To teachers of English around the world, the point of teaching grammar during their lessons may seem obvious. Yet several generations of native English speakers from Britain grew up speaking their language quite fluently without ever having had a grammar lesson. People in other countries may be shocked to learn that during the past half-century, there have been many successful university graduates in Britain who would not have been able to tell the difference between a verb and a noun, let alone explain the usage of tenses. However, they were able to express complicated ideas both in writing and orally.
This is a personal article that aims to provoke thought and discussion by asking the question what is the point of grammar? Then for teachers of English as a foreign language, I focus more specifically on the question, what is the point of teaching grammar?
A Little British Social History
In the 1960s and 70s, there was a great deal of educational reform in Britain. There was a feeling that the previous education system had been stilted and elitist, so there was a move to comprehensive education in a bid to make learning more accessible. Exams and school types changed, and a wider range of subjects were offered. However, in the new ‘Comprehensive’ schools some subjects such as ‘Latin’ were often deemed to be outdated and unnecessary and were dropped from the curriculum. This had implications for the teaching of English and other languages. Within individual subjects, there were changes aimed at helping more students to finish school with recognised qualifications. At the same time, there was new thinking about how children learn and teaching methods in general. In English Language, there was more emphasis on communication and creativity, and a move away from explicitly teaching rule-based, grammar structures. It was believed that students would pick up all the grammar they needed simply by practising and using English in context. This view has been increasingly challenged since the new millennium dawned, but meanwhile, for thirty years many students left school and even university without ever being ‘explicitly’ taught English Grammar. I was part of that cohort.
My mother taught me the difference between a noun and a verb because she thought it was important to know such things. However, that terminology was seldom even mentioned, let alone taught during my entire school career. Moreover, I hadn’t learned any foreign languages either apart from two years of beginner’s French at Junior school (because we happened to have a teacher who liked going on holiday to France). I never had the opportunity to study Latin which is regarded by many as a basis for understanding the grammar framework of modern European languages.
In my final year at school, I went on a trip to Berlin to take part in a European Youth Conference. As a result, I gained a German penfriend, Marion. Since Marion always took the trouble to write to me in virtually fluent English, I thought I should return the favour by writing to her in German. Given that I really had no concept of grammar, and it was a long time before ‘Google Translate’ was invented, I simply bought a bilingual dictionary and translated word for word the vocabulary I thought I needed. With apologies to any German readers; ‘Ohne grammatik mein satze hatte virtuell nein bedeutung was auch immer, (without grammar my sentences had virtually no meaning whatsoever). In reply, Marion told me as politely as possible that it was far easier to understand my English than my attempts at German!
I left school with a reasonable number of ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels and later graduated from university with an English Degree and teaching qualification. At that point, I still had no idea what ‘tenses’ were. In British schools, that gap in my knowledge was not an issue but it became a problem when I decided to specialise in teaching English as a foreign language.
My first full-time teaching position abroad was at a private school in Greece. During a discussion about some older students’ recent essays one of the local teachers bemoaned the fact that some of the students had no idea how to use the ‘passive voice’. ‘Oh yes, that’s terrible!’ I replied, trying to disguise my ignorance. On my way home I stocked up on grammar books so that I could teach myself the grammar basics which my Greek colleagues seemed fluent in but which I, as a native speaker, was ignorant of.
A few years later I was working full time in Austria. I felt I needed to learn the local language so employed a teacher to give me private lessons. I think she aged ten years in the six months she worked with me! While by this stage I had taught myself all the grammar I was ever likely to have to teach, I didn’t think ‘grammatically’. Grammar was something I could explain quite well by that stage, but for me, it was quite an abstract thing. When trying to learn German I could understand and remember the basic meaning of vocabulary quickly, but when trying to understand grammar I felt like my mind was walking through treacle. Moreover, the concept that different languages had different grammar was still new and foreign to me. I guess I had assumed that different languages just employed different vocabulary, but all used the same constructs. During one lesson my teacher came close to a nervous breakdown while trying to explain German ‘Cases’ to me. I told her we didn’t have ‘cases’ in English. ‘Yes you do!’ she insisted, ‘It’s the reason you sometimes say ‘who’ and other times say ‘whom’. She was, to some degree correct; certainly, the correct use of ‘who’ and ‘whom’ dates back to an older form of English which did employ de facto ‘cases’.
This incident helped me to appreciate the degree to which we are all imprinted with the grammar or lack of grammar we grow up with. My teacher explained everything grammatically and even interpreted English in the style of her grammatical knowledge. Neither of us was really aware that differences in our grammatical background were making meaningful communication difficult, if not impossible.
I could easily have gone through life without an in-depth knowledge of English Grammar. Many people do so quite successfully even in America and Britain where English is the main language. However, people in that position are missing potentially useful knowledge and understanding. If you want to travel or if you want to do business with people in other countries, the ability to understand and communicate in a foreign language is a significant advantage. To learn other languages, you have to be aware that grammar is as important as vocabulary. Those who have not attempted to learn a second language and those who never understood the grammar of their native language are likely to struggle with this. I think as teachers we sometimes underestimate this fact.
What is grammar?
My definition of grammar is that it is the way we think about and construct what we want to communicate to others. It involves using a common set of rules that are often peculiar to geographical regions and particular groups of the population within that region. More specifically grammar serves several important functions;-
- Communication. Grammar provides a framework for organising words and phrases into coherent and meaningful sentences. It helps people convey their thoughts, ideas, and information in a clear and understandable manner.
- Consistency. Grammar rules create consistency in language usage. When people follow the same grammatical conventions, it becomes easier for others to understand and interpret their messages.
- Clarity. Proper grammar helps ensure clarity in communication. It helps to avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretations by providing a standardised way to construct sentences and convey meaning.
- Cohesion. Grammar enables the connection between different parts of a sentence or text. It helps in creating a flow of ideas and building logical relationships between words, phrases, and clauses.
For me personally, the most important aspect of grammar relates to Language Learning and Teaching. For learners of English as a second language, understanding the similarities and differences between their native language and the target language and applying grammar rules correctly is crucial for developing proficiency in the target language.
Based on the experiences I have described, I always like to point out to students ‘why’ grammar is important. I never assume that they understand that different languages employ different grammar rules. For example, I have become aware that the ‘continuous’ or ‘progressive’ tenses we commonly use in English do not exist at all in some languages. At the same time, some concepts such as ‘cases’ or assigning gender to nouns may be normal in the student’s native language but do not occur at all in English. Where students have some basic level of understanding, I try to point out that grammar is essential for communication, consistency and clarity as described previously.
As a relatively late convert, I see grammar as a common currency between learners, or at least a point of contact. As a teacher, it enables me to say ‘When you do this in your language we do something else in my language.’
Communicative Language Teaching
These days many teachers of English take the Communicative Language Teaching approach. CLT focuses on real-life communication rather than just grammar. It emphasises interaction and meaningful tasks to improve language skills. Learners engage in authentic situations to practice speaking, listening, reading, and writing, encouraging fluency over accuracy. The teacher takes on a facilitating role, guiding and encouraging communication while providing feedback. It is a functional approach based on communication in realistic situations.
While I certainly lean more toward the CLT approach, I think sometimes the grammar component gets lost. Conversely, because grammar is not stressed enough within CLT, some teachers abandon it altogether. They must get their students through exams and those exams still tend to be very grammar-focused. Students may have to face multiple choice tests in which only one answer is correct. If they get the answer wrong, they may lose a point and drop a grade. There is no doubt that doing a lot of ‘old fashioned’ grammar exercises can build the confidence of some students and some teachers. I personally don’t think there is any harm in doing traditional grammar exercises from time to time. Indeed, I think it is often helpful.
Make Grammar Fun Too
In my experience, most students respond quite well to the CLT approach. Many of my lessons are taught using authentic materials and there is an emphasis on speaking, listening and meaningful communication. I hold a lot of discussions and debates on subjects that interest the students, thus giving them a reason to want to speak English. I also use a lot of games. What I have noticed however is that many of the language games I use (including ones I have made up myself) are more vocabulary-based than grammar-based. However, maybe we owe it to ourselves and our students to use our imaginations and create more grammar-based activities and games so that grammar can be just as much fun as vocabulary.
I have learned from the experiences described in this article that we cannot teach any language meaningfully without teaching grammar. But we can’t assume that our students understand that. No matter what methods we use, we need to motivate our students by helping them to understand what the point of grammar is.