The teaching of grammar in an EFL class
article first published in APIRS newsletter of June/2007
After training as an English / TESOL teacher in Australia late last century, I taught the language to both native and non-native students in a number of schools before myself becoming a migrant in Brazil. Here, I have taught a range of students, from adolescents with little or no idea as to why their parents think English classes might one day come in handy to adults preparing for a diplomatic career. When I was offered the chance to teach at UFRGS earlier this year, I was asked by some of my new colleagues for my views on grammar teaching in EFL classroom. After some thought, here they are.
The formal teaching of grammar in an EFL class is quite a different matter from grammar teaching for native students of for ESL students, for two main reasons: a lack of lived language and the grammatical structures that students already have in place. Native students have already assimilated standard English structures to a greater or lesser degree as their principal grammar: grammar teaching for native students ia a matter of making explicit what is already known, and extending the students' linguistic range into more complex structures and familiarity with standard usage. ESL and EFL students do not have the structure of English engraved in their brains in this way, but must make way for an understanding of English structures alongside those of their first language. Depending on the degree of similarity between their L1 and L2 structures, students may learn through or in spite of the language they already have. Sometimes an explicit parallel can be made between, for example, the structures of Portuguese and those of English, and learning will be facilitated by encouraging students to make conscious comparisons. Other structures - the present perfect being an obvious example - must be learned in spite of the patterns of Portuguese. The temporal concept behind the present perfect does not match a specific structure in Portuguese and must first be grasped as a concept for the grammatical structure to be assimilated.
The second distinction between grammar-teaching contexts puts EFL students at a disadvantage in relation to both natives and ESL students: the lack of immersion in living language. EFL students rely far more on classroom language use for their familiarity with grammatical structures. Whereas an ESL student will routinely be exposed to native-speaker English and will be able to seek explanation in class, and EFL student is more likely to be exposed to non-classroom English only in the form of films, songs, journalism and so on, rather than in interactive situations. The EFL teacher is thus responsible not merely for the formalization and refinement of what is already at least vaguely familiar, but for the presentation, contextualization and reinforcement of structures that the student has not yet come up against. The method used for such teaching will vary according to factors such as the age of the students and their reasons for learning English.
Fashions in language teaching come and go. Highly formal methods give way to a more communicative approach and then the pendulum returns. In fact, neither of the two extremes is adequate: the formal teaching of grammatical structures must always be balanced with space for freer, more exploratory student language. Younger students typically find grammar teaching - explicit teaching of grammar, as distinct from activities that stimulate the use of a specific target structure - too abstract and somewhat dull. Adults, on the other hand, are generally comforted by teaching that offers a formal framework. The explicit teaching of grammatical structures give them something to rely on and a means of measuring their progress, both of which aid confidence. Students who have no difficulty in taking risks in the EFL classroom have an advantage in reaching a satisfactory level of communication, but may need to be pressed to pay more attention to grammar in order to bring their structural skills up to their communication level. More risk-averse students may feel the need to stick very closely to the structures they have been taught and may need to be encouraged to reach beyond what they know in order to find ways to say what they have in mind.
Although a university English class will almost inevitably contain very different personalities, whose natural communication skills and styles vary widely, the fact of having chosen to study a language at tertiary level suggests a level of interest frequently absent from native students (who often see no point in studying a language they feel they already know), from ESL students (who may be keenly aware of the needs to learn the language of their new country, but may have little or no intrinsic interest in it) and from other EFL student, who may see English as an essential but distasteful step in their career. An interest in language per se, an enthusiasm for the English language and the cultural opportunities that it opens up, and a deep familiarity with their native tongue give students in university language departments an intellectual and emotional edge that can more than make up for their lack of daily immersion.
Grammar teaching, of course, does not only involve the explicit and conscious teaching of grammatical patterns, but also the use of activities that reinforce target structues. After going over indirect speech with and advanced class a few years ago, I used the early 1960's song "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" to reinforce what the students had learned. The singer directly addresses her boyfriend and the listener is in the somewhat voyeuristic position of overhearing an intimate moment; I asked the students to go through the song line by line in pairs (having provided them with the lyrics) and report what they had overheard. Even the title, so apparently simple, offers a range of interpretations: who is being adressed? How long ago did it happen? Students will come up with different options, such as "she asked if he would still love her the next day" and "she wants to know whether I will still love her tomorrow", depending on the position each one adopts in relation to the speakers and the event. The grammar must first be explicitly taught before an exercise of this nature can be truly effective, but it offers the opportunity to blend listening, speaking, reading and writing in what is essentialy a dry "grammar" task.
One final aspect that must always be kept in mind is that the things we call rules are in fact not rules but abstractions from the sometimes bewildering complexities of real language use; I explain to my students that a language is not like a sport, with a governing body that establishes agreed rules before the players take to the field, but a real-life activity more akin to falling in love. We accept that someone can publish a book called "The Seven Rules of Falling in Love", but we would be very surprised if such so-called rules were ever enforced, because we are always aware that the reality is far more complex than the description and that the book is merely an attempt to describe a highly complex set of behaviours. Grammar, by the same token, is not a set of rules but an attempt to describe what really happens when people use a given language.
Knowing a "rule" can be comforting and is certainly helpful, but allowing students to replace the reality of living language with the certainty of rules will almost always result in problems and frustration at the next level. Use of authentic texts is a helpful way to guard against an excess of rigidity in allowing descriptions to be seen as rules. If texts are carefully chosen, the short-term sense of being out of one's depth can be kept to a health minimum and the long-term benefits of greater flexibility and creativity can be boosted. If we balance formal teaching with free exploration and prescription with description, then the language student will be better placed to see grammar not as a dull necessity, but as a fascinating opportunity to get inside the mechanics of human communication.
*Ian Alexander was born in Sydney, Australia. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (English major) from the Unversity of Sydney and Graduate Diplomas in Literature and TESOL from Northern Territory University. Before coming to Brazil, he taught English to migrants and to Aboriginal students in Darwin, the capital of Australia's Northern Territory. He completed his Masters in Literary Theory at PUC/RS in 2006 and is currently teaching English, translation and British Culture at UFRGS.