Grammar: the accuracy of calling its teaching an art

Grammar learning and the implicit comprehension of language patterns

Considering one of the definitions of art as “the process of making the familiar unfamiliar”, grammar teaching can be justifiably paralleled with art. Grammar estranges language; it makes it appear unfamiliar. As teachers, it takes long and intensive training to teach grammar accurately and comprehensively, and we must instruct grammar in a way that engages learners effectively.

Learners’ attitudes and responses to the scientific side of language vary. Students often respond to grammar defensively; we observe how they silently withdraw and reluctantly or minimally engage in grammar activities. Grammar often seems to be the point where language loses its sense, especially English grammar. Jonathan Rigdon (1903) recognized the complexity of English grammar early on, stating, “They who can analyze the English sentence are well prepared to analyze anything else.”

Text by: Marina Siskou

Confounding this process can be the appropriate timing. The point at which learners grasp a grammar pattern and the reasoning behind it seems arbitrary to teachers, to a significant extent. While direct and explicit input of grammar is integral, it is regrettably not always sufficient. The initial encounter with the explicit layout of the theory and the patterns of a grammar rule can be disappointing, leaving learners with unanswered questions due to a lack of reasonable explanations.

However, this disheartening stage is a crucial first step toward fuller comprehension and language acquisition. Learners then gain the ability to decode grammar when they encounter it in context or roughly recognize it. The more frequent encounters and the greater the variety of contexts, the higher the likelihood that learners will fully grasp the rule. Eventually, learners pick up the mechanism, although this may occur during the instruction of another, overlapping, or random grammar concept. Each learner develops their unique connections to build language comprehension, but they are likely to converge at some point.

Perseverance and a variety of teaching methods are essential for effective grammar instruction. Sometimes, learners respond better to communication-oriented teaching, while at other times, a grammar-based, text-based approach is necessary.

Poor grammar can embarrass the speaker, as it conveys a lack of control over speech and, by extension, thought. Unfortunately, little can be done to rectify this deficiency when it is most needed. As R. Patterson (1907) aptly noted, “Nothing is more evident than the carelessness in expression [as it] indicates carelessness in thought.”

To facilitate grammar comprehension, consider that learners are more likely to grasp the passive voice when they are ready to learn the causative form, or at the very least when their understanding of the former is considerably (and inexplicably) facilitated. Achieving mastery may take time, and relapse is also a possibility.

It is advisable to alternate between challenging and low-difficulty grammar tasks to maintain high motivation levels. When introducing a grammar concept for the first time, relieve learners of the burden of remembering other complex vocabulary by providing the concept within a comprehensible context. This allows learners to focus their efforts on grasping the grammar pattern. In subsequent encounters, once the pattern is relatively well understood, you can introduce more complex contexts.

Differentiation should not be taken for granted. In today’s teaching contexts, differentiation has become essential. When teaching transitive and intransitive verbs, keep in mind that a percentage of learners may not even remember what a verb is in the first place. Address this, preferably in an implicit manner, or ensure it is included at some point in your presentation and draw the attention of those learners who may need clarification but won’t ask for it.

Encourage language production early on. Many learners will try to postpone language production and the use of recently encountered grammar patterns. As teachers, we know that the feeling of mastery and control over a pattern may never come. Given this reality, include activities that require language production, even if they are low-energy activities. Scaffolding activities from the very beginning will benefit learners, as experience and practice are essential components of overcoming the challenges of language usage.

In conclusion, as A.L. Bartlett (1899) accurately postulated, “[it is] only by repetition that the principles of grammatical construction become familiar, and only by constant and careful exercise that the use of good English becomes habitual.” As teachers, our aim should be to help learners become articulate and fully autonomous speakers. 

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