Grammar at Upper
by Sam Smith
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.
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?
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.
do we need grammar?
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.
grammar be taught?
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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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