Why Teaching Grammar IS Important
Today the tendency is to say, “Forget grammar. Teach the language people speak, and let your students have fun!” I do not agree with this attitude, and I will explain why. A child who goes to live in a foreign country, will learn to speak the language by just listening and interacting with others. His brain is young and powerful enough to pick up the language he is exposed to while respecting all the aspects of this language—grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. If he is young enough, his language acquisition will be perfect. It will not be a whole set of approximations with masses of errors. No, his language will be native-like.
The type of exposure
But a young adult learning English does not always have this language acquisition potential. Moreover, if he is to learn a foreign tongue through schooling in his native country, much depends on the type of exposure he gets. How many hours of teaching will he receive? How many other students will be with him in class? How good is the teacher at making the students speak? Will he be exposed to the language outside of class through radio and television? Will he have an opportunity to speak the language outside of class? What incentives are there for him to learn?
Six hours or less
Now your average student will get about sixty hours of teaching per year over let us say six years. That comes to three hundred and sixty hours at best. But suppose there are thirty students in the class and the teacher speaks at least half of the time, then the total speaking time of the average student will be six hours or less in all over six years. That is not enough to feel at ease in a foreign tongue. Who, among adults, can say they have learned to speak a foreign language with just six hours of training in total—even if it is on a one-to-one basis with a committed teacher?
Adjusting expectations and teaching methods
Now I am not saying it is a hopeless situation. I’m saying that we must adjust our expectations and our teaching methods to concrete possibilities. If a student can manage to make sentences without any major mistakes, respecting tenses and persons, that is already an accomplishment. And if a student understands the syntax, i.e., the linguistic equations or logic behind a language, then he has a good chance of being able to construct sentences others will understand. The better he knows the necessary equations—the grammar of a language—the easier it will be for him to communicate in the language and not be misunderstood.
Mental gym exercises
I have learned several languages on my own by studying grammar and then applying the rules. I generally start with the tenses and the different persons. Once this is clear in my head, I do mental gym exercises to be able to manipulate these tenses and persons using the simplest verbs. After that, I look at structures that translate the type of structures I use in my own language, e.g., “Before doing X, I generally do Y.” “If you do X, you will be able to do Y.” Other important structures are the translations of “going to” and “will have to” plus all the usual ones like “How much does it cost? Where is it? May I do it? Could you please help me?” and so on. Once I have trained myself with oral drills to use these expressions with ease, I can start producing my own sentences.
How we learn a foreign language
How do we speak a language we are just learning? Generally we think ahead in our native language, and then we translate more or less word-for-word with a sort of ticker tape in our heads signaling the words in the target language. When we speak, we choose very simple sentences in our native tongue so that we can use the “building blocks” we have mastered in the new language. If we have not studied grammar, we will be translating word-for-word, and the end result will be far from correct usage—probably pretty incomprehensible language. But if we have assimilated correct building blocks, we just need to place them one after the other using the correct tenses and conjunctions, and we will be understood and even receive compliments on our language skills!
The neccessary linguistic tools
Teachers often say, “I can’t seem to find the topics of conversation that really stimulate my students and make them want to speak.” And they go desperately searching for such topics. I say it is not a matter of finding the ideal subject of conversation. What the students need are the linguistic tools to be able to carry on a conversation in the first place. When they have learned to use language formulas correctly, they will be able to talk about most any subject and enjoy it. I am not saying that teachers must spend all of class time teaching grammar and vocabulary. I just believe you can’t neglect correct usage. If the students work on grammar and vocabulary for twenty minutes during each session, and if they have done exercises at home that you systematically correct using intensive pair work, then the level of their oral expression will increase dramatically.
A digital resource book
I have written a digital resource book for ESL teachers entitled “QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book”. In this book I have put practically all the grammar and vocabulary exercises I used in my course with keys enabling students to correct them in class on their own using pair work techniques. I have also included the listening comprehension cloze exercises that contain many of the expressions and much of the vocabulary the students will be learning through the exercises. Combining grammar and vocabulary exercises with listening comprehension is always effective. I can assure you that after just a few weeks of such practice your students will be producing correct sentences. Consequently, they will feel at ease discussing or debating a wide range of topics. In fact, with time most any topic will spark their enthusiasm.
P.S. If you are looking for discussion topics, just go to Sean Banville’s website site www.esldiscussions.com. The selection is amazing! There are pair work discussion themes and questions that will make all students eager to discuss and debate in correct English! By using QualityTime-ESL exercises from “QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book” together with the topics from the www.esldiscussions.com web site, teachers will radically improve the atmosphere of their classes.