A Radical Perspective
In Greek English Language Teaching (ELT), a recurring theme is the persistence of grammar throughout the syllabus, from Junior A to Senior A levels. This article explores this phenomenon and questions its necessity, suggesting it may be time for a pedagogical shift.
* Should the title read (in 800 words or fewer)? I will leave this to the grammarians among the readers.
Text by: Eftychis Kantarakis
The Greek Grammar Continuum
Consider the grammar syllabus in Junior A books, comparing different publishers or titles. Notice the striking similarities. The pattern continues in Junior B books, often revisiting and reinforcing Junior A grammar. Does this repetition strike you? And do they all culminate with the Simple Past tense and a Future tense?
Senior A courses also tend to stick closely to the grammatical foundation laid in the junior classes. While these senior-level textbooks include more vocabulary and advanced skills practice, the core grammar remains largely unchanged. But why? Is a “spiral syllabus” the reason?
Showing Greek ELT books abroad, I puzzled teachers. Why 3 years repeating grammar? Why start with Present Simple even in advanced levels?
This approach can be traced back to the 1960s when Greece introduced a syllabus with two years of "Preparatory" classes followed by "Regular" classes. The intention was to "prepare" students for language acquisition during the preparatory stage, followed by "regular" language learning. This may have been linked to the unfamiliarity of the Roman script among Greek learners, requiring time for script familiarization. However, this paradigm no longer aligns with current educational practices, especially with the introduction of Pre-Junior classes and online media that expose students to language at an earlier age.
A Comparative Look: ELT Outside Greece
Contrast this with ELT materials designed for non-Greek contexts. Level 1 textbooks are not followed by identical reiterations of grammar in subsequent levels. Grammar is introduced comprehensively initially and then recycled throughout for functional purposes. The present simple tense, for example, is not subjected to repeated presentation and practice in subsequent years. Grammar is viewed as a component of language necessary for communication but not its exclusive focus. As British linguist David A. Wilkins aptly put it, "without grammar, very little can be conveyed; without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed."
The Role of School Owners and Publishers
I have a theory, but some teachers are probably not going to like it…
The unique emphasis on grammar in Greek ELT may be attributed to historical factors but has also been influenced by practical considerations. In the PLS (frontistiria) system in Greece, school owners often aimed to personally teach as many classes as possible. This was partly to demonstrate control over their schools, ensuring parents' confidence. Teaching grammar was seen as more convenient for one teacher visiting all levels and groups compared to skills like speaking or writing, as it could be "ticked off" methodically – Present Simple, DONE; Verb Have, DONE; Passive voice, DONE. This perception allowed school owners to gain a reputation as effective grammar instructors, even surpassing native speakers who had not been explicitly taught grammar. This fixation on grammar has sometimes led students to excel in the Use of English portion of exams but struggle in reading comprehension or writing, for example.
Furthermore, publishers, who primarily engage with school owners, inevitably give what they feel the “customers” want, taking their preferences into serious account when developing ELT materials. This symbiotic relationship has reinforced the prominence of grammar in Greek ELT.
The Importance of Grammar
I am not saying that “Grammar is important, but vocabulary is importanter”! Grammar undoubtedly plays a crucial role in language learning. However, like the acquisition of native languages, learners grasp the "code" of the language (its grammar) only after reaching a certain level of proficiency in using it. We need grammar rules to go past level A1 to A2 and beyond. Instead of dedicating two years primarily to grammar instruction before real language learning begins, the focus should shift towards nurturing communication skills early on. Once students have achieved a sense of accomplishment through effective communication, their minds will be more receptive to understanding the language's "codification" and "metalanguage." This approach allows for the introduction of grammatical rules at a later stage when learners are better equipped to grasp them.
Grammar should not be perceived as a checklist to be meticulously completed but as a scaffold for building upon prior knowledge. It offers a framework for continuous learning, which is the core principle of education. A re-evaluation of the Greek ELT syllabus, with an emphasis on meaningful communication followed by the gradual introduction of grammatical rules, could lead to more effective language acquisition and better alignment with contemporary educational practices.