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To grammar, or not to grammar?
by Kendall Peet
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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 development.

The Argument against grammar-centred teaching

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". pp. 27-39
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. p. 11
10 Underhill, A. "Teaching without a coursebook".

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