Shall we throw grammar out with the bath water?

Do we need grammar?

My first thought when somebody asks the question do we need grammar? is “of course we do, what are you talking about?” Still, bitter experience has taught me that easy answers are not necessarily, or even usually, correct, especially when the question itself is ambiguous, so I then go on to consider the question more carefully. 

If the question is taken to mean “do we need to teach grammar explicitly,” then the jury seems to have been out for at least a few decades; far from coming up with a simple, direct answer, psycholinguistic research seems to be simultaneously supporting both that we need grammar and that we don’t need it (see, for example, Ellis 2015). Nevertheless, there will always be those for whom, in the words of Henry Widdowson (1985, p. 161) “the delusion of simple answers will always be available as an attractive alternative to thought.” Thus, the dogmatic certainty of some, even today, that we should (at last!) do away with grammar can only compare to the certainty of others, more than a hundred years ago, that explicit study of grammar rules is the only way in which we can learn a foreign language. It seems to me that they are both wrong, not (just) because the truth is usually in the “middle ground” between two extremes, but because the question itself is problematic.

Reframing the question

A question like “do we need grammar?” is actually not just problematic, but quite meaningless if we haven’t defined what we mean by grammar, who ‘we’ refers to and what “we” might need grammar for. Thus, the answers I might give to the question would be very different in each of the following cases:

  • whether  ‘we’ refers to language learners or language teachers
  • whether by ‘grammar’ we mean explicit, declarative knowledge or implicit, procedural knowledge of the grammar rules
  • whether we ‘need’ grammar for interaction in basic everyday communication contexts or in order to write an article, a short story or a poem or in order to teach the language

Do teachers need grammar?

As a language teacher educator, I think I can understand why I am inclined to defend grammar: I am thinking of language teachers rather than learners, and the need for them to possess declarative, not just procedural, knowledge of grammar, so that they can compose fully accurate models of language for their students and so that  they can make informed decisions about how much (or how little!) grammar instruction their students need and what form this grammar instruction should take depending on the type of learners, their level and their learning purpose. In other words, what I am inclined to claim is that foreign language teachers need detailed, explicit knowledge of grammar even if they choose not to teach grammar explicitly in all cases. 

Why do teachers need grammar?

In fact, knowledge of grammar (and yes, I mean declarative knowledge of the grammar rules) is a prerequisite for teaching the language even if the teacher has chosen not to teach grammar explicitly. To be precise, if they have chosen not to teach grammar explicitly, it may be even more imperative that the teacher should know their grammar. Here is why:

  • They can select what kind of language to include in the models they provide, so that the models do not confuse the learners and make clear and obvious the meaning and use of the structures they exemplify.
  • They can select appropriate contexts for the structures in focus, that is contexts which naturally invite the use of the structure and which make the meaning and use very clear without the need to resort to explanation.
  • They can devise appropriate, i.e. clear and simple, checking questions to ensure  that the learners have understood the forms and meanings in focus even if no explicit presentation of the rules is provided.
  • They can anticipate what problems the learners might have and devise appropriate tasks and activities to help learners overcome these problems.
  • They can plan what to say if learners should ask the question most teachers dread: “why do we say it like that?”

Dismissing grammar and grammar teaching altogether on the grounds that explicit study of the grammar rules is not useful or not appropriate in a particular context makes little sense. At best, it’s based on a logical leap: explicit grammar teaching can be ineffective, therefore let’s not teach grammar at all; or worse, let’s not even bother to find out what grammar and grammar teaching involves. Beheading  the patient may be a radical cure for headache, but let’s not forget it inevitably results in the patient’s death. 

Ellis, N. (2015). Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning .Their dynamic interface and complexity. In P. Rebuschat (ed.), Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages (pp. 3- 23). Michigan: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Widdowson, H. G. (1985). Against dogma: a reply to Michael Swan. ELT Journal 39, 1985, pp. 158-161

4 thoughts on “Shall we throw grammar out with the bath water?

  1. Many thanks for this post. I leant English ( ‘learnt’ is being used here for argument sake because I’m not sure if I learnt English at all) through the strongest version of grammar -translation approach one would imagine. So yeah, I think we all need grammar. And I mean ‘declarative knowledge as well as procedural knowledge. Larsen-Freeman (2003:11) points out that ‘..we language educators have to change the way we think about the elements of language ,particularly grammar, if we expect to help our students overcome the dual problems of their lack of engagement in learning the forms and their inability to call upon our knowledge of forms when they must put their knowledge to use.’ (Diane Larsen-Freeman: Teaching Language from grammar to grammaring). My question, however, is: which grammar? Should we learn and teach: prescriptive grammar, descriptive grammar, pedagogic grammar, 300000 level grammar or 100000 level grammar (to use Batstone’s terminology – Batstone 1994:8)? Also, how can we cope with the dynamics of grammar?

    Once again, many thanked for both you and Alexander for theses great posts.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Gomaa! Indeed, there are a lot more questions to ask about teaching grammar. What kind of grammar to teach is an interesting question, which I’m hoping to be able to address in a future blog post!

  2. In spite of the long-standing grammar debate, the fact remains that we do not use language without grammar. Perhaps, then, the problem is not grammar itself, but the way grammar is being taught and learned.
    I taught English for many years, ages ago. Last July I completed an online course in Applied Linguistics at the University of Leicester.

    One of the topics we had to study was ‘modality’; all these fine shades of meaning the modal verbs carry. I asked myself “Did you teach them all?” No, I didn’t.

    What I am trying to say is the following: focus on what students need to understand and be understood in everyday communication. Don’t overload them with details they are unable to swallow and digest.

    Language learning, like love and life, is to be enjoyed. It’s not always easy, but let’s not make it too complicated. Grammar should support the love for language learning, not destroy it. Grammar should be accessible, not elusive. Grammar should help, not hinder. Play with grammar and have fun!

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