Thursday, November 11, 2004

To Teach Grammar or Not?

I have finally finished my SLA essay, related to the role of attention on form. Whether to teach grammar in language learning has always a very controversial topic. According to Chomsky's universal grammar, Krashen's natural order hypothesis, monitor hypothesis and input hypothesis (1982, 1985), language learning should be entirely natural and conscious learning of grammatical knowledge is considered to be a negative effect to learners' language production, especially speaking production.

Indeed, if we look at the teaching outcome of Grammar translation and audiolingualism, we can find learners generally cannot speak fluently and express what they want to say. Also, teaching grammar seems to be not quite effective if the hypothesis that learners' L1 will cause negative transfer to their L2 learning. No matter how hard teachers teach rules... learners are still making the same error...

For this reason, language teachers believe that as long as we involve leraners into authentic interaction and give them sufficient input, they will naturally acquire the language. Is that true??? The point that input and interaction are essential can be justified; however, without teaching rules, how much time that a learner needs to spend in order to fully acquire the language? the Natural approach is now very popular in EFL teaching; after all, there is an age factor in the learning. We don't want to teach kids grammar...and we are not allowed to teach children grammar..that's too boring..

What about adults? can an adult learn from the natural approach? I doubt it! And..recently researches have shown that without the teach of grammatical knowledge, learners are not able to produce grammtical utterance. their speaking production is facing fossilization and become pidgin-like langauge...; that is their acquisition of the target language becomes incomplete although they can use the language to communicate with others.

While I was doing this essay, I found it hard to stand in either argument. Sometimes I really don't understand why theoretical concepts in SLA can never be clear stated : this is how language is learned! ..or this is what teachers should adopt in your classroom.

I mean, what's the point of writing about a controversial issue? As a teacher, I recognize both sides can be a benefit to my students' langauge learning. Different learners have differnet kinds of learning style..and for different learners, we use different approach. When teaching EFL learners, I would consider giving them chances to use the language and authentic input is very important; however, at the same time, teaching grammatical knowledge may help as well. Can't we just adopt the good side of those theories and create a better one? why it has to be controversial???


Blogger Gord said...

Well, controversy, besides being easier than the resolution of controversy, has the benefit of giving grist to the mills of academic industry. In other words, it gives egghead professors something to argue about, and act superior about.

Meanwhile, people who are doing the job well, realize that above a certain kind of consistency, the most important thing to keeping students engaged is using a *variety* of approaches.

It's not just that different students favour different learning styles: it's that individuals learn in different ways at different times, too. Sometimes I need to just repeat something to get a grammar point into my head, and sometimes I need the meaning of that grammar explained to me in my native language.

And after all, in a classroom, half the battle is keeping people interested, and a variety of approaches is a big help there, too.

And as I remember recently reading, on some page linked-to by Blinger, adults and kids learn in very different ways, too, so you're right to raise that question.

5:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Middle-aged idiot here trying to learn Turkish - grammar is essential. That is, I need to know how the agglomerations of words I'm using work, and then I try to use them and 'think' in Turkish. (Spoken) Chinese was no big problem, and as for Indo-European languages, I suspect the reason I can assimilate the grammar is because it's similar (I did French, German and Latin at school, some Russian and Spanish later). But I think any unfamiliar grammar needs to be made conscious (e.g. drills for German declinations). Some learners get bogged down in the grammar, and I don't know what the teacher can do to get around it.
Margaret (

2:57 AM  
Blogger Y.H.Stella Chen said...

Yes. I agree with Gord's saying that engaging learners in different kinds of approaches is important for the learning.
Learning a second langauge seems to be far more complicated than acquring L1 . It is actually quite reasonable to believe that if we exclude L1 transfer to L2, L2 learners probably can feel easier in the process of learning. However, I would say it's not that simple...and no one single theory or approach can account for the way how learners learn and memorize things. Interestingly, if we look at SLA theories, we can always find two kinds of opinion fighting against each other: either 'learning should be natural' or 'learning needs attention'.
It is quite amazing to realize how human mind so hard to understand...and although there are a bunch of SLA theories guessing and hypothesizing possible learning situations, the issue 'how' we learn is still not clear.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Alistair! said...

Gord said most of what I wanted to say, and I had said something simnilar on anther blog on a related subject. As to how we learn, we all learn in different ways, n ot just language but everything, I feel that the four broad learning styles (tactile, auditory, visual and kinesthetic) basically sum it up and conveniently give us the space to encompass all types of approaches and methods.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Y.H.Stella Chen said...

In relation to the issue of whether grammatical correction can benefit ESL/EFL learners' writing proficiency, Ronald wrote a short article to suggest there is no evidence that grammatical correction, either direct or indirect, has positive impact on learners' writing accuracy. He suggested grammatical correction can only provide learners suface grammar; grammatical learning is a more complex process that has to be developed hierarchically. He also proposed some practical pedagogies-teachers should focus more on meaning rather than forms.

10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grey's very short personal observations about what "everyone knows" is simply a restatement of Truscott's paper from Language Learning (which was not a study paper, but only a research note, thus not expected to reach the highest review standards).

By citing a few others who tell their opinions and a couple studies that failed to find a significant influence from grammar correction, a conclusion is reached that it doesn't work. The problem with this logic is that not finding something does not prove it is not there, and you need to compare it to something else to understand which method is more effective. NO DIFFERENCE means all methods are equal. Call them bad or call them good--it is the same.

What is most interesting is that papers like this simply ignore all the work that has shown the importance of grammar correction, in well structured experiments, like my own in Language Learning
(EFL Business Writing Behaviors in Differing Feedback Environments, Language Learning, Vol. 50:4, 573-616 download at
How does Mr. Gray miss that study? Well, it doesn't fit what we think is true so we don't look at it. EFL studies need more researchers that take a scientific approach and work a bit harder at getting the whole story, or at least checking out all that is out there.

Please note that Mr. Gray's contribution is just a teaching techniques contribution at the Internet TESOL J. In the same journal I have contributed to four research articles that cite the positive results of correction:

TESOL in general is so full of American/Western culture that everyone forgets to check the facts. Error correction speaks to motivation, and that is a very culturally specific value. Americans don't like it, so there is a general assumption it is wrong. But there just is no evidence that this is the case.

Clyde A. Warden

6:04 AM  

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