TEFL Teaching Grammar

A recent study suggests that teaching grammar to schoolchildren has no discernible effect on their writing skills, so why should it be of any more use in the ELT classroom?? asks Luke Meddings in an article on Friday February 4, 2005 in the Guardian Unlimited.

Following a research project funded by the Department for Education in the UK reviewing 100 years of research into grammar teaching, a report was published on 19th January 2005 concluding that teaching grammar does not help young pupils either write more fluently or more accurately. Luke Meddings makes the point that, if this is the case, teaching grammar is likely to be no more useful for second- language learners than for first language learners.

It seems to me that the conclusion drawn about teaching grammar and its lack of effect on improving pupils? written language skills is not a terribly accurate one; if indeed you want to make that conclusion, I would argue that although the students had been taught grammar, they had not actually understood it, so of course it would not have helped their written language skills in any way.

From my own language learning experiences, I have sat in many classrooms where students have very little knowledge, if any, of grammar. I cannot make observations about the situation with regards grammar teaching in schools before the 1980s but as I have gone through my education, I have been aware that grammar teaching has been given very little attention in schools in the UK except for until very recently when it has made its way back into the national curriculum and government schemes of work. What little time has been given to grammar teaching has therefore probably been mostly highly ineffective and unproductive. If grammar teaching is taught properly so that the students actually understand the grammar, I think it can make a huge difference to a student?s language skills.

Let?s take some simple examples and common written errors: effect used as a noun and verb whereas it should only be used as a noun (affect being used to express the verb) and their being used instead of they?re. I think there would be far fewer mistakes if students really understood the structure of the language. For those who don?t really understand the structure, of course it?s very hard to have any logical idea of when you might use effect and affect or their and they?re ? in each of the cases the words sound the same and are easy to misuse in written language if attention is not paid to the context in which the word is being used. In the same way that it is hard to progress in mathematics, physics and chemistry without understanding the fundamental building blocks, so in language it is also hard to improve one?s skills without a proper understanding of language?s building blocks, i.e. grammar.

So in terms of where this leaves grammar in ELT teaching, I would say that the report?s findings have really very little relevance and that for those who enjoy neither teaching nor learning grammar, it is perhaps ?like life in Guy de Maupassant´s world-weary, consoling epithet: neither as good, nor as bad, as we sometimes imagine?.

1. http://education.guardian.co.uk/tefl/story/0,,1406009,00l 2. ibid.

Author: Tamsin Langrishe

Date of post: 2006-10-10