Why Teaching Grammar IS Important

Marianne Raynaud

Today the tendency is to say, “Forget grammar. Teach the language people use, 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 listening and interacting with others. His brain is young and powerful enough to pick up the words and expressions he is exposed to while respecting aspects such as grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. If he is young enough, his language acquisition will be perfect. His language will be will more or less like that of a native. On the other hand, too many students leave high school after many years of instruction in a foreign language with merely a set of approximations and masses of erroneous expressions that seem to have been ingrained.

The type of exposure

On the other hand, too many students leave high school after many years of instruction in a foreign language with merely a set of approximations and masses of erroneous expressions that seem to have been ingrained. Why this failure to teach a simple but correct usage of a foreign tongue.
A young adult learning English through schooling in his native country has the potential to reach an aceptable or even excellent level, but much depends on the type of exposure he gets. How many hours of teaching are offered? How many other students will there be in the class? How good is the teacher at making the students "speak"? Will the students be exposed to the language outside of class through radio and television? Will they have an opportunity to speak the language outside of class? What incentives are there for them to learn? Are they truly motivated?

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 don’t claim that it is a hopeless situation. I’m saying that we must adjust our expectations and our teaching methods to definite possibilities. If a student can manage to make sentences without any major mistakes, respecting tenses and basic usage rules, that is already an accomplishment. And if students understand the syntax, i.e., the linguistic equations or logic behind a language, then they have a good chance of being able to construct sentences others will understand. The better one knows the deterinming algorithms—the grammar of a language—the easier it becomes to communicate in the language and avoid misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

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 using the most simple 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 first do X, then 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 starting to learn? 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. At least that is what I tend to do. When we speak, we choose sentences in our native tongue that correpond to the building blocks we have mastered in the new language. The greater the number, the more complex are sentences can be. But if we have not studied the grammar, we will be translating word-for-word, and the result will be far from correct usage—and at times even pretty incomprehensible language. But if we have assimilated genuine linguistic building blocks, we just need to place them one after the other using the right tenses and conjunctions. 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 or articles that really stimulate my students and make them want to speak.” They go desperately searching for such miracle themes. I say it is not a matter of finding the ideal subject. What the students need in the first place are the linguistic tools that will enable them to express their idease When they have learned to use language formulas correctly, they will be able to talk about almost any topic 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 have them correct using intensive pairwork, then the level of their oral expression will increase dramatically.

A digital resource book

I have written a new version of my book for ESL teachers entitled “QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book.2.0.” 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 pairwork techniques. I have also included listening comprehension cloze worksheets that contain many of the expressions and much of the vocabulary the students will be learning through the activities. Combining grammar and vocabulary activities with listening comprehension always gives positive results. 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 issue 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 pairwork 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 2.0” together with the topics from the www.esldiscussions.com website, teachers will radically improve the atmosphere of their classes.

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