of an Effective Grammar Teaching Model
||Language teachers urgently need a grammar
teaching model built upon theoretical insights and research findings from second language
acquisition. This model must be compatible with a communicative framework that stresses
meaningful (negotiated) interaction resulting from the learners' comprehension of
classroom input. It should integrate explicit grammar instruction (EGI) with
communicative language teaching (CLT). I borrow the term explicit grammar instruction,
from Terrell (l991) to refer to those instructional strategies employed to raise learners'
conscious awareness of the form or structure of the target language. In the following
pages, I shall investigate how EGI and CLT can supplement each other to provide a new
perspective for teaching grammar.
||Let us review current
second language acquisition theory to confront the paradox that
Spolsky (1989) called the notion of dual knowledge. For Krashen
(1982), subconscious acquisition of comprehensible input in a
low-anxiety context plays a pivotal role in developing language
fluency; he sees the learning of grammar as useful only as a "monitor"
and not an utterance-initiator. This theoretical claim is counterintuitive
and contrary to the personal experiences of numerous language
teachers who find that Krashen's theory does not encompass those
students who plan and perform slowly and consciously in a way
that develops into automatic behavior (Sharwood-Smith 1981). Long's
findings (1983) follow the same position. After reexamining twelve
studies which dealt with the effect of instruction (learning)
and exposure (acquisition), Long concluded that formal instruction
in grammar did make a difference.
||No matter how fruitful a concept the
acquisition/learning hypothesis might be, there is no experimental research available to
validate Krashen's learning/acquisition distinction. McLaughlin and McLeod (1983:139)
propose an information-processing approach distinguishing between controlled processes and
automatic processes claiming that "complex skills are learned and routinized (i.e.,
become automatic) only after earlier use of controlled processes." Thus, in this
approach, a learner will go through an explicit, conscious stage of learning grammar rules
before s/he is able to control grammatical structures automatically. Schmidt (1990:149)
summarized recent psychological research and theory on the topic of consciousness and
concluded that "subliminal language learning is impossible, and intake is what
learners consciously notice." He supported the notion that a consciousness-raising
process is necessary for adults to learn language form, especially for redundant and
communicatively less important grammatical features.
||Indeed, some studies (for a full review see
Canale and Swain, 1988), reporting that grammatical competence is not a good predictor for
communicative competence, overestimate the role of unconscious learning. On the contrary,
a thorough search of the literature reveals that a variety of research findings favors
conscious grammar learning/teaching. Some convincing research findings are worth
mentioning here. Pienemman (1984, 1989) found that though psychological constraints exist
on the teachability of language, EGI can make a difference. He found EGI effective when
teaching grammatical features that are stage-appropriate. For example, a learner will
succeed in mastering structural forms of stage x+3 only when the current state of the
learner is at stage x+2. (see Footnote 1
||Scott (1989), analyzing data from oral and
written tests taken by students of French, found that students who were taught the target
structures explicitly performed better overall than those who had an implicit method of
instruction. Other evidence points to the utilization of a focus on form in error
correction and feedback. Tomasello and Herron (1989) compared two methods for correcting
students in the language classroom and found that learners performed better if their
transfer errors received immediate correction by form-based cognitive comparisons. This
result corresponds to White's (1987) claim that specific grammar teaching and correction
can in fact be beneficial for acquisition.
||After carefully examining the role of EGI in the
process of language acquisition, Terrell (1991:58-61) suggested ways in which EGI might be
helpful in an acquisition-based communicative approach: 1) as an advance organizer
to segment a "text" to make the input more accessible; 2) as a
meaning-form focus in communicative activities to make complex morphology more
comprehensible; 3) and as a tool to help learners acquire their own output in the
||As noted by Scott (1989), EGI proponents insist
on the importance of teaching rules and grammatical structures consciously for the purpose
of developing communicative competence. And on the basis of their careful research
findings, Canale and Swain (1988:73) defined communicative competence as follows:
||In our view, an integrative
theory of communicative competence may be regarded as one in which
there is a synthesis of knowledge of basic grammatical principles,
knowledge of how language is used in social contexts to perform
communicative functions, and knowledge of how utterances and communicative
functions can be combined according to the principle of discourse.
||The assumption that grammatical accuracy can be
developed in the classroom after communication has been achieved is refuted by immersion
research findings. Hammerley (1987) reviewed six studies to evaluate the effect of the
immersion approach based on acquisition/natural approaches. He concluded that the
grammatical competence of immersion students is characterized by fossilization or classroom
pidgin as a result of their trying to communicate freely beyond their limited
linguistic competence. He criticized any method failing to emphasize structure before
communication as putting the cart before the horse. The result is learners, who in
Richard's words (1985:152) are "successful but grammatically inaccurate
||It is not easy to solve this problem, but
incorporating EGI within a communicatively-oriented situation may be helpful. This
proposal is validated by Lightbrown and Spada's study (1990) of form-focused instruction
and corrective feedback provided in a primarily communicative program. They found that the
learners were more accurate in some aspects of grammar, if provided with instruction that
explicitly dealt with grammar and correction in context.
||EGI could counter another weakness noted in
communicatively- oriented language teaching. In Tarvin and Al-Arishi's view (1991), the
emphasis upon conspicuous action and spontaneous response in CLT discourages reflection.
They argued that learners both need and desire systematic rule-analyzing and conscious
learning. EGI, in getting students to consciously focus upon grammatical form, involves
systematic "abstracting" and "comparing" to make a judgment which
manifests the characteristics of reflection. As Rutherford (1987:160) pointed out:
"the matter of raising the learners' grammatical consciousness is multifaceted and
can be divided into activities that ask the learner for a judgement and those that pose a
task to be performed or a problem to be solved." Ellis (1993b:11) explains that
consciousness-raising may not require the learner to actually produce sentences for
immediate mastery, but instead, gets him/her to apply cognitive strategies to systematize
||Although the positive effects of EGI are
verified by research findings, many aspects of the target language do not have rules that
can be clearly formulated and easily taught or learned. Krashen (1992:409) shares this
view saying that only a small portion of the total grammatical properties of a language
can be consciously learned.
||By measuring learners' ability to formulate
rules, Green and Hecht (1992: 180) found that some rules are easy to formulate and some
are relatively difficult. Hard rules, in their view, are too abstract to be described and
cannot be applied mechanically. These more difficult rules are not always governed by the
immediate linguistic environment and thus are difficult to practice in simple contexts.
Practicing communicative activities with the focus on meaning would be a better use of
||A second limitation is the insufficiency of EGI
to develop pragmatic competence. Sorace (1985:250-52) studied a group of non-beginners
learning Italian with explicit focus on grammar in acquisition-poor environments. The
results show that there was "highly significant correlation between knowledge and
use," but learners could only produce "a limited range" of communicative
functions and "their communicative competence was restricted." If EGI aims at
developing communicative competence, the traditional concept of grammar should be
redefined. Grammar rules should not be perceived as limited to the descriptions of the way
in which words combine to form sentences. Rules of discourse and rules of pragmatic
appropriateness should be included. According to Corder (1988), a learner not only needs
"native-speaking information," but also requires plentiful "contextualized
language data" to acquire rules of language use, especially, rules of pragmatic
appropriateness. Corder's suggestion acknowledges the importance of using authentic
material that accurately reflects contemporary native-speaker discourse and the need for
engaging learners in authentic communication to prepare learners for the kinds of
discourse they will encounter outside the classroom. To address EGI's pragmatic
weaknesses, explicit grammar should be taught in context of communicative activities. If
the ultimate goal of most EFL courses is to enable learners to use English in real
communication, Ellis (1994a:110) urges that EGI be complemented by a "functional or
A new grammar teaching model
||I suggest that EGI can be successful in
promoting the goal of communicative competence if at least two essential characteristics
of the communicative approach are applied. First, the language code can be internalized by
task-based language teaching which focuses on active language use through communicative
tasks rather than mechanical, meaningless language manipulation tasks. An exploratory
study by Fotos and Ellis (1991) demonstrated that the adoption of a task-based approach to
communicate about grammar is conducive to both learning and communication. They found that
communicative grammar-based tasks helped Japanese college-level EFL learners increase
their knowledge of difficult grammar rules and facilitate the acquisition of implicit
knowledge. Second, communication in real life situations takes the form of transmission of
ideas from one participant to another. Compulsory information exchange activities provide
learners with opportunities to learn how their utterances are linked structurally in
accord with rules of discourse. Group work on tasks involving compulsory exchange of
information stimulates negotiated interaction for message-meaning and generates more
modified input than activities in which exchange of information is optional (Doughty and
||If we teach grammar for communicative
competence, we would be well advised to apply EGI in a communicative
framework focused on task-based communicative activities. The
proposed model for grammar teaching is compatible with research.
Within this model, explicit grammar knowledge will be realized
through contextualized language practice in communicative activities
in which rules of use are presented in discourse contexts. This
combination of EGI and CLT enables learners to attend to grammatical
forms and language code to resolve the communication dilemma.
The optimal combination of EGI and CLT activities is relative
to the learner's age, cognitive maturity, proficiency level, and
type of educational institution where s/he is studying.
Chen is an English lecturer at the Ning-shin Institute of Technology and Commerce
- Canale, M. and M. Swain. 1988. Some theories of communicative competence. In Grammar and
second language teaching, ed. W. Rutherford and M. Sharwood Smith. New York: Newbury
- Corder, P. S. 1988. Pedagogic grammars. In Grammar and second language teaching, ed. W.
Rutherford and M. Smith. New York: Newbury House.
- Doughty, C. 1986. Information gap tasks: Do they facilitate second language acquisition?
TESOL Quarterly, 20, 2, pp. 305-25.
- Ellis, R. 1993a. The structural syllabus and second language acquisition. TESOL
Quarterly, 27, pp. 91-113.
- Ellis, R. 1993b. Talking shop: Second language acquisition research: How does it help
teachers? ELT Journal, 47, pp. 3-11.
- Fotos, S. and R. Ellis. 1991. Communicating about grammar: A task-based approach. TESOL
Quarterly, 25, pp. 605-28.
- Green, S. and K. Hecht. 1992. Implicit and explicit grammar: An empirical study. Applied
Linguistics, 13, 2, pp. 168-183.
- Hammerly, H. 1987. The immersion approach: Litmus test of second communication. The
Modern Language Journal, 71, pp. 395-401.
- Krashen, S. 1982. Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford:
- ---. 1992. Formal grammar instruction: Another educator comments. TESOL Quarterly, 26,
2, pp. 409-410.
- Lightbrown, P. M. and N. Spada. 1990. Focus-on form and corrective feedback in
communicative language teaching: Effects on second language learning. Studies in Second
Language Acquisition, 12, pp. 429-448.
- Long, M. H. 1983. Does second language instruction make a difference? A review of the
research. TESOL Quarterly, 17, 3, pp. 359-382.
- McLaughlin, B. and B. McLeod. 1983. Second language learning: An information-processing
perspective. Language Learning, 33, pp. 135-158.
- Pica, T. and C. Doughty. 1985. The role of group work in classroom second language
acquisition? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7, pp. 233-248.
- Pienemann, M. 1984. Psychological constraints on the teachability of language. Studies
in Second Language Acquisition, 6, pp. 186-214.
- ---. 1989. Is language teachable? Psycholinguistic experiments and hypothesis. Applied
Linguistics, 10, pp. 52-79.
- Richards. C. J. 1985. The context of language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University
- Rutherford, W. E. 1987. Second language grammar: Learning and teaching. New York:
- Schmidt, R. 1990. The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied
Linguistics, 11, 2, pp. 129-158.
- Scott, M. V. 1989. An empirical study of explicit and implicit teaching strategies in
French. The Modern Language Journal, 73, pp. 14-21.
- Sharwood-Smith, M. 1981. Consciousness raising and the second- language learner. Applied
Linguistics, 2, pp. 159-169.
- Sorace, A. 1985. Metalinguistic knowledge and language use in acquisition poor
environments. Applied Linguistics, 6, 3, pp. 239-254.
- Sposky, B. 1989. Conditions for second language learning. London: Oxford University
- Tarvin, L., and Y. Al-Arishi. 1991. Rethinking communicative language teaching:
reflection and the EFL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 25, 1, pp. 9-27.
- Terrell, T. 1991. The role of grammar in a communicative approach. Modern Language
Journal, 75, pp. 52-63.
- Tomasello, M. and C. Herron. 1989. Feedback for language transfer errors: The garden
path technique. Studies in Second-language Acquisition, 11, pp. 385-395.
- White, L. 1987. Against comprehensible input: The input hypothesis and the development
of second-language competence. Applied Linguistics, 8, pp. 95-110.
For a successful EGI, teachers must diagnose the learner's interlanguage development to
fit the structure presented in the syllabus. This is "a painstaking and
time-consuming process" (Ellis, 1993a:104)
Back to Article