Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)
Introduction – A sense of relief
At the weekend, I attended a talk by Michael Swan entitled “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” at an event hosted by ELTA Rhine in Cologne. The talk was not just interesting and informative, but gave me an enormous sense of relief. Basically because he argued in favour of explicit grammar teaching. I realise that this will not bring a sense of relief to all EFL teachers, and in some it may even incite mild panic! But let me explain. For a long time (for me it seems a long time, in actual terms its been a few decades), the explicit teaching of grammar has (had) been out of fashion, as other aspects of language have come into the focus of ELT writers and teachers. Particularly Task-Based Learning and the Lexical Approach are largely against the presentation of grammar rules. Many teachers also understand Communicative Language Teaching to have little place for the explicit teaching of grammar. In my teaching context (in the English Department at a German university), we actually teach a whole separate module called “Grammar”, more recently called “Advanced Grammar”. Yes, it’s been pretty standard in Germany for the whole time that other ELT fashions have come and gone. For most of the seven years that I’ve been working here, I’d been led to feel almost a sense of shame that we were teaching this class – seeing the horror on colleagues’ faces when I’ve mentioned it at conferences and the like. Most of their responses began with ‘but’: But what about Krashen’s theories? But that’s not very communicative! But lexis is what helps learners to create meaning! But fluency is more important!
At the start of my teaching career, I was, I suppose understandably, rather unsure of myself. Actually, a few times I probably agreed, embarrassed, with the criticisms, and extracted myself from responsibility by blaming this ‘poor’ syllabus decision on the institution; putting myself in the role of dutiful pawn in the great game of ELT. Over the years, though, I’ve grown and developed as a teacher, and my sense of confidence in my teaching decisions and practices has matured. This has occasionally meant having to defend my explicit grammar teaching to a few, what I would call, hard-core TBL, Lexical Approach or extreme Communicative Approach advocates. That’s OK: I can handle it better now than I could in my early twenties when I started teaching. Nonetheless, you can imagine my relief to hear from Michael Swan, and indeed whole host of other researchers in this area, that teaching grammar is OK: Not only OK, but actually rather effective. (See published research evidence below.) Phew! Of course I’m not, and I don’t suppose anyone is, claiming that explicit grammar teaching without any communicative practice is a good idea, nor that teaching grammar rules openly always ‘works’ 100% of the time (but then, honestly, can we really expect that of any method/approach?!). But, I wholeheartedly agree with the quote above from Michael Swan.
So that explains my sense of relief. But ‘teaching grammar’ is still a very broad term that barely brings us any closer to knowing what exactly to do in the classroom. I’m also aware that some teachers, maybe mostly the native English-speakers that have ‘fallen’ into a teaching job, may not be so relieved to hear that grammar is back on the menu. Maybe because they themselves have little formal grasp on English grammar (for this there is a simple cure; read a grammar book! See below for my recommendations), or maybe because they are unsure how to translate ‘teaching grammar’ into practical classroom activities. The rest of this post will therefore deal with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of grammar teaching; in a bid to remove any impending sense of panic from other teachers who are less used to and less comfortable with the explicit teaching of grammar rules in the ELT (or any modern language) classroom.
What? ~ It depends.
Of course, teaching ‘all’ the rules of English grammar would, for a number of reasons beyond the scope of this post, be an impossible task; and anyway a rather ineffective approach. And so we need to select which aspects of English grammar to include in our syllabi. I believe there is no fits-all answer to the question of what to teach; it will unavoidably depend on the learners and their needs and goals. It depends. I actually don’t like this answer to questions, and I’m sure many learners don’t either. Alas all EFL classrooms and learners are different, and so it depends. But what does it depend on? Well Michael Swan suggests the following selection criteria, which do fit to my experience and understanding of our profession:
– frequency and scope
Just a brief clarification here, to ensure we all understand the same things when reading these criteria. ‘Comprehensibility’ refers to the question of whether not having mastered this language point could lead to misunderstanding or lack of understanding. For example, the sentence *I start school last week* does not follow standard English grammar patterns, but is clearly comprehensible. In contrast (and I’m borrowing this example from Michael Swan), *John didn’t told about the meeting* is more difficult to de-code, as it could mean either that John WASN’T told about the meeting, or that he didn’t TELL us about it. As this mistake could lead to a lack of comprehension, it would be advisable to teach/revise the points of the passive, or the simple past in negative statements. ‘Acceptability’ looks at other people’s reactions to what a learner says. How negatively will a learner be judged who says *I start school last week*? Phrased more positively, how accepted would this non-standard form be? (Again, the answer I suggest is ‘it depends’ – on your learners’ context, goals, etc; so individual answers all around, I’m afraid!) Note that I’ve used the same example twice here, in order to highlight the discrepancies that may occur between the comprehensibility and acceptability criteria – more on that later.
Moving on, ‘frequency’ and ‘scope’ are rather self-explanatory. The frequency with which a learner is going to encounter or need to use a certain structure should help us judge whether to teach it or not. The ‘scope’ of a grammar rule describes how much of the language it helps to explain. A clear example here, again showing how these two criteria may also be in conflict, is the word ‘children’. ‘Children’ is a rather frequently used word. However, the rule of making irregular plurals with -ren does not cover many items (I can’t actually think of any other right now!), so teaching it as a rule would seem less worthwhile. And finally, teachability and learnability refer simply to how straightforward it is to teach or learn an aspect of English grammar. Again, it depends.
Clearly, if an item impairs comprehension, negatively affects acceptability, and has a high frequency and broad scope, as well as being fairly straightforward to teach, then we should go head an teach it. One thing Michael Swan didn’t touch on in his talk is how to make a decision based on these criteria when the details conflict, so I’d like to discuss that briefly here. We’ve seen that the same sentence may be perfectly comprehensible, but not particularly acceptable. And that the high frequency of an item may not mean that the rule has much scope. In this case, I would advice teachers to weight the criteria based on their knowledge of the learners’ context and goals. This will include considerations of who the learners are likely to interact with in English, what kinds of topics they are likely to speak/talk about, the format of the communication (formal written, informal spoken, etc), and the likely goals of that interaction (purely communicating information, making a high-stakes sale, etc). Teachers may also consider the kinds of input their learners are likely to be exposed to, and potential interference pitfalls caused by the learners’ L1. That said, I would say that comprehensibility has to be criteria numero uno in any case.
If we have, then, agreed that we are going to teach grammar, and have selected points of grammar to be taught, the next step is to think about what we are actually going to do in the classroom in order to teach these points.
How? ~ Just three Exes
Michael Swan said in his talk that he sees grammar teaching as consisting of “three exes”. Not to worry, he’s not talking about broken partnerships, but rather EXplanation, EXamples, and EXercises. Now, you may think this sounds suspiciously like a re-worded recipe for a PPP lesson (Presentation, Practice, Production – which was the standard lesson structure taught on most preparatory TEFL certification courses for a long time), but fear not – his clarification highlights the input of ‘examples’ and ‘explanation’ as less valuable in grammar teaching than the ‘output’ from exercises. Nonetheless, they are not unimportant, and so we should still make them as effective as possible. Note that I think the order of explanations and examples should be seen flexibly – in many cases a more inductive approach (examples first) may be more appropriate, though that is a subject for another post!
Explanations, according to Swan and I’m inclined to agree, should be economical, take one step at a time, be clear to the learner, use visual support, and possibly even the learners’ L1. I suppose only the last point there might cause discussion. To my mind, though, it is logical that a grammar explanation in English may make use of language that is above the learners’ current level and therefore be more confusing than it is helpful. If the teacher is able to speak the L1 of their learners, then this can be a simpler and more efficient way of explaining the rule. Of course, not all teachers have this luxury, but where appropriate I’d be all in favour of brief grammar explanations in the L1 for lower-level students.
There’s nothing really surprising in the characteristics Swan says good examples should have, although I find it good for us teachers to refresh these things in our minds, particularly just before embarking on a new term and a new “Advanced Grammar” course! Good examples should be realistic, memorable (perhaps through humour), in context, and taken from various topic areas/text genres. I don’t know about you, but I find looking for or inventing examples that fit all of these criteria actually rather time-consuming. And I sometimes feel that teachers neglect this part of their preparation, perhaps because of the time it takes, or perhaps other teachers are really able to spontaneously create realistic, memorable examples from various topic areas in context when they reach this point in their lesson. Lucky them! – I know I’m not! There are several potential sources of example sentences, but sometimes the examples they provide just do not fulfil these criteria satisfactorily (for example, corpora/concordances, dictionaries, grammar references or course books). I find the best examples by just going about my every day life attentively. Paying attention to the structures and language my colleagues and I use to talk to each other, to email, to make posters, to recount anecdotes, and so on – that’s realistic language in a context our students are familiar with, with a range of genres and topics, and often rather memorable due to our humour! Or what about news articles or websites you read, radio broadcasts you listen to, TV programmes you watch – all of these can be sources of interesting and effective example sentences. Maybe I can mention just a couple of lessons I’ve recently planned: A lesson on simple present/progressive – I used a blurb from a novel found on Amazon. A lesson on referring to the future – I used an episode of “Tomorrow’s Word” (BBC).
Ok, so once we’ve got our explanation neatly formulated, and our examples duly noted, we need to move on to the most important part of the lesson (I hope no disagreement here?): the output, or exercises. I have to say, Sorry Mr Swan, but I’m not keen on the term ‘exercises’ here – although it fits nicely in the “three exes” category. For me, and I checked with my colleagues that I’m not alone, the word ‘exercises’ is perhaps somewhat misleading, conjuring up images of monotonous gap-fill or sentence transformation worksheets, maybe some text-based or listening tasks if we’re lucky. This is all reminiscent of the second P in a PPP lesson; not particularly exciting, and not really the kind of thing I believe to be the most effective for learners to really make use of the new language. For me, the third P – Production – is more the output we should aim for, as it is most similar to the kinds of things learners will want and need to do in English in the future. Again, though, Michael Swan ‘saves himself’ so to speak, by describing his characteristics of a good ‘exercise’ – and if I understand correctly, he is actually using ‘exercises’ to capture both controlled practice tasks and, even more importantly, freer production and encouraged use of the target structure. His characteristics include the tasks being interesting, empowering, personalised, imaginative, and possibly involving physical activity, visual or audio elements. These tasks should also help learners to connect the grammar point to other aspects of langauge such as vocabulary, skills, pronunciation, and so on. Of course, whether a task is ‘interesting’ etc. will… you guessed it… depend on your learners!
Conclusion – Is it worth the effort?
My assessment of all of this is that explicit grammar teaching is easier said than done. Doing it badly is probably quite straightforward, but then it’s probably not worth the effort. Bearing in mind all of the points and issues discussed here makes explicit grammar teaching a rather time-consuming and preparation-heavy thing to do. So is it worth the effort? I believe so. And I believe that there are plenty of academic studies which support this view. The way I see it, if we don’t bother with grammar teaching, then it definitely can’t work. If we give it a go, then at least it has a chance of working! As always, Michael Swan has expressed this thought slightly more eloquently than I can, so let’s close his words which I used as an opener to this post: Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)
Swan, M., “Teaching Grammar – Does Grammar Teaching work?”, Modern English Teacher, 15/2, 2006.
Swan, M., “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” Talk given at ELTA Rhine, Cologne, on 19th October 2014.
Recommended grammar references for teachers
Carter, R. et al, English Grammar Today: An A-Z of Spoken & Written Grammar (Cambridge: CUP, 2011)
Leech, G., Grammar and the English Verb (Longmann, 2004)
Swan, M., Practical English Usage. (Oxford: O.U.P., 2005)
Research publications on teaching grammar
Gass, S. & L. Selinker. 2008. Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition). New York: Routledge/Taylor.
Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega. 2000. ‘Effectiveness of L2 instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis’. Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.
Spada, N. & Y. Tomita. 2010. ‘Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature: a meta-analysis’. Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.
This blog post waas featured in “My TESOL Daily”: http://paper.li/Stephen_Hofstee/1327126879