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Grammar: To Teach or Not to Teach
Hanelise Wagner Rauth

Grammar is always an intriguing and contradictory topic. It is adored by some and hated by others. For many years it was the sole basis of every language course. Then waves of anti-grammar radicalism tried to bann it from classrooms, if on one hand it convinced some teachers whose results were not very pleasing with older methods, on the other hand for many other teachers abandoning grammar was similar to loosing safe ground, and they never stopped teaching it. Even when mostly disliked, grammar never lost its place in discussions about ELT methodology. Unfortunatelly SLA research was hardly ever listened to in this discussion.

This paper tries to help breakind the deadlock in grammar discussion by making a review of recent works in Second Language Acquisition that tries to find an answer for the frequent questions asked in the ESL practice: is it really useful to teach grammar? If teaching grammar, what language to teach,when to teach it and how to teach it?

One of the frequent questions about grammar teaching is whether there is a universal order of acquisition, unchangeable and independent from students’ personal characteristics. Several were the studies that dealt with this. Brown (1973) found an unchangeable order in child L1 acquisition of English. He analysed how three children learned fourteen morphemes and found the same order for all of them.

Krashen, though not the first to claim the existence of an order of second language acquisition, made very striking suggestions for methodological changes derived from this discovery.

In the 1970’s together with Dulay and Burt, he carried out a number of studies known as the ‘morpheme studies’ “to investigate the order of acquisition of grammatical functors such as articles and inflectional features such as plural –s” (Ellis, 1994) in search of an invariant order of acquistion. They found out that grammar rules were acquired in the same order, independent of the learners’ L1. The order of acquisition was also independent of the order in which grammar rules were taught. He highlighted that the rules which are easiest to state are not necessarily the first ones to be acquired.

Therefore, he defended that the only way to acquire language was through ‘comprehensible input’, that is, through exposition to meaningful comprehensible language. This strengthened ‘communicative language teaching’.

The ‘Natural Approach’ proposed by Terrell (1977) based on Krashen’s findings meant to teach the second language naturally according to the way young children learn their first language. If children learnt the complicated system of rules which is language without grammar lessons even before they develop any other abstract cognitive ability, adults should also be able to learn their L2 naturally. They were very proud to say that their method was the first to have an underlying theory of second language aquisition. Other methods were rather based on theories of language. They rejected approaches where grammar was the central component of language. They claimed that teaching should consist of comprehensible input rather than language practice. Since linguistic features at the appropriate next level of development would surely be present in any rich enough source of comprehensible input. Targeting specific grammar features would be therefore useless, students just needed to be exposed to language. As communication was the primary function of language, communicative abilities should be taught. A long period of attention and silence were allowed to studens, who would start speaking only when they felt emotionally prepared for that.

The Natural Approach was intensely adopted, specially in the United States and Canada. Most students became fluent, but there was also a very high rate of fossilization. This fact raised questions about grammar teaching again.

After this, many other studies were done in this field and acquisition order research has provided evidences that supports Krashen’s hypothesis that every learner follows the same order of acquisition for morphological structures, but the conclusions drawn from this were not the same as Krashen’s.

Of special interest is Johnston and Pienemann’s works on the order of acquisition of a Second Language as well as the Teachability Theory. They also came out with an order of acquisition, but Pienemann was able to classify the acquisition in stages and to explain them in terms of language processing, avoiding the critics for lack of theoretical reasoning older theories were accused of. According to Pienemann, language acquisiton is seen as a dynamic process of criative construction. This can be explained as a cognitive process to systematically overcome processing restrictions. That means, learner language is a system in continuous change. As learners have contact with input, they process it for meaning and form and reelaborate their internal grammar. This reelaborating is not only continuous but also predictable, because restrictions to language processing must be overcome for acquisition to take place. These restrictions are related to information exchange. This can be better understood with the chart below.

Stage 1
Single words or formulae
Invariant forms
Water - Good morning
Stage 2
Canonical word order
Plural
Possessive pro
I like dogs
dogs
my dogs
Stage 3
Fronting
ADV
Wh-fronting
Do-fronting
Other-fronting
Neg + V
NP agreement
‘Yesterday I went to school.’
‘ Where you have been?’
‘ Do she see him?’
‘ Is you go to school?’
‘ I no like books.’
‘ many dogs’
Stage 4
Yes/no inversion
PS inversion
‘Has he seen you?’
Stage 5
Inversion in wh-questions
Do2nd
Aux2nd
SV agreement
‘Why did he sell that car?’
‘ Where has he gone?’
Stage 6
Cancel inversion ‘I wonder whether he had lunch yesterday.’
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