Grammar talk

IMG_20160410_140039As a language teacher, how much time do you spend teaching grammar explicitly? And do you ever ask your students to explain the grammar rules you taught them, as part of an oral examination, for example? If you do, why ? If not, do you think it may be of some value?

I’ll give you an example of what I mean: The underlined structure above is a question in the present simple tense. The present simple is used to express habits, general truths, repeated actions or unchanging situations. With some verbs, such as like, hate, believe, we only use the present simple. These are called stative verbs. 

A similar definition can be found in the grammar section of almost every coursebook and this is approximately what my colleagues and I expect our students to say during their final exam in English.

What I find slightly controversial though is the fact that before my students reach the final grade, which is when we start practicing this ‘grammar talk’, I rarely ask them to explain grammar rules; I only test their ability to use them. In other words, most of the time I teach communicatively, with bits and bobs of explicit grammar teaching. But explicit grammar testing? No.

So when I mention to my students that a tiny part of their final exam is such a test on grammar rules, they usually panic. And I see why. Once they are asked to explain, say, a structure in the second conditional, all you hear is some incomprehensible stuttering and jabbering. Also, some structures seem dangerously obvious. Well, children is the plural form of child, so what? They can use it correctly and they never think of it as something worth elaborating on. However, students often think it’s obvious, but once they are asked for a little bit of analysis, they realize that it’s not as clear as they thought.

Surprisingly enough, the best and most fluent learners find ‘grammar talk’ the most challenging. On the other hand, the students who have struggled through all the years of communicative language teaching suddenly have something tangible and logical to hold on to. And their theoretical knowledge of the language is often surprising.

Anyway, I don’t know whether it’s good or bad to test grammar this way. I’ve actually never questioned this method before. I’m well aware of the fact that for many learners, this type of knowledge (skills?) is totally superfluous. On the other hand, some students might want to become language teachers, translators or interpreters; others may be interested in comparative linguistics, so knowing something about the language structure may come in handy some day.

What’s more, I’ve recently come to believe that for some students, such a type of linguistic analysis may actually be helpful. They can grasp some of the areas of the language they’ve been struggling with and thus eventually become better users of the language. The connection between the logical rule and its usage simply becomes  clearer, especially for those who don’t easily pick up languages along the way. So I wonder whether I should systematically focus on this somewhat non-communicative teaching method and whether it would be worth including grammar talk in earlier stages of language learning.




About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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4 Responses to Grammar talk

  1. T Bestwick says:

    Interesting post for a Friday night! Here in Spain, most learners are taught grammar rules explicitly and often deductively, meaning that they can more often tell you the grammar than use it correctly. You make a good point about usage as well – because grammar can often be used in different situations in different languages (e.g. ‘I’ve lived her for 12 years’ is a statement in the present simple in Spanish) – being able to repeat a grammar rule won’t necessarily mean learners know WHEN to use it.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Kirsten C says:

    I’m not convinced that being able to state a grammar rule is particularly relevant. I’ve always subscribed to the belief that what happens in the classroom should mirror what happens outside the classroom, so any grammar instruction is for the purpose of being able to use the grammar effectively and there is no reason why our learners should be able to recite grammar rules.

    But I’ve never actually asked any of my learners what they think (which is interesting). Wonder how they feel about it?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Clare says:

    I agree! I get learners at uni level, training to be EFL teachers, and we suddenly expect them to be able to explain, not just use, grammar!
    Also, your post reminded me if this:


  4. Brought up some really great points!

    Liked by 1 person

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