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To textbook or not to textbook? That is the grammar question.
In fact, I often explain to my students that the keys to a language are grammar and vocabulary: knowing the rules to make meaning and knowing the words to express meaning. Having a large vocabulary is of no avail if a learner cannot piece words together to make meaning; TADA, here enters grammar. As Ellis (2006, pg. 101) states, “Grammar has held and continues to hold a central place in language teaching.” So then how do we teach it effectively in English class?
Deductive grammar learning vs. inductive grammar learning
The method of teaching grammar has been a subject of debate for scholars (Ellis, 2006), and Hird (2015) wrote a wonderfully concise post analyzing whether grammar was best taught deductively or inductively. His piece is very relevant for our discussion here as we investigate if it is better to have a textbook driven grammar syllabus or if grammar is best taught by alternative methods. To answer this, we need to revisit two fundamental approaches to teaching grammar: a deductive vs. inductive approach.
Deductive grammar learning can be best described as learning the formal rules of grammar explicitly, focusing on form and accuracy, whereas learning grammar inductively is more concerned with learners “figuring out” the rules. As a teacher, you may be guided by a particular policy set by your administrator(s), or you may have more liberty to choose whichever approach you feel is most appropriate for your learners. In any case, it’s important to identify what the strengths and weaknesses are of each to determine which approach works best in your particular context.
Which grammar approach is the best way to learn English?
While coursebooks may include some variety of deductive and inductive grammar activities (Hird, 2015), the main role of a coursebook is to present rules, follow them up with examples, and provide practical activities, and thus they adopt a deductive approach by design. Deductive approaches are important because they provide much needed structure, especially for lower level learners, and serve as a reference to which students can turn back to anytime they need to remember what needs to be done for a particular grammatical structure. This is where coursebook driven syllabi are advantageous and provide a structured approach to learning important grammar rules. The problem is, they’re also limited. In my experience, sometimes simply plodding through the textbook presenting grammar rules just doesn’t work. A particular grammar structure, for example, may not exist in the students’ native language. In instances such as these, it may not be fitting to just stick to the textbook if it doesn’t allow space for students to explore the language first, before learning the rule. It might become a source of confusion (and therefore frustration!). What I tend to do when I believe a grammar structure might be difficult is I adopt an inductive approach and present the grammar in real-life, tangible contexts. From these examples, we help facilitate students’ discovery of the language structures and investigate what’s going on. The only problem with this is we can’t focus exclusively on inductive grammar approaches because they may not provide enough structure for students, especially when they are formally tested focusing on form and accuracy.
Moving outside the textbook
There is a lot of grammar knowledge that can be learned inductively, and there are tons of internet resources that teachers can use to “show” grammar in action. For example, if I’m teaching a grammar lesson on the present continuous (also called the present progressive), and the textbook doesn’t introduce the concept in a way that I think is digestible for my students, I might have them watch a short YouTube clip, perhaps of a busy airport. Activating students’ prior knowledge of traveling (assuming most of them have indeed traveled!), I’d then discuss what some of the people are doing in the clip. From that sequence of discussions, we would extract the grammar rules of present continuous and then return back to the textbook to review the formulation of the rules. So the textbook wouldn’t be totally disregarded but instead serve to reinforce what the students have learned inductively.
Final verdict: Are the textbook and grammar syllabus the end all be all? Should teachers completely do away with grammar textbooks? Not exactly. Should teachers follow textbooks to a T? Not always. First, grammar syllabi might be set by program administrators, which might not allow for too much flexibility. Therefore, a teacher should do his/her best to stick to what has been set and try to supplement or adapt accordingly. For contexts where teachers are afforded greater flexibility, then each teacher should evaluate how well the textbook serves the needs of the students. In cases where the textbook doesn’t serve those needs or presents grammar points in a way that isn’t entirely digestible, then I suggest utilizing alternative methods to introduce grammar in the class, and this is best done inductively.
Textbooks are set and fixed, but language (and to some extent grammar) is not. While there are a number of steadfast rules, language is dynamic and constantly changing as we evolve and develop new technologies. We should allow flexibility so that we can adapt accordingly.
Ellis, R. (2006). Current issues in the teaching of grammar: An SLA perspective. TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), 83-107.
Hird, J. (2015). Inductive and deductive grammar teaching: what is it, and does it work? English Language Teaching Global Blog. Oxford University Press. Retrieved August 10, 2018 from https://oupeltglobalblog.com/2015/04/24/inductive-and-deductive-grammar-teaching/#comments.