The shifts and turns in teaching grammar

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Over the centuries, second language educators have alternated between two types of approaches to language teaching: those that focus on analyzing the language and those that focus on using the language.

The former has students learn the elements of language (e.g., sounds, structures, vocabulary), building toward students’ being able to use the elements to communicate. The latter encourages students to use the language from the start, however falteringly, in order to acquire it (Larsen-Freeman, n.d.).

Early in the previous century, this distinctive pattern was observable in the shift from the more form-oriented grammar-translation approach to the user-oriented direct method (Celce-Murcia, 1980).

A more recent example of the shift is the loss of popularity of the cognitive-code approach, in which analyzing structures and applying rules are common practices, and the rise of more communicative approaches, which emphasize language use over rules of language usage (Widdowson, 1978). In the Philippines, is evident that the cognitive-code approach is still employed. While the curriculum framework aims for a communicative approach, the current practice still defeats its purpose.

Even though such language use approaches as task-based and content-based are in favor these days, educators agree that speaking and writing accurately is part of communicative competence, just as is being able to get one’s meaning across in an appropriate manner. Further, it has been observed that although some learners can “pick up” accurate linguistic forms from exposure to the target language, few learners are capable of doing so efficiently, especially if they are postpubescent or if their exposure is limited to the classroom, as is the case when English is taught as a foreign language.

In contrast, research has shown that teachers who focus students’ attention on linguistic form during communicative interactions are more effective than those who never focus on form or who only do so in decontextualized grammar lessons (Spada and Lightbown 1993; Lightbown 1998). Still, it should be noted that such focus should be introduced at a specific time of the instruction. For instance, at the end of the lesson, you could raise points on forms, so that you do not interfere in the communicative process while students are engaged in the class.

It follows, then, that most educators concur with the need to teach grammatical form. However, they advise doing so by “focusing on form” within a meaning-based or communicative approach in order to avoid a return to analytic approaches in which decontextualized language forms were the object of study.

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