While lots of learners indeed expect to be taught grammar, and while some of them may even learn most grammar rules by heart, it is no guarantee for their being able to use English, to speak fluently, to read well and to understand real speech. It is rather like teaching reading without pronunciation, or vice versa. If they master one skill only, they will be lost. I would stick to a blended approach. First, present, produce, practice; then, test, teach, test; then, set some tasks. Not necessarily in that order. And then language is supposed to emerge naturally.
My experience shows that the methods of teaching grammar, as well as any other aspect, largely depend on the age and level of students. For instance, let us look at the article. Primary school pupils, beginner level, find it hard to understand the concept itself, because there is no such thing in their native language! Why should a short word be placed in front of a noun? Why does it precede some of the nouns, but not all of them? Why are there exceptions to the rule? Children aged eight or nine cannot yet grasp the very idea of such a fundamental difference between the languages. Senior students may already have some wrong patterns fixed in their memories, or they may consider the article to be not very important. If they do not use any articles, they are still understood, most of the time anyway. The exceptions make it harder for any age and level to comprehend the rules. Town and city names are used without any articles, right? What about The Hague? Why the Hague? I find it useful to simply tell younger students that a certain example is an exception, and cite an exception to any grammar rule from their mother tongue. With older children and adults, I suggest that they conduct a short web research, and find out the answers to any such questions. The Hague, in fact, is a neat topic for a short linguistic report.
The indefinite article is etymologically connected to the word one. Thus, we may tell our students that it is a tradition, that in the Middle Ages people liked to tell each other that they wanted to give or take just one item, or that they saw just one person. One boy, one girl, one teacher, one classroom. We can make younger children practice, placing an indefinite article in front of every noun they manage to produce.
The definite article, the, is etymologically connected to the pronoun that; when we use it, we want to define something. To help students understand and remember the concept, we may use a few simple exercises and tests. I showed my pupils a pen, and illustrated the difference between the two articles. Then I suggested that all of them practiced with any object. At first, each student took any one thing; then, they defined the thing, described it, using a definite article. They could see the difference between one/any, and the/that.
I give you a pen (= one pen).
The pen I give you is red.
The Guinness Book of Records tells us that THE is the most often used word in the English language. I always tell my students about it, and remind them not to lose this very important word.
When I was a university student, one of my teachers liked to reiterate her favourite principle:
A foreign language is learned by heart. Yes, it is not bad if your students can reproduce all the grammar rules and give textbook examples. However, it does not mean that they can now become free of grammar mistakes. How do we persuade them to pay attention, to remember the articles? We can open up any book, listen to any dialogue, to a song or watch a video clip. They will see and hear at once that the articles are really an integral part of speech.
For a number of years, I used to think that the article was such a difficult grammar theme for those students who had no experience with it, because there were none in their native language. Recently, I heard this wonderful phrase from an Italian speaker: “Somebody has birthday!” But there are articles in Italian! So the problem arose because the person was speaking English, a foreign language. It showed me that the rules which work in one language cannot be used in another one.
To sum it up, I believe in an integrated approach to teaching and learning grammar. Use everything that works, be versatile. I usually succeed in that.
Nina MK, Ph.D.