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January 27, 2005
Grammar wars

I agree with this man, rather than this one. I've never taught writing, and if I did I might totally change my mind, but saying that grammar isn't an important part of teaching writing sounds to me like saying that the individual sounds of letters aren't important in teaching reading. And we all either do know what that last disastrous notion lead to, or we damn well should. Go here for some enlightenment if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Writing is grammar. And while we're about it, if you know some grammer, you'll make a whole lot more sense when you talk, also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: Grammar

Language cannot do without grammar, which is commonly described as the set of rules(syntax) that's been codified and accepted by all expert users of the language, both in speech and writing.

Of course, less educated sorts are still able to use certain dialects of the language, for example Singlish, Spanglish etc, which have their own deviant grammars, often as a result of insufficient instruction as to the 'proper' grammar forms and their appropriate usage.

There's been two main forms of teaching the english language. While you, Brian, probably learnt by the old school 'grammar translation' method, my generation(both in Singapore and Britain, I think) learnt our english with the newer-fangled 'communicative learning theory' method(emphasis on meaning). We weren't taught any grammar at all. When we got back our writing pieces, all we saw was a whole mess of red ink, with what subject-verb agreement, tense, punctuation etc demanding our attention, not knowing what it all meant! So we somehow blundered our way through. I guess I was lucky; I managed to master the language through extensive reading, and then later learnt the explicit structure in university when I took up English as a second major(my first major was still chemistry).

It was only now in the National Institute for Education that I realized I and some of my peers were the exceptions: the CLT method churned out plenty of people able to communicate, but few of them able to use the 'proper' forms(grammar). They're using the language all right, a dumbed down derivative that's usable in Singapore but not in more demanding formal situations in the US or UK. If one presses the issue, one doesn't NEED total perfect grammar for basic communicative purposes.

When people being selected to teach english at the secondary level cannot construct sentences correctly, people who were taught english via CLT, that really raised questions about the true effectiveness of the method.

The old grammar translational method had its share of drawbacks, like a lack of context in which learners can achieve a better understanding of how grammar is used. There's too much time spent focusing on highly rigid structures and general rules which often have too many exceptions(English is especially prone to this), and a marked inability of learners to communicate effectively even when they have (sorta) mastered grammar, because they didn't have any context in which to practice producing coherent meaning out of it!

In both cases, only the elite got it, and everybody else got by as best as they could. The point of teaching english is to get everybody(or as many as possible) to communicate in the 'proper' form. Grammar fulfils the latter function but not the former, while CLT does it the other way round. One or the other. Yucks. What on Earth shall we do?

So some brainiacs, probably the same folks behind the York study, decided to integrate the two methods. It's still quite new, but my country's ministry is commiting to the new 'skills' method as its grammar syllabus. Basically, it's teaching grammar in context. We as teachers find authentic text which display particular grammatical features in providing relevant meaning, and then get learners to notice these features, allowing them to draw their own conclusions as to the rules concerning those features, and check those conclusions. We give them freedom to express themselves, but constantly assess their work, and make sure that they have used the grammar items taught to produce meaning. If students want to play around and have fun, they can, but only after they've demonstrated the basic understanding of certain rules.

Does it work? I'm quite certain it won't be any worse than the previous two methods. Would it be better? That's yet to be seen, and I'm already sweating bullets about how to go about teaching english in this fashion. If I'm lucky, they're keep me to chemistry... after all, I'm probably the only person in my chemistry cohort to understand statistical thermodynamics.

PS. When Phillip Pullman in the second article expressed his dismay at students at the age of 7-11 learning the grammatical categories, I felt like laughing. Dude, that's nothing!

Comment by: The Wobbly Guy on January 29, 2005 09:03 PM
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