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TEACHING GRAMMAR

WHY? WHAT? HOW?


Associate Professor Titela Vilceanu, PhD

In the traditional model of ELT, grammar played a central role to the detriment of the
other language components. The overriding importance attached to grammar was based
on the assumption that accuracy (grammatical correctness) secured successful
communication. The belief was challenged in the early 1970s with the realization that
grammar knowledge was only one component of the communicative competence
(alongside discourse competence, sociolinguistic competence and strategic competence).
Consequently, grammar teaching was almost abandoned; it is only recently that
grammar has regained its rightful place in an integrated approach to language teaching.
The question still remains WHAT to teach (what grammar items) and HOW to teach
grammar in an effective and efficient way.
The answer to the first question (selection of grammar structures to be taught)
points out to compliance with two criteria:
1. Comprehensibility – teachers should teach the functional load of grammar, i.e.
structures which enable meaning understanding in a communicative situation: basic verb
forms; affirmative, interrogative and negative patterns, tenses and modals, etc.
2. Acceptability – it is equated to an adequate level of correctness and naturalness
of the linguistic output.
With reference to HOW to teach grammar, we mention two lines of approach:
1. form-focused instruction (highly valued in the traditional model) – learners’
needs are pre-defined in the grammatical syllabus. Admittedly, grammar teaching reflects
the typical classroom use of language, out of context in a rather non-authentic way;
focuses on well-formed sentences (which are not lengthy), on language output as
evidence of language learning; relies heavily on explicit knowledge and on controlled
practice.
2. “fluency-first” pedagogy/ meaning-focused interaction (contemporary

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approach) – learners’ needs are assessed based on their performance during fluency
activities. It underlies the natural use of language in real-like communication settings;
relies on implicit knowledge and on automaticity (internalization of rules); activates
learners’ strategic competence (situation management by paraphrasing, reorganization,
remedial work), etc.

The typology of grammar activities falls into three broad types:


1. controlled/mechanical practice (for example, repetition and substitution drills).
2. semi-controlled/contextualized/ meaningful practice: students are encouraged to
relate form to meaning by showing how the grammar structures are used in real-life
communication. For example, in order to practice the use of prepositions to describe
locations of places, students are given a street map with various buildings identified in
different locations. They are also given a list of prepositions such as across from, on the
corner of, near, on, next to. They then have to answer questions such as “Where is the
book shop? Where is the café?, etc. The practice is now meaningful because they have to
respond according to the location of places on the map.
3. free/communicative practice (learners use the structures in authentic
communication while paying attention to this rule-governed behaviour). For example,
students are asked to draw a map of their neighborhood and answer questions about the
location of different places, such as the nearest bus stop, the nearest café, etc.
Globally, grammar activities display the following features:
1. specific grammar structures are in focus and learners are provided with explicit
information about the rule;
2. learners are asked to use the structures in sentences of their own;
3. learners have to opportunity to use the structures repeatedly during the English
classes (there is need for reinforcement and for building up on prior knowledge);
4. learners are expected to understand the rule (via consciousness-raising) use the
grammatical structures in a successful way;
5. there is feedback on the learners’ performance (they get a sense of their
performance).
Controlling factors in teaching grammar (principles)

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1. constant exposure to language at an appropriate level of difficulty (roughly-
tuned input – the input is slightly above the learners’ level of proficiency).
2. building of meaning-focused interaction.
3. opportunities for learners to identify and direct attention to grammar
structure form, semantics or meaning and pragmatic conditions of their use before
and while actually using the language1.

To sum up, communication cannot take place in the absence of structure, or


grammar, a set of shared assumptions about how language works, along with a
willingness of participants to cooperate in the negotiation of meaning. Hence, the goal of
grammar teaching is to enable learners to internalize rules so as to become efficient in
communication. Furthermore, communicative fluency does not imply loss of grammatical
accuracy, instead they are interrelated.

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For example:
- form of phrasal verbs: they are two-part verbs comprising a verb and a particle (e.g. to look up) or
a verb, a particle and a preposition (e.g. to keep up with). Phrasal verbs are transitive or intransitive. A
distinctive feature of phrasal verbs is that in many cases the particle can be separated from the verb by
an object (e.g. He looked the word up in the dictionary).
- meaning of phrasal verbs: many of them are multiple meaning structures – e.g. to put up: literal
meaning and figurative meaning – to stay at a hotel, etc.
- pragmatic use of phrasal verbs: they mostly characterize the informal style.