To ‘Grammar or not to Grammar?’


No one seriously questions the need for language students to develop a good control of grammar. Those who study English as a second or foreign language in order to use it in work or study will find themselves at a serious disadvantage if their grammar is so weak that they cannot express themselves clearly and effectively, or if their underdeveloped interlanguage creates an impression of ineptitude or ignorance.

However, the question of how grammar is to be taught is at the heart of one of the most enduring controversies in EFL. A wide range of opinions is found in the field. Some maintain that explicit grammar rules absolutely must be taught and drilled, or students will be condemned to a lifetime of fossilization at an early stage of interlanguage.

Some argue that explicit rules and drills are a terrible waste of time, and that comprehensible input is the only effective way to promote the acquisition of grammar. Many occupy positions somewhere between these two extremes, and many others probably have no idea where they stand.

In spite of the long-standing grammar debate, the fact remains that we do not use language without grammar. Perhaps, then, the problem is not grammar itself, but the way grammar is being taught and learned. 

I taught English for many years, ages ago. Last July I completed an online course in Applied Linguistics at the University of Leicester.

One of the topics we had to study was ‘modality’; all these fine shades of meaning the modal verbs carry. I asked myself “Did you teach them all?” No, I didn’t.

I am learning three foreign languages: Italian, French and Spanish. In Italian I am more advanced than in the other two. The Italian grammar is very difficult, like the Greek grammar. There are two particles in the Italian language –ci and vi- that give me a headache. They are like the French ‘y’ and ‘en’. They are very important elements in all four language skills. People use them all the time. In Grammatica Italiana there is a whole chapter devoted to these two particles. In the beginning I looked through all cases and I got more confused. So I decided to go simple and study only the basic uses.

What I am trying to say is the following: focus on what students need to understand and be understood in everyday communication. Don’t overload them with details they are unable to swallow and digest. Teach grammar communicatively.

A communicative grammar lesson gives students the opportunity to practice grammar. The beginning stages of a communicative grammar lesson focus on accuracy while fluency becomes more important during practice stage.

Communicative grammar practice often focuses on speaking activities; however, writing activities are also an important and valid way to practice the grammar topic.

‘Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.’

From the poem To His Coy Mistress 

By Andrew Marvell

Marvell is straightforward. He makes his point in three easy steps: if only we had all the time in the world… the lady’s coyness wouldn’t matter; but we don’t because time flies; so let’s have some fun right now. Grammar can be made extremely complicated or surprisingly easy. That makes no difference for the language itself, but it does to those learning it.

Maybe, if teachers had all the time in the world, and if students had nothing better to do than gaze on grammar for all eternity, maybe then... but…no. Before long, you’d have turned your classroom into a tomb and your students into zombies. Marvell clearly shows how dull that would be: 

The grave's a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

Grammar is a Coy Mistress. Endless wooing is dull and gets you nowhere. A more practical approach recognises that time is short for lovers, students and teachers alike. Carpe diem! Seize the day! 

Language learning, like love and life, is to be enjoyed. It’s not always easy, but let’s not make it too complicated. Grammar should support the love for language learning, not destroy it. Grammar should be accessible, not elusive. Grammar should help, not hinder. Play with grammar and have fun!

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