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Teaching Grammar

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The perfect face for teaching grammar.

The subject of Teaching Grammar is often discussed and there are many different views and approaches. New teachers often feel that to properly teach a language they must teach grammar.

However this is not the case.

Background

In the past it was thought that students must be given explicit grammatical rules. Students were taught about subjects and objects‏‎, parts of speech‏‎ and so on and then expected to produce language based on these rules.

However, there are major problems with this.

  • The rules keep changing. Over time the grammatical rules of a language change and sometimes there are different ideas about what is good grammar and what is bad grammar.
  • In many cases it is very hard to make a hard and fast rule about grammar. Take verbs‏‎ for example. We can say that in certain situations we should use the present perfect simple‏‎; in other situations we should use the past simple‏‎. But these two overlap and we have a choice of which verb form to use and there are no hard and fast rules about which to choose.
  • Grammar is far too complex to learn fully. There are several well respected grammars of English which run to hundreds if not thousands of pages. How can anyone be expected to learn every single detail?

But by far the greatest problem with teaching grammar as a subject is that it is very different from the way in which language is learned in real life.

Take a child learning to speak. They are never taught grammatical rules by their parents and then expected to speak following those rules. All they do is simply copy what they hear around them and pick up language like this. In fact, a person can learn a language and speak it perfectly well through their entire life without ever knowing what a preposition‎ or a noun is.

Teaching grammatical rules can result in students who spend so long trying to work out the correct way to say something that they don’t have time to say anything!

Communication

The primary role of language is communication and current thinking tends to favor the communicative approach to language teaching. That is, we teach students how to use language in real-life situations.

To contrast this with teaching grammar, take these two scenarios:

  1. A teacher drills their class in grammar; the class know all the verb forms and can take a verb and conjugate it perfectly.
  2. A teacher teaches their class how to order a train ticket or book a table at a restaurant.

Which is more useful?

Having said this, when older students learn to speak English they do not do it in the same way as children learning their mother tongue. In most cases they do not have the time or circumstances to learn that way. A child will spend some 10 years to learn to speak and be surrounded by their mother tongue all their waking moments. An adult learner meanwhile may be in class 2 hours a week where they’ll hear English.

The child learning their mother tongue will hear thousands upon thousands of examples of, for example, the past continuous‏‎ and will after a time begin to understand how to make it and when to use it. An older learner of English might only have a few lessons where this is covered.

To overcome these differences, grammar is a very useful tool which acts as a shortcut to the learner. Instead of inferring the rules subconsciously, they learn them explicitly.

Teaching Grammar

In teaching grammar we recommend 2 basic rules:

  1. Teach it on a need-to-know basis; only teach it when it needs to be taught otherwise avoid it.
  2. Keep it simple; forget all the details and exceptions and never overcomplicate things – in time your students will pick up the exceptions and variances, but for now just stick to the basic facts.

And on the point of teaching grammar, it is better if a class learns than be taught. In other words, rather than just state the grammar rule, work with the class to see if they can work out the rule themselves.

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