SHOULD GRAMMAR BE TAUGHT TO ESL LEARNERS? IF ‘YES’ HOW SHOULD IT BE TAUGHT?
Some English language teachers believe that grammar should be taught as a
set of rules to be memorized, practiced, and followed. Others argue that
grammar instruction should be tailor-made to meet the needs of students and
matched to the purpose of the user.
How important is grammar? Can ESL learners learn English effectively without being taught the grammar of the language? As teachers of English can we assume that prescriptive or descriptive approaches are singularly effective?
Professor S Mohanraj
The topic for discussion this time centers around the teaching of grammar.
This is a subject that has been discussed inconclusively since time
immemorial. However, this does not make the discussion any redundant
today. Here are some of my views, once again let me say these are my stray
Grammar teaching became a centre of controversy after the coining of the
terms ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ grammars. Can we really have completely descriptive grammars? Any grammar by definition needs to be prescriptive, for it is a set of rules. If we accept this premise, I am also sure all of you agree with me that some grammar needs to be taught.
If we need to teach grammar, which grammar should we teach and how should we teach it are the two moot questions.
Grammar has a sentence as its unit of analysis. A sentence for analysis in
grammar is often decontextualised. Such sentences do not carry any meaning and they are analysed merely from point of view of structures. In other words they are not understood in terms of situations in which they might acquire a different meaning.
It would therefore be best to think of teaching grammar in context. Language can be perceived as performing a set of social functions. We need to negotiate these functions in order to live. Each situation demands not one
structure but a cluster of structure to negotiate. These structures can be
put together and made into a bunch or cluster, and it is possible for the same
structure to exist in more than one cluster and perform different functions.
By doing this how do learners benefit? Do they get confused? In fact,
learners tend to associate a group of structures with a function and the new
language they are learning will acquire a realistic dimension. They would be
able to compare their own language with the new language and understand
that there is a lot of similarities in the functions the two languages perform.
This also offers confidence.
Secondly, as the structures get repeated in different functions, the learning
gets reinforced in new ways. The learners will realise that as in their mother
tongues the same structure (read sentence) can have more than one meaning
and use. This develops a healthy attitude among the learners.
If the teacher can read a lesson, and find out the various structures used in
the lesson in relation to a context or a function that these structures perform,
and relate it to learners life, that would be the best method of teaching
grammar. A transformation exercise, filling the blanks, etc which are
conventional exercises have their place in learning. But being able to use
language in appropriate contexts has a greater value.
What I have said here may sound idealistic. But there is no harm giving it a try.
Do you agree with Professor Mohanraj’s views on grammar teaching? You are welcome to respond to his views.
Expert Comment 1 :
The level of the learner matters
This is with reference to Prof. Mohanraj’s views on grammar teaching. I agree
with Prof. Mohanraj that teaching structures as rules to be blindly followed is
what is popularly understood as teaching of grammar and that we need to
relate grammar teaching to the social functions of structures.
However, I think there are some important points which we need to pay
attention to when considering teaching of grammar. We need to extend our
concept of what constitutes grammar. Grammar is the underlying organization of thought structures. It is the way our intentions are realized in choosing certain words, arranging them in certain orders.
Therefore, once we begin from our intentions and how to link them to actual
language bits. We are learning how to use grammar. There will be many
grammars. How does the teacher select which one is to be used? It is here
that the level of the learner is important.
At a young age, when students from class 1 to 4 learn English, explicit
teaching of ‘rules’ would be irrelevant. Stories with questions and answers,
simple descriptions, beginnings and conclusions are the best way students can be helped to internalize the linking between intentions and language.
At a later level, performing various tasks useful in school life may be
considered to be important. There will be some parts of the organization that
will be highlighted and some might not be so useful. But helping learners to
perform these tasks through easy to break down steps is a sure way of
enabling them to use grammar of communication.