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.

DeKeyser, R.  1998.  ‘Beyond focus on form: cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar’ in J. Doughty and J. Williams (eds.): Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Norris, J. M. and L. Ortega. 2000.  ‘Effectiveness of L2 instruction:  a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis.’  Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.
Spada, N. and Y. Tomita. 2010.  ‘Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature: a meta-analysis.’  Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.
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  1. Grammar is definitely part of learning. And the explanation above is really enlightening and clear!

  2. Grammer basics are very important to know for proper communication & writing. 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 on way or the other. It’s unconstructive to generalise. Thanks for this sharing.

  3. I agree that the importance of a high level of grammatical accuracy depends very much on what the aspect is, and what you want to do with it.
    Another important point though, I think, is that getting the grammar wrong can affect the impact you make. It may well lead to people taking you less seriously, and may affect your ability to integrate in a society if that is your aim.
    At IATEFL recently, Jim Scrivener talked about the importance of actually correcting students’ grammar(as well as teaching it). I would agree. I have often said to trainee teachers that they should remember that, far from it being unkind to correct students, it can be seen as something which probably no-one else will do for them. I discovered accidentally, after several years living in Poland, that I had been regularly making the same mistake..and no-one had ever told me. All those times when I thought I was coming across as quite fluent, and instead I was consistently dropping the same clanger!

  4. I feel that grammar is still a part of learning process and how to teach it should be essential in the everyday teaching of languages in general. There used to be a time when everything related to grammar was questioned and its teaching was considered old-fashioned but experience showed me that students (specially adults) NEED something to hold on to, I mean, something to study and understand.

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