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Developing Grammar at Upper
Intermediate Level
by Sam Smith
- 1


Introduction

Evaluating my experience of teaching grammar, I have realised that it has been an area I have paid too little attention to in general.
In this paper, I hope to set out an outline of theoretical and practical ideas for me to follow, with a particular focus at upper intermediate level, when focusing on grammar and when practising it.
I hope to do this by answering the following questions.

What is grammar?
Why do we need it?
Should it be taught?
What happens if we don't pay enough attention to it?
What does learning it involve?
Some points to keep in mind when teaching it.
How should we go about teaching it?


What is grammar?

A typical definition of grammar would be 'the rules by which words change their form and are combined into sentences' or 'a book which teaches these rules' (dictionary definitions) but for the purposes of learning a language these definitions are not enough.
Rob Batstone divides grammar into product: the component parts or rules that make up the language, and process: the ways in which grammar is deployed from moment to moment in communication. (Batstone 1994,5) While of no doubt the rules are important to the learner, simply knowing them is a far cry from being able to formulate or interpret complicated utterances in the rush of real-time communication.
Scott Thornbury even introduces the term 'to grammar' implying that it is a process that we do as we speak and makes the analogy between product and process in terms of something finished like an omelette and the process of making it, saying that it is impossible, if you only see or taste the omelette, to be able to actually make it. (Thornbury 2001,2)
It is this idea of grammar as something which learners have to 'do', which I want to focus on and help my learners improve.

Why do we need grammar?

At the most basic level, we need grammar to show meaning. Through syntactic and morphologic modifications we can give our utterances meaning. For example, 'man bite dog' can be modified syntactically (e.g. through word order) or morphologically (e.g. using past participle) to signify the doer, done to, time and aspect, number and classification and question and negative. We use grammar according to how we want to present the message, down to the subtlest of meanings, for example, the passive to take away the responsibility of the doer.
We need grammar as well though, to signify distance. Batstone mentions social, psychological, hypothetical and temporal distance as areas where we implement grammar to negotiate distance. To take one example of a request for money, ranging from '$20' in the most intimate, immediate situation, to 'I was wondering if it might be possible for you to lend me $20' at the other extreme. (Batstone, 1994,17) Clearly the 2nd utterance would be more difficult to formulate.
Thornbury continues this theme, saying that the further we get away from 'the real, here, now and us' and towards 'the unreal, there, then and them', the more we need to use grammar. (Thornbury 2001,7) From this we can say that, the more context, the more shared knowledge, the less need for grammar, and the bigger the knowledge gap, the more need for grammar.
It also follows that we will rely on lexis and gestures, the closer we are in terms of distance and shared knowledge.
This idea has important teaching implications in that the typical classroom doesn't provide much of a knowledge gap or in other words, much distance. We therefore need to try and increase this gap in terms of using less context, or creating some kind of distance, if we want our learners to have a need to use grammar.

Should grammar be taught?

Stephen Krashen in the 1980s advocated the view that learners need to be exposed to a lot of comprehensible input at a level just above their own for acquisition to take place and drew attention to immersion education in particular, where the children did achieve a level of comprehension equivalent to that of native speakers of the same age. However the children in these schools failed to attain the same levels productively. Why wasn't this exceptional receptive level transferred, through a developing interlanguage, to the same levels productively?
One answer could be that when we listen we use comprehension strategies (for example, paying attention to stressed words and using our schematic knowledge to understand the message) and therefore don't have to rely on linguistic content for comprehension to take place. If this is the way in which we listen, it follows that there is no reason to stretch our interlanguage, and linguistic development need not happen. (Skehan 1994,176)
A similar idea could also be true in speech. Learners use, and are often encouraged to use communication strategies, such as simplification or avoidance and the more these strategies are found to be successful, the less demand there will be to improve the linguistic system.
One more factor in the non development of the linguistic system is the nature of conversation itself, where we operate on a 'least effort principle', we say what we need to in the most efficient way. In normal conversation, being long-winded would be frowned upon (breaking Grice's quantity maxim) and we would only add to the conversation, what we consider to be necessary or unknown. From the nature of conversation, therefore there is little stimulus to push forward a developing inter-language.
From the above, if left to fend on their own without grammar teaching, we would expect a learner to improve their communication strategies and discourse skills and not necessarily to improve their interlanguage or grammar. (Skehan 1994, 180)


What happens if we don't pay enough attention to grammar?

It follows then that if we don't pay attention to grammar, or more specifically, creating opportunities for learners to improve their grammar, they are likely to fossilize, or reach a point where they can cope with the level of communication that is demanded of them by making use of their existing grammatical resources and communication strategies and probably with sufficient fluency to not see the need to develop their linguistic abilities any further.
Skehan (1994) reports on some findings from Schmidt (1983) where a Japanese learner 'Wes' does exactly this but became accepted as a member of his speech community in Hawaii. Wes was quite happy about this and didn't seem to mind his fossilisation, but in my case, with my upper intermediate students here in Spain it could be a different matter. On their needs analyses at the start of the course they did place a high value on improving towards native like perception and production, and yet I can see the same happening. They are very fluent, cope with all listenings competently, and interact well. All due to the way they've been trained (by me in part) to use communication strategies and the amount of fluency practice they've been given. It could also be due to the amount of lexical noticing they've been doing, conforming with the idea that language is stored and produced lexically.

Before going on to some practical solutions, I would like first to look at how linguistic ability improves, or to put it another way when grammar grows.

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