miércoles, 12 de junio de 2019

For Whom is The Teaching of Grammar Still a Security Blanket?

                                        By María de la Lama

Frequently, in TEFL “grammar” equals “ syntax”. Thus, for many English teachers grammar is the teaching of how to build structures in order to  develop in students, in a later stage, the   ability to  transform them when communicating.   But the linguistic concept of grammar "as the total knowledge of a language" offers a much broader understanding of this term. Therefore, an effective teaching of grammar should allow students not only to form structures, but also to know how to use them in a meaningful and appropriate way.
The teaching of the Simple Past tense will exemplify this point . On the one hand, when the term grammar is limited to syntax, the methodology will emphasize more the use of the auxiliary "did" and the transformations that irregular verbs undergo in this tense. On the other hand, a broader conception of the term will motivate the teacher to teach other very important aspects of the mentioned structure, such as the pronunciation of regular verbs and, what is more important, the communicative functions of the tense.
Why is it then that this narrow perception of the term "grammar" is still rooted in our daily teaching? Maybe because the focus on teaching structures still works as a security blanket for teachers. Let’s see some of the reasons why we are fond of teaching structures:

      There is a belief that if students analyze the language they will learn it more effectively. However, the main tenets of the Communicative approach prioritize language use over rules of usage.
      The teaching of grammar (grammar= syntax) demands the use of schemas, charts or written exercises,  activities that many teachers are keen on doing in class.
      Structures are always testable. In fact, grammar quizzes  are easy to prepare and to grade.
      This narrow conception of grammar gives teachers a false control of the lesson performance. After all, teachers always have  the correct  answer!
      Teachers seem to perpetuate the way they learned a foreign language when they teach. There has been a great emphasis on teaching language rules during the last decades that’s way following the Communicative approach does not seem to be an easy task.
      An overemphasis on structure formation may give students the idea that forming structures is enough to communicate in a foreign language without focusing on other important aspects such as pronunciation, vocabulary and use.

A good tip for preparing our grammar lessons bearing in mind that “grammar” involves much more than syntax, is to identify the challenging aspect of a given structure for our students. In some cases, the pronunciation of the structure, and not its form, will pose a challenge for adult students, such as the pronunciation of the phonemes /s/ or /z/ in the formation of plural nouns. In other structures, the challenging point will come from the meaning of the structures. The use of the possessive illustrates this point as in the phrase “a month’s holiday”.  

Challenging points can arise from other aspects rather than the form of the structure. They may come from the phonological component of the structure, from the correct understanding of its meaning or from its use. Overemphasizing the teaching of the form may hinder the students’ communicative competence.


Why doesn’t our teaching of grammar move towards more communicative ways? Is the teaching of grammar our security blanket in class?

DE LA LAMA, MARIA, Bachelor in Education, has a master's degree in Applied Linguistics and a Bachelor's in Linguistics, both obtained at the University of California, Davis. She also holds an MBA from Universidad del Pacífico. She currently serves as the Director of the Language Center at Universidad del Pacífico.

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