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What is Grammar and How to Teach it to ESL Students?

What is Grammar and How to Teach it to ESL Students? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Grammar plays a very important role in learning and teaching a foreign language. What is grammar? Crystal describes grammar as "the business of taking a language to pieces, to see how it works" (as cited in Bentsen, 2017).

Table of Contents

Definition of Grammar

Explicit Grammar Teaching

Williams believes that meaning-focused instruction

Communicative Approach

Nunan defines communicative language teaching as

Larsen-Freeman's recommended that grammar teaching

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This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Meral B. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Definition of Grammar

According to Swan ''grammar is essentially a limited set of devices for expressing a few kinds of necessary meaning that cannot be conveyed by referential vocabulary alone'' (as cited in Hu, 2012).

Ur believes that ''grammar may be roughly defined as the way a language manipulates and combines words (or bits of words) to form longer units of meaning'' (as cited in Hu, 2012). Crystal says that to be able to generate meaningful language, learners need to learn grammatical rules (Bentsen, 2017).

Batstone states that ''syntax and morphology'' are regarded to be ''two fundamental ingredients'' in grammar (Hu, 2012). Furthermore, Batstone also stresses that these two elements will help learners to acknowledge grammatical forms accordingly so that their meanings can be expressed accurately (Hu, 2012). There has been a continuous debate on how grammar should be taught; the main debate pays particular attention to whether grammar should be taught explicitly or implicitly (Bentsen, 2017).

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Explicit Grammar Teaching

Explicit grammar teaching does not aim to teach grammar for communicative purposes but to assist learners with developing a metalinguistic understanding of grammatical structures (form-focused), whereas implicit grammar teaching aims to engage in meaning-focused communication in which learning grammatical forms occur in an innate way (Bentsen, 2017).

Williams believes that meaning-focused instruction

  • prioritizes the use of real language,
  • gives value to tasks that favor the use of negotiation of meaning among learners and among learners and teacher,
  • gives priority to successful communication, particularly when it is done adventurously,
  • doesn't focus on form,
  • gives importance to learner autonomy (Baleghizadeh, 2014).

Teaching grammar explicitly relies heavily on meticulously studying grammatical rules whether by analyzing deductively or reasoning inductively to be able to arrange linguistic components properly (Bentsen, 2017).

Opposed to the explicit approach, teaching grammar implicitly aims for learners to acquire grammatical systems innately through meaningful and comprehensible situations (Bentsen, 2017).

Krashen believes that to be able to improve language skills, teachers should pay attention to giving learners authentic and meaningful input, and not just grammatical rules (Shang, 2006).

esl class

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Canale believes that there are four elements in communicative competence, which are: a) linguistic competence, b) sociolinguistic competence, c) discourse competence and d) strategic competence (Celce-Murcia, Dörnyei & Thurrell, 1993). Linguistic competence is the knowledge of language (grammatical rules, vocabulary, etc.), sociolinguistic competence is how to use language appropriately depending on the setting, topic, register, etc., discourse competence is the ability to connect sentences or utterances so that there is cohesion, and lastly strategic competence is knowing how to repair communication breakdowns (Celce-Murcia, Dörnyei & Thurrell, 1993).

Academics have been more interested in teaching 'real', as in, communicative language, which is used in less formal settings since the 1970s (Sysoyev, 1999). Consequently, the approaches/methods used by teachers such as audio-lingual (ALM) and grammar-translation (GTM) methods, have changed to communicative language teaching (CLT) (Sysoyev, 1999).

Larsen-Freeman says that there is ''the rise in the popularity of more communicative approaches which emphasize language use over rules of language usage'', yet ''loss of the popularity of the Chomsky-inspired cognitive code approach'' which puts emphasis on directing language learners to practice language by ''analyzing structures and applying rules'' (Hu, 2012).

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Communicative Approach

The supporters of the communicative approach to language teaching believe that language learners can pick up the foreign language easier when they are made to put more thought on meaning instead of the form (Baleghizadeh, 2014). Larsen-Freeman states that both the communicative approach and communicative language teaching prompt learners' needs for communication in the foreign language (Hu, 2012).

According to Nunan, communicative language teaching comprises of a) giving priority to learning to communicate in the foreign (target) language b) using texts that are used in real life (i.e. letters, postcards, text messages, etc.) during the lesson c) concentrating on both language and learning d) using the learner's personal experiences as a tool for learning in the classroom e) aiming to combine both classroom and out of classroom language learning (Bentsen, 2017).

Richards and Rodgers state that two distinctive focuses make up communicative language teaching: for communicative competence to be the main outcome of the language teaching process, and to produce methods to teach the four skills -listening, speaking (spoken interaction and spoken production), reading and writing- that link language and communication together (Bentsen, 2017).

esl students

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Nunan defines communicative language teaching as

  • concentrating on communicating by interacting,
  • using original (authentic) materials,
  • paying attention to both the course of learning and the language,
  • considering the benefits of the learners' backgrounds while learning, and
  • combining language learning with authentic activities (Vasilopoulos, 2008).

Seedhouse advises incorporating both form and meaning through the communicative approach to language teaching which will consequently broaden the learners' communicative competence and expand their knowledge of the foreign language (Hu, 2012).

Musumeci says that connecting both form and meaning while teaching grammar, will help students to learn explicit grammar rules and be able to practice what they have learned in real-life activities/tasks (Özkan, 2015).

Larsen-Freeman's recommended that grammar teaching

  • should be organized to suit the learners' foreign language levels and personal differences,
  • should concentrate on advancing the learners competence in using the foreign language fluently without fault,
  • should call for teachers to use code-switching methods and the use of the mother tongue (only with beginner level foreign language learners),
  • Can be done by using task-based and problem-solving activities, which intend to help learners to advance in their knowledge of grammar and correct practice in communicating in the foreign language,
  • should be progressed by the feedback they give to the students' errors while they are communicating,
  • can use meaning-based activities/ tasks to enable the learners to practice grammar with communicative activities,
  • should be approached by giving language learners with examples of grammatical structures while the teacher conducts communicative information, intending to make the learners notice the relationship between the forms and meaning,
  • Can also be done by swapping explicit and implicit instructions efficiently in the communicative practice,
  • can enable learners to work cooperatively (group work/pair work), which can help them to notice the grammatical rules by helping each other,
  • should involve the learners' personal interests and needs (Hu, 2012).

The simplification of the language used in the classroom (teacher talk), asking the learners to complete sentences, not produce them and using authentic materials (graphs, charts, tables, etc.) are three very useful types of scaffolding in language teaching (Bradley & Bradley, 2004).

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In conclusion, every language learner is different in terms of their needs, motivation, learning style, etc. Teachers need to take these factors into account and balance their explicit and implicit grammar teaching methods by communicative language teaching.

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