Sunday, 6 September 2009

Grammar and EFL

Teaching grammar drives me crazy. Every EFL textbook I have used (all of them made in Finland) has contained a separate grammar section - a considerable part of each book. The grammar section always contains the same units, in more or less the same order. First course: all the verb tenses, word order, forming questions and question tags. Second course: pronouns, adjectives, expressing possession, passive.... and so on, as if there was a naturally specified sequence.

The irony of all this at the level I teach (senior high school, where students entering our school already have 7 years of English studies behind them) is that students have already been introduced to all the grammar our books deal with, and consequently should know at least the basics. Unfortunately, many students have remained surprisingly immune to all the grammar content taught to them and not acquired a sense of the basic structure of English. No doubt teachers at previous levels have taught it, and students have been exposed to all the metalanguage of grammatical terms and rules, but that must have read like mumbo-jumbo to many of them. Not even the endless gap fill and translation exercises or drilling have made it any clearer for them. They may be able to recite grammar rules word by word, but consistently fail to apply them in speaking or writing. From my experience, students who haven't grasped the basics by the time they come to our school, never will if it's the same methods and types of exercise repeated again.

I often ask myself, what is the point of teaching grammar at all in our style of senior high? As it's already been taught, surely it should only be tweaked whenever a point comes up naturally in the course of a discussion, while reading a text or practising writing, for example. Certain nuances could be added to the basics at this level, and maybe some quick revision every now and then, but I'm inclined to skip the grammatical metalanguage and rules. Why on earth do we believe that repeating the same old rules again and again is going to make a difference? Most students at senior high like English, but hate grammar lessons. No wonder, since they have had the same stuff thrown at them ad nauseam for years on end.

Is it us teachers who feel that it is our job to TEACH who insist on an overdose of grammar of this type? If a colleague of mine, who has worked in the author teams of many Finnish EFL book series, is to go by, that's exactly it. She says every so often some more progressive language book authors suggest easing on the grammar content, but publishers quickly stunt these initiatives claiming that it is grammar and more grammar that their clients - EFL teachers - want. And they are quite right. Whenever I attend book fairs where a new textbook is launched, most of the discussion revolves around the grammar sections. Are they extensive enough, or should we perhaps use an additional grammar book as well? When I try to question the dominance of grammar in language classes I get incredulous and condescending looks from my peers.

The bottom line is: we are teachers and our job is to teach. Grammar is easy to teach. Teachers can lecture to their hearts content in front of the class. They know all the rules better than any of their students. They can feel helpful and efficient. With grammar rules they get the chance to prove to those students whose fluency in actual language use may be far better than the teacher's that they don't know it all, after all! Teaching grammar makes teachers feel that they are truly earning their salaries. You could never teach vocabulary, or listening skills in the same way!

The other week I came across a post in Betty Azar's Teacher Talk blog, where she blogged about this same problem of declarative knowledge of grammar not automatically translating into procedural knowledge. She firmly believes that a cognitive understanding of grammatical concepts is the foundation on which, through practise, the natural use of a second language is built. She also mentions that teachers get frustrated too easily and determine
that teaching grammar does no good because there is no immediate transfer to internalized language

Mind you, Betty is writing about adults, which, I feel, is different from regular schools. But I would say she reflects the sentiments and beliefs of most of my colleagues. In Finnish senior high schools, though, you can hardly talk about teachers expecting immediate transfer. You'd think that if a method was good it wouldn't take 10 years of constant repetition, and still so many clueless students! One of the most often heard complaints from my language teacher colleagues is: "I have told them about this grammar rule countless times, and still they keep making the same mistakes!" In other words, the students are lazy or stupid or both. How about looking in the mirror and questioning the method instead?

Photo: grammar minibook verbs by jimmiehomeschoolmom on Flickr


@philhart said...

I was taught French three times in three separate schools. It wasn't until I went to France for extended holidays that I started to learn French.

sinikka said...

Familiar story, Phil. There is such a long long tradition of teaching, but a shorter history of considering what students actually learn.

Motivation plays a huge role, too. A real-life need to use the language is a great motivator. Then it finally starts making sense.

A comment I often hear from language teacher colleagues is that grammar lessons can't hurt anyone, and possibly all that ground work is needed to make it possible for students to experience what you did later on with French. They would argue that you wouldn't have learned French as easily in France, if you hadn't had your French lessons at school! I am not convinced by this argument. When will you ever need all the grammar metalanguage - unless you become a language teacher?

Steven Herder said...

Hi Sinikka,

That was so well written. I'm very happy to be on your team. Do you Skype? It would be interesting to see if we could collaborate on something between Japan and Finland.


sinikka said...

Hi Steve

Nice to hear from you! I do Skype -username 'laakio-whybrows'. I'm always keen to organize intercultural units and projects for my students.

In fact, we are starting our second Asia-Europe classroom project on a Ning platform. Your students are welcome to join, if you are interested. Here is the URL of our last year's Ning so you can see what we did: We didn't have any students from Japan last year so would be nice to meet some this year!