or not to grammar?
by Kendall Peet
There is currently a debate raging concerning the place of
grammar within the EFL/ESL curriculum. On one side of the
fence, arguing that grammar is a fundamental component- perhaps
the fundamental component- of any syllabus, stand the ESL
publishers, the authors of the published student texts, the
stolid linguists, and a handful of prominent published individuals,
such as Harmer, Sinclair, and Tonkyn. On the other side of
the fence, arguing against the use of "packaged language"
textbooks, with a grammar based linear syllabus, stand a growing
body of weighty figures, such as Allwright, Lewis, Underhill,
and Thornbury, who are joined by a not insignificant number
of teachers in the field experimenting with different teaching
methods. It is not within the scope of this article to present
a comprehensive history or indeed a current account of the
arguments for or against a grammar-based syllabus, but rather
the purpose of this article is first to examine the argument
against grammar-centred teaching, and then to look at practical
alternatives, suggested by Scott Thornbury in Uncovering Grammar,
that can be tested by teachers in the best interests of teacher
The Argument against
In the text Uncovering Grammar,
and in a series of articles, Scott Thornbury puts forward
a convincing argument against the use of pre-packaged, grammar-based
textbooks as the central means to teach English as a foreign
or second language to students(1). He bases his argument partly
on research into first language acquisition, stating that,
in line with Lewis, language is first learnt in "prefabricated
chunks," and that there is a natural progression from
lexis to grammar, but that grammatical knowledge cannot be
applied until the learner has, as Lewis writes, "a sufficiently
large mental lexicon"(2). He also argues that grammar-based
lessons do not lead to oral fluency, and it is oral fluency
that the majority of students want most. In effect, what Thornbury
is saying is that language is acquired, rather than learnt,
and in doing so is reviving, in part, ideas raised by Krashen,
Allwrigtht, and Prabhu, taking a somewhat Humanistic Approach,
whilst at the same time supporting the limited use of relatively
new theories such as TBL (task-based learning), LBT (learner-based
teaching, developed by Campbell and Kryszewska), and The Lexical
Approach (developed by Michael Lewis)(3). In arguing that
language is acquired, rather than learnt, Thornbury is arguing
for a teaching model based on a process, being the process
of "emerging grammar", and not on the traditional
hierarchical model of transmission.
Traditional linguists, typically
university professors, and authors such as Sinclair, claim
that "those who teach languages depend on those who describe
them," and in so doing assert the validity of the hierarchical
top-down, transmission model of education(4). Thornbury, however,
rejects this claim and other such claims, which effectively
proclaim "the return of grammar to the centre of language
teaching and learning"(5) , fundamentally on the basis
that they originate from interested parties, which is to say,
they come from parties which have a financial interest in
seeing the return of grammar to centre stage. He accuses the
publishing houses of perverting the process of education and
highlights the role that authors such as John Soars play in
trivialising learning to a marketable product(6). He therefore,
rejects Jeremy Harmer's view that course texts offer a "coherent
syllabus… [which are] the result of many years of experience
and …much research and discussion"(7), concurring
with Allwright(8) , who also challenged the hegemony of gobalised
coursebooks, in favouring a less ambitious text, possibly
something locally produced, or, taking it a step further,
moves toward LBT(9) and Underhill(10) (advocates of the material-free
teaching) in advocating a materials-light approach. He argues
that grammar-centred lessons divert classroom language from
discourse to metadiscourse, and that coursebooks simulate
rather than stimulate. In sum, Thornbury is saying that teachers
need to step outside the confines of the coursebook in order
to provide real communicative opportunities for learners.
1 The articles referred
listed in the Bibliography.
2 Thornbury, S. 2001. Uncovering Grammar. pp. 16, 17
Lewis, M. 1997. The Lexical Approach. p.15.
3 If you are unfamiliar with the theories presented by the
authors mentioned, please refer to the bibliography.
4 Sinclair, J. 1997. "Corpus evidence in language description".
5 Tonkyn, A. I994. "Introduction: grammar and the language
teacher". pp 1-14
6 Thornbury, S. 1998. "Grammar, Power and Bottled Water".
IATEFL Newsletter, 140. pp 19-20.
7 Thornbury, S. & Meddings, L. July, 2001. "Coursebooks:
The Roaring in the Chimney". MET, Vol. 10, No. 3.
8 Allwright, 1981, 1990. "What do we want teaching materials
for?" pp. 131-147.
9 Campbell, C. & Kryszewska, H. 1992. Learner-based teaching.
10 Underhill, A. "Teaching without a coursebook".
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