Grammar teaching – when? why? how?

Photo by Una Cunningham

Ever since the advent of communicative language teaching in the early 1980s the role of grammar teaching in instructed second language acquisition has been debated. It has been of interest to both researchers and practicing language teachers. The role of grammar teaching as such, and the point of knowing grammar rules (what we might call explicit language knowledge or declarative knowledge) has been the object of many controversies. After all, our language course syllabi are all about communicative competence or what we might call implicit language knowledge or procedural knowledge

This is the first module of the CIRCLE course. Like all the modules, it is made up of some reading, a video or audio file, some discussion questions and a forum. In addition, you can sign up to attend an online Zoom seminar on the topic.

Points of departure

Our view of language education is informed by Paul Nation’s Four Strands mode. Listen to Tore’s account of the model here.

Reading

Take a look at the tips on reading research at the bottom of our landing page.

Read these two articles. Paul Nation is one of the most influential figures in language education, and the ideas he expresses in this article are central to our thinking on language education. We will be returning to the ideas in this article in many of the upcoming modules. The very recent article by Schurz & Coumel is a comparison of what English teachers in lower and upper secondary schools in Sweden, Austria, and France say about their grammar teaching.

  • Nation, P. (2007). The four strands, International Journal of Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 2-13, https://doi.org/10.2167/illt039.0
  • Schurz, A., & Coumel, M. (2020). Grammar teaching in ELT: A cross-national comparison of teacher-reported practices. Language Teaching Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168820964137

Videos

You may enjoy listening to Paul Nation talk about applying the four strands in a talk to the US Department of State Foreign Service Institute.

Nation, P. (2017). Applying the four strands: Paul Nation speaks to FSI on language learning. US Department of State Foreign Service Institute (1 hr 11 minutes)

As a bonus, Ellman’s keynote lecture for Cambridge University Press English Language Teaching problematises grammar teaching during a pandemic.

Ellman, M. (10 Dec 2020). Grammar teaching in the age of Covid-19 (1 hr 7 mins) Cambridge University Press ELT

Reading questions

1. While you are reading Nation’s article and perhaps viewing his video, consider your own language teaching in the light of the four strands. How is the article relevant to or interesting for your own teaching?

2. While you are reading the article by Schurz & Coumel, consider the context of the research, such as when and where any data was collected and who the learners were. Identify what the article sets out to achieve, and to what extent it succeeds. How is the article relevant to or interesting for your own teaching?

Share your answers to these questions in the discussion forum at the bottom of this page.

Interview

We had the pleasure of a conversation with Alexandra Schurz (University of Vienna) and Marion Coumel (University of Warwick) about their research into the teaching of grammar in three countries.

Online seminar

There was a free Zoom seminar to discuss the topic of Grammar teaching – when? why? how? at 16:00 – 17:00 (Swedish time) on Monday 22 March 2021. You are welcome to continue the discussion at the end of this page.

Discussion

Share your answers to the reading questions in the forum at the bottom of this page. Feel free to respond to others when you have posted your own text. Please try to build on others’ responses. The discussion is moderated, so your text will not appear immediately.

You can fill in your email address and/or your name if you choose, or you can remain anonymous. For more discussion, join our CIRCLE Facebook group.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

12 Replies to “Grammar teaching – when? why? how?”

  1. Monica Carlsson

    I’ve worked as a language teacher for 30 years (year 6-9 but also 5 years in secondary education) but now I’m working as an editor of language teaching materials.

    When reading and listening to Paul Nation I feel both relief and a bad conscience. Relief since most of my teaching has been in line with what he says. My bad conscience comes from too little of fluency training. The idea of constantly moving forward and helping my pupils improve is the cause of that. I realise that my pupils haven’t had enough time of consolidating what they know and to feel proud of what they have learnt.

    One thing that surprises me is the percentage of known vocabulary that is required in meaning-focused input. Considering the diversity of knowledge levels in a classroom many of my whole-class-activities have been on a too difficult level for many pupils in my classroom. When my pupils read/listened individually I tried to find material at their individual levels but for whole-class-activities that wasn’t the case. The working conditions for a teacher and the time at hand often is an obstacle for the good ambitions of finding material for each individual’s level.

    Another thing that surprised me is the stated efficiency of language -focused training, since sometimes this is seen as a taboo. I know that our focus (in the syllabus) is on communication and meaningful tasks, and that when teaching grammar we should do this in a context or as a feedback to pupil’s work. Suddenly the advice is to do this one quarter of the time. I’ve always told my pupils that grammar is a shortcut in language learning. It takes so much longer learning from trial-and error (I also know that many pupils don’t like grammar, so the level of efficiency is related to that too.)

    In the second paper where they compared grammar teaching in different countries I especially reflected on the fact that Swedish students to a high extent use extramural English (meaning-focused input and output). I felt that this has highly improved the level of knowledge for many students, but it has also made the gap between the highest levels and the lowest levels huge and this makes teaching more difficult, since we have organised education in age-groups and not based on prior knowledge.

    Another thing I reflected on is the importance of government/ Skolverket/ headmasters in keeping the syllabus ”alive”. The tendency to get stuck and to use old /traditional methods must constantly be challenged. Teaching changes over time, which we have indeed seen a lot of during the pandemic.

    At last I find the role of ”the course” interesting, The course is of course managed by the teacher but the teaching material also plays a big role in this by offering content for the course Thus the teaching material must constantly be revised and updated according to syllabus and latest trends/circumstances. This last year the focus on digital teaching material has been in focus due to the pandemic and teaching/learning done in other places than the school building. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new phase in education. We will no longer organise teaching as we did in the 19th century when the idea of ”teaching factories” set the idea of forming groups of pupils of the same age.

    Reply
    • ucunn Post author

      Many thanks, Monica! I’d like to respond to your surprise at Nation’s advice to spend about a quarter of the time on language-focussed learning. I think that this can be a lot more than grammar teaching. The intentional study of vocabulary, for example, including looking at collocations and finding out about the way a word or chunk is used, would be a different kind of language-focussed learning. So would anything to do with pronunciation, but also e.g. spelling and noticing features of different varieties of the target language.

      Interesting point about the challenge of grouping learners by age rather than level in the target language. I am sure many of you have experience of the challenges this poses!

      Reply
      • Monica Carlsson

        Reply
        I was thinking more grammar teaching when I commented on one quarter on language focused learning. When teaching/learning languages the different activities interact; when you comment on a phrase it can be about understanding, learning vocabulary, learning grammar and/or learning collocations.

        Reply
  2. Mihaela

    1. While reading Nation’s case for devoting equal amounts of class time to all four strands, I thought of my relatively different practices when it comes to teaching French and English (upper-secondary Swedish public school). In the English courses, there may be a stronger emphasis on meaning-focused input & output and fluency development. In contrast, in my French courses, the students’ proficiency levels may determine a more language-focused learning approach in my practice.
    However, Nation contradicts this distinction, and when it comes to language-focused learning he suggests that there are new depths to which students with advanced levels of proficiency could actually take their knowledge. Come to think of it, I can often see that even if my students do have an advanced level of English, they seem to plateau around the second or third year of high-school. As a teacher, I might have a decisive role here and see if my students do enough language-focused learning activities, especially when it comes to vocabulary learning & acquiring strategic language skills (maybe advanced dictionary use skills, more idiomatic language chunks…). I look forward to a possible discussion on these aspects.

    2. Schurz & Coumel mention that the approaches to grammar teaching may also vary based on the different European teachers’ own experiences as language learners, their own beliefs, but also on the Latin v. Anglo-Saxon origin of the learners’ L1. I find these points interesting, and as the study concludes that the French school system ‘prefers’ a more inductive and explicit teaching, I thought that there might be a correlation between these findings and the way L1 is taught in France. There is a strong focus on explicit and inductive teaching of French as well, maybe due to the homophonous nature of the language, and this might ‘naturally’ reflect on the way ESL is taught too. Dictation exercises are almost a national hobby, grammar and etymology being present in the media and making up a significant portion of the publishing industry.
    The conclusions of the article seem to imply the fact that EE plays a significant role in the students’ proficiency levels — given the three countries’ rankings — as the approaches to grammar teaching do not differ radically and all three national curriculums are rooted in the CEFR.

    Reply
  3. Michal

    1. Nation’s article confirms my earlier suspicions as to how this job is done. The roughly 25% distribution on each strand seems very reasonable and tends to be the natural outcome. Likewise, the extensive reading being a ground to build on when focusing on meaning-based teaching.
    At the same time the article delivers some eye-openers as well. The fact that fluency development is not that different from the other strands apart from the increased speed is as obvious and logical as it was obscure before having read the paper. What’s even more interesting is the the threshold of 95-98% regarding the students’ knowledge when presented with new material.

    2. The Schurz & Coumel article is certainly relevant to or interesting to my teaching in that it includes Swedish high school students in its investigation. Swedish students are indeed more used to a more deductive approach with a smaller portion of explicit grammar teaching. However, I am unconvinced whether this alone contributes to the level of fluency among the Swedish youth. The article does admit that Swedish is a germanic language (which is an advantage, at least in comparison with speakers of French), but does not fully account for other, external factors in language aquisition these days.

    Reply
    • Alexandra Schurz

      Hi Michal, and thank you very much for your interesting comment on our article. I absolutely agree with you that methods applied in teaching constitute by no means the only contributing factor to learning outcomes, such as fluency. Especially in a context like Sweden, another important factor would be spare time English. Maybe this is the aspect you hinted at in your comment. Although we did mention spare time English in our article, it is true that this argument could be given even more weight, since it might be just as important as the type of instruction, or even more so.

      Reply
  4. Cecilia Lindström

    1. The most important reminder (or eye-opener if you will) for me is to implement and work on the strand fluency with greater frequency in my teaching. This part has not played any major role in teaching English courses in upper secondary school during the last decade (at least at the school where I’m teaching) and this will be a very interesting discussion for further development of the subject and the balance between strands. The issue of fluency in the four skills and how teachers are working effectively with this practise in the classroom feels like a very useful and important reflection to make together.

    I also agree with Monica where she points out that the strand delaying with language-focused teaching has not formed a quarter of the course either and I find it interesting hearing more about the ideas and layout of other teachers’ approach to this area (as well as the fluency practice).

    2. The other article was more difficult to relate to when it comes to teaching grammar; the fact that Swedes are very communicatively competent as a positive effect of plentiful input from many areas in our society is already well known to most Swedes. It also seems highly logical that we transfer our (country’s) tradition of learning a language into our own teaching and this has also been my experience visiting other uppser secondary schools in Spain and Italy – that we have completely different approaches to teaching languages and communication. This comparison between different traditions of teaching grammar in different European countries with varying results of being a successful communicator did not seem as applicable to my own teaching as the previous one.

    One reflection I can make, however, is that my students very often have an idea that they are highly competent in speaking and writing in English but as it is mostly when it comes to very everyday matters it sometimes makes it harder for us to find a common way of development in the school environment as they think they “already know everything and rather speak English than Swedish”. Reaching the students who already speak and write a lot of English is sometimes a real challenge as an extension of the discussion in the article that Swedish students are very good at communication (in certain situations but not in others).

    Reply
  5. Kristiina Baum

    As a language teacher student I´d like to raise a dilemma and hear your thoughts on it. I teach Swedish as a Second Language at gymnasium for teenagers. Firstly, there surely must be some differences between learning a second and a third/fourt/fifth language. One aspect, as I understand it, is that you live in the same environment where the target language is the majority language. Learners then get a lot of input with minimum effort – they just have to open their ears and eyes and suck it all in. My dilemma is that the curriculum in Swedish as a Second Language assumes that students live like that: they hear a lot of Swedish and in school they complete the circle by learning for example different text types and make judgements when it´s proper to apply them. Now in my classes Swedish is not a second language, in many cases not even the third. It´s the fourth or the fifth language for many students. This also means that the students don´t hear, read nor speak Swedish outside the school, specially those who have English as L1, and Swedish needs to be taught as if it was a third, a fourth or a fifth language. After my first year as a substitute teacher I have become in need of language teaching methods for foreign/modern languages. Therefore I find Paul Nations four strand method very interesting and suprisingly applyable even in a second language course.

    Reply
    • Monica Carlsson

      The students who have another first language and who are new in this country are often put in the grade with students of the same age (at least in compulsory school). This idea of language immersion works for learning everyday phrases but for meaning-focused input it’s a surrealistic challenge for both students and teachers. The task is impossible if you consider some of the required conditions of the first strand: familiar content, 95-98% of previous word knowledge and background knowledge. I think it’s cruel to put the students in these impossible situations where they often feel insufficient no matter how much they struggle.

      You have the same situation Kristiina; the students are supposed to learn the Swedish language and the content of the course SvA. When teaching the content of the course you have to use both words and content that the students are unfamiliar with. I also suppose that your students are at very different levels in their knowledge of Swedish.

      i don’t have the solution; I know integration is the key to success but there must be some way to make the learning more positive; to make the students feel they are improving and getting credit for it.

      Reply
    • Una Cunningham Post author

      This recent doctoral thesis from Stockholm University may be of interest: Reierstam, H. (2020). Assessment in Multilingual Schools : A comparative mixed method study of teachers’ assessment beliefs and practices among language learners – CLIL and migrant students (PhD dissertation, Institutionen för pedagogik och didaktik, Stockholms universitet). Retrieved from

      Reply
  6. Erika Petersdotter

    First of all, I’m so happy that I’ve come in contact with the Circle, the content on this site is responding to a lot of thoughts I’ve had as a student planning to become an English teacher.

    Secondly, this module I’ve appreciated a bit extra since I did my B-level paper on Extramural English, and plan to write my C-level paper on Multilingualism connected to acquiring English. I’ve felt a bit stuck with how to go about that so I’ve postponed my paper until the fall term for now, but the research by Schurz & Coumel is really interesting in connection to this. I’m also looking forward to read the doctoral thesis by : Reierstam recommended above. This module has given me both new inspiration and many more new questions to figure out. Thanks!

    Reply

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