Grammar: To Teach or Not To Teach?


Though we prefer not to admit it, that unhappy face appears as much on a Sunday morning of lesson planning as it does in the classroom, when those same lessons are being carried out. Unfortunately, the mere mention of grammar launches most students--and at times even some teachers--into immediate boredom. It is for this reason that we, as educators, are charged with the grandiose responsibility of rising above the ennui to deliver content by means of creative and flexible activities. With this in mind, we present the following information, with hopes that it might in some way aid other professionals in our field in the task of grammar instruction. We have included a brief review of the three most salient research perspectives as well as a short summary of each of our own personal viewpoints, with supporting links in each section. We have also created a series of grammar activities, each categorized by the perspective it supports, that we hope can also be used to enrich the language classrooms of others who share our passion for language. ¡Viva la gramática!

Table of Contents:


Explicit Instruction

Explicit grammar instruction involves teacher explanations of grammar in prescriptive or descriptive ways. This particular perspective, as its name suggests, encourages direct methods of teaching grammar which provide the students with overt examples and lists of rules. Within this perspective, the focus is placed on grammar drills which are aimed at teaching mechanical habit formation in learning in hopes that the students will eventually be able to move from mere repetition to open self-expression. Many teachers find this form of teaching to be necessary, mainly because it is the way in which they learned grammar themselves. The basic flaw in this way of thinking, however, is its failure to take into account all of the other external sources that contribute to language learning, such as time spent in a foreign country or exposure to cultural ideas, for example. Many scholars also mention the fact that this viewpoint, by focusing on mechanical drills, places more importance on output than on communication.

Scholars and Supporting Studies:
  • Spada’s survey (1997)
    • Advocates explicit instruction which provides metalinguistic information and examples
    • Aims to help learners ‘notice’ grammar features by methods such as, for example, putting the particular features in bold typeface
    • Emphasizes ‘processing instruction’ (VanPatten 1996) in which learners receive ‘structured input practice’ in place of corrective or negative feedback, encouraging a more form-focused feedback method
  • Mitchell, R. (2000)
    • Claimes that explicit grammar instruction does not necessarily lead to metalinguistic understanding (tested by the ability to state rules of grammar corrections) (295).
  • Herron, C. & Tomasello, M. (1988)
    • Study conducted testing modelling (no explicit instruction) vs. feedback (explicit instruction), found that error repetition dimished greatly when errors were explicitly corrected.
  • Wong, W. & VanPatten, B. (2003)
    • Wong and VanPatten offer a solution to this particular method which they call PI or Processing Instruction. This method is designed to explain the basic lesson being taught and then to correct preconceived notions that exist due to interference from the L1.
      • One particular method they sugest is called Referential Structured Input Activities. In these activities, the student must give the correct grammatical form based on the context, which forces them to pay attention to meaning and express the idea of their choice. This is believed to "stimulate(s) the process required for acquisition" (Swain, 1985).

References for futher reading:
  1. Herron, C. & Tomasello, M. (1988). Learning Grammatical Structures in a Foreign Language: Modelling versus Feedback. French Review 61(6), 910-22.
  2. Mitchell, R. (2000). Applied linguistics and evidence-based classroom practice: The case of foreign language grammar pedagogy. Applied Linguistics, 21(3), 281-303.
  3. Wong, W., & VanPatten, B. (2003). The evidence is in: Drills are out. Foreign Language Annals, 36(3), 403-423.

Back to Table of Contents

No Instruction Needed

This research perspective asserts that grammar should be learned deductively: it aims to mimic the immersion environment without placing any emphasis on mechanical drills or explicit grammar instruction. Many scholars, while praising this perspective as the most natural way of acquiring grammar, have recognized its shortcomings. Aski (2003), for example, noted that although immersion education might encourage fluency in speaking and communicating, it tends to fall short in the area of grammar acquisition. On the other hand, many others have also noted that students who are taught explicit structures have difficulties reaching high levels in comprehension and communicative fluency, mainly because they memorized without understanding.

Scholars and Supporting Studies:
  • Krashen, S. D. (1992)
    • Asserts that second language competence is developed by obtaining comprehensible input and understanding messages.
    • Argues that grammar instruction has only a fragile and peripheral effect
  • Lee, J. F. & VanPatten, B. (2003)
    • Some amount of grammar instruction may be useful at extreme novice levels of language learning, but it is never necessary.
    • Processes already existing in the brain aid in language learning far more than explicit grammar instruction.
    • There is no correlation between grammar instruction and communicative ability.

References for Further Reading:
  1. Krashen, S. D. (1992). Formal Grammar Instruction, an Educator Comments. TESOL Quarterly 26, 406-11.
  2. Lee, J. F. & VanPatten, B. (2003) Making Communicative Language Teaching Happpen, 2nd Edition. 116-36.
  3. Aski, J. M. (2003). Foreign language textbook activities: Keeping pace with second language acquisition research. Foreign Language Annals, 36(1), 57-65.

Back to Table of Contents

Some Instruction, Some Communication

In this perspective, grammar is best percieved as a tool or resource to be used in the comprehension and creation of oral and written discourse, rather than something to be learned as end in itself. This viewpoint, which is currently the mostly widely accepted, involves a movement through a heirarchy of grammar exercises which are classified according to their functions: mechanical drills, meaningful drills, and communicative drills. In mechanical drills, the learners must substitute or manipulate forms, without necessarily having to understand the prompt. Meaningful drills, on the other hand, require all participants to know the correct answer even though there is no new information being exchanged. Similarly, communicative drills share a formulaic and highly structured format with the goal of submerging the learner in a meaningful context in which he or she is guided to interact.

Scholars and Supporting Studies:
  • Schultz, R.A. (1996)
    • Suggestions for grammar instruction are the following:
      • Each day, write two sentences on the board that demonstrate a balance of correct and incorrect applications of the particular grammar concepts of concern. Establish a routine in which the students have to rewrite the sentences in a notebook and make the necessary grammatical corrections as needed.
      • Teach the correct vocabulary to describe the grammatical concepts in question and explain the underlying rules or prescriptions for their application. In regards to other minute details such as punctuation and capitalization, the emphasis must be placed on formulaic practice in order to reinforce the major concepts.
    • According to her studies, students overall have a strong conviction that grammar is useful in foreign language learning; in her particular case, 26% wanted even more grammar study than they were receiving.
  • Mitchell, R. (2000)
    • Communicate grammar teaching should aim to be:
      • Planned and systematic, driven by a strategic vision of eventual desired outcomes (a lesson from general ‘school effectiveness’ research).
      • 'Rough tuned’, offering learners at slightly different stages a range of opportunities to add increments to their grammar understanding (‘teachability’ research).
      • 'Llittle and often’, with much redundancy and revisiting of issues (‘language flood’ research).
      • Supported and embedded in meaning-oriented activities and tasks, which give immediate opportunities for practice and use (task-based learning research).
    • Communicative grammar teaching may involve:
      • Acceptance of classroom codeswitching and mother tongue use, at least with beginners (instructional medium research).
      • Text based, problem-solving grammar activities implemented to develop learners’ active, articulated knowledge about grammar (sociocultural research).
      • Active corrective feedback and elicitation which promotes learners’ active control of grammar (research on corrective feedback, recasts, etc.).

References for Further Reading:
  1. Schultz, R.A. (1996). Focus on form in the foreign language classroom: Students' and Teachers' Views on Error Correction and the Role of Grammar. Foreign Language Annals 29 (3), 343-64.
  2. Mitchell, R. (2000). Applied linguistics and evidence-based classroom practice: the case of foreign language grammar pedagogy. Applied Linguistics, 21(3),281-303.
  3. Lee, J. F. & VanPatten, B. (2003) Making Communicative Language Teaching Happpen, 2nd Edition. 116-36.

Back to Table of Contents


Personal Perspectives and Experiences

Wendy Rickenbacker, USC:
Grammar is the logic of speech, even as logic is the grammar of reason. ~Richard C. Trench
Grammar is an important part of the linguistic code of any language. If I say to an English-speaking friend, “So are clever you!” that person will probably not know what I meant or how to respond; however, if I say “You are so clever!” the words are at least strung together in such a way that the person can make sense out of them. Why? The second sentence is grammatically correct.

On the other hand, grammar is not a full-proof way of understanding an interlocutor, as grammatically correct sentences can be filled with ambiguity given the context. I may say “You are so clever!” to praise my friend in admiration, or I may say it in a sarcastic tone of voice to indicate something entirely different. Fastidious mastery of grammar alone is not the foolproof answer to communication. Subject-verb agreement and punctuation will not always save us from communicative misunderstandings. Nevertheless, grammar is a crucial part of communicative competence that cannot be ignored. So, how do we teach it?

The following is a process I have observed taking place among many of my French students en route to mastery of various grammatical constructions: 1) mimicry, 2) memorization, 3) comprehension of meaning, 4) questioning, and 5) comprehension of structure. When introduced to a new concept, they begin by simply mimicking structures that I model. They may or may not fully understand what I am saying. Next, they realize they need to be able to say x, y, or z (e.g. “This weekend, I am going to…”), and they memorize how to say it. Through practice, they come to a better understanding of how this is used in communicative contexts, and therefore what it means. Eventually, the students ask specific grammar-oriented questions (or sometimes just "Why do you say it that way?"), at which point I give more examples and/or a grammatical explanation. Notably, while my explanation may help, it seems that they come to the best understanding of the structure that is at work by recognizing patterns, which I try to couple with any explanation I might give. I am not sure if this process is the trend in my classroom due to my particular students' learning tendencies and preferences, or if it is more ubiquitous than that, but for now it has led me to me to be a firm believer in two aspects of teaching: 1) modeling, and 2) group work. The former helps students know where to begin, and the latter gives them opportunity to practice, pushing them to phases four (questioning) and five (comprehension) in the process of understanding grammar.
Wendy's Suggested Links:
**Real : Resources for Teachers and Learners of French**
**NCLRC on Teaching Grammar**
**Tex's French Grammar**
**French Links**

**Frenchvita Grammar**

Alfonso Camiñas-Muiña, UFL:
Grammar in my opinion is the study of how words come together to form a language. The first time many people come in contact with grammar is in school. Though few and far between, there are some people who are taught grammar at home by their family. When you mention grammar to someone, there is a good chance that they will not remember their experience fondly. This is probably due to the fact that grammar follows a specific set of rules and is the foundation of language. When it comes to teaching grammar, I prefer to use both the L1 and L2 language in the classroom. I have a variety of students in my classroom. Many prefer to have grammar explicitly explained to them over and over until they see the pattern and then feel comfortable. For them, grammar is better learned memorized rather than practiced. There are other students who do not understand the grammar explanations in a textbook or the explanations that I give them, but see the way it works when they practice doing it themselves. Peoples' experience with learned language grammar differ from their native language grammatical ability. In regards to Spanish language, I feel that native speakers are often at a disadvantage because they naturally know how the language works, yet do not know specifically why. A language can have many different dialects and many different variations in peoples' speech patterns. This is why grammar, to me, is especially important because it is the foundation from which all of these variations stem.

Jessica Whitter, UT:
"The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar." ~ Michel de Montaigne
Jessicablue84-lg.jpgBased on my personal experience as a student in many foreign language classrooms, I believe that students "pick up" second-language grammar more effectively from communicative practice than from excessive explicit instruction. Language learning must be comprehensive; while it does occurr in bits and pieces (nouns, verb tenses, indirect object pronouns, etc.), all these parts need to be combined for meaningful communication to take place. Classroom learning time can be maximized by teaching grammar along with other concepts in communicative activities. For example, the concept of direct object pronouns in Spanish could be taught through rote, non-communicative exercises and drills. Students could memorize how direct objects can be replaced lo, la, los and las to prevent repetition. For example:

Instructor: "El libro"
Students respond: "Lo"

Instructor: "Las fotos"
Students respond: "Las"

Much more effective, however, would be an activity that combined the concept of direct object pronouns with pertient vocabulary and verb forms.
**English Grammar Exercises**
** Spanish Grammar**
**Spanish Verb Conjugation Trainer**

Noella Nyemba, UT:
As a result of the communicative revolution in language teaching, it has become increasingly clear that grammar is a tool or resource to be used in comprehension and creation of oral and written discourse rather than something to be learned as end in it. I think that we have to teach grammar, to find the strategies for learning grammar and how grammar can be teach for to avoid dichotomy, and some contrasts. Grammar have technique and goal for teaching, the learner needs over training that connect grammar point with larger communication context, that means the students realize and benefit from direct instruction that allows them to apply critical thinking skill to language learning, and the instructor can take advantage of this by providing explanations that give student a descriptive understanding of each point of grammar. Following my own experience, I know that the learner does not need to master every aspect of each grammar, only the most important related to the immediate communication task. I know too that there is student who likes to be more explicit, in this case, I was doing before to teach grammar as the irregular French verb ‘’ir’’form, I use the verbs that occur in the texts as examples, teach the pronunciation an doubling rules if those forms occur in the texts. After that, I gave them some exercises or some activities.
Noella's Suggested Links:
**The importance of grammar**
The Canadian Modern Language Review

Moniqua Acosta-Heyman, UFL:
My own personal opinion, based mainly on my classroom experiences, is that students respond much better to communicative practice maheyman-lg.jpgcombined with minimal explicit instruction. The problem that always arises, however, comes in the form of the necessity to continuously shape and modify the class to cater to the needs of each of the individual learners. While there are some students who love free interaction, others shy away from it, and, frankly, prefer to have explicit instruction with mechanical exercises to reinforce the grammar points. What I always keep in mind when these types of problems come up is that my role in the classroom is to foster the learning process to the best of my ability, or in other words, the best way I know how, which does not always involve explicit instruction. At the same time, I find it beneficial to remember that just as we often require the students to step outside of their comfort zone--which might also be described as a classroom of 150+ students in which they are almost never required to speak--we also must be flexible enough to organize activities and exercises that vary the classroom environment and therefore encourage learning for each of the students in his or her particular manner.

The majority of my classes tend to be very student-centric, and I always try to monitor and modify activities to be sure they are both efficient in illustrating the grammar point being taught and contextually meaningful. Many of the teaching tools that I use in the classroom are recycled from my previous experiences with teaching children between the ages of 3 - 12, and they all seem to work surprisingly well, mainly because they clearly and concisely deliver content. For example, I use childrens' books for reading and comprehension activities, as well as music and comic strips to illustrate particular information. The books are especially useful since they contain illustrations and offer supplementary material to boost comprehension where it might have been lacking otherwise (I will occasionally use stories that they already know in English--fairytales for example--to extend the context). The links that I have included below are ones that I have found useful in my experience, and I think that any professor, no matter how he or she approaches teaching, will benefit from perusing them. ¡Buena suerte a todos!
Moniqua's Suggested Links:
**Spanish Grammar Exercises**
**LinguaCentral: Spanish Teaching Activities**
**DiscoverySchool: Create your own classroom activities**
**Museo de los Niños Abasto: Juegos y Diversiones**
**StudySpanish: Activities and Homework ideas**
**BBC Languages**

Back to Table of Contents

Sample Grammar Activities (Organized by Perspective)

Explicit Instruction (Perspective #1):
Imparfait and passé composé through fairy tale texts

Back to Table of Contents

No Instruction Needed (Perspective #2):
Who has what?: Practice with direct objects
Find someone who...: Communicative Verb Practice
True or False?: Verb Conjugations
Fun with Idioms
Cloze paragraph: Present Progressive exercises

Back to Table of Contents

Some Instruction, Some Communication (Perspective #3):
The Dating Game
Job Ads Reading Activity

Back to Table of Contents