Learning GrammarThere has been a long-running debate in the ESL language learning community about the role of 'grammar' in the classroom, and even about whether grammar belongs in the classroom at all. This debate roughly parallels a similar one regarding the role of grammar in American english classrooms, and it's instructive to look at this debate, as many of the issues are similar.
In American schools
, what is called 'prescriptive grammar' was the norm during the 1950's and 1960's. 'Prescriptive grammar' meant learning grammatical terms and rules, doing lots of worksheets based on these terms and rules, and diagramming sentences. Many students, and even teachers, regarded this as boring, and not really relevant to becoming a good speaker and writer of the english language. Some educators even began to use the pioneering work of linguist Noam Chomsky to advocate for the removal of prescriptive grammar from the classroom.
Thus, the concept of 'descriptive grammar' was developed. Some educators, influenced by Chomsky's research about how native speakers acquire an innate 'feel' for grammatical structures and rules, argued for a more 'natural' way of 'teaching' language, one where students would learn spelling, pronunciation, and grammar in context, from reading and writing freely and 'naturally.' This concept, also known as 'whole language instruction' held sway through the 1980's and 1990's. But, along with the rise of 'whole language learning' and 'descriptive grammar', educators began to note a drop in students' standardized test scores and a 'back to basics' push back began. And so the debate continues.
In the ESL world, a similar debate is ongoing, with one extreme being the 'explicit' classroom, where grammar is central, and the other being the 'implicit' or 'communicative' classroom, which focuses on communication skills, and, in a sense, sees itself as trying to duplicate native language acquisition. The communicative concept came about as the deficiencies in spontaneous communication skills of students of grammar-centric methods began to be noticed. Students who received perfect or near perfect grammar scores on standard tests were going to english-speaking countries, unable to communicate effectively. So,it is worth examining the issue of grammar in the ESL classroom, how it should be included, if it should be explicitly included at all, and the pros and cons of these arguments.
The communicative classroom proponents have sought to use Chomsky's work to justify this approach, but it's worth taking a closer look at some of what Chomsky has learned, as well as his own thoughts on the subject. We now know that there is a genetic, biological 'window' for natural language acquisition, and that this window closes at around the time of puberty. Natural language acquisition, including the innate 'feel' for grammatical structure not only favors the immature brain, it requires it. After this, language must be 'learned.' Chomsky himself said that it's impossible to teach a foreign language to an older teenager or an adult the way a child learns his/her native language and that this is why it's such a hard job both teaching and learning a foreign language. Moreover, even if it were possible to do this, it would require about eight thousand hours of deep engagement with the language, which is what native speakers get. So, it becomes clear that, as much allure as a natural acquisition process might have, it's simply not feasible with students beyond puberty.
It has also been noted that, although students in the communicative approach can be fairly fluent in their use of the language, they make many mistakes. This fact in itself points out the need to include grammar in some way. Let's use the example of an english class of adults in Nicaragua. Outside of the classroom, there will be little if any natural input and opportunity with english. There will not be any repetition or reinforcement. In these circumstances, how can the student be expected to improve, and use english well? In this context, grammar can be seen not as a set of rules, but as a problem-solving tool. Learning form can lead to competence and even creativity with the language.
If the completely grammar-centric approach produces students who are bored, but can produce accurate language, at least if given enough time, and the communicative approach produces students who can speak fluently, but with many errors, it becomes apparent that an integration of these approaches is required, one in which grammar is seen as a problem-solving tool to be used in the context of communicating. This, then, becomes one of the functions of the ESL teacher, to help the student learn the tools to be able to correct his/her language. There will be ongoing debates on how best to accomplish this task, and the ESL classroom will remain fertile ground for ways to integrate grammar into communication in engaging and productive ways.