for a long time (Macaro, 2014, p108; Schurz and Coumel, 2020; Cushing and Helks, 2021).  Not all theorists are supportive of the teaching of grammar – Krashen (1982) for instance, suggests that grammar teaching does not aid acquisition and may even hamper it. Nonetheless, as Kirsch (2008) points out, those from an information-processing perspective maintain that a focus on form (the way language is constructed, rather than the meaning of the words) can improve language learning.

The approach to grammar teaching can be considered on a continuum from no structured input to an entirely didactic approach. On the continuum there are three main approaches to grammar teaching (input): at the extreme end, the natural method advocates no teaching at all;  secondly in the inductive approach, the emphasis is  on the learner to recognise patterns and develop their own rules. Finally, in the deductive approach, the rule is introduced and exemplified through a number of appropriate examples. Whilst the debates surrounding the best approach to take are rife in this area, Pachler and Field (2001) suggest that the latter two have a legitimate place in foreign language teaching. Forth and Naysmith (1995, p80) agree with this and stress that there should not be ‘no one, single approach to the presentation and use of grammar rules in the classroom’.

The natural method

Advocates of natural methods suggest that pupils should learn grammar merely by being exposed to language that displays a particular pattern and consequently grammar acquisition occurs inductively.  Chomsky, the forefather of the natural method, suggested that everyone possessed a language acquisition device (LAD) that meant that formal instruction was not necessary in language learning. Whilst his theory was based on L1 instruction, other authors suggested that people could learn a second language in the same way that they had learnt their first language and believed that their LAD played a fundamental role in language acquisition. By following this line of thought, talking about language and teaching grammar were excluded from what became known as the ‘communicative language teaching’ method (Kirsch, 2008, p142).

The inductive method

As Ellis (2004 and 2005) suggests, learners are capable of constructing explicit knowledge from implicit acquisition. In other words, a child through exposure to a language may recognise that certain rules exist (e.g. recognising that ‘ed’ may be added to a verb to indicate it is in the past). Some people have referred to this as a ‘discovery learning approach’ in which the grammar rules are not taught directly but students are enabled to discover them through a learning experience in terms of using the target language. For instance, the students can discover the rules through games, songs, or different activities that require the students’ engagement and interaction. It should be noted that these rules are not necessarily correct and teachers need to give due consideration as to ascertain the understanding and how to deal with misconceptions. Many people have heard children in their class say, ‘Yesterday, I goed to the cinema’ or ‘I runned very fast’ and it is important to pre-empt such errors.

The intention of the inductive approach is for pupils to make up and apply their own rules. There are generally five stages to the inductive method which can be revisited if misconceptions arise. It starts with showing children examples of the specific aspect of grammar or language which you would like the children to learn. The children then endeavour to work out the rule from the example given. The teacher then provides further examples; if the rule is not yet correct, it is important that the teacher provides example texts which illustrate this and do not follow the pupils’ rule. Pupils then modify their rule in light of this new information and this then continues until they are accurately able to use this in their own use of language. It is often useful for the teacher to provide a summary of the rule towards the end of this process to ensure that all pupils fully understand.

An example of this process may involve a teacher providing a few examples of simple present and simple past sentences to the pupils. The teacher then asks the students what differences they notice in the sentences and they endeavour to formulate a rule which reflects this. Further examples are provided to the pupils to enable them to refine their understanding and develop their rules for regular verbs. With this rule, the pupils try converting some simple sentences from present to past on their own. Finally, the teacher explains the rule for converting sentences from past to present.

The inductive method has been seen to be beneficial for student interaction and participation. They also rely on their critical thinking to figure out the language structures, thus allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of the language. This, it can be seen, reflects best practice in dialogic teaching and the Teaching for Mastery framework. Nonetheless, Macaro (2014) is tentative as to whether pupils should be encouraged to voice the rules they have developed inductively. This is for two reasons – firstly not all learners will be in the same place in their language learning and some pupils will therefore learn grammar explicitly from rules that their peers have developed. Secondly, grammar is complicated and not all rules are easy to recognise, nor explain. Questions may be asked that would require responses containing the particular grammatical construction. This would mean that few mistakes are made and there is little room for independent use of the language.

Given the potentially restrictive parameters in which the inductive method can operate, writers such as Swain (1995) suggest that pupils should be encouraged to take risks with their use of grammar and language. This is referred to as ‘pushed output’ where learners gain an understanding of language by understanding the relationship between what they want to say and how to say it. This would also highlight any potential gaps in their understanding. For example pupils may write their own short books (such as Mr. Men and little Miss books which provide an opportunity to apply and extend their learning through  ‘pushed output’. )  Children create new versions of the book and test and consolidate their understanding of key concepts in different aspects of verb conjugation.

Deductive method

The alternative to the implicit or inductive method is the deductive approach. Instead of using the language, teachers talk about the language (Macaro, 2014, p114). Halliwell (1993) highlights the value of learning grammar as opposed to implicitly acquiring the language. She views language learning as a conscious process and suggests that explicit instruction is a quicker process than acquiring the language through immersion.  The evidence for this approach is mixed; Ellis (1997), for example, highlights the importance of form-focussed instruction. Nonetheless, Bertrand Russell (in Page and Hewlett, 1987, p6) reminds us that ‘the purpose of words, although philosophers seem to forget this simple fact, is to deal with matters other than words. If I go to a restaurant and order dinner I do not want my words to fit into a system of other words, but to bring about the presence of food.’ Focus on form, therefore needs to be effectively balanced with a focus on meaning.

Macaro (2014) suggests a standard approach starting with an explanation of the grammar rule and many examples of where this rule is used. Macaro also encourages teachers to provide examples in both written and spoken forms, so that pupils have an opportunity to listen out for the construction in recorded forms. He then goes on to suggest a gap-fill exercise using the grammatical construction, prior to translating a short L1 text into L2 which forces them to use the target pattern. Finally, he suggests some free writing, containing the language element. DeKeyser (2007) suggests that an approach of this nature would allow learners to convert their explicit knowledge of target grammatical elements into proceduralised language.

Norris and Ortega’s (2000) systematic review did not draw any distinctions between implicit or explicit methods of teaching. Nonetheless, they recognise that most of the studies they drew on used grammar testing (in controlled settings, rather than real classrooms) to assess the learning which would favour a more explicit approach.   An alternative systematic literature review which aimed to address some of the shortcomings of the previous study was carried out by Spada and Tomita (2010). They suggested that better results could be achieved through explicit instruction over implicit instruction for both simple and complicated rules. A study by Green and Hecht (1992) required German secondary school students to correct 12 incorrect sentences and require an explanation of the rule in question. Whilst most participants could correct the incorrect sentences, the majority could not explain the rules that they had been taught.

Other research has highlighted the gap between learning some aspect of grammar explicitly and being able to use it in a productive speaking or writing task. Erlam (2003), for instance, compared the outcomes of students who had been taught using an implicit method (inductively) to those students who had been taught explicitly (deductively).  When tested straight after the teaching, the explicit group scored higher. However, when tested in a delayed test, those who had been taught explicitly dropped their scores more than the implicit group.

Grammar translation model

Hawkins (1999) highlights that reading and listening requires pupils to predict structures and words and so some understanding of grammar and word order is necessary to do this. When pupils are reading in a foreign language they initially cannot anticipate what comes next as, ‘they don’t know what words are likely to follow others’ (Kirsch, 2008, p141). Researchers are largely in agreement that pupils rely on their mother tongue and the grammatical structures (learnt or acquired) related to it when they are learning a foreign language. Hawkins (1999) found that French and English learners of Spanish imposed the grammar of their first language on Spanish – for example French learners applied rules of gender in the same way as their mother tongue, whilst the English learners found the concept of gender difficult to grasp.

The grammar-translation method of teaching was predominant throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s as modern foreign language teachers wanted to assert the equality of status with classical languages (Pachler and Field, 2001). In this method, grammar progression was organised according to both usefulness and complexity of structures. The teacher would initially introduce the new concept in the L1 and then it would be exemplified in the L2. Students would then translate sentences from the L1 into L2 using the new grammatical concepts. The focus on form often came at the expense of communicating effectively and meaning making; ultimately this led to a lack of motivation for foreign languages. As Pachler and Field (2001) highlight this forced the pendulum to swing in the opposition direction, leading  to a complete focus on meaning and little focus on form. This is reflected in the publication of the English National curricula in the 1990s which had no explicit mention of grammar. Since the early 2000s grammar has seen a renaissance and the question is no longer whether it should be taught, but how (Pachler and Field, 2001, p127).