Grammar is the set of morphological and syntactic devices through which the elements of a given language are organized.
Traditionally, grammar has been the central aspect of language teaching. Success in the study of the English language was synonymous of mastery in the grammatical rules of language.
This view began to change with the development of pragmatics, a branch of linguistics which studies the meaning of the sentences beyond its semantic meaning, having into account the intentions, context, and other relevant extralinguistic factors conditioning the utterance:
what about going to the beach? Is a question from the point of view of semantics, but it can be a suggestion from the point of view of pragmatics
In 1965, Noah Chomsky made a distinction similar to the one Ferdinand de Saussure had made in 1916 between LANGUE and PAROLE. COMPETENCE would be the speaker intuitive knowledge of the rules of his native language, and PERFORMANCE, what he actually produces by applying these rules.
For Chomsky, linguistic theory is concerned with the “perfect knowledge” of language, a knowledge by which an ideal speaker can produce any and all the well-formed sentences of his/her language. It would not be affected by “irrelevant conditions” such as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, etc. The criterion to judge competence is grammaticality, to judge performance, acceptability.
HYMES, JAKOBOVITS, CAMPBELL and WALES, WIDDOwSON, COOPER and others, think that many of those “irrelevant conditions” must be included in the term competence. DELL HYMES summarizes this saying that “there are rules of use within which the rules of grammar would be useless”.
HYMES thinks that sociocultural aspects are included in neither of Chomsky´s cathegories, since performance deals with psychological constraints like perception, memory, etc, not with sociocultural factors.
He puts forward the notion of COMMUNICATIVE COMPETENCE, opposed to Chomsky´s competence.
According to this view, there are 4 (and not two: grammaticality and acceptability) criteria to judge competence:
If something is formally possible (grammar).
If something can be done in the field of reality.
If something is appropriate in relation to its context.
If something is done, and what this doing involves.
Having all this into account, it seems clear that teaching English must be something different to learn vocabulary and grammar rules.
The main aim of teaching a language is to make students able to communicate meanings in real contexts. So the study of grammar is not longer the central aspect, but one of the contents a student should master to achieve communicative competence. This approach will have consequences in
the treatment of errors (we will try to correct communicative potential, rather than formal accuracy)
the development of the syllabus (not grammar centered, but function centered. For example, the objective of a lesson won´t be to master conditional sentences, but the use of advice, regrets, complaints… where conditionals are used).
The practice in class (exposition and practice of English in use)
the use of authentic material, connected with English culture as much as possible.
communicative strategies and tactics.
Although an appropiate input of grammar is almost necessary to achieve communicative competence, grammar is only one aspect of the knowledge necessary to achieve this competence, and is never an end itself in language teaching.
THE TEACHING OF GRAMMAR
ISOLATION AND EXPLANATION
We usually begin by showing the class an input (text, listening, story, short dialogue, etc,) in which the grammatical structure appears. The aim of this is to get the learners to perceive the structure, both in its written and spoken form, and to take it into short-term memory.
ISOLATION AND EXPLANATION
We focus temporarily on the grammatical items themshelves. We explain what rules govern their formation and their use, sometimes translating, making them aware of their equivalence in their mother tongue, the difficulties it can entail, etc…
GRAMMAR EXERCISES: They must be varied to cover all the aspects conditioning the structure. The grammar form must be used in negatives, interrogatives, affirmatives, as well as in different contexts, situations, in its written and spoken form, etc.
TYPES OF EXERCISES
1 PRACTICE OF STRUCTURES WHOSE FORMAL RULES ARE DIFFICULT TO GRASP.
Only as a first approach, depending of the level and of the grammar structure, we can focus on manipulation of written and spoken forms, without relating particularly to meaning, by means of, for example
slot fillers with answers provided and
2 PRODUCTION AND PERCEPTION OF CORRECT FORMS
The focus is now in meaning, although not yet in the context of a general more or less real situation. Language is not used to do things, is not communicative.
Slot filling: answers provided or not
3 PRODUCTION OR COMPREHENSION OF MEANING FOR SOME NON-LINGUISTIC PURPOSE
Grammatical accuracy is considered, but the objective is communicative success.
We test students to show (teachers and themselves) how they master the material learned. Written evaluation is only one kind of evaluation. Everyday feedback from students is educatively more productive.
FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO SUCCESS
Pre learning: before language learners are exposed to, the more they are likely to learn. Repetition must be obtained without losing interest, one of the everyday challenge of teachers.
success orientation. Students only master the structure if they have enough experience in doing it well. Exercises must not designed to provoke errors, but to produce acceptable responses. A balance between difficulty and success orientation will contribute to motivation and positive classroom climate.
Heterogeneity: quality of exercises that can be done at several levels. In most groups, there are different levels, too homogeneous exercises can´t be appropriate for the whole group. Slot filling exercises with answers provided are a example of homogeneous exercises, open answers help students to show their English level:
He has many cars because…. He is rich / he can afford them.
Mechanical, meaningless tasks, lead to boringness and lack of motivation. A non language based objective has more learning value. Examples of this are problem-solving, getting someone to do something, , exchanging information, etc. students should feel that using grammar correctly is essential to success. “official” output can be a good way to achieve this responsibility (publishing in the school blog or magazine, pen friends activities, simulated applying for jobs, role playing, etc…).
Active language use:
The activities shouldn´t be too centered in one concrete structure. Once the structure is practiced in isolation, exercises must be designed to show their master of that structure and other items they already should know, to contribute to their global master of English.
open endedness: exercises must challenge students to communicate in English, not to perform mechanical tasks. For example, saying 10 things you do always, instead of inserting the word always in sentences already made.
pleasurable tension: challenge, defined objective, competition in some extent.
play action: learners often enjoy pretending they are someone else in an imaginary situation.