* Teaching Grammar

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Murphy’s Grammar in Use has sold millions. All over the world students are asked to look at his often very poor descriptions of parts of English grammar and then do the suffocatingly boring exercises on the facing page. And while ministers of education in the Far East pass laws demanding the implementation of the Communicative Language Teaching approach, grammar teaching remains an important, if not predominant, part of the syllabus, where Murphy is the reference.

Those involved in postgraduate courses in applied linguistics and TESOL take it as a given that Murphy’s grammar books make poor textbooks for EFL/ESL courses because they exemplify an outmoded view of ELT methodology. Research into SLA in the last 30 years seems to indicate that learners develop their own “interlanguage” – their own internal version of English grammar and other parts of English such as pronunciation, collocation, appropriate usage, etc. – and that the development of this interlanguage follows a more or less fixed route which is impervious to instruction. The modern view is thus that ELT should concentrate on giving students the opportunities to communicate about things that are meaningful to them, that the emphasis should be on oral communication, and that grammar should only be referred to in the context of negative feedback while students are focusing on attempts at “real” communication.

In our studies, we emphasise the importance of implicit knowledge, and (nodding to Krashen, perhaps) accept the limited role that explicit knowledge plays in SLA. It’s a commonplace to hear teachers patiently explain to their students in Spain, France, Greece and elsewhere, when their students crave “more grammar” that learning English is very different to learning geography. Learning geography, they say, is a matter of knowing about the matter, while learning English is about knowing, subconsciously, mostly, how to do things. I myself have said to Spanish students that learning English is more like learning how to drive a car (an analogy McLoughlin uses) than learning geography.

Imagine that Nuria is doing a class observed by CELTA examiners in Madrid. She begins “Hoy vamos a mirar el tiempo pasado de inglés”. (Today we’re going to look at the past tense in English”). One can suppose that the examiners would not look kindly on such a start, or the lesson plan, although one can also imagine a lot of students thinking “¡Por fin! Basta ya con hablando mal entre nosotros, ya vamos a aprender algo!” (At last! Enough of speaking badly among us; now we’re going to learn something).

But none of the accepted canon about teaching grammar is in any way “true” or “proved”. We have many historical examples of people who learned English mostly by studying grammar books. A famous example is Joseph Conrad, who claimed to have learned English by reading grammar books. While his accent was so strong as to cause amusement among his friends, he wrote beautiful novels in English and had no trouble communicating with shopkeepers, lovers or intellectuals in English, despite never having had the opportunity to be part of a class where the CLT approach was used. Furthermore, the perhaps unintended consequence of Schmidt’s influential paper on “Noticing” was to make Long re-think his Interaction Hypothesis, and make the likes of Nick Ellis and Peter Robinson (and Long himself) suggest that there were certain “fragile” elements of English grammar which, if not given overt attention in the classroom, would result in students never getting anywhere near true proficiency in English.

One of the most successful language teachers I know, a certain Mick O’Grady, who only does 1 to 1 classes with senior executives prepared to pay him at least 60 euros an hour, swears by Murphy. He doesn’t use the book in class, but he insists that his hapless students wade through a unit a week at home and demonstrate that they’ve “learned the lesson”. Should one of his students say that he’d just struck a deal worth 20 millions, Mick will raise an eyebrow and refer the student to Murphy’s very shaky account of exceptions in the use of countable nouns. I should add that MIck’s grasp of English grammar outstrips Murphy’s by a country mile, but that’s not really the point. Here we have a teacher with more than 30 years experience, who has a frankly poor view of most of the content of an MA in TESOL, who does a first rate job in helping his students reach very high levels of proficiency, and who insists on the need for lots of grammar teaching.

I personally sign up to Pienemann’s Teachability Hypothesis and to the view that grammar teaching is best done in the form of feedback. But then, that’s just me. While ministers of education in the Far East are surely right to encourage more oral communication to be included in the English syllabus, they might benefit from being reminded that there’s more than one way to skin a cat (no cultural slur intended 🙂 ) and that nobody knows the best way to teach or learn English as a second or foreign language. That, I think, goes for those of us teaching in Spain too.

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3 thoughts on “* Teaching Grammar

  1. What are your personal views on Murphy then? Do believe its a good grammar book for students or a waste of paper? Is there anything better we can give to learners who need brushing up on a particular grammatical point?

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    • Sorry for the double post but what importance in grammar teaching do you believe the following take; input, feedback, teaching of rules, and controlled output (repetitive practice).

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  2. I think Murphy’s grammar series is dull and offers both poor descriptions and poor exercises of many areas of English grammar. There are thousands of better ways of brushing up on a particular grammar point including excellent on line materials.

    I can’t think of a quick reply to your second question.

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