Stephen Horowitz is the Director of Online Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law.
The below blog post from EAP Essentials–“Should we teach grammar? Yes but no but!” by Olwyn Alexander is a thoughtful and healthy reaction to the shift away from “teaching grammar,” which itself has been a reaction to the perceived flaws in the traditional ways of teaching grammar. However, there’s been a shift back towards the teaching of grammar–conditioned on the premise that it’s “done right”–as more thought and research has gone into better ways to help students acquire grammar.
What the “right” or “best” way to teach grammar is is still up for debate. But overall there is a recognition that grammar is not sufficiently acquired just by exposure (e.g., Krashen and the “natural method”), particularly when it comes to academic English (or legal English for that matter.) Intentional effort and guidance is needed to help learners acquire the grammar they need to communicate effectively at the academic English level.
But from that starting point of recognition, there is still a wide divergence on understanding and belief as to what “done right” ultimately means. I definitely don’t have all the answers. But I do have a few beliefs on the topic:
1. Form should follow function: The grammar that is studied should hue as closely to the content being studied and the communicative needs associated with that content. In this regard, a field like legal English is ideal from a teaching perspective because we have ready-made content and communicative purposes. It’s just a matter of scaffolding the content and then mining it for the grammar needed.
2. Grammar Fluency: It’s not enough just to learn and practice an aspect of grammar. There need to be repeated, natural exposures. And ideally in the regular course of studying the content. It’s hard to contrive natural ways to encounter grammar structures. But it’s a lot easier if you start with the content, work backwards to identify the grammar needs associated with it, and then develop grammar focus and curriculum based on those materials. And that allows for repeated exposures. Additional thought on repeated exposures: One of the advantages kids have is that they like repetition. As evidence, I cite the number of times my kids have watched and sung the songs from “Frozen” and other Disney movies as well as the number of times children like to read the same book over and over. Adults, on the other hand, are prone to getting bored. And that’s significant because motivation is a significant component of language learning. So creativity is key in figuring out how to generate repeated exposures for adult learners.
3. Ear Training: I think this aspect of grammar learning is vastly underrepresented in discussions of how to teach grammar. Especially since so much of grammar comes down to having a sense of what “sounds right.”
As native speakers of English, not only do we spend very little time thinking about the rules of the grammar we use, for the most part we never thought about them when we learned the appropriate grammar. This is particularly true of articles, prepositions, and -s endings (e.g., 3rd person and plurals.)
These are grammar points that so many of our LLM students struggle with. And these also happen to be parts of speech that are harder to hear, especially if your ear is not used to hearing them. In other words, if you can train your ear to hear those sounds, then you’ll hear them more and you’ll develop a sense of what sounds right and start using them more accurately in your own speech and writing.
There is of course much more to learning and teaching grammar than my above points. But Alexander’s blog post got me thinking about what drives much of my focus and decision-making in teaching grammar to my students, so I thought I would try to add to the conversation. Feel free to share your own thoughts.
Here are the first few paragraphs of Alexander’s blog post from EAP Essentials along with a “Continue reading” link at the end.
Students need grammar but they don’t need grammar classes.
I was asked recently by a head of pathways programmes at an international college whether we should teach grammar in EAP. This manager was under pressure from some teachers to introduce a more structured approach to teaching and testing grammar. Some years previously, prompted by feedback from an external moderator, they had developed a bespoke grammar workbook, which was ‘aligned with the topics taught in the course, [covering] the language features which are considered to be salient in scholarly English [and targeting] areas where students show weaknesses when it comes to academic writing’. The workbook covers language patterns, such as noun phrases, active and passive voice, conditionals and modal verbs. However, teachers on the programmes have a number of issues with the resource:
- There is little time to teach grammar in the course
- It feels artificial to teach grammar this way (grammar rules and explanations, followed by practice)
- It does not address all issues that students have when it comes to grammar
- It’s dry and students do not engage with it