Explicit or implicit grammar teaching?

Which grammar teaching method?

In ESL and EFL grammar teaching methods are debatable. Some see grammar as the backbone of languages and learners should be presented with explicit grammar courses. Others, however, think that knowing the grammar doesn’t necessarily lead to language mastery. They contend that focusing on explicit grammar teaching produces unsuccessful language users. Which one of these methods is the right one?

Explicit grammar teaching

Teachers who focus on language forms presentation, explain the grammar rules and practice through drilling hold a traditional view of language teaching. They equate language to grammar mastery and accurate usage and create bored, disaffected students who can produce correct forms on exercises and tests, but consistently make errors when they try to use the language in context. In other words, students under this form of instruction know a lot about the language but they are unable to use the language itself appropriately in contextualized situations –  these  students consistently make errors when they try to use the language in context. One of the most famous methods which advocate this kind of instruction is the audiolingual method.

Implicit grammar teaching

By contrast some teachers think that people can acquire language without any overt grammar instruction much in the same way children learn their mother tongue. They believe that conscious use of language forms may result in high affective filter and consequently poor language profeciency and fluency. These teachers prefer language use to language usage and focus on meaning rather than form. For language activities, they provide contextualized and authentic language and do not refer to rules or forms at all.

A balanced view

I believe that focus on grammar explanation and the absence of any reference to meaning can be detrimental to language acquisition. Of course grammar is the backbone of any language. Grammar knowledge can be helpful in producing accurate forms of language and acts in monitoring its use. But, it is worthwhile noticing that one can communicate more or less a message with vocabulary items alone while it is impossible to do so using grammar alone. This shows that grammar alone doesn’t  make the language. What is more, language use can be tremendously affected by conscious language usage as this may create a stressful environment.  So a balanced approach to grammar teaching takes into consideration the appropriate use of language and doesn’t reject the (conscious or unconscious) internalization of the rules. Some of the major approaches that hold this view are the communicative approach, the natural approach and  the lexical approach. Here are key features of this type of grammar instruction.

Exploration instead of explanation

Explaining a rule doesn’t necessarily lead to full understanding of the language point.  It is preferable to let students get the rules by themselves. A grammar-discovery approach involves providing learners with data to illustrate a particular grammatical point and getting them to analyze it in order to reach an awareness of how the feature works. In effect, this needs acquirers to be active thinkers in order to discover for themselves how the grammar works. Instead of giving students a set of model examples to repeat and drill, it would be wiser to give them the opportunity to explore the examples by noticing/observing, making hypotheses and drawing conclusions about the language forms. This leads to raising an awareness about  the grammar and a meaningful and active understanding of the rules.

Contextualized grammar

Habit formation through drilling and repetition cannot lead to language mastery. However, using authentic language (instead of artificial language) to unconsciously internalize language forms might be much more beneficial to language acquirers.

Advantages of grammar-discovery

  • Students discover grammar for themselves instead of being told.
  • Grammar becomes a content to be communicated about.
  • Acquirers develop analytical skills to understand and internalize language rules.
  • Grammar discovery leads to a deeper understanding and awareness of  the mother tongue or the first language as well as the target language grammar.
  • Grammar discovery teaches students to be autonomous learners.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, grammar must be part of any language instruction. But the approach one adopts in the grammar teaching differ from teacher to teacher. While some may underestimate any importance of grammar in the teaching practices; others put grammar in the forefront of the language teaching. I believe that a balanced view would consider grammar important as long as it leads to better language use in context rather than being a set of rules about the language that do not help much in the communication of  meaning.


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8 Responses

  1. Lynda says:

    I really like what you had to say and agree with you. Also you might want to check your spelling of *detrimantal* I believe it is detrimental.

  2. Thank you Lynda for your comment. The “detrimental” mistake was fixed :)

  3. Adou says:

    hi dear colleague,
    I think I share your views as regards the “explicit/implicit” grammar teaching contoversy, especially that you hold a balanced view which would opt for a variety of the two methods. In fact, one has to oscilate between the two every now and then within the same lesson. However, I do believe that opting for one method rather than the other depends much on what level and for what purpose you are teaching English.
    Good luck

  4. I agree with you. It is wise not to be dogmatic about methods. Every situation needs specific teaching practices depending on students needs, teaching goals, language points, number of students, level of students and other factors…

  5. Would you rather be taught how to properly cross a busy street or find out through trial and error? Explanation and exploration need to be part and parcel of the learning process.

    I’ve just completed an article citing 21 assumptions that most of us make with respect to teaching grammar and then I follow with 4 simple steps that ensure you are teaching a balanced and effective grammar program. I would love to read your readers’ reactions. Find the article at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/how-to-teach-grammar/.

  6. @Mark Pennington
    I have never been taught how to cross a busy street and I can assure you that I cross the street pretty well. I agree with you though that teaching grammar is important. However, I think that grammar rules are important as long as they serve language use. I also think that when students try to find out the rules (even through trial and error :) ) by themselves, They will effectively acquire the system.

  7. adly says:

    Pretty nice article. Implicit or explicit way of teaching grammar. it depends about lots of imposed factors and conditions.
    plz continue

  8. Ishola Farooq says:

    Thanks for this write ups. Please could you give me the new modern methods of teaching grammar? thanks in anticipation.

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