Teaching Grammar in the Post Communicative Approach Era

Teaching Grammar in the Post Communicative Approach Era

Grammar. To teach or not to teach? This has been the question that language teachers have asked themselves for ages. It has been a matter of debate for teachers, linguists and second language acquisition experts.

A bit of history

Historically, language teaching approaches and methods have moved from one extreme of the spectrum to another as regards the explicit teaching of grammar. Long before our times, grammar was at the centre of language teaching, as it was believed that the study of the grammar of X’s language was the best way to its mastery. So, from medieval times till around the 1970s, the fixation of language teaching on the study and description of structures manifested in approaches such as the Grammar Translation and the Audio Lingual method, with short interludes of the other approaches such as the Direct Method, Total Physical Response and the Silent way which although claiming to differ still based their syllabus on grammar points. (Nassaji and Fotos, 2010)

From the Grammar-dominated end of the spectrum, we moved to the Absolutely-no-Grammar end. Grammar based approaches proved inadequate in that students were unable to communicate outside the classroom. Based mainly on Hymes’ “communicative competence” and Krashen’s models of language acquisition, the Communicative Approach emerged as the meaning-focused alternative to the form-focused approaches of the past. Strong versions of the approach emphasized the teaching of functions and absolutely discouraged the teaching of grammar structures arguing that communication – and not language description- was the aim of language teaching.

However, the studies of the last 30 years have proved that the lack of grammar instruction has not encouraged language acquisition. On the contrary, more recent studies show that grammar instruction and explicit knowledge of the target language do have positive effects on language acquisition. So, how should we approach the teaching of Grammar in the Post- Communicative-Approach Era?

Different approaches to Grammar in the L2 classroom

Structured input activities

VanPatten (1996) stated that while focusing on meaning, students tend to disregard form thus causing a negative effect on instruction. Processing instructions techniques should help learners transform input into intake by making sure they concentrate on form as well as on meaning. Some guidelines for carrying out these activities are:

-The focus should be on meaning
-Learners’ attention should be focused on one grammar item at a time
-Both oral and written input should be used
-Phrases and individual sentences should precede extended discourse input
-Input should be manipulated some way.

Input Enhancement Strategies

Although noticeability is still a subjective process and it cannot be assured by input enhancement, enhancing input through visual and phonological modifications is another way of calling students’ attention to form.

Textual enhancement techniques on written text range from underlying and italizing, to capitalizing and colour coding or a combination of many. In oral texts, enhancement can be achieved through intonation, stress, repetition and even body language of the targeted forms. As with structured input, it is one grammar point, which is brought into focus while students’ attention is concentrated on meaning.

Interactional feedback

As with L1 acquisition, feedback, positive or negative, contributes to L2 acquisition.
Interactional feedback between a learner and a more knowledgeable interlocutor (teacher, native speakers, more advance students) produces a meaning negotiation which helps learners by “making message comprehensible, by enhancing L2 input, and by facilitating the production of modified input” ( Pica, 1994 in Nassaji and Fotos, p73).

There are different kinds of feedback and each one of them has its advantages. Recasts or reformulations, which generally occur with some sort of conspicuous intonation pattern, rephrase a faulty statement without obtruding communication and help learners realise their mistakes. Clarifications requests do not provide the learner with the correct form but help him or her self-correct. An interlocutor’s repetition of the learner’s erroneous utterance provides the learner with evidence that there is something wrong and allows him or her to selfcorrect. Metalinguistics feedback (i.e: a comment on language) also hints at the mistake without providing a correct answer.

Structured Grammar-Focused Tasks

Structured based tasks build on the familiar task based approach and “aim at making grammar forms obvious to the learner through consciousness raising activities” (Nassaji & Fotos, 2010, p90).
Ellis (2003) distinguishes between three subtypes of structured focused tasks:
Structured based productions tasks aim at the use of targeted grammar forms in productions activities
Comprehension tasks are designed so that students notice and hypothesize about a target structure in context. They generally use enhanced input.

Consciousness raising tasks aim at students producing rules about the target form usage, which are derived from the exploration of carefully prepared communicative input.
So, sample activities vary from information gap activities (picture dictations, incomplete biographies, etc), to rule discovery tasks where students are given dialogues or text and have to find and maybe formulate, the rules behind the usage of some grammatical form.

Collaborative Output Tasks

Swain (1993, cited in Nassaji & Fotos, 2010) recognises three vital functions of output in L2 learning: a noticing function, a hypothesizing function and a metalinguistic function. That is to say, when learners attempt communication, they may notice the need for a certain structure, they may attempt to use their resource and test their efficiency in a communicative context and they are led to reflect on what they said and how they said it. Output has other benefits: it increases fluency, helps the automatization of knowledge, provides the opportunity for feedback and helps with the consolidation of knowledge through interaction and cooperation.

Conclusion: Grammaring?

Traditionally grammar was described as a very static set of rules governing a language. With the advent of applied linguistics, sciences such as Pragmatics, Discourse Analysis and Cognitive Linguistics, this view is being progressively abandoned. A more dynamic view of grammar is favoured; one that sees the grammar system as a flexible set of rules, or rather language resources, which can be used to express our individual identities.

In this context, Diane Larsen-Freeman (2003) recognised a fifth language skill, which she called Grammaring. In her own terms, “Grammaring is the ability to use grammar structures accurately, meaningfully, and appropriately (Nassaji and Fotos, 2010, p 143)” as skills that even L1 speakers acquire at a very early age. The author keeps explaining that acknowledging grammar as a skill would require a shift in the traditional paradigms and the addition of a third dimension to language teaching: form, meaning and use. Grammaring , or doing grammar, would require the teaching of grammar in a much more meaningful and mindful way as the techniques above illustrate.

Grammaring would also call for a different kind of teaching. In Thornbury’s words (2001), the teaching of grammar would be no longer about “covering” a grammar syllabus, but about “uncovering” it, “letting it out”. A teacher with a grammaring state of mind would try to facilitate learning by helping learners detect structural patters from authentic, topic based input rather than transmiting them in isolation. They would also provide opportunities for output, which in turn would give way to constructive feedback. They would help learners construct and scaffold their knowledge.
What’s your view on Grammar? Are you a teacher with a “grammaring” state of mind? Are you using any of the form awareness techniques mentioned above?



Thornbury, S (2001) Uncovering Grammar. Oxford: Macmillan Heinemman English Language Teaching.
Larsen-Freeman, D ( 2003) Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Heinle ELT
Nassaji, H & S, Fotos (2010) Teaching Grammar in Second Language Classrooms: Integrating Form-Focused Instruction in Communicative Context. New York: Routledge.
https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/dictogloss retrieved 8th March,2017

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