StudyCorgi Linguistics

Grammar and the Language Teaching

Personal Statement about Grammar

Grammar is an aspect of studying English that causes much debate and disagreement, both in policies of teaching and in the description of the subject on the whole. Historically, there have been several approaches to viewing, studying, and teaching grammar, each of which has made a significant contribution to the development of English language teaching. However, the modern learning community, including those who obtain awareness of their mother-tongue and those who wish to learn English in the form of a foreign language, needs a more balanced and coherent approach to studying and viewing English grammar. Since there are too many descriptions of grammar that rarely overlap, I had to conduct my research to obtain a personalized opinion and attitude to the issue.

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The structuralist approach to studying grammar has been dominating the theoretical and practical fields of English grammar for the major part of the 20th century; it dictates the rigidness of grammar rules and the inability to step aside from their observance for the sake of seeking the only correct meaning possible (Chalker, 1994, p. 31). I accept the significance of this approach, and its validity does not cause any objections from my point because it is the way I studied grammar and the way I perceive it.

However, the problem of the structuralist approach is that it was initially constructed with the help of purely scientific, detached methods, with little regard to the construction of meaning. This is what has made the aspect of grammar so complex and fearful for students: I agree with Willis’ (1994) opinion that the major problem with structuralism in grammar is that the grammatical structures are not in fact complex, but they are represented as such in the process of teaching grammar (p. 56).

I also feel that I am heavily influenced by this traditional approach, and now I am working on making grammar more comprehensible for students as it should not be viewed as fearful or extremely complicated. The main task of me as a teacher is in connecting the grammatical realia with the students’ everyday experiences, to show the practical meaning of grammar in their life, and to reveal the grammar patterns they use without knowing about that.

At this point, I support the suggestion of Willis (1994) to propose an alternative, lexically-based approach and description of grammar (pp. 63-64). The purpose of grammar should be seen as the provision of useful insights into language that is being studied, and making them comprehensible and generalizable (Willis, 1994, p. 56). The starting point of grammar studies should be found not in the English structural dogma of grammar rules, but the learner’s grammar.

I strongly agree with this definition because the human factor and the individual peculiarities of learners’ perception should become the central point in studies. Grammar is not a set of rules learning which by heart will ensure a good command of English; it is a flexible structure helping the learner to construct his discourse with intended shades of meaning.

Defining grammar as serving primarily for communication purposes has become the point of Givon’s (1993) argument, with the growing awareness of the fact that grammar was not a rigid logical machine, but a biological organism that also experienced some evolutionary processes (p. 2). I am a strong proponent of the communicative approach to teaching grammar, mainly because I have little experience, and it is limited by working with ESL students who need English to survive in English-speaking surroundings first of all.

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Therefore, their grammar should be sufficient, and should not be sacrificed for the sake of meaning, but it should be based on the meaning they imply in the speech acts, and should help them in self-expression, and not prevent them from doing that. I utilize this description very often because I deal with the practical side of teaching grammar in the classroom. My ESL students are diverse, representing various nationalities and cultures, studying English for various purposes, etc., so I need to modify the assessment of results according to their needs, and not according to the unified, generally accepted scale of proficiency.

I surely pay tribute to the importance of syntactic and semantic relationships within the English language as a precondition of learning and, what is more important, understanding grammar. They represent an essential layer of understanding and constructing the discourse, so I emphasize them in the course of studies as well. Brown (1973) and Jackendorf (1992) are strong proponents of that approach, though I cannot rely so heavily only on semantic structure understanding by students.

They often start from small pieces of information such as separate word units, and then learn to construct small grammatical units to reflect their vision of the language. However, coming to negations, sentence modulations and modifications is a long-term process that is impossible to accomplish without knowing the basic grammar rules. Therefore, I prefer to introduce smaller grammar relationships first, to explain the communicative meaning they bear, and only then to proceed to some more complex semantic structures.

As for my general viewpoint on grammar description, I am more inclined to view English grammar as a biologically evolving organism that accommodates to the needs of speakers, as described by Givon (1993, p. 2). It is enough to recollect the changes that took place since the time of the Old English evolution, inflectional changes, the emergence of continuous tense forms, etc. to see how well the language manages to adjust itself to the needs of users.

The flow of changes, the renewal of language have to be communicated to the ESL learners as they are rarely able to grasp those changes naturally because of the limited linguistic world image in the foreign language they possess. Hence, the structuralist approach should become the deriving point for an English language teacher to start his or her research in the area of grammar changes, alterations, and allowances that may be made use of by ESL learners.

I am a teacher of ESL students, so the issues of relating implicit and explicit language acquisition are highly important in designing the curriculum and choosing the best techniques for grammar instruction. There are various standpoints in the question of implicit or explicit knowledge dominance, and I rely heavily on the views of Boomer (1984) and Gallwey (1974) about the natural ability of students to learn implicitly, and me being a guide in their learning processes. My perception of the hidden mechanisms of implicit and explicit learning has also been supported by some researchers in the field from whose studies I take theoretical and practical guidelines for instruction (Ellis, 1994; Schmidt, 1995).

As I have already mentioned, I have come to understand how important the communicative approach in teaching grammar is. According to this approach, the attention of the learner is drawn to the linguistic form encountered in the process of learning and interaction, with the primary focus on its meaning. Sometimes the teacher may not attribute any explicit meaning to the form, letting the learner arrive at it independently, but some decontextualized teaching and explicit instruction can be included in case learning is challenged (Schmidt, 1995, p. xvi).

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I believe that the interaction of the student with the environment discussed in the work of Swain and Lapkin (2007) provides a sound basis for the communicative approach to studies. Combining it with a diagnostic assessment, I am looking for a constructive form of language learning, and reflection on the retained material is a more beneficial form of studying for ESL students, giving the result with the desired immediacy and proficiency for learners (Alderson, 2006).

Concluding my reflection on grammar teaching and learning, I would like to admit that the dominant approach should be present in the teacher’s philosophy and model of teaching, but still, some situational, contextual deviations should be allowed with the proper regard for students’ abilities, the pace of learning, weak points in language, etc. I am personally interested in making the process of teaching grammar maximally effective for my ESL students, so I use the communicative approach for the sake of drawing tight parallels with the surrounding reality, with the immediate linguistic needs of those students.

Making the prime emphasis on students’ experience and reflections, I make them realize not the isolation and rigidness of grammar, but the immediate speaking and writing need it satisfies in the process of language usage. Hence, the various descriptions of grammar, as well as approaches to their application in practice are necessary for constructing the coherent learning process and arranging the supportive environment for not only language acquisition, but efficient language usage.

Adequacy Values of Grammar Descriptions

Grammar descriptions are numerous, as it has already been said in the previous section, and each of them offers a distinct idea of what a language is and how it should be mastered. The traditional structuralist approach is considered out-of-date and too prescriptive nowadays, though it offers the firm, categorized system of grammar units that have to be known to acquire proficiency in English. The structuralist approach often over-complicates the studies of grammar, but it at the same time enables the teacher to locate the students’ knowledge in the overall space of grammar structures and items to make decisions on where to move further.

My own experience in grammar research allows me to make some generalizations and conclusions on the effectiveness of certain approaches, descriptions, and visions of grammar available for all interested audiences as a result of immense research in the field. The first area in which I took my active interest is the measure of deviations and arbitrariness I could allow in terms of teaching and checking the grammar of ESL students.

Despite the structuralist opinion that grammar does not tolerate deviations, and it should be used as a tool for formulating the necessary meanings in the framework of certain communicative purposes, my own experience shows how loose grammar rules often are.

As a teacher of English, I was also educated based on strict compliance with the established set of rules existing in grammar, and I had rationalizations for all usages and cases in the practical aspect of grammar studies. However, both my practical experience in the field of teaching and my theoretical research enabled me to see how situational grammar usage is, and how many variants of grammar forms one can use without any penalty and risk of being incorrect.

Hence, I started to look for the loose points in grammar usage as an additional source of simplifying the understanding of English grammar for ESL students and making them less scared of the chance to make a mistake and be misunderstood. Here much of my philosophy derives from the ideas of Chalker (1994) who underlines the necessity of forming a personal opinion on arbitrary and mandatory rules in grammar, and further on communicating them to students for their successful further application of grammar in practice.

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Another field of my research in the field of grammar refers to the search for a proper balance between building implicit and explicit knowledge in ESL students. It is surely helpful to use the method of Swain and Lapkin (2007) on posing students in immersion classrooms and helping them learn from their own experience, their interaction with the environment (p. 84). However, it is not always possible to obtain necessary conditions for learning, and it is the task of the teacher to become the mediator between the classroom, explicit studies, and the realistic environment where the students can learn implicitly.

I certainly make a heavier emphasis on implicit learning because it has proven to be the strongest, long-term knowledge retained in the minds of students. However, the absence of explicit instruction sometimes turns out destructive for their implicit findings, since it prevents them from generalizing and interpreting the results of implicit learning. I am working hard on finding the equilibrium between activities that can give both forms of knowledge, and detecting the moments when each of them appears necessary.

Finally, assessment issues have been troubling me as a teacher for a long time, as I realized the necessity to take the individual, socio-cultural characteristics of ESL students in the formulation of proper assessment tools for them. The majority of assessment schemes for ESL students are now under severe criticism, as they lack universality and individuality at the same time. They do not take into account the individual purposes of studying language and the cognition of ESL students different from the native speakers in the English-speaking environment.

Hence, I stopped my choice on the diagnostic tools of assessment because of the great number of advantages it gives for students and me personally in the assessment of achieved results and making decisions on the further grammar work with students (Alderson, 2006).

I have made these conclusions on grammar research basing my viewpoint on the numerous examples of grammar usage in life provided by my ESL students. These examples showed to me how seriously the students are affected by their native language structure, and how much they try to reflect their knowledge in the new language acquired. For example, the most difficult grammar points for us to overcome were: the usage of passive voice (especially the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ in the passive voice constructions), and the differences in formulating special questions. Their detailed discussion will illustrate my previous assumptions about grammar research.

Another point of my active interest is the usage of voice and mood forms in the English language; as one can see from the Appendix, I have conducted much research in the field and became able to produce a set of valuable conclusions on the issue.

As I researched the materials such as Curtis (2008) and Dawnay (1857), Gucker (1966), and the materials of the Harvard University (1950), I was able to detect the ongoing process of language evolution, the changes that gradually took place in response to the changing needs of speakers, and the introduction of new voice and mood forms into English. It became interesting for me to research the variety of viewpoints on the types of moods existing in English as well as reasoning provided for each existing typology.

The procedures I used to produce the slides including systematizing the existing information about voice and mood forms in English, both existing now and in the past centuries. The voice forms also represented a curious phenomenon, being stable but rationalized by various researchers in different terms and ways. My interest in voice forms was also determined by the sharp disagreement in the field of the very usage of passive voice in English.

Some researchers state that the passive voice constructions should be avoided in any possible way; others indicate the intricate shades of meaning one can render with the help of passive voice forms. Hence, I attributed more time to the investigation of passive voice usage situations and argumentation of cases in which it is applicable.

Examples from real-life included as illustrations to the points I included in the presentation are also taken from my personal experience, some phrases I heard, and the shades of meaning they implied. It is useful to illustrate the intentions of the speaker in eliminating the emphasis on the object by using passive voice. Therefore, I discussed different situations of voice and mood usage regarding their true meaning in the English language framework to eliminate misunderstanding and common mistakes ESL students make in the course of studying those topics.

The real-time observations in language usage often help me make inferences to be used in classroom practice to illustrate the evolution of language and the arbitrariness of some grammar rules in use. Thus, for example, I have started to notice that the conditional form ‘if I were/if it were/if she were’ is disappearing as more often than not; I hear people say (and do say it myself) ‘if I was/if it was,’ etc. The change may be explained by the fact that the usage of the plural form ‘was’ is hard to explain in rational terms, especially with singular subjects like ‘he, she, it, I’. Therefore, people guided by conventional rules of subject-verb agreement use the normal pattern for construction of the conditional form as well and see it as a correct one.

Another example can be found in the case of subject-verb agreement, as well as adverb usage. A friend of mine said this while explaining why her 1-year-old was covered it what looked like bruises: “Nothing makes a baby look more like they were beaten up real bad than eating blackberries.” I knew she was trying to make a joke based on the ads for Mike’s Hard Lemonade from a few years ago, but when she noticed I wrote it down she immediately explained herself so that I wouldn’t think she had made a grammar mistake.

If-clauses also suffer many changes and arbitrary applications in everyday speech. Many speakers violate the rules such as non-applicability of the future-in-the-past forms in the conditional clause, and the usage of modal verbs as well. For example, a couple of my friends have heard “if I would have known…” which irks them instead of “if I had known…” Another case is the comparative form of adjectives – some sources use the compound forms, while others prefer the suffix forms.

For example, I remember I was checking the definition of the term “thaw” in the Longman Handbook Dictionary and Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. One of them said to become more “friendly” but the other one said to become “friendlier”.

The discussion in class today of “anyway” versus “anyways” reminded me of something that I’ve been noticing in print for some time now, but haven’t been able to determine the usage distribution. The question here stands in the preference of some particular form for the usage:

  1. She was facing away from me, with her back toward me.
  2. She was facing away from me, with her back towards me.

Drawing a general conclusion from the present portfolio, one can state that grammar studies are highly contextual, and they should always be welded in the communicative context of learners’ and teacher-learner interactions. It is senseless to try to impose the structured, formalized grammar rule set on the learners who can hardly draw parallels between it and the situational deviations in meanings, intentions, and grammatical implications. Therefore, one should be always aware of the challenges in grammar teaching such as the intricacies in implicit and explicit language teaching, internalization of explicit findings, as well as the connection of grammar concepts with the immediate linguistic experience ESL learners may have.

The ongoing research and optimization of existing grammar descriptions and approaches should become the key to teaching balance. The task of the teacher is to be not only the instructor but the mediator, guide, and explainer for those seeking their ways through grammar studies. Every student may build up his or her conceptual framework of grammar rules in action, and the task of the teacher is to show the whole realm of alterations that can be made within the rigid structure adopted long ago but evolving gradually to serve the learners’ and speakers’ needs.

References

Alderson, J.C. (2006). Diagnosing Foreign Language Proficiency: The Interface between Assessment and Learning. London, UK: Continuum.

Boomer, G. (1984). Piggy Nick – That’s a Good Word. In Britton, J. Teaching English: an International Exchange. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Brown, R. (1973). A first language. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Cameron, K. (1999). CALL & the learning community. Wiltshire, UK: Intellect Books.

Chalker, S. (1994). Pedagogical Grammar: Principles and Problems. In Bygate, M. (ed.) Grammar and the Language Teacher. London: Prentice Hall, pp. 31-44.

Ellis, R. (1994). A Theory of Instructed Second Language Acquisition. in N. Ellis. (ed.), Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, pp. 79-114.

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., & Marshall, S. (2009). A Handbook for teaching and learning in higher education: enhancing academic practice. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Gallwey, T. (1974). The Inner Game of Tennis. London: Pan Books – Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Givon, T. (1993). English Grammar: A Function-Based Introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Jackendoff, R. (1992). Semantic Structures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lantolf, J.P. (2007). Conceptual knowledge and instructed second language learning: a socio-cultural perspective. In S. Fotos, & H. Nassaji (Eds.), Form focused instruction and teachers education: Studies in honour of Rod Ellis (pp. 35-54). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, R. (1995). Attention and Awareness in FLL. Hawaii: The University of Hawaii Press.

Skehan, P. (2007). Task research and language teaching: reciprocal relationships. In S. Fotos & H. Nassaji (Eds.). Form-focused instruction and teacher education. Studies in Honour of Rod Ellis (pp.55-69). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M., & Lapkin, S. (2007). The distributed nature of second language learning: Neil’s perspective. In S. Fotos & H. Nassaji (Eds.). Form-focused instruction and teacher education. Studies in Honour of Rod Ellis (pp. 73-85). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Willis, D. (1994). A Lexical Approach. In Bygate, M., Tomkyn. A & Williams, E. Grammar and the Language Teacher, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall International.

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