By George Raptopoulos, Teacher and Teacher Trainer
In this article, we will explore why we must teach grammar, when, how and how much.
Why teach grammar?
Well, if words are the building blocks of a language, then grammar is the mortar we employ to connect the lexical content into meaningful utterings (phrases, sentences, paragraphs), so eventually we have a structure that is both sturdy-and able to stand alone-and flexible, so it can change according to what we want to convey. We do not live in prehistoric times , when the utterance of a mere sound adequately informed the person we addressed that , for instance, we wanted some water (well, we could also point to our mouth and the water source). Today, the notions we want to pass on are far more complex and refined. We need the mortar for the blocks, we need grammar.
Just imagine Socrates speaking single words or Dostoevsky writing just nouns.
When should we teach grammar?
Simply, every lesson, starting on the first day of instruction. Even a 3-year-old knows (albeit instinctively) that language comes in phrases and sentences. It’s an insult to their intellect if we just give them words, so begin with sentences. Simple, easy to understand, easy to repeat and absorb, but definitely sentences.
And this leads us to how to teach grammar and how much grammar to teach.
Clearly, grammar must relate to reality and to the learner. Try to teach a primary learner by offering an example that they have no notion of and you lose them (e.g. John has been a funds manager for a decade).
Who is John to them? What do they understand by “funds manager”? And what about “a decade”? Instead: “Your friend Kostakis has been in the toilet for 20 minutes “is something they can realize. Kostakis is their friend, and he went to the bathroom 20 minutes ago. And THEY KNOW ALL THE WORDS. So try relatable examples, relatable to the persons you are addressing, age wise and knowledge wise.
The second consideration is whether to teach grammar rules. So ask yourself whether, in your own language, you think of grammar rules when you say or write something. I’m sure you don’t say: “SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT “= “I-LOVE-YOU” And can any of us define “subject, verb, object”? Rules are for teachers and linguists, not for learners. Language is a tool and we show them how to use it, they don’t need the terminology and philosophy.
A little at a time and working upwards and spirally is the way. Upwards because once they have mastered the use of the simple present tense to express daily routines, you go through it again so they feel comfortable. Later add its use to express general truths (this is what I mean by spirally). And no they do not need to know that they are using the present simple. As we said earlier, they need language, not terms
Ideally, as soon as you have presented a grammar phenomenon, make sure they use it. Make sure that they use it for themselves, friends, family, not for someone they don’t know. Usage of a tool makes one an expert in using it. The theory is useless to the learner.
Now we come to the language of instruction. Well, it certainly must not be students’ L1.This is simply because there is no one to one correspondence between languages. What is expressed in, say, French by utilizing the French present perfect cannot necessarily be expressed in English by using the English present perfect. They are not always equivalent.
Simply use L2, the language you are teaching. Anyway, this also complies with the Total Immersion concept (if you don’t speak, write, cry, eat, drink (ok, saving you the more colourful words) Greek, for instance, then Greek is not completely your own. Complete exposure to the language they are being taught is essential, starting from Day 1.
Last here, but not final, show them the flexibility of the language. We say verbs that describe feelings, like love, always go in simple tenses. And then the learner tells you: “Miss, Miss, I heard a song that said: “I’ve been loving you too long to stop now”. Just tell them that in poetry we can tweak language a bit .And ask them to write a poem!
How much grammar? Well a little at a time all the time. Since L2 is the language of instruction, you use its grammar all the time anyway, just ensure that you always go just above their level and revise, revise, revise (only don’t tell them it’s revision; they don’t like the idea of revision.
And let’s not forget. Who calls it GRAMMAR anymore? It’s syntax now, Use of English, Language in Use. Use it yourselves, do not deal with rules, be realistic, be relatable, be yourselves (or the persons you would like to be).