Section A
Section B

Module 2.5: When Instructed Grammar Helps

While a heavy emphasis on instructed grammar is not thought to be the most important factor to language proficiency, nor is the sequence of learning greatly affected to any considerable extent by instructed grammar, there is some evidence that a healthy amount of it may be helpful in the following ways:

  • By knowing certain rules, students may be more likely to notice the gap between their oral speech and that of the teacher
  • Students may benefit from simple rules such as the plural ‘s’ and the third person singular ‘s’
  • In general, learnt rules will be recalled and used when planning what to say or while taking tests
  • Knowledge of grammar draws the learner’s attention to the formal properties of the target language

By noticing the gap between how the teacher speaks and how they speak, between what they hear and what they say, and also how things are said, students can consciously plan what they say. There is much research to support the judicious use of instructed grammar in that learners who have had instruction attained higher levels of second language acquisition. Like other language students, though, many factors exist that influence a learner’s speed and accuracy in acquiring the English language.

Cultural expectations are often mentioned as well in discussions about instructed grammar. Students may demand some grammar because of cultural expectations regarding what constitutes language instruction. Even though students may not benefit language-wise from such instruction, because their cultural expectations have been satisfied to some extent, they may be more accepting of other kinds of activities in their language instruction.

It is worth remembering, however, that for most overseas language teaching where students are only exposed to English for short periods of time each day or several days a week, too much instructed grammar and too little interactional opportunity may be counterproductive, considering that class time is very limited. On the other hand, if the instruction in grammar is well-timed and based on small group needs, it may further inter-language and communicative competence rather than hinder it.

One well-known language theorist developed what is called the Learnability/Teachability Hypothesis. This hypothesis states that instructed grammar might help the learner progress but only if the learner is developmentally ready to incorporate the new grammatical structures taught. This approach says that learners do not ‘squirrel away’ rules only to pull them out and apply them when needed.

For ESL teachers, then, deciding when the time is right for instruction concerning a specific form or rule seems to be the big question. Although curricula are well researched and specifically and carefully sequenced, not all students in a class may be prepared to receive a new grammatical form. Individual students struggle (and avoid) particular forms and are ready to accept others. What this means, of course, is that we as teachers cannot always rely on a single grammatical syllabus for everyone, but rather need an individual grammatical syllabus for each student that must change as the student changes. Some may not need extra grammatical instruction at all; others may benefit from extra work with rule applications. It is important, however, that students spend enough of their time in interactive activities within a rich environment in order to practise and develop their conversational skills to begin with.

It is important also to remember that most of language cannot be reduced to teachable rules. Consider the uses of prepositions, which appear to be very simple concepts in English: “in” and “on”. We say ‘in the car’. When we say ‘on the car’, we mean ‘on top of the car’. But we say ‘on the boat’, which means ‘in the boat’, if it has a roof. Although there are rules governing these differences, they are for the most part, subconscious. When we as teachers try to verbalise them, we get into trouble. The rules governing much of the English language, then, can only be internalised through a complex interactional process.

It is obvious that there is still controversy as to the benefits and long-term effects of instructed grammar on language learners. What we do know is that a moderate dose to supplement the communicative activities, individually geared to a student’s immediate linguistic needs, seems to be the most accepted approach.