Experiences of an English Language Teacher

The Foundation of Grammar: A Podcast Interview

On the 3rd of November, I participated with an ELTChat discussion on the teaching of grammar via Twitter.  For those unfamiliar, there is a regular discussion on Twitter for EFL Professionals which range on a variety of issues.  Some of the topics this week include:
  1. Teaching qualifications – Are they necessary? What role does experience play?
  2. Is reading aloud in the classroom (by students or teachers) a waste of time?
  3. How can we help EFL learners avoid their mother tongue influenced errors?
  4. What is fluency?
  5. Is TEFL, TESOL etc. a profession or an industry?
 Those participating are able to vote for the issue that they wish to discuss.  Votes are counted and the first choice is discussed at 9pm GMT, whilst the second choice is discussed at 3pm GMT (both on the same day; with discussions organised each Wednesday with topics changed each week).  The aim of the session is to exchange ideas, opinions and experiences in 140 characters on Twitter.  The ELTChat session is followed using the hashtag #ELTChat on Twitter.  Nonetheless, as mentioned previously I participated in an ELTChat discussion on the teaching of grammar.

Some of the highlights of the discussion “What is your approach to teaching grammar?” includes the following comments:

olafelch: Given the rise of the Lexical Approach, has grammar teaching been made redundant? #ELTchat

efl101: is it possible to ‘learn’ grammar or do you have to absorb it over time and exposure? #eltchat

Marisa_C: There are many arguments against teaching grammar items just as many as FOR teaching them #ELTchat

rliberni: I don’t teach ‘grammar’ lessons but use the grammar to underpin certain language notions or functions #eltchat

DrSarahEaton: Grammar provides structure and order. Communicative lang teaching provides creativity and spontaneity. Students need both. #ELTchat

englishraven: I must admit, teaching unplugged has resulted (for me) in very different grammar teaching compared to my CB days. #ELTChat

Some of the quotes above offer some ‘food for thought’ on the subject of teaching and learning grammar and the whole transcript is available to view from this grammar discussion.  I was honoured to be asked to join a podcast to discuss some issues that I also raised during the ELTChat discussion on 10 November 2010.  The podcast is available to listen via this link.  Some of the issues raised during the podcast discussion with Shelly, included a form of uncovered grammar, the lexical approach and some ideas for teaching grammar.

Grammar which is taught explicitly and prescriptively to learners is, as Thornbury suggests, more commonly taught in ‘a series of items or points‘ (2005:3) and most grammar or coursebooks ‘comprise a hodgepodge of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ about sentence structure, word meaning and word usage’ (Börjars & Burridge 2010:5).  Personally, I refer to this structure of grammar teaching as the ‘fast-food of grammar’; like most junk-food, you forget you have eaten it 30 minutes later.  Nonetheless, why teach grammar?  Grammar is known to provide some foundation for a language or some structure.  Scrivener (2010) highlights that teachers are frequently presenting new grammar items to students and these are ‘often the heart of language lessons’ (Underhill in Scrivener; pg. 6).  This suggests that the current opinion of grammar is:
  1. Grammar is the glue that holds language together.
  2. Grammar is the engine that drives language.
  3. Grammar is a map of the language.
  4. Grammar is hard-wired in the brain.
  5. Grammar is both particles and waves.
  6. Grammar is the highway code of language. (Thornbury 2005:2)
Thus, grammar taught in the classroom could be considered Standard English whereby the rules taught in the classroom provide some ‘map of the language’.  For example, the grammar that is taught in the classroom ‘is language doing the right thing – language that wipes its feet before it enters a room and that leaves the before it breaks wind!’ (Börjars & Burridge 2010:5).  Nonetheless, the focus of one point in my ELTChat discussion was to introduce or encourage debate about the area of teaching grammar implicitly.  The teaching of a grammar point may be the aim of the class but rather than telling students explicitly that “we are going to study the past simple form”, the teacher focuses upon a process of ‘growth and unfolding’ in grammar teaching.  For example, I prepared a topic on the ‘past simple’ form and rather than mention to students that we were studying this, I focused upon the topic; in this case about Heath Ledger.

To begin with, students were required to work in groups and decode question forms.

Once students had worked out the question forms (all being in the past simple form), they were required to do a reading relay and find the relevant information about Heath Ledger around the classroom.

The aim of the lesson was first uncover a grammar point implicitly and second get students confident and relaxed when reading the past simple form.  It was successful with various classes that I taught and all students were able to work together to get the questions decoded.  Instead of working through explicit gap-fill or verb conjugations based exercises, the aim of the lesson is to relax students and make them aware of lexical patterns.  Another point that was raised by Twitterers was the Lexical Approach.

The Lexical Approach, suggests that ‘language consists not of traditional grammar and vocabulary but often of multi-word prefabricated chunks’ (Lewis 1997:3 in Harmer 2010:74).  This teaching approach has emerged from the development and implementation of Corpus in the classroom (Thornbury 2006:119).  Lexical collocations, chunks, phrases, etc is available to view via the use of a Corpus and lessons ‘based on these high-frequency words and patterns is arguably more useful to learners than a list of grammar structures’ (Thornbury 2006:119).  One danger of following the Lexical Approach is ‘we are left with … having to learn an endless succession of phrase-book utterances’ (Harmer 2010:75).

Finally, I would recommend all practising EFL Teachers to participate in the weekly ELTChat discussion on Twitter.  It is really an opportunity to share ideas, post questions, encourage debate, etc on a range of topics which you, the teacher, can vote for.  I would personally like to thank those that make the ELTChat possible and for Shelly interviewing me for the podcast.  Keep up the good work.

Further Reading
Börjars K. & Burridge K. 2010 Introducing English Grammar 2nd Edition London, Hodder Education
Harmer J. 2010 The Practice of English Language Teaching 4th Edition Harlow, Pearson Longman
Meddings L. & Thornbury S. 2009 Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching Surrey, DELTA Publishing
Parrott M. 2006 Grammar for English Language Teachers 11th Edition Cambridge, CUP
Scrivener J. 2010 Teaching English Grammar: What to Teach and How to Teach it Oxford, Macmillan Education
Thornbury S. 2006 An A-Z of ELT Oxford, Macmillan Education
Thornbury S. 2005 Uncovering Grammar Oxford, Macmillan Education

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for these fantastic resources! It was great interviewing you! Thank you for sharing.

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