The common current problems of teaching grammar

Due to changes in our state education standards and the gradual transition to 12-year education schools it makes sense to rethink the basic trends of teaching foreign languages, particularly English as a mean of intercultural communication. On the other hand, the new program of educational institutions in foreign languages has identified the main purpose of teaching foreign languages in secondary school as the development of the individual student, who can act as a subject in crosscultural communication in the target language. This is possible if a student forms the knowledge of language structure, the very important place here takes the grammar. In spite of this it must be admitted that the formation of communication skills is not possible without integrated development of other linguistic resources. That does not diminish the importance of grammar as a linguistic mean. Education grammatical utterance design is one of the prerequisites of practical mastery of a foreign language at school. Available in the scientific and methodological literature, a significant amount of work on the grammatical aspect of learning at an early stage of secondary school proves the importance of the problem and simultaneously the difficulty of choosing the best of it solution. "Initial phase sets the foundation of skills in a foreign language, which usually determines the success of their students' mastery in the following classes" [Simonova N.M. Experimental study of the structure of motivation in mastering a foreign language in high school: synopsis. ... Candidate of Psychological Sciences, M., 1982. 15.]. The main difficulty of solving the problem in teaching grammar during the initial phase is connected to a large extent with the linguistic and psychological factors that determine the laws of interaction between the two language systems: the system of the native language of pupils and studied a foreign language. Age characteristics of students 10-11 years old and a high level of motivation play a positive role here. Despite the considerable attention paid to teaching grammar in high school (senior stage), as experience shows, students do not sufficiently clear understand the grammatical forms and functions which they have learned initially. As is shown by tests made in the research paper that was done on the topic, the level of awareness about grammatical skills is not as high as was expected. And, as revealed interview, there are grammatical errors in the student’s speech. Consequently, the initial stage should be considered very seriously. Currently methodology science has developed plenty amount different approaches and methods in teaching grammar. But choosing or developing the most appropriative method for our region is still an unsolved problem because experience shows that our domestic technique for secondary schools cannot cope with that task, dictated by the present state of affairs and state standards.

The common current issues and questions

In the current textbooks of English for secondary schools Grammar-translation method is reflected which is developed by teaching staff, headed by Ayapova T.T. The main priority of speech activity is reading, which considerably achievable in public schools. It is needed to develop all four functional types of reading: the intro, lookup, search and study. Reading serves as a condition for the successful implementation of other kinds of speech activity, and thus as a tool of the future specialist of a particular profile [1]. However, this approach leads to that inadequate attention is paid to the implementation of the principle of communicative learning. Building awareness of grammatical skills with this approach is rather difficult. The volume of communicative exercises for the operation of grammatical material studied in the speech of students is small. Many researchers in their work has been paid much attention to the problem of communication in the learning process (Bim I. L, 1988, 12-27; Vaisburd M.L., Passow E.I., 1991, 10-35; Evchenko V.V, 36-38; Kolkova M.K, 19-21, etc.). The methods of teaching grammar have been developed in the functional content; communication-based educational methods and kits in

Russia have been designed (Klementyev T.B., Monk B.1994; Kuzovlev V.P. Lapa N.M., Peregudova E. S., 1997, etc.), as well as a series of books abroad (Abbs B., Freebairn I., 1991; Hutchinson T., 1994; Littlejohn A., Hicks D., 1996; Nolasco R., 1995, etc.). Some positive results in terms of "elimination" of grammatical structures learned in the speech have been reached. However, the experience of researchers indicates that the introduction, reinforcement and activation of grammatical material only on the basis of communication approach does not provide a strong knowledge of rules of form and form usage and do not guarantee error-free speech. In this regard, researchers have turned to cognitive techniques common in 40-50s. However, without critical analysis, without modification of these techniques those techniques cannot be used in the modern school, since the goal of learning changed. Therefore, the most important is development of an integrated approach to teaching grammar, communicative and cognitive approach, which determined the selection of the content of teaching grammar for the initial stage, providing an opportunity to communicate in a foreign language, as well as solid knowledge of grammatical phenomena by performing a specially organized exercise.

So, the basic three questions that could be addressed are:

  1. Should be grammar taught or should the conditions by which learners learn naturally be simply created?
  2. What grammar should be taught?
  3. When should grammar be taught? Is it best to teach grammar when learners’ first start to learn a foreign language or to wait until later when learners have already acquired some linguistic competence?

Before answering these questions, a definition of grammar teaching should be given. Traditionally, grammar teaching is viewed as the presentation and practice of discrete grammatical structures. This is the view promulgated in teacher handbooks. Ur (1996), for example, in her chapter titled “Teaching Grammar” has sections on “presenting and explaining grammar” and “grammar practice activities.” Hedge (2000) in her chapter titled “Grammar” similarly only considers “presenting grammar” and “practicing grammar.” This constitutes an overly narrow definition of grammar teaching. It is certainly true that grammar teaching can consist of the presentation and practice of grammatical items. But, as will become apparent, it need not. First, some grammar lessons might consist of presentation by itself (i.e., without any practice), while others might entail only practice (i.e., no presentation). Second, grammar teaching can involve learners in discovering grammatical rules for themselves (i.e., no presentation and no practice). Third, grammar teaching can be conducted simply by exposing learners to input contrived to provide multiple exemplars of the target structure. Here, too, there is no presentation and no practice, at least in the sense of eliciting production of the structure. Finally, grammar teaching can be conducted by means of corrective feedback on learner errors when these arise in the context of performing some communicative task.

So it leads to the following definition of grammar teaching:

Grammar teaching involves any instructional technique that draws learners’ attention to some specific grammatical form in such a way that it helps them either to understand it met linguistically and/or process it in comprehension and/or production so that they can internalize it.

Should be grammar taught or should the conditions by which learners learn naturally be simply created?

At one time, it was assumed that the only way of developing grammatical competence in a second language was through direct teaching of grammar. We all held the "skillbuilding" position: We learn language by first learning the rules consciously, then practicing them in output exercises, and we fine-tune our knowledge of rules by getting our errors corrected.

This axiom has been demoted to the level of hypothesis: It has been argued that we develop competence in second languages in another way. We acquire the grammatical rules of a language by understanding input containing these rules. Our attention is not on consciously learning the rules but on understanding the message, and we subconsciously absorb the rules the same way children absorb the rules of their first language. Conscious knowledge of grammar has a limited function: It is used to edit or monitor our second language production. We can use the conscious grammar to make small grammatical repairs when we have time, when we are thinking about correctness, and when we know the rules. Conscious knowledge is thus not useless, but it has a limited function.

The evidence for the "comprehension" or "input" hypothesis includes studies showing that students in comprehension-based second language classes consistently outperform those in traditional classes, at both the beginning and intermediate levels, and includes studies showing the powerful impact of recreational reading (Krashen S.2003).

There is also strong indirect evidence supporting the comprehension hypothesis. The grammatical system of any language is far too complex to be consciously learned, and many people develop high levels of competence without formal instruction. Quite often, those who have not reached the highest levels of competence in second languages, despite what seems to be a great deal of exposure, have not been readers.

In recent years, a number of studies have been published contesting the input hypothesis. These studies typically show that after we provide students with direct instruction, they improve in the use of the rules taught, and show more improvement than comparison groups. But in all studies;

  1. Students were experienced "learners.They expected direct teaching and were good at it;
  2. Students showed only modest improvement in the rules taught, even after a considerable amount of practice, and even these modest gains were typically short-lived;
  3. Tests used were not communicative. In all cases, students were focused on rules during the test, had plenty of time to access the rules, and were tested on rules they had just covered in class [Krashen S., 2003].
  4. Comparison groups in these studies did not receive quality comprehensible input.

The results of these studies are thus fully consistent with the input hypothesis. Some grammar proponents argue that we must teach grammar because accuracy is so important.

The other researchers showed that learners appeared to follow a natural order and sequence of acquisition (i.e.they mastered different grammatical structures in a relatively fixed and universal order and they passed through a sequence of stages of acquisition on route to mastering each grammatical structure).This led researchers like Corder S. (1967) to suggest that learners had their own built-in syllabus for learning grammar. In line with this, Krashen S. (1981) argued that grammar instruction played no role in acquisition, a view based on the conviction that learners (including classroom learners) would automatically proceed along their built-in syllabus as long as they had access to comprehensible input and were sufficiently motivated. Grammar instruction could contribute to learning but this was of limited value because communicative ability was dependent on acquisition.

As was said before there followed a number of empirical studies designed to compare the order of acquisition of instructed and naturalistic learners (e.g.Pica, 1983), compare the success of instructed and naturalistic learners (Long, 1983) and examine whether attempts to teach specific grammatical structures resulted in their acquisition (e.g., White, Spada, Lightbown, & Ranta, 1991). These studies showed that the order of acquisition was the same for instructed and naturalistic learners (although there were some differences), that instructed learners generally achieved higher levels of grammatical competence than naturalistic learners and that instruction was no guarantee that learners would acquire what they had been taught. These results were interpreted as showing that the acquisitioned processes of instructed and naturalistic learning were the same but that instructed learners progressed more rapidly and achieved higher levels of proficiency. Thus, some researchers concluded (e.g., Long, 1988) that teaching grammar was beneficial but that to be effective grammar had to be taught in a way that was compatible with the natural processes of acquisition. There is also increasing evidence that naturalistic learning in the classroom (as, e.g., in immersion programs) does not typically result in high levels of grammatical competence [Genesee, 1987]. In short, there is now convincing indirect and direct evidence to support the teaching of grammar. Also, it remains the case that learners do not always acquire what they have been taught and that for grammar instruction to be effective it needs to take account of how learners develop their inter languages. As a consequence, there is controversy regarding both how inter language development occurs and how instruction can facilitate this.

What grammar should be taught?

Assuming that a language should be taught as a complex system and the instructional way is usually basic way to teach it is the following question to discover. This question can be broken down into two separate questions:

  1. What kind of grammar should be base taught on?
  2. Which grammatical features should be taught?

Linguistics affords a broad selection of grammatical models to choose from, including structural grammars, generative grammars (based on a theory of universal grammar), and functional grammars. Basically syllabuses have been based on structural or descriptive grammars. Structural syllabuses traditionally emphasized the teaching of form over meaning [e.g., Lado, 1970]. Though the influence of structural grammars is still apparent today, modern syllabuses rightly give more attention to the functions performed by grammatical forms. Thus, for example, less emphasis is placed on such aspects of grammar as sentence patterns or tense paradigms and more on the meanings conveyed by different grammatical forms in communication. Some attempt was once made to exploit the insights to be gleaned from generative theories of grammar (see, e.g., Bright, 1965), but in general, syllabus designers and teachers have not found such models useful and have preferred to rely on modern descriptive grammars, such as Celce-Murcia and Larsen-CURRENT ISSUES IN THE TEACHING OF GRAMMAR 87 Freeman’s

(1999) Grammar Book. This resource is especially valuable because it not only provides a comprehensive, clear, and pedagogically exploitable description of English grammar but also identifies the kinds of errors that L2 learners are known to make with different grammatical structures. Such information is important because it helps to identify which structures and which aspects of a structure require special attention. The Grammar Book is also ideal in that it presents information not only about linguistic form but also about the semantic and discourse meanings realized by particular forms. As Van Patten, Williams, and Rott (2004) emphasize, establishing connections between form and meaning is a fundamental aspect of language acquisition. Thus, any reference grammar that fails to describe the form-meaning connections of the target language must necessarily be inadequate. In general, then, the choice of which type of grammar to use as a basis for teaching is not a major source of controversy; descriptive grammars that detail the form meaning relationships of the language are ascendant.

In contrast, the choice of which grammatical structures to teach is controversial. At one end of this continuum is Krashen’s minimalist position. Krashen (1982) argues that grammar teaching should be limited to a few simple and portable rules such as 3rd person – s and past tense – ed that can be used to monitor output from the acquired system. He bases his argument on the claim that most learners are only capable of learning such simple rules that more complex rules are generally not learnable or, if they are, are beyond students’ ability to apply through monitoring. Krashen’s claim, however, is not warranted. There is now sample evidence that many learners are capable of mastering a wide range of explicit grammar rules. Green and Hecht (1992), for example, found that university-level students of English in Germany were able to produce clear explanations for 85% of the grammatical errors they were asked to explain, while overall the learners in their study (who included secondary school students) managed satisfactory explanations for 46% of the errors. Hu (2002) found that adult Chinese learners of English demonstrated correct met linguistic knowledge of prototypical rules of six English structures (e.g., for the definite article specific reference constituted the prototypical rule) but were less clear about the peripheral rules for these structures (e.g., generic reference).

On the other hand it is the comprehensive position: Teach the whole of the grammar of the target language. This is the position adopted by many course book writers (e.g., Walter & Swan, 1990) or authors of grammar practice materials (e.g., Murphy, 1994). Such a position would also seem unwarranted because learners are clearly capable of learning a substantial amount of the L2 grammar without instruction and because most teaching contexts have limited time available for teaching grammar so some selection is needed.

But what should the selection be based on? The answer seems to be obvious — the inherent learning difficulty of different grammatical structures. The problem arises in how to determine this. To begin with, it is necessary to distinguish two different senses of learning difficulty. This can refer to the difficulty learners have in understanding a grammatical feature and to the difficulty they have in internalizing a grammatical feature so that they are able to use it accurately in communication. These two senses relate to the distinction between learning grammar as explicit knowledge and as implicit knowledge. Clearly, that is to learning explicit knowledge and implicit knowledge is not the same. For example, most learners have no difficulty in grasping the rule for English third person–s but they have enormous difficulty in internalizing this structure so they can use it accurately. These two senses of learning difficulty have not always been clearly distinguished in language pedagogy, with the result that even when the stated goal is the development of implicit knowledge, it is the anticipated difficulty students will have in understanding a feature that guides the selection and grading of grammatical structures. Third person – s, for instance, is typically taught very early in a course.

How then has learning difficulty been established? Traditionally, factors such as the frequency of specific structures in the input and their utility to learners have been invoked (Mackey, 1976), but these factors would seem to have more to do with use than with inherent cognitive difficulty. Here I consider two approaches that have figured in attempts to delineate cognitive difficulty.

  1. Teach those forms that differ from the learners’ first language.
  2. Teach marked rather than unmarked forms.

The first approach was, of course, the one adopted in many early structural courses based on a contrastive analysis of the learner’s first language and the target language. Although the contrastive analysis hypothesis as initially formulated is clearly not tenable (see

Ellis, 1985, chapter 2), the researchers still generally agree that learners transfer at least some of the features of their first language into the target language. In many teaching contexts, the learners come from mixed language backgrounds where it would be impossible to use contrastive analysis to tailor grammar teaching to the entire group because the learners have different first languages. In addition, it is simply not known yet enough about when difference does and does not translate into learning difficulty, and in some cases, learning difficulty arises even where there is no difference.

The second approach, however, is also problematic. Markedness has been defined in terms of whether a grammatical structure is in some sense frequent, natural, and basic or infrequent, unnatural, and deviant from a regular pattern (Richards, Platt, & Weber, 1985). Thus, the use of an infinitive without to following make, as in He made me follow him can be considered marked because make is one the few verbs in English that takes this kind of complement and because this pattern occurs only infrequently. The general idea is that firstly the marked features should be taught and the unmarked forms should be left to the learners to learn naturally by themselves. The problem is that, as the definition suggests, markedness remains a somewhat opaque concept, so that it is often difficult to apply with the precision needed to determine which structures to teach.

The selection of grammatical content remains very problematic. One solution to the kinds of problems is to base selection on the known errors produced by learners. In this respect, lists of common learner errors such as those available in Turton and Heaton’s (1996) Longman Dictionary of Common Errors and Swan and Smith’s (2001) Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems are helpful.

When should grammar be taught?

There two possible answers to this question. According to the first, it is best to emphasize the teaching of grammar in the early stages of learning foreign language. According to the second, it is best to emphasize meaning focused instruction to begin with and introduce grammar teaching later, when learners have already begun to form their knowledge.

The first answer is based on need to ensure that learners develop correct habits in the first place. This was one of the key premises of the audio-lingual method (Lado, 1964). Other arguments can be advanced in favors of beginning to teach grammar early. The alternative to a form-focused approach emphasizes meaning and message creation, as in taskbased language teaching (Skehan, 1998). However, many teachers believe that beginning-level learners cannot engage in meaningcentered activities because they lack the necessary knowledge of the target language to perform tasks. Thus, a form-focused approach is needed initially to construct a basis of knowledge that learners can then use and extend in a meaning-focused approach. Thus, a form focused approach is needed initially to construct a basis of knowledge that learners can then use and extend in a meaning-focused approach.

Finally, current connectionist theories of foreign language learning, which give primacy to implicit learning processes based on massive exposure to the target language, also provide a basis for teaching grammar to beginners. N. Ellis (2005) has suggested that learning necessarily commences with an explicit representation of linguistic forms, which are then developed through implicit learning. He suggests that teaching grammar early is valuable because it provides a basis for the real learning that follows. This seems to echo Lightbown’s (1991) metaphor, according to which grammar instruction facilitates learning by providing learners with “hooks” which they can grab on to. The idea behind this metaphor is that a conscious understanding of how grammatical features work facilitates the kind of processing (e.g., attention to linguistic form) required for developing true competence.

The argument against teaching grammar early on derives from research on immersion programs (e.g.Genesee, 1987), which shows that learners in such programs are able to develop the proficiency needed for fluent communication without any formal instruction in the foreign language. For example, learners do not need to be taught some obvious things; they seem to be able to learn this naturalistically from exposure to communicative input. As an example, learners of English do not need to be taught about simple relative clauses. They seem to be able to learn this naturally from exposure to communicative input. A second reason for delaying grammar teaching to later stages of development is that early knowledge is typically no grammatical (Ellis, 1984; Perdue & Klein, 1993). That is, learners rely on a memory-based system of lexical sequences, constructing utterances either by accessing ready-made chunks or by simply concatenating lexical items into simple strings. Ellis (1984) gives examples of such utterances in the early speech of three classroom learners:

Me no (= I don’t have any crayons)

Me milkman (= I want to be the milkman)

Dinner time you out (= It is dinner time so you have to go out)

Such utterances heavily rely on context and the use of communication strategies. They are very effective in simple, contextembedded communication. Arguably, it is this lexicalized knowledge that provides the basis for the subsequent development of the grammatical competence needed for context-free communication. This, then, is a strong argument for delaying the teaching of grammar until learners have developed a basic communicative ability.

It is necessary to emphasize that many of these statements are open to challenge. They constitute a personal interpretation of what the research to date has shown. The acquisition of the grammatical system of a foreign language is a complex process and almost certainly can be assisted best by a variety of approaches. But what is important is to recognize what options are available, what the theoretical rationales for these options are, and what the problems are with these rationales. The fact that so much controversy exists points to the need for more research. One of the greatest needs is for research that addresses to what extent and in what ways grammar instruction results in implicit knowledge. Ideally, this would require methods of measuring acquisition that tap into learners’ ability to use the grammar structures they have been taught in communication (especially oral communication). Studies that employ such methods are still few and far between. Another need is for longitudinal studies that investigate the effects of instruction over time. Although most recently published studies include delayed posttests, they typically incorporate instructional treatments of a relatively short duration.



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Year: 2012
City: Oskemen
Category: Philology