The Grammar Issue: Why, what, how? Introduction

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A first, grammar was all the rage (grammar-translation method) and ... I will give a brief introduction to the changing positions of grammar in language teaching.

The Grammar Issue: Why, what, how?

Introduction A first, grammar was all the rage (grammar-translation method) and considered a highly valued and essential part of language education. Then, grammar was discarded altogether (the Natural Way), and now it has appeared in new guises, most of them under the hat of interaction and negotiation of meaning. Grammar is still a controversial issue, though, and still hotly debated. In this way grammar is different from vocabulary learning. No one disputes the necessity of vocabulary and its centrality to language learning (i.e. no words →no language); but the attitude to grammar is different and often emotional in nature. In the following, I will give a brief introduction to the changing positions of grammar in language teaching and learning in relation to the current status of research of into various methods of grammar teaching.

The old dichotomy of all or nothing The teaching of modern languages began with the classical languages as a model, and this had several undesirable and long-lasting consequences. The study of, for instance, Latin was based on the study of grammar and translation, and the application of the same methods to the study of a modern language led to the association of grammar with something dead and useless, formal and boring. The appearance of behaviourist theories of language learning meant that grammar was banned from the classroom while drilling of sentence patterns and habit formation became dominant (Audio-lingual method). Since then several approaches have been applied in the classroom (e.g. the Natural Approach), but with the common feature that grammar has been regarded as something that would either come naturally or was less important than other aspects of teaching. One highly influential researcher to oppose grammar teaching was Krashen, who saw grammar teaching not only as less than useful, but as harmful to the acquisition process. Krashen believed that comprehensible input was all that was necessary and sufficient (Krashen, 1982). Krashen distinguished between ‘learning’ (a conscious process) and ‘acquisition’ (an unconscious process), and he advocated recreational reading as the great source of input which would lead to acquisition. According to Krashen, only acquired knowledge would be useful for spontaneous language production. This belief has had a strong appeal to language teachers, who were given justified grounds for downgrading grammar instruction. However, from the 1990s forward, Canadian research on the basis of large scale immersion studies have demonstrated that some sort of focus on form (i.e. grammar) is necessary and that input – comprehensible or otherwise – is not sufficient. Swain and others demonstrated how language learning required output and interaction to complement the input (Swain, 1987; 1998; 2005; Long, 2006; Long and Robinson, 1998). The immersion studies have been followed by a steady stream of other strong research based on a variety of theoretical foundations but all with results which have brought grammar back in focus (Hinkel, 2006; Robinson, 2003; DeKeyser, 1995; 2003). It is now well-established through repeated research findings that input, output, and interaction must go hand in hand with a focus on form (Gass and Mackay, 2006; Doughty and Williams, 1998; Hinkel, 2003).

Why teach grammar? The legacy from Krashen’s input hypothesis stating that comprehensible input was sufficient for acquisition to take place, and its transposed form to a teaching method by Krashen and Terrell called the Natural Approach (1983), has proved very pervasive, and the idea that grammar teaching may be useless or worse is still today widely accepted in educational circles. Lightbown (1998) calls this the “new orthodoxy”, and she found it to be a belief held even by teacher who did not know of its origin and foundation. Borg (1998) investigating teachers’ belief in Malta quotes one teacher informant for the remark: “I'm not entirely convinced that any focus on accuracy in the classroom has any effect on students' fluency in general” (p. 158). This illustrates a belief which is widely held but which also needs modification. Many statements similar to the one by Borg’s informant could be brought forward, and the following outline represents a response to this wide-spread rejection of grammar, based in research findings which make a credible case for teaching grammar. To illustrate my own position on grammar I would like to give an analogy. Imagine a person wanting to create a coat. He has the cloth, cuts it up in the constituting pieces of the coat (i.e. words). In one sense he has a coat, only, it needs to be put together in a meaningful way. There are several acceptable ways of doing this, but some ways are immediately obvious, meaningful and elegant while others are not. If the pieces of cloth are stitched together by large and coarse stitches by a beginner in the art of sowing, this may hold the coat together (i.e. constitute sentences), but such a coat would not be able to serve all purposes, and its expression would be crude (i.e. very general and without detail). The preliminary version would be sufficient for some purposes, but in most cases improvements would be desirable (i.e. it might otherwise be open to misunderstanding or break-down of communication). The maker might seek advice in literature on the principles of coat-making or ask for instruction by experienced coat-makers (i.e. consult grammar books or receive instruction). The situation of the maker (i.e. learner) and the time aspect involved combined with the eventual goal (i.e. the level and context) would play a role in determining the level of refinement and expertise necessary. Language teaching must aim to facilitate language use which can serve the purpose of the learner in making him or her able to control their expression of meaning in communication with the degree precision and detail required by the situation. Hinkel (2003) has demonstrated how poor grammatical command influences the learners’ abilities to give voice to their full intellectual capacity and how poor language influences achievement. More positively defined arguments for the positive effects of grammar inclusion in classroom activities are available in Ellis (2002) where he brings together results from the research on the topic. Specifically important is the fact that grammar instruction can enhance rate of learning as well as raise the level of proficiency. Even though there are disputes about the specific processes of acquisition, there is general agreement that attention to form, noticing and (meta-)linguistic awareness lead to better learning, not just as an immediate effect but also because it creates persistent improvements in accuracy and fluency. An integrative effect of increased grammatical awareness and attention to form is improvements in reading ability. Cain (2007) investigated the effect of syntactic awareness in relation to reading ability. She defined

syntactic awareness as “the ability to manipulate and reflect on grammatical structure of language” (p.679). One of her conclusions is that there is a relation between syntactic awareness and word reading in context at least for older children.

What should be taught? This is really an impossible question to answer, but it is possible to detract some general suggestions based on research findings, both theoretical and classroom based. However, the actual classroom and the actual teaching context should be the decisive basis for the decision. One issue that is on the mind of many teachers is the topic of metalanguage and whether it is something that should be included in classroom priorities. First of all, it is convenient to have a common language in which learners and teachers can meet in a mutual understanding of the discourse in the classroom. This is useful for giving and receiving feedback for instance. It may also facilitate awareness of language structures just as it may enable the self-study of learners in autonomous tasks. Basturkmen, Loewen and Ellis (2002) concluded that “Metalanguage appears to be an important means through which students can initiate discourse about language forms in the classroom” (p.10). This then raises the question of which metalanguage to apply and teach. One debate surrounds the question of userfriendliness and to what degree metalanguage should be technical in nature or a modified version of it closer to the everyday language of the user. Berry (2000) called this “Youser-friendly” (combination of ‘you’ and ‘user’), and his research came to the conclusion that modified metalanguage did not have an improved impact on the learning. His conclusion is that first of all metalanguage should be consistent. A mixture of ‘youser-friendly’ and more technical terms does not work well: “A mixed style may appear easier to read and more appropriate, but this does not guarantee understanding and may well detract from it” (p.205). A consistent style, whatever it is, is better than a mixture of styles. Good language learners have been shown, among other things, “to be learners who are able to talk effectively about their language learning because they have a well-developed metalanguage for doing so” (Ellis, 1994:549). The implicit understanding deriving from this leads one to the hypothesis that language classrooms which embrace metalanguage and conversation about language, language awareness and reflections can enhance the acquisition process, although this is only one element in successful language learning. This is supported by Fortune (2005) who investigated how advanced learners employed metalanguage, and it was concluded that the use of metalanguage appears to lead to prolonged attention to form and re-engagement with the form in focus (p.36). A discussion of the teaching of discrete linguistic features is better left to more focused expositions than the present. Furthermore, in such a discussion the point of view taken would differ with the belief and understanding one would subscribe to in relation to the underlying theoretical idea of what language is and how it is learned. The general view is that focussing on contrasts between one’s native language and the target language is a way forward. The structure of a language will influence the way people think and speak (Slobin, 2003), and therefore the difficulty of various features and expressions is related to the difference or similarity between the speaker’s native language and the target language. Awareness of these differences would be the first step towards a facilitation of the learning processes.

Metalanguage could be the bridge to the important overall focus of grammar in language teaching, which in my own opinion is expressed so well by Kachru when she speaks about pedagogical grammars, namely that the aim is to “facilitate awareness of the relatedness of grammatical structures to speaker/writer meanings and intentions” (2006:249).)

How should it be taught? The key words in contemporary language education are interaction and communication. The pedagogic planning of class room activities can be quite demanding in relation to the inclusion of grammar in such a way that the communicative aspect can be combined with a focus on form in order to facilitate both fluency and accuracy. Larsen-Freeman has coined the phrase ‘grammaring’, and defines it as “the ability to use grammar structures accurately, meaningfully, and appropriately” (2009:526), and she lists this as the goal of grammar instruction. Larsen-Freeman’s definition is in accordance with the communicative approach to language teaching in which the focus is on meaning in all activities. There is a tendency to interpret this to mean that grammar should be banned from the classroom but this is a misconception of the approach. Decoo (2001) points out how various changes in fads have generated changes in methods and how a given methods tends to have one component highlighted to characterise the entire approach. For communicative language teaching, the highlighted element has become ‘communication’ while there is a tendency to forget that other elements once had an equally important position. Garett (1995) points out that “In its original sense, communicative competence certainly includes grammatical competence, but unfortunately the term communicative competence is now widely understood in language pedagogy to mean the ability to communicate , to get meaning across” (p.350). In his analysis of the various methods which have been predominant over time, Decoo (2001) defines a teaching method as “an approach that neglects at least one important component” (p.14). The experience of many language teachers – as pointed out above - has been that the communicative approach benefits from teaching and learning which aims higher than ‘getting meaning across’. Fortunately, we can find information in support of this from numerous research projects and mediated research. One brilliant example of such documentation is the article by Ellis, Basturkmen and Loewen (2002) on “Doing focus-on-form”. The Ellis et al. article finds its rationale in the experience from immersion programmes and demonstrates two pedagogically viable approaches in which communication is still at the centre. One is ‘planned focus on form’ (no error has been made) while the other is ‘incidental focus on form’ (treatment of learner errors). Both of these are closely connected to task-based learning and the terms refer to the types of tasks that can be embedded in communicative teaching methods. Planned focus on form is effective and has a positive effect on acquisition, probably due to the repeated attention to the same forms over a number of activities. It is possible to keep student attention on form even during spontaneous language production if the activity is well-planned. A task may be designed in such a way that it requires usage of particular forms in order to complete the task. A task is different from an exercise in that a task is meaning-centered and in this respect a simulation of a ‘natural’ type of language use. Tasks, however, may be carefully constructed in such a way that the execution of the task ‘naturally’ will involve the use of particular forms (Philp amd Ishiwata, 2013). Taskbased learning can be very effective if it is constructed around the three phases of well-rounded planning

of pre-task preparation, task execution, and post-task evaluation. Pre-task and post-task activities enhance awareness and noticing of the forms in focus and are central to the off-setting learning moment for the student when he or she notices the gap between own performance and the target form. This kind of planned focus on form is effective but time consuming. The incidental focus on form demands little planning and is spurred by errors being made (often teacher initiated) or by questions arising out of communicative needs (often student initiated). Consequently, these activities are less systematic, but because of the genuine need from which they arise, learning may be just as durable as in planned focus on form. When contemplating the different ways of integrating grammar in the communicative classroom, the type of feedback given also needs to be considered. Some types of feedback are more interventional than others and may interrupt the flow of interaction while others are less interventional, but for this very reason students may not realise that an error has been made. Of all the different types of feedback (see Figure 1), recasts far outdistance other types (Lyster and Ranta, 1997). The frequency of feedback types employed by teachers was, in descending order: Recasts, elicitation, clarification requests, metalinguistic feedback, explicit correction, repetition . Their results also indicated that metalinguistic feedback was the most effective type.

Other-repair Provide

Explicit correction




Self-repair Prompt

Metalinguistic feedback




Clarification request


Figure 1. Types of feedback. Source: Loewen & Nabei, 2007, p. 326

Thus, recasts appear to be less effective than other types of feedback, but the jury may still be out on that one. Recent research (Liu, 2010) seems to indicate that in the short run recasts are less effective than other types of feedback, but recasts may have a more durable effect than other types. When it comes to corrective feedback, it may be necessary to differentiate and apply different types of feedback to different groups of learners. Lyster (2004) found that prompts were particularly effective for lower proficiency learners, whereas higher proficiency learners appeared to benefit similarly from both recasts and prompts. Other studies have suggested that low-proficiency learners might be at a disadvantage in their limited ability to notice recasts as corrective feedback (Mackey & Philp, 1998). Recent research on feedback supports the finding by Lyster

(2004) that prompts are more effective than recasts (Dilans, 2010). Since prompts encourage self-repair, this points to a role for learner autonomy and supports Nabei and Swain (2002) who stated that recasts represent learning opportunities and their results showed that “what was learned from it depended on the learner” (p.59).

Conclusion Second language acquisition as a research area is relatively new, and the various components are so numerous and complex that exact knowledge is hard to find. To some extent this is rooted in a basic disagreement on what language is and what its foundations are. The most basic of these disputes is the relationship between implicit and explicit knowledge and the related processes. Sharwood Smith (2004) is a well-renowned SLA researcher who has reached the conclusion - and there is a lot of research to back this - that for post-puberty learners there are two systems available, one implicit and one explicit. What is most important for language teachers, is that he also makes a case for the possibility that explicit knowledge can be automatized to such a degree that it is almost impossible to distinguish it from implicit knowledge. Consequently, we should not be discouraged from teaching explicit knowledge, and we have good reason to give our students the opportunity to learn from both types of knowledge. The old dichotomy of all or nothing should be replaced by a continuum of ‘both and’. In truth, it is my impression that teaching it in the Danish secondary system already embraces the functionality of these research insights. Otto Jespersen, international pioneer linguist, in the late 1800s and early 1900s opposed the grammartranslation method and argued for a more modern approach to language learning in which the interactional aspect should be given high priority. When the pendulum changed to the behaviourist approach, we were spared the worst because, thanks to Grundtvig, we have always had a place for ‘conversation’ and an oral tradition. Furthermore, we need to remind ourselves that grammar teaching is part of the communicative approach in classroom foreign language learning. The research-based knowledge we have on the place of grammar in language teaching and learning does back up our intuition that variation is beneficial.

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