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Grammar Teaching: Implicit or Explicit?
Based on my 15 years of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teaching experience, the statement “grammar teaching should be implicit, not explicit” could be argued both for and against. Whether to teach grammar as an extracted focus of ELT (English Language Teaching) or more passively as an inductive and integral topic has been the subject of countless debates by institutions, teachers, grammarians and language researchers for decades. Grammar is the branch of linguistics that deals with the form and structure of words or morphology, and their interrelationship in sentences, called syntax. The study of grammar reveals how the language works, an important aspect in the acquisition and learning of English.
In the early 20th century, grammarians such as the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas and the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen began to describe languages and Boas’s work formed the basis of various types of study in American descriptive grammar. Jespersen’s work was the forerunner of such current approaches to linguistic theory as Noam Chomsky’s Transformative Generative Grammar.
Chomsky, who studied structural linguistics, tried to analyze the syntax of English in a structural grammar. This led him to view grammar as a theory of language structure rather than a description of actual sentences. His idea of grammar is that it is a tool to produce the structure, not of a particular language, but of the ability to produce and understand sentences in any and all languages. Since grammar is the means by which we can understand how a language “works”, a definitive study of the grammar of the language is essential to the study of the language.
However, strictly explicit grammar study and even grammar-centered lessons are often not based on communication. They can therefore be boring, cumbersome and difficult for students to assimilate. Strict grammar/structure teaching, except with Logical-Mathematical or Verbal-Linguistic multiple intelligence students, can be frustrating and very ineffective.
Teaching grammar should be implicit
At the beginning of the 20th century, Jespersen, like Boas, thought that grammar should be studied by examining living speech rather than by analyzing written documents. By providing grammar in context, in an implicit way, we can expose students to substantial doses of grammar study without alienating them from learning English or another foreign language. I also agree with this implicit approach to teaching grammar. The main way in which I accomplish this is by teaching short grammar-based sessions immediately followed by additional function-based lessons in which the new grammar/structure is applied in context.
The hypothesis is that adult language learners have two distinct ways of developing skills and knowledge in a second language, acquisition and learning. Acquiring a language is “picking it up”, that is to say, developing the ability in a language by using it in natural, communicative situations. Language learning differs in that it is “knowing the rules” and having a conscious understanding of grammar/structure. Adults acquire language, although not as easily or as well as children. Reading, however, is the most important means of acquiring language skills. A person’s first language (L1) is primarily learned in this way. This way of developing language skills typically employs the teaching and learning of implicit grammar.
The teaching of grammar should be explicit
However, this does not exclude the teaching of explicit grammar. Some basic features of the structure of the grammar of the English language are illogical or dissimilar to speakers of other languages and do not lend themselves readily to being well understood, even in context. In cases where the characteristics of English grammar are diametrically opposed or in another radical way different from the way of expression in the student’s L1, explicit teaching may be necessary.
Aspects of English grammar that can offer exceptional challenge to EFL learners include the use of word order, determiners (this, that, these, those, a, an, the), prepositions (in, on, at, by, for, from,). of), auxiliaries (do, be, have), conjunctions (but, so, however, therefore, although), interrogatives, intensifiers (some, any, few, more, even) and distinctions between modal verbs (could, could ). , should, should, can, might, must). Phrasal verbs also present considerable difficulty for Spanish speakers learning communicative English.
Some students are also logical or linguistic thinkers who respond well to structured presentation of new material. Students with logical-Mathematical and Verbal-Linguistic intelligence are examples before those who would respond well to explicit teaching grammar in many cases.
Based on my English language teaching and on my second and third foreign language learning experience (L2, L3), an exclusive approach using implicit or explicit methodologies is not as effective as using of one or the other of these approaches as necessary. Although it is essential to teach language elements and develop communication skills in our students, there is no better way to introduce and provide practice in them. Young learners have more natural ease in acquisition, while adults could benefit substantially from more “formal” language learning. Learning styles and intelligence strengths are also a significant factor.
There are several generally accepted ways to introduce the sounds, structure and vocabulary of English, including colloquial forms of conversation and the four basic communication skills. Grammar provides “communicative economy”. The teaching of grammar should be implicit, or explicit, as the teaching/learning conditions can be dictated to help minimize the student response that teachers fear most: “Teacher, I don’t understand.”
Note: Academic references for this article are available upon request.
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