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II.3 Grammar now

What, then, is the status of grammar now? What is common practice with regard to the teaching of grammar, and what directions for future practice are suggested by recent and current research?

Firstly, it is important to establish the fact that grammar teaching can mean different things to different people. It may mean simply teaching to a grammar syllabus but otherwise not making any reference to grammar in the classroom at all (as was the case with audiolingualism). On the other hand it may mean teaching to a communicative syllabus but dealing with grammar questions that arise in the course of doing communicative activities. This is sometimes called covert grammar teaching. More typically, grammar teaching means teaching to a grammar syllabus and explicitly presenting the rules of grammar, using grammar terminology. This is known as overt grammar teaching.[13]

Lately, a good deal has been written about a grammar revival. There is a widespread belief that, with the introduction of Communicative Language Teaching, attention to grammar was eclipsed by emphasis of experiential learning and purely communicative goals. This is only partly true: syllabuses did appear in the 1970s that appeared to marginalize grammar is favour of functions.

The view that Communicative Language Teaching deposed grammar may also stem from a tendency to equate grammar with accuracy. It is true that, in comparison with Audiolingualism. , Communicative Language Teaching has tended to place more weight on being intelligible than on being correct. Such an emphasis need not be at the expense of attention to the rules of grammar, however. Relaxing on accuracy simply acknowledges the fact that the rules of grammar take a long time to establish themselves, and that, in the meantime, the learners’ wish to communicate should not be needlessly frustrated. [13]

It is also true that the deep-end version of Communicative Language Teaching was hostile to explicit grammar teaching. But this was relatively short-lived, and, while of enormous interest from a theoretical perspective, it seems to have had little or no influence on global classroom practice. If grammar ever went away, it was only very briefly and not very far.

The sense that we are experiencing a grammar revival has been underlined by the emergence of two influential theoretical concepts:

1) Focus on form;

2) Consciousness raising.

Both concepts owe something to the work of Stephen Krashen , even if only as a reaction to his claim that classroom teaching is a waste of time. We shall remember that Krashen distinguishes between acquisition and learning. Grammar teaching – that is, attention to the forms of the language – lies in the domain of learning, and says Krashen, has little or no influence on language acquisition. More recently, research suggests that without some attention to form, learners run the risk of fossilisation. A focus on form does not necessarily mean a return to drill-and-repeat type methods of teaching. Nor does it mean the use of an off-the-shelf grammar syllabus. A focus on form may simply mean correcting a mistake. In this sense, a focus on form is compatible with task-based approach.

Related to the notion of focus on form is the notion of consciousness-raising. Krashen argued that acquisition is a largely unconscious process. All that is needed to trigger it are large doses of comprehensible input. Other theorists have argued that the learners’ role is perhaps less passive than Krashen implies, and that acquisition involves conscious processes, of which the most fundamental is attention.

Pointing out features of the grammatical system is thus a form of consciousness-raising. It may not lead directly and instantly to the acquisition of the item in question. But it may nevertheless trigger a train of mental processes that in time will result in accurate and appropriate production. [13]

It might seem that we have come full circle, and that grammar consciousness-raising is simply a smart term for what was once called grammar presentation. But presentation is usually paired with practice, implying immediate – and accurate – output. Consciousness-raising on the other hand, does not necessarily entail production: it may simply exist at the level of understanding and remembering. In fact, put simply, that has what raised consciousness is; the state of remembering, having understood something.

To sum up: if the teacher uses techniques that direct the learners’ attention to form, and if the teacher provides activities that promote awareness of grammar, learning seems to result. It is needed, therefore, to add to the pro-grammar position the arguments for a focus on form and for consciousness-raising. Together they comprise the paying-attention-to-form argument. That is to say, learning seems to be enhanced when the learners’ attention is directed to getting the forms right, and when the learners’ attention is directed to features of the grammatical system.

These would seem to tip the balance in favour of grammar. While the “anti-grammar” position is strongly and even fiercely argued, it tends to depend on one basic assumption, that is, that the process of second language acquisition mirror those of first language acquisition. While there are certainly cases of adult learners who have reached near-native level of proficiency in a second language simply through immersion in the second language culture, these tend to be exceptions rather that the rule. On the other hand, there are compelling arguments to support the view that without attention to form, including grammatical form, the learner is unlikely to progress beyond the most basic level of communication. [13]

But this does not mean that grammar should be the goal of teaching, nor that a focus on form alone is sufficient. The goal of communicative movement – communicative competence – embraces more than just grammar, and implies a focus on meaning as well. It may be that communicative competence is best achieved through communication, through making meanings, and that grammar is a way of tidying these meanings up. If so, the teachers’ energies should be directed mainly at providing opportunities for authentic language use, employing grammar as a resource rather than as an end in itself. As Leibnitz is supposed to have said: “A language is acquired through practice; it is merely perfected through grammar.” [10]

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