11th August 2020
After 20 years of teaching English in Asia, my thoughts on teaching grammar have swung. When I started my teaching career, I honestly thought that we should not teach grammar to EFL/ESOL students. After all, many native speakers do not know grammar, so why would we expect our EFL/ESOL students to know it let alone be able to explain it. Surely, we are not expecting language learners to be linguists who are able to describe the technicalities of the language they are learning? What learners need is to be able to communicate and to do that they need an extensive vocabulary as words are the foundation of language. If you think of a brick wall, with each brick representing a word, the bigger the wall, the easier it will be to communicate. Right?
However, the longer I taught, the more I became aware of how important grammar is. When I first started teaching in Indonesia, I struggled to learn the local language. No matter how many words I knew, I couldn’t work out how to put them together.
One of the first ESL lessons I ever had to teach was on question formation. When I sat down to plan my lesson I had a lightbulb moment – there are no auxiliary verbs in Indonesian. It was at this point that I realised that I had been trying to directly translate from English to Indonesian word for word in my own language learning. This made me wonder how I could teach question formation to my learners when there are such big grammatical differences between their first language and English. It was then that I made possibly the biggest mistake of all by deciding to teach a lesson purely on questions without including how the students needed to answer them.
Moving forward a few years, I started working in Singapore where the students use English in their everyday lives. Suddenly, fluency was not an issue, and neither was vocabulary. Initially, I was flummoxed - what was I supposed to teach them? This was when I started to do some research into typical language errors for Singaporeans. At this time, I also had a lot of contact with parents who all wanted their children to improve their grammar. This made me question the best way forward in teaching my learners.
At this time, the organisation that I worked for had designed a syllabus which complemented the national curriculum with a focus on skills teaching. While there is a huge focus on accuracy in the school exams in Singapore, there is very little focus on how to achieve it. I then embarked on a mission to improve my learners’ noticing skills with almost every activity we did. Learner training was key, and I realized at this point that it was much easier for my learners to correct language than it was for them to explain it.
After all this time, I am now a proponent of teaching grammar but there is no one size that fits all approach. After all, going back to the brick analogy, you cannot have a wall of bricks without the cement to stick it together.
My biggest takeaways over the years are:
1. You cannot directly translate word for word between two languages.
2. It is not realistic to expect students to explain grammar, but they do need to be able to understand and use it.
3. Context is key. Language learners need to know what situations they need to use specific grammatical structures.
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