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  • Review: Teaching Unplugged by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury August 13, 2012
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    Japan is a stable, highly developed parliamentary democracy with a modern economy. Tourist facilities are widely available, except in coastal areas of Northeast Japan still recovering from the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. Below is a comprehensive list of all the information you should read before visiting or relocating to […]
  • Experience a New Culture When you Teach English in China May 21, 2012
    The human desire to help others is an innate one. This is why, despite the negative aspects, people are still very attracted to the profession of teaching, notes Thomas Galvin. It has been regarded for centuries as a very noble job, and no doubt this will continue for centuries to come. Many teachers these […]
  • The Importance of Vocabulary Roots in AP English April 16, 2012
    The Advanced placement exams are very important for students, suggests Joseph Paul, as they look very good on the students’ report cards and also help them to get credit in certain universities which helps them to save a major portion of the tuition money demanded from students who have not cleared the exam. The […]
  • Business Translation: A Useful TEFL Sideline? April 8, 2012
    The use of translation in business is heavily underestimated and misunderstood. However translation has a big part to play in business and is rapidly becoming one of the most useful things an organisation can use to get ahead in the business world. Whether it be using in-house translators to transcribe documents, official papers […]
  • How to Judge the Quality of Language Learning Software March 21, 2012
    We all know that learning a language is a great way to enhance the look of your resume! Fortunately, there are lots of different options available to you to help you make that a reality. Out of the vast number of options available to you, the option that provides you with the most […]
  • The worst ELT interview questions… and how to answer them March 12, 2012
    Some friends of Naturegirl123 were talking about interview questions that they got. Here are some difficult ones to answer and suggested answers. What religion are you?/ Are you X religion? This could be a legit question if you’re applying to a religious school. If you have the same religion as the school, simply say […]
  • Invoice factoring as a way of financing your language school March 12, 2012
    You’re looking into alternative ways to keep the finances in order in your burgeoning language school. Why not consider invoice factoring? Please don’t think of invoice factoring as a loan because it’s actually something quite different to that: it is more correctly defined as the acquisition of a financial asset. What does that mean? […]
  • Language Classes… Heat Up Careers! March 9, 2012
    Whether you love the snow or can’t wait until the warmer days of spring, this is a time of year when we all start to get a little stir-crazy, suggests Charlotte Evans. Winter was fun back in December but now the cold temperatures and extra layers of clothing are starting to feel a bit […]

To Teach Grammar or not to Teach Grammar

William Lake poses the eternal TEFL question.

This article is about teaching grammar to ESL students. The advantages and disadvantages of teaching grammar to ESL students will be discussed. At this point, it must be noted that different people learn English for a huge number of different reasons. It is my opinion that a vary degree of importance should be placed on grammar depending on the student, class, and school.

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The obvious place to start is with an argument I’ve heard from a colleague of mine. He says, that because native speakers can speak English with no understanding or a little understanding of grammar, ESL students too can learn to speak English with no knowledge of grammar.

The simple truth is, that without and understanding of grammar we would not know how to write and speak English. Certainly, most native speakers couldn’t tell you if they are using the present perfect tense or what conditional they are using. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have an understanding of grammar, it means that they don’t know the technical terms for grammar. Even if you don’t know the names of the tenses you are using, native speakers use them whenever they communicate in English. So native speakers DO have an understanding of English grammar, but most don’t know their present continuous tense from their present perfect. So we have established that native English speakers do use grammar, but only a few know the technical terms to apply to any given rule.

ESL learners are not native speakers and teaching ESL students should not be treated as if they are. So should we teach grammar to ESL students?

The answer is: yes we should, but how much emphasis should be placed on teaching grammar. The average ESL student will want to learn English to be able to communicate with other English speaking people. Students who want to learn English should understand how to speak English. As it isn’t their native tongue, some grammar needs to be taught, but how much?

If you put too much emphasis on teaching grammar to the detriment of teaching the other core skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening, the student will always be thinking about what grammar to use rather than just speaking. If a student makes a simple grammatical mistake, e.g. ‘yesterday, I go to the market’, the student can still be understood but has made a grammatical mistake. This brings us to the question of why the student is learning English.

If a student only wants and requires a basic level of English, for example they are a waiter in a tourist restaurant, the most important core skill the student will require is listening. If they are not ever going to be speaking a lot of English, then the other skills are more important. This does not mean that all restaurant workers only want to speak a little, some will also want to hone their speaking, writing and listening skills to which grammar would be more important.

For a student to fully understand what they are saying in English a set of grammatical rules are required. But I believe that some teachers put too much emphasis on teaching grammar. I have some students who are brilliant at reading and writing and listening, but lack confidence on their speaking. Having questioned the student, I found that she was always trying to think about which tense she should be using before speaking. This had an adverse effect on her ability to speak English fluently and confidently. My advise to a student like this is to forget the rules of grammar that you have learnt and just try to speak as much as possible. If the student makes a small mistake, or makes repetitive mistakes this can be corrected accordingly. The student has now found a greater confidence in her speaking and the number of grammatical mistakes being made has reduced by far.

On the other hand, if no grammar was taught, the student would have problems in expressing himself or herself effectively. He might know for example, to say, I’m going to work, but might not know how to substitute the verb ‘go’ for another verb using the same tense. He could only repeat what he or she has heard. The student might subconsciously pick up the rules of grammar, but this would be a longer process.

In my opinion, teaching grammar is important, but too much emphasis on grammar to the detriment of the other core skills will disadvantage the learner. Similarly, no teaching of grammar would place the student at a disadvantage when they get to the higher levels of learning english, intermediate and advanced. A happy medium is required.

Also, depending on the age that an ESL student starts to learn will have a bearing on how much grammar is required to be taught. I have students that are 5 years old, speak a lot of English at school and watch English speaking television. I was amazed at their level of comprehension. These students are like native speakers, they understand and can be understood easily. Maybe learning grammar is less important to these students than a student to is starting to learn at say 30 years old.

In conclusion, teaching grammar is important but how much grammar is the question. This depends on the level of students, their ages, and why they are learning grammar. This question is sometimes outside of your control if your school has a curriculum that you need to keep to. Yes, grammar should be taught, but it has both it’s advantages and disadvantages. Just don’t sacrifice one skill for another. For example, too much grammar at the detriment of listening is not good, similarly, too much listening to the detriment of other core skills is not good. As a teacher you need to know what is required for each and every student and apply your teaching as per necessary.

About the Author

I am an ESL Teacher, living and working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After deciding to travel and teach to fund my travels, I have now decided to make a career of teaching English as a Second Language.

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