Is It Old-fashioned to Teach Grammar?


Teachers know about the importance of functions for meaning and communication, and even some educators focus solely on them leaving grammar aside. So we may wonder if teaching grammar has become old-fashioned. If not, when and how should we teach grammar?

Hooray to grammar!

Grammar is the backbone of English; it is the “sentence-generator device”. The knowledge of grammar helps students to find regularities in the language that will eventually lead them to create more sentences. Therefore, when students learn grammar they will be able to produce language. Grammar also allows students to move from Basic English into more sophisticated English, which is good because we want our students to advance in their knowledge of the language and be able to create longer and more complex texts in the long run.

To acquire or “pick up” the language implies internalising it naturally and developing fluency. Still, during the acquisition process students need grammar notions in order to avoid fossilisation of mistakes, i.e. mistakes that cannot be easily corrected once they become a habit.

Moreover, grammar provides a framework to help students grasp the meaning of sentences. Many learners, especially adults, urge teachers to teach them grammar rules in order to feel more confident.

Beware of grammar!

Grammar is necessary, however bear in mind that if your class is focused mostly on grammar, you run the risk of underestimating meaning and communication. According to Widdowson, we should make a distinction between the concepts of usage and use. Usage refers to the function of a linguistic item as an element in a linguistic system, while use refers to its function as part of a system of communication. For example, we may study the present simple tense as an item of grammar or usage, focusing on its structure and comparing it with other tenses; or we may analyse it in terms of its use to perform communicative acts such as speaking about habits, making descriptions, etc. Therefore, instead of concentrating only on structure and analysing grammatical items in isolation, we should expose students to chunks of meaning such as Excuse me? You’re welcome; Have a nice day! For instance, if we divide the phrase Here you are into its component words, we will miss the meaning of the phrase as a whole in real communication.

How should we teach grammar?

Grammar can be taught either inductively or deductively. Using a deductive method implies giving rules to the students and then letting them analyse and study different examples. Using an inductive method implies presenting learners with various examples and then working out the rule with them, i.e. it entails discovering the rule. While deductive methods are welcomed by adult learners, inductive methods foster more reasoning and participation from children. You should explore what way is the one that suits your class best.

When do we teach grammar?

We should begin with ideas, meanings and functions, and then move towards the notions of grammar that will be required by students to perform communicative tasks later on. Grammatical concepts evolve naturally and effortlessly when the starting point is communication.

To conclude, grammar is worth teaching as long as communication is the engine that puts the class into motion. Selecting the grammar teaching method that is best for you and your class, while keeping the importance of meaning in mind, will help you find a balance between fluency and accuracy.

Aurea Obeso

References

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