Is Grammar Really Important for a Second Language Learner?

- - Is grammar important?


Julio Foppoli shares his views on why the approach to teaching grammar is more important than the question of whether or not it should be taught.



This is a typical question that I receive from many new students and website visitors. My answer is clear and simple: "indeed." Grammar is the backbone of a language and without it any single thing you know may be flux, in a sort of jelly without much consistency. In a nutshell, grammar provides you with the structure you need in order to organize and put your messages and ideas across. It is the railway through which your messages will be transported. Without it, in the same way as a train cannot move without railways, you won’t be able to convey your ideas to their full extension without a good command of the underlying grammar patterns and structures of the language.

I understand that many students ask this question simply because in their own experience they have always been presented with two main scenarios, and nothing in between. They want to know where they are going to be standing as regards to their learning.

Which are those two scenarios? Well, in one extreme we have those language courses that teach grammar almost exclusively, as if preparing the students to be grammarians of the second language rather than users. In the other extreme we have those “communicative” courses in which the only thing that is done is to talk about something or to read an article and comment on it. In many cases, what is seen in one class has no resemblance to what is done in the next.

In my experience, both scenarios may seem good for very specific purposes but I personally feel both are inappropriate for most language learners. For starters, by itself, a good command of the grammar of a language does not imply that the person is able to communicate effectively, as we usually see with students who have only been exposed to an all-grammar-oriented approach sometimes for many years. Many could recite the grammar by heart but if asked to express basic information, they would hesitate too much and browse through all the grammar rules in their heads before making an utterance, or simply dry up.

Secondly, just talking in class without anything else done in order to learn from the actual conversation is not good enough either. It may be helpful of course, but up to a certain point. This approach may be more useful for very advanced students who just need to brush up their second language, but for those in need of building up the foundations of a new language, it is certainly too vague and flux, without any consistency.

So then, when asked: "is grammar really important for a second language learner?" I always say "yes", but, the real question, or issue here is not whether grammar is important or not but rather how we should present grammar to our students. You may be surprised to hear that most of my own students, even advanced ones, have very little awareness of grammar jargon and terminology, in spite of the fact that they can make a pretty good use of the second language. "How is that possible?" you may ask. First and foremost, teachers need to know precisely what they are trying to prepare their students for. I do know that what I want is to "create" users of a new language.

I want to prepare people to actually engage in communicative situations using appropriate language and patterns. I am definitely not interested in their explaining to me or making a mental list of all the grammar uses that a certain pattern has.

For example, think of your own native language. Name all the tenses that you can find in your own native tongue with their corresponding uses and structures. Unless you are a teacher, a translator or someone who needs to have a very good grasp of this meta-language, more likely than not you may feel at a loss to answer that question. And that does NOT mean in any sense that you are not a terrific user of that language. After all, you can understand and express whatever you want with ease. What is more, by being able to do so, you show an awesome command of the internal grammar of the language. If you knew no grammar patterns you would not be able to make a single sentence but you can. This means that although you may lack the conscious ability to describe how your language works (i.e. its grammar) you can use it perfectly. You are a user of the language. You make a perfect use of the grammar of your native language intuitively or unconsciously.

Again, our primary goal as second language teachers must be to create users or the language, not linguists! It escapes the aim of this article to describe how we can achieve this but basically we are going to name the main elements to consider to create "language users."

To begin with, it should be noted that whatever we present our students with should follow a progression from the very general meaning to the very specific pattern or structure we want them to learn (or that they need to learn of course). I would like to highlight that all this takes place within the same class.

Before we start to use the material we have selected, it would be good to introduce the students to the topic you are going to work on. You can have them guess or infer what the material will say about it, they can make predictions and when they fail to use appropriate language, you may provide it. This is good to elicit vocabulary that may be necessary for them to know in order to understand the topic. After you have created curiosity in the topic and provided students with key terms on the topic, make sure you follow a progression such as the one that follows:

  1. Provide them with exposure to real language and real situations IN CONTEXT.
  2. Initial focus on gist, not form.
  3. Focus on more specific meaning.
  4. We can then focus on very specific meaning.
  5. Analysis and systematization: after we make sure the students have a good understanding of the whole material, you can have them focus on particular items or patterns that may be important for them to learn at their stage (i.e. grammar) You can systematize it more formally and teach them how it works. After all, they have already seen it in practice and they have also worked around meaning, now it is time for them to learn how to use it.
  6. Give them exercises for them to practice the new structure. Do not be afraid of using grammar drills and patterns. They could be VERY useful for them to fix the new structures in their brains.
  7. Give them homework to force them to revise this at a later time. The homework does not necessarily need to be communicative in nature. Profit from the time in class to communicate and interact. If possible, avoid drilling activities while you are with them in class. However, the time they are on their own could be very well used to do all the drilling and rote practice that may prove useful for them to gain a good command of the grammar form you are trying to teach them. Personally I feel that the time in class must be used for providing learners with as many communicative situations as possible, rather than making them focus on drills and patterns that they could easily practise on their own.
  8. Provide them with ample opportunities to practice what they have learned in REAL or REALISTIC communicative situations. Create situations so that they can make lots of mistakes and encourage them to improve on them by reminding them of what they have studied.
  9. Recycle and mention the topic again as many times as necessary, time and again.

This is essential for them to finally acquire the new structures in a natural way.

As you can see, I am not condemning grammar at all as some readers may feel when in my articles I complain about teachers working almost exclusively with a grammar-oriented approach. On the contrary, I feel it is essential in order to master a language. However, how grammar is presented to the students is what really matters. I utterly disagree with those teachers who come to class and tell the class: “Open your books. Today we will learn the “Simple Present Tense.”

In the suggested steps to follow in any class, you will have noticed that I have used a quite eclectic approach, starting from a communicative situation (steps 1-4) with the focus on understanding the message from the gist up to very detailed info and later, and only later, once meaning is clearly understood, we reach the grammar item we may need our students to learn at their stage. The obvious advantage of this approach is that while dealing with grammar, the students will have a clear idea of the context in which it was used and the communicative need it satisfied.


Julio Foppoli is a teacher of English as a Second Language and a teacher of Spanish as a Second Language. He is the creator and owner of www.esaudio.net/Spanish/online_classes.html, an online educational website with a technological edge, specialized in the teaching of Spanish as second language via audio-conference to native speakers of English from all over the world.



Comments

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Rob on 10 November 2008

Great line about how you disagree with people who go to class and utter the 'let's learn about the simple present tense'... I totally agree. I've always tried to teach in a very similar way to yours and find grammatical jargon highly confusing for students. I mean it's the the ability to use the language not learn its labels that is of more concern. Great piece.

Karen on 10 November 2008

Thank you so much for the article on grammar. I am currently tutoring a German Mom and 2 kids each separately. The Mom is an avid learner, uses the dictionary and thesaurus for homework. I am sure to use talking and reading for those will give her more sense of English than the grammar lessons. However, my backgound is teaching kids with reading difficulties and ESL. I'm educated, use my language correctly, and I'm a writer. Yet I can't name all the parts of speech through which we are working. I haven't needed to. I have a duplicate workbook, though, and I do the lessons too - for my own sanity! Vocabulary and meaning are what I see that my adult student needs and wants. The whole situation of doing ESL with an adult brings me to ponder the miracle of absorbing language, our own language, and that part is what my student longs to do, to be free and assured in the use of English. I admire anyone who conquers another language. Farewell!

Bobby on 10 November 2008

Without doubt grammar is important but not for a starter. The phrase you have to learn to walk before you can run rings true. Students firstly need to have basic speaking ability before they start with grammar. When ESL learners study with english teachers of their nationality the grammar isn't entirely based on conversation and the lesson uses 2 languages. This confuses students and isn't a tranferable skill for communication purposes on a daily basis. Once a student reaches a resonable level then yes grammar is important. I know you stated as a second language it's important and the backbone but in England we have not studied grammar since the 1970s as our first language so I have to disagree with you to some extent. Also I am aware it is down to the teacher style and strategy.

Bruce on 10 November 2008

An excellent timely and down to earth contribution! It knocked my socks off my feet to read such a finely honed presentation! Thank you so much for bringing the core issue around second language teaching to the fore - for me! You have reinforced that which I am still attempting after many years of tutoring. Viva!

Hugh on 10 November 2008

An excellent article. I have been learning and teaching languages since 1970 and have seen so many U turns in methodology. There is no one pure way to learn a language. Communicative and grammatical methods exist alongside each other. One is not the opposite ot the other. I think that at last a concensus is arising in language teaching about this.

Farah on 13 November 2008

Thank you very much for the article . It makes me more convinced about creating a context, i.e. a senario before teaching the grammar point. At this level the students are aware of the idea of conveying a certain message using the grammar points. Thank you also for attracting my attention to the drills, their importance and the fact that they can be more efficient when done as homework rather than in class. Thank you !

Liudmyla on 14 November 2008

Grammar is very important not only for the intermidiate or advanced levels but also for a starter too. I prefer introducing grammar material in such a way that the students can formulate the grammar rules themselves as a conclusion from the strutures given to them either in a short conversation, a funny story, a song, an article, a letter or a movie. Such demonstrative material can be selected by the teacher in accordance with the group's interests, field of activities, age etc. based on the reflexive teacher's strategy and critical thinking methodolgy. Also, grammar rules are better learnt when the students feel the necessity of this or that structure, especially in unprepared speech, like debates, expressing their opinion on various subjects, or role-plays.

Nancy on 18 November 2008

This article places the undeniable importance of teaching our students English grammar. Grammar is an essential tool which gives the foundation for learning a language well. I agree that grammar must be combined with oral and written communication skills so the student can understand the reasons behind the way we speak. Good article!!

Adelina on 1 December 2008

Grammar is, by no means, essential in ESL teaching. It is the backbone of the language; the framework from which we build on. The way we present it to our students is also important and I am convinced that making students realize grammar has a practical and real use gives them a sense of "experiencing" the language, so they are able to understand the whole picture better. Role plays, paraphrasing, summarizing stories and the like, are great ways to put the "grammar rules" into action without them even realizing they are using them. Very interesting and illuminating article. Thank you!

Oscar on 3 December 2008

Thank goodness there are still people who believe that grammar is really important in the teaching of a second language. Those who believe that conversation can be taught without the skeleton of grammar are creating a strange being: an animal without a skeleton, a kind of slimmy thing that is not consistent and not lasting. Thank you very much for giving us the support we need to continue with the hard labor of communicating properly in other languages than our own.

Tim on 10 January 2009

Dear Adelina
I hope you are not actually teaching the English language. You start your paragraph with "by no means" which literally means that "it is not at all" and then you finish the rest of the paragraph explaining why it is so "essential" which means "critical" or at least "important". Maybe you should work on meaning instead of grammar. English is one of the easiest languages as far as grammar is concerned (subject + verb + object, can get the meaning across) but the important part of language is to be able to communicate. I am usually thought of as a grammar fanatic, but I would rather hear "me take hospital" than "me, by no means, take to the nearest hospital"

The beauty of English is that it is functional. I believe in working on meaning first and style second. In Korean, Japanese, Czech, etc. word order doesn't matter -- they use markers, but in English, "The boy bit the dog" is very different from "The dog bit the boy". Although both are grammatically correct.

Terry on 26 February 2009

I must agree with Julio. It seems that many ESL teachers consider it heresy NOT to teach the name of things in grammar - how many native speakers know the terms conjunction, adverb, clause, and yet still function well in all aspects of the language? It's like learing to drive - you have no need to name all parts of the engine to drive well - you just need to know something about its function and listen to make sure it is running smoothly. In fact, worrying about naming the engine parts while driving may well lead to an accident!

Don on 1 March 2009

Great article. The hardest thing for me, as a TESL teacher, is working out how to explain to a student, the definitions, rules of the parts of speech without it going over their heads. English may be my first language but grammar has left me doubting its effectiveness. If the teacher was ever intimidated or irritated by the grammatical approach when he /she was at school, that might give some indication of how the student might feel (X100). I want them to learn English, not definitions. Grammar is a cold entity, a ball and chain. It has the potential to turn a lesson into a bottomless pit full of confused and overwhelmed souls. Depends on how deep you want to take them. I think the basic grammar framework is enough to help students keep account of the things they have covered. It helps teachers review previous lessons by eliciting specific forms, verb endings for example. Keep it concise and easy to manage. Small talk about the lesson content helps students get over the "Post-grammatic stress" and relax a bit."

Anonymous on 1 March 2009

I am doing a course at the moment in relation to teaching... we are always encouraged to teach grammar through speaking, eliciting and drilling and always in context that students can actually relate to. It is hard work but much more rewarding than having a 'traditional grammar focused lesson. Students really do learn grammar! and yes, teaching metalanguage-it is crazy. I am not a native speaker of English but I remember clearly having all these boring grammar lessons one after the other purely because teacher didn't know how to teach or what to teach. Anyway I left high school being an expert in meta language!:)

Dominic on 8 March 2009

Grammar (structures and vocabulary with its complexities, such as word formation, suffixes, phrasal verbs, idiomatic expressions) is essential. However, it is not an end in itself. It is a "vehicle" (or a car) for the learner to use for communication. We, the teachers, are more like driving instructors (as well as a good mechanic who knows the engine of the car) who teach our students how to drive the car, enjoy driving it and at the same time gives "knowledge on the traffic regulations" (=language function; register). And some of us may be excellent as "Formula 1" instructors, teaching learners how to speed up (TOEFL, IELTS, etc) to get finish as fast as possible (to get higher scores), and this requires the learners to know the detail of "engine" (grammar) and the "circuits" (the tricks of the tests) so that the learners can reach the finish line as fast as they wish and yet safely.

Mike on 11 March 2009

I've received some messages from people advocating unconventional English learning methods and promoting English learning products of that kind. I've explored some of their websites that contain a number of learners' comments. Supporters of unconventional learning methods and products claim that learning grammar is unnecessary and that it inhibits fluent speaking. A growing number of learners are misled and lose time experiencing delay in language learning progress because of superficial claims of promoters of unconventional English learning methods and products. I disagree with those speculative claims as knowing grammar rules logically reduces making mistakes by learners. You are also aware that even native speakers of English (I mean secondary school students) still study English grammar at school to master proper English usage for academic and professional purposes. How can foreign learners of English master English grammar without studying grammar rules followed by example sentences and adequate supportive grammatical exercises to reduce making grammatical mistakes in English? I believe there is no other shorter way for foreign learners to master English grammar. As you know it is impossible for foreign learners to construct their own grammatically correct sentences in English without knowing English grammar rules that have a number of exceptions. Conventional communicative English teaching and learning supported with adequate regular long-term practice in listening comprehension and speaking English yield effective results. Lack of such practice in English by learners produces speculations that conventional English learning and teaching methods don't work.

Mike on 14 April 2009

I believe what especially matters in effective teaching and learning English grammar is how clearly and easily understandable all grammar rules are explained and whether adequate supportive exercises with real life content are practised to master that material. It would take foreign learners much less time to learn grammar rules that are explained to learners than to figure out grammar rules on their own based on even numerous examples because grammar rules may have exceptions and other peculiarities. Grammar books with explanations and exercises have been published by knowledgeable language specialists to make learning grammar easier so that learners don't have to discover grammar rules anew the hard long way.

Michael on 28 April 2009

Knowledge of grammar rules reduces making mistakes by learners. Without adequate knowledge of English grammar rules learners often cannot create their own grammatically correct sentences and often cannot understand what they read or hear in English exactly. I believe what especially matters in effective teaching and learning of English grammar is how clearly and easily understandable all grammar rules are explained and whether adequate supportive exercises with real life content are practised to master that material. It would take foreign learners much less time to learn grammar rules that are explained to learners than to figure out grammar rules on their own intuitively from texts because grammar rules may have exceptions and other peculiarities. Grammar books with explanations and exercises have been published by knowledgeable language specialists to make learning grammar easier so that learners don't have to discover grammar rules anew the hard long way. In my view English communicative integrated skills courses that practise listening, speaking, reading and writing alongside pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are the most effective and the most comprehensive courses. Conventional communicative English teaching and learning supported with adequate regular long-term practice in listening comprehension and speaking in English yield effective results. Lack of such practice in English by learners produces speculations that conventional English learning and teaching methods don't work.

Nimko on 6 June 2009

More focus on correct grammar restrains the creativity of the students. Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

Dani on 9 June 2009

Thank you for this well written and thought provoking article. It leads me to ask, "at what age and/or level do you feel it is appropriate to teach specific parts of speech (indirect an direct object pronouns and reflexive verbs, for instance) in a second language?" I am a middle school WL teacher and have wondered if these topics are developmentally appropriate at the middle school level. Any thoughts?



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