The evidence is now in: the explicit teaching of grammar rules leads to better learning
The straightforward, pre-planned teaching of grammar in English language teaching has been under attack for years. Various alternatives have been proposed: to expose learners to language that is just a bit more advanced than what they currently produce; to wait until a communicative situation demands a certain structure before introducing it; to let the grammar emerge naturally from vocabulary learning, or from the lived context of the classroom. Each approach has been defended with carefully structured arguments, and some approaches have been embraced enthusiastically by ministries of education around the world.
However, evidence trumps argument, and the evidence is now in. Rigorously conducted meta-analyses of a wide range of studies have shown that, within a generally communicative approach, explicit teaching of grammar rules leads to better learning and to unconscious knowledge, and this knowledge lasts over time.
This will not surprise the many teachers who have continued to teach grammar despite the tides of fashion. Behind classroom doors, the wisdom of the community of practitioners has often prevailed.
So why has there been so much resistance to the teaching of grammar rules?
There is a problem with English: it is a morphologically light language. It doesn't have many different verb endings, and its nouns only inflect for plural. If the language under discussion were Polish, with its three noun genders and seven cases, the idea that teaching grammar rules wasn't necessary would probably not even occur. It has been possible to get away with the idea that there is no need to teach grammar in English. Now, however, with the evidence piling up, this is no longer an option.
Some of the writers opposing explicit grammar teaching have confused a target end-state (near-native production) with how the learner reaches the target. For example, a large percentage of the language that a native speaker uses is composed of multi-word units or "chunks"; so, one argument goes, what we need to do is teach chunks, not grammar. Wrong. Learning vocabulary (including chunks) is very important. But the best estimate is that there are hundreds of thousands of chunks in English; learning enough of these to have an appropriate chunk to hand in a given situation is not a quick or trivial job. With much less time and effort, learners can acquire grammar for putting together comprehensible phrases and sentences that can serve them on the long journey towards more native-like proficiency.
Another problem is that most English language learning takes place in countries where English is not the predominant language: a foreign language situation. Much of the thinking leading to strictures against grammar teaching has taken place in countries where English is the predominant language: a second language situation. The enormous difference in exposure to the target language makes arguments based on exposure or emergence much less plausible in the foreign language situation.
Teachers see that few of their learners develop highly advanced proficiency. These teachers yearn to do better for their students, and researchers want to help them to do better. On the basis that teachers have been teaching grammar rules, and learners have not been reaching the desired proficiency, one conclusion is that teaching grammar rules is not working, and so other solutions must be sought. An alternative conclusion is that learning a language, especially in a low-exposure situation, is very difficult, and it may be the case that whatever teachers do, few learners will achieve high proficiency. The only way to find out whether improvements can be made is to look for evidence, like the evidence in the recent analyses.
There is a notion that pre-planned focus on a given grammar structure will not lead to effective learning, and that grammar should only be taught at the point when the need for a structure emerges during a task. Some of the problems this poses are obvious. In a class of 30, one learner's need might not correspond to another's. Few teachers are able to give a clear and reliable explanation of every grammar point that pops up. There is no guarantee that the needs that happen to emerge over the length of a language course will correspond to the structures that the learners will need in their subsequent use of that language. But in any case, it has been found that there is no difference in effectiveness between integrating grammar teaching into tasks and separating grammar teaching from tasks.
What does this imply for teaching? Teaching grammar explicitly is more effective than not teaching it, or than teaching it implicitly; that is now clear. What this implies is that the grammar in a course should be planned, to ensure coverage of the structures learners will need. Teachers cannot depend on a range of texts or a range of topics or a range of tasks to yield all the grammar in a course. Taking each class as it comes is not an option. A grammar syllabus is needed, along with the other syllabuses and word lists that structure a course.
This does not mean that grammar is the most important thing to teach: the title probably goes to vocabulary. But there is room, and need, for both vocabulary and grammar. Good teaching of good rules with good examples and good practice activities can mean that grammar teaching only takes the time it needs to take. And now it is clear that this grammar teaching works.
Dr Catherine Walter lectures in applied linguistics at the University of Oxford and is the co-author with Michael Swan of the Oxford English Grammar Course