Should we teach grammar? Yes but no but!

Students need grammar but they don’t need grammar classes.

I was asked recently by a head of pathways programmes at an international college whether we should teach grammar in EAP. This manager was under pressure from some teachers to introduce a more structured approach to teaching and testing grammar. Some years previously, prompted by feedback from an external moderator, they had developed a bespoke grammar workbook, which was ‘aligned with the topics taught in the course, [covering] the language features which are considered to be salient in scholarly English [and targeting] areas where students show weaknesses when it comes to academic writing’. The workbook covers language patterns, such as noun phrases, active and passive voice, conditionals and modal verbs. However, teachers on the programmes have a number of issues with the resource:

  1. There is little time to teach grammar in the course
  2. It feels artificial to teach grammar this way (grammar rules and explanations, followed by practice)
  3. It does not address all issues that students have when it comes to grammar
  4. It’s dry and students do not engage with it
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For me, the key questions to ask are:

  1. Are separate grammar classes the best way to teach grammar?
  2. Would these classes meet students’ needs?
  3. Will students be able to transfer the grammar points to their academic writing?
  4. Who should take responsibility for working on grammar?

The answer to the first three questions in my view is, No.

Some teachers like grammar classes because they seem to be ‘teachable’. There is a clear learning point, e.g. relative clauses, with convergent tasks, often gapfill sentences, which have right answers. However, these classes don’t meet students’ needs because it is almost impossible to differentiate: students, who will have studied English for different lengths of time, will have varying levels of understanding of a grammar point and the ability to use it in writing. For more proficient students, having the point explained again in class is disengaging and wastes their time. This particular workbook appears to have a structural underpinning, naming the structures to be taught rather than the performance within which they are used, e.g. relative clauses, rather than defining, conditional clauses rather than scenario building. At the very least, moving from a structural to a functional syllabus would help students to transfer the grammar point to their writing.

Something else to consider is the extent to which the grammar point has to become part of the students’ interlanguage so that they can produce it without prompting. Clearly this is useful for conversational English and by extension for oral assessments and written exams. However, developing familiarity with grammar points and fluency in their use can also be promoted by encouraging students to keep reference pages of language patterns for different functions that they can refer to each time they need to draft coursework. This is the approach my co-author, Sue Argent, and I used in the Access EAP series. The underpinning syllabus is functional, exploring situations in which students need to define concepts, compare sources to use in writing, consider ethical scenarios and present reasoned and supported claims in arguments. Language patterns for these functions are presented alongside the texts and tasks that exemplify the function. Lists of academic vocabulary appear beside texts so students can discover collocations in context. We hope teachers will encourage students to consult these language patterns and vocabulary lists each time they write in order to expand the repertoire of language they can use for each function.

For the final question, I believe that students, not teachers, should take responsibility for working on grammar points, which teachers have identified in their feedback on the students’ writing. It’s fine to have a grammar workbook (with a functional syllabus) as a self-study activity because it enables students to choose which aspects they need to work on.

For me, accurate grammar is a question of interacting with an audience. If a text has many grammatical errors, the assessor will not understand it and not be able to give it a high grade. So when teachers give feedback on writing, instead of using a grammar correction key to point to the myriad grammar errors, it is better to respond as a reader, showing which parts of the text you can or can’t understand. Students can then be directed to a self-study workbook to consult language patterns that they can experiment with in their writing to make it more comprehensible for their reader.

This can also work at a very high proficiency level. I once had a student from Malaysia who had a formidable command of English grammar in his writing but one lacuna: he did not use articles (a/an/the) correctly because this grammar was very different in his language. I simply pointed out that this gave his lecturers and any journal editors he might want to publish with a bad impression because these tiny little words make a big impact on a reader. Taking a functional approach and the perspective of an audience, I gave him a short reference page for this grammar:

  1. Does your reader know the thing/person/event/concept you are talking about? If yes, use the in front of the noun phrase.
  2. If the thing/person/event/concept is new to the reader use a/an for singular and no article for plural or uncountable nouns.

This doesn’t capture the nuances of the grammar of articles but it would address most of the grammar errors this student made in his otherwise flawless writing.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

4 thoughts on “Should we teach grammar? Yes but no but!”

    1. Hi, thanks for sharing this. Two questions from me:

      1. Would you test grammar in EAP? (If yes, how?)

      2. What if the students are just not into keeping “reference pages of language patterns for different functions”? I just can’t imagine any of my students being motivated to do this. Any tips would be appreciated.

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      1. Hi Rina,
        Thanks for your questions. As I take a performance/functional approach to EAP rather than a structural/topics/skills approach, I wouldn’t select grammar items and test them in isolation – in the same way that I wouldn’t select skills and test them in isolation – but set up a task where students write for a specific purpose and audience and then look at the way they use language patterns that underpin that performance.
        Students have to be supported in class to become autonomous so if they are ‘just not into keeping references pages’ then class time has to be given to setting up this habit. Instead of taking time to encourage students to chat about the topic of a text, you can ask them to look in the text for useful language and then all record this together (you included) on a class reference page, which they copy. You can see an example of this for comparing in Access EAP: Frameworks pp 92-93, where students are asked to report on a seminar and compare research and journalism.
        Whenever they do in-class writing or writing at home, you can ask them to have their reference page open next to them as they write. We don’t need them to memorize these patterns initially but to try to use them in order to expand their repertoire of patterns.
        One final comment is that you are not expected to entertain your EAP students in the way that you might be expected to entertain students in a general English class studying for holiday purposes. Of course their can be light-hearted moments, but EAP studies are a serious enterprise and students should feel challenged. The EAP class should simulate the experiences they will have in their degree studies and, believe me, lecturers do not usually expect that they have to entertain their students. That doesn’t mean a lot of boring lecturing in an EAP class but it does mean challenging content that helps students to perform beyond their current level.

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