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Teaching Grammar Without Teaching Grammar

Teaching Grammar Without Teaching Grammar1

 “The past is always tense, the future perfect.” ― Zadie Smith

It’s parents’ favorite worry. It’s a hot discussion topic at children’s parties. It takes pages and pages in coursebooks. It’s the number one assessment focus of EFL classrooms. It’s teachers’ nightmare or glory. It causes heated debates on social media, among teachers: Grammar. Or else, tenses. This is what Grammar is normally reduced to. Because teaching Grammar means teaching the tenses, mastering their names, knowing how to conjugate the verb; the verb, which like a tiny acrobat stretches, bends, flips in the hands or the tongues of the learners. This sacred verb with its forms and uses gives an existential meaning to the teaching profession. We teach the verb tenses well, we are good teachers. Or not?

Text by Maria Davou

  • The Bible

Aka the Coursebook. Have you seen them? They are made of Units. And the Units are organized based on Grammar points. The teacher checks the book, flips through it, goes through the table of contents and ticks: is there Present Simple? Present Continuous? Where is my precious Past Perfect Continuous? If the book has all the tenses thought to be necessary for this or that level, then the teacher will (or might) check the topics, the layout, the level, the texts, the skills etc. But it all starts with Grammar. So what is a coursebook? Simply put, it’s a glorified Grammar book with colors, pictures and some text to disguise the grammary nature. And it’s usually accompanied by a (less glorified) Grammar book, a Companion with a grammar section, a notebook with grammar rules and examples and lots of in-class input on Grammar in the form of grammar powerpoints, grammar games, grammar quizzes, grammar worksheets, grammar craftivities.

2. The Vicious Circle

As a proponent of a holistic approach to language teaching, I meet teachers who are very happy to adopt my TGWTG method, they love the activities I share with them and they feel that it does work and oh-what-a-great-idea! But then they ask the big, thorny question: ‘how will I tell parents?’

See in our job, it’s not the qualified scientists who make decisions. It’s not even the money-loving businesspeople who make choices. It’s the sacred totem, the great shaman, the parent! Parents will reprimand teachers who moved to Present Simple without (their child) having fully grasped Present Continuous (or vice versa). The parent wants grammar- the parent gets grammar.

3. The Test

The other big question that both teachers and parents will invariably ask me is ‘but what about the test?’ How can my child pass this or that test if they cannot recite tense changes in Indirect Speech or if they don’t know by heart the (really very subjective) difference between Present Perfect Simple and Present Perfect Continuous? Does it matter that any major language exam has never asked for these things? Does it matter that the CEFR is about communicative competencies, that the learner is seen as a user of the language, that no exam will ever ask anyone to ‘put the verb in brackets in X, Y, Z tense’? Does it matter that exam questions are holistic, lexicalized, and not-grammar-based? Well, the parent knows better. Because if my child can tell me the difference between ‘will’ and ‘going to’, I feel I made a good choice, as a parent, about their language education. Does it matter that no one really cares about the difference?

4. The Language

If these fanatical grammar-based syllabi made any sense, why would we need easier and easier exams? If this method produced proficient language users, why would it be obsolete in other places in the world, where learners achieve first language-user status, where they speak like normal human beings and not like ‘little-do-I -know-furthemore-and-nonetheless’ tested robots? And if you want to look at the essence of it, this tense-passion lacks basic grammar knowledge of the English language, a language with 2 tenses and 3 aspects. And aspect (i.e. positioning yourself in time in relation to the action) is not really that objective or rule-based. If all this metalanguage teaching led to any serious learning, why are our best students almost always youtubers, gamers, series freaks and cinema lovers?

5. Teaching Grammar Without Teaching Grammar

My approach is really simple. Teach the language. Create experiences for the learners to use the language. The teacher might have a grammar structure in mind. Or even better a function. The learners will live the experience, they will use the language and then, the teacher can decide if it would be beneficial to ‘reveal’ the grammar point or not. My choice is usually not to but when I decide to do so, I spend maximum 5 minutes on grammar presentation. Why? Because after that, a black cloud hangs over our heads and nobody cares about my grammar presentation and everyone wants to go home. Because the lesson is not meaningful anymore.

And you know what? If language teaching (essentially, a meaning-making action) gets meaningless, then something is very, very rotten in the state of ELT…

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