In a previous blog I suggested that many teachers do either too much grammar or too little, and asked what the reasons might be. Here are some thoughts of my own.

Reasons for teaching too much grammar.

 1. Because it's there. The coursebook or the syllabus has a comprehensive set of structural topics, and teachers may feel they have to cover everything. So lots of class time gets used up in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to get students using all these structures correctly, and there isn't much time left for anything else. The result: students are doing grammar instead of learning English.

2. It's tidy. Vocabulary is a great big disorganised muddle. Functions, can-do lists, skills and strategies are all messy. Pronunciation is tidy but very hard to teach. That leaves grammar: a limited and comforting set of (relatively) neat and to some extent teachable rules and examples. And some grammar, even in English, can be laid out in tables, which often appeals to the pedagogic mind.

3. It's testable. It's very satisfying to spend your time teaching what can be tested and then testing what you've taught. There's an agreeable symmetry about the whole operation. Why do anything else?

4. It makes people feel secure. In the jungle of language learning, grammar rules shine out like traffic lights or street lamps, giving a reassuring sense of control, of knowing where you're going. There's nothing wrong with making people feel secure, of course, provided they can carry over their security into doing other things.

5. 'It formed my character.'  Many teachers have reached their present status by passing exams which required considerable knowledge of grammar; they may naturally feel that this knowledge has contributed importantly to making them the splendid people they are today. Unselfishly, they do their best to pass on this valuable gift to their students. All the time. For a minority of teachers, indeed, grammar is all they know, so grammar is naturally all their students learn.

6. 'The backbone of the language.' A not uncommon feeling: that the grammatical system is the backbone of the language, and must be mastered if learners are to speak and write effectively. Actually, 'system' is a rather misleading metaphor, suggesting that the different aspects of grammar are closely linked, so that if one of them doesn't work the 'system' breaks down. Not so: you can get all your articles wrong and it doesn't affect your use of tenses at all. 

7. Power. Some teachers, unfortunately, like power. And teachers get power from knowing more than their students. But in this internet age, teachers may well have students who know trendy vocabulary that they don't. And if you are a non-native speaker, you may have an irritating student whose pronunciation is better than yours. But you are the only person in the classroom who knows what the past perfect progressive passive is. Stick to grammar and your dominance is assured.

Reasons for not teaching enough grammar

1. Theoretical bias A: 'no-interface'. As one or two people have pointed out, teachers may be influenced by SLA theories which downplay the need to teach grammar systematically. For instance, it has been asserted by Krashen and others that learning grammar consciously has no significant effect on real acquisition. This extreme view is no longer taken seriously by many applied linguists, but one still hears some teachers parroting the doctrine that 'comprehensible input is all that is needed'.

2. Theoretical bias B: 'focus on form'. This more recent and moderate view asserts that grammar teaching may be effective, but only in the context of communicative activity, involving brief episodes of 'focus on form' and 'noticing'. Systematic syllabus-based teaching grammar teaching, on the other hand, is bad.  This view, in my opinion, is based on some very questionable hypotheses.

3. Theoretical bias C: 'grammar comes free with vocabulary' (the lexical approach). Well, small children certainly detect and acquire the grammatical patterns of their mother tongues by unconscious analysis of the lexical input – an amazing feat. But unlike small children, not many second-language learners have 20,000 hours' or so input to work with. And even those who do – long-term immigrants – don't seem to get all their grammar right without help.

4. 'My students don't need grammar – they just want to communicate.' If this means they only want a modest level of accuracy, fine. But even a modest level of accuracy – without which communication is problematic – requires a command of some grammar, and some of this will need to be taught.

5. 'Why bother? They still go on making mistakes.' Well, of course they do. If you water your flowers, not all of them will grow. But stopping watering is not a constructive response to the problem.

6. The teacher doesn't like grammar. Very well, but if you're not interested in how language works, perhaps you're in the wrong business. People who aren't interested in how cars work shouldn't become motor mechanics.

7. The teacher doesn't know any grammar. Sadly, this is sometimes the case. See comment on 6, above. If you don't know where Brazil is, don't teach geography; if you don't know what a relative clause is, don't teach English.

What we call 'grammar' is a lot of different things, and we need to avoid generalisations. In any foreign language, some of the grammar can be picked up without instruction, some of it can only be learnt with the help of instruction, and some of it probably can't be fully acquired at all by most learners. Some points of grammar matter a lot; some don't matter much; it may be hard to decide which. (In the words of the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska: 'I'm no longer sure that what is important is more important than what is not'.)

 How much of a language course should be devoted to grammar? This depends on a large number of factors: the students' level and prior knowledge, their purposes in learning the language, the time available, how much of the language they get free from their mother tongue, and all sorts of other things. But, to attempt a generalisation: I would be uneasy, in any class above beginners' level, if a teacher was spending much more than a quarter of his/her time on grammar. And I would be equally uneasy, in most situations, if the teacher was not providing information and practice on high-priority grammatical topics. 

Comments, questions and disagreement welcome.


Michael's now finished his period as our Guest Writer - many thanks to all of you who contributed to the discussion on his blog.