Grammarphobia?

Grammar! That single word can pit teachers against teachers or turn any conference into a battle royale. The concepts revolving around grammar are so ridiculously divisive that it is impossible to not have some opinion on the matter. Some people scoff at the idea of teaching grammar and label it as “traditionalist,” as if that is a valid argument in itself. Others call it “ineffective,” yet do not have the evidence to back up this claim (as far as I know, the jury is still out). Like most disagreements, it is mostly seen in mutually exclusive binomial terms like explicit vs. implicit, direct vs. indirect, fluency vs accuracy, grammar syllabus vs. functional syllabus vs. no syllabus, contextualized vs. decontextualized, metalanguage-non-metalanguage, etc.

I recently learned about a teacher trainer who has been teaching student teachers that grammar is taboo and should never be taught. I’m sure this person is not the only one? What kind of dogma is this? And if you are preaching against some method or technique, it is certainly dogma as you are not presenting all perspectives and evidence, as well as experience, and letting teachers decide for themselves. If this kind of thing is happening all over, are we breeding teachers who are grammarphobic, afraid to even entertain the idea of working with grammar, either explicitly, implicitly, or as Thornbury writes: “exposure, use and feedback first, then some upfront grammar teaching to sort out the mess!”? Not only will these teachers no learn about the fundamental workings of the very subject they are teaching (because it is not important) they will not be able to help students who want to know why or how something works (except on some native intuition, which is not necessarily accurate).

Am I a grammarphile because I do teach with some grammar? No, and it’s because I don’t see grammar in grammarphobe / grammarphile constructs. I employ all manners of grammar teaching and non-teaching in contexts I deem appropriate because I am guided by insight, experience, and research not dogma.

I don’t teach grammar because:

  • sometimes fluency is more important;
  • it is often decontextualized;
  • grammar-based instruction is too narrowly focused on one specific language point when, in real communication, numerous language points come into play;
  • there are too many rules and too many exceptions to rules, so it is better to learn them through exposure rather than analysis;
  • students, especially beginners, want to communicate not learn rules;
  • we learn better through meaningful practice, which grammar instruction does not provide;
  • communication is the essence of language.

I do teach grammar because:

  • sometimes accuracy is more important;
  • sometimes things need to be looked at out of context;
  • in real communication, there are numerous language points that come into play, and directing students attention to salient ones is important to help them communicate;
  • there are complicated rules and exceptions that can’t always be picked up naturally;
  • students, especially beginners, need foundation grammar skills on which to build up all their language skills;
  • we learn better through deliberate and meaningful repetitive practice, which meaningful grammar drilling can provide;
  • grammar is the essence of language.

Do you teach grammar? Why or why not? How or how not?

3 thoughts on “Grammarphobia?

  1. Matthew says:

    Both at the same time. ‘Grammar’ is best taught as ‘language’, without an artificial separation from other aspects. ‘Grammar’ should be ‘slathered’ like a sauce on everything in a classroom. Not a side-dish.

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      “Grammar’ should be ‘slathered’ like a sauce on everything in a classroom. Not a side-dish.” I love this!

  2. I agree. I always slathered on the grammar too. Mind you, I spent little time giving explicit grammar rules – I guided students to work out for themselves how the language functions.
    I didn’t bother either with the dozens (?hundreds) of so-called rules that have umpteen exceptions. Grammar books are stuffed with them but the time students’ invest in learning them never pays off. There are only a few rules that are worth the investment. They are the ones that “pay” a million times over. For example, integrating as beginners how questions and negatives are formed in English with “do/does” (by talking about the subject that really interests them – themselves) is well worth the time spent because it can be extrapolated (minus the 3rd person -s) to “did” and all the modals.

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