It seems everyone has an opinion of the role grammar plays in learning a language. It’s a hot topic being discussed on a lot of language blogs, in English teaching methodology books, and it’s something my own students often bring up when we first meet.
“How important is grammar?”
Well, there’s one thing which is often neglected in the discussion. We really should be asking:
“How important is grammar to you right now?”
In short, it doesn’t really matter if the world’s most well-known ‘experts’ think grammar should be the biggest priority in a language classroom.
Or if they think it is not so important.
Because ultimately they don’t know you and where you are on your journey of learning English.
Everyone is different, and we’ve all taken different paths on our journey to get to where we are in our chosen foreign language. So how much of a priority should be given to grammar will depend on where you are now, and what your present and future needs are.
Case by case
It’s not that grammar is unimportant, it just could be that it’s not the highest priority for you right now.
Let’s look at a few specific examples to discuss what I mean here:
1. ‘Pavel’ was a student of mine who was very communicative and at east when speaking English. However, he never formally learnt English at school or with a teacher, and he was very inaccurate in both grammar and in how he formed collocations.
eg A typical mistake of his:
*I am sometimes making business in Germany (instead of saying I sometimes do business in Germany).
As a result, I recommended that we focus on some of the common grammatical problems he was having, such as looking at the difference between simple and continuous tenses, as well as looking at some practical collocations.
Interestingly, although I thought he needed more of a focus on grammar than what I might usually suggest for other students, he was a musician and very communicative, and we found that traditional grammar exercises were not really useful for him. Instead, we used music, language games, and lessons from his coursebook, Outcomes, which promotes both a communicative approach to learning, as well as encouraging students to ‘discover the grammar.’
2. In contrast, I had a student in a group class, ‘Helena’, who privately complained to me that we were not doing enough grammar. I responded by telling her three things:
- It was true we weren’t spending much time on grammar
- However, she was already really great at producing a wide range of grammatical constructions, as well as producing them accurately. But because she was a bit shy, she didn’t speak as much in class and I therefore said this was a much more important area to focus on
- Helena was in a Cambridge Business English exam preparation course (BEC Vantage), and this exam is mostly a skills-based test. So although we did a little bit of grammar where I felt it was important, the course was far more targeted towards speaking and listening, reading and writing.
I also needed to consider the feedback from the other students.
Helena took a few moments to think about it, and then admitted that she was a little quiet in class and could see why we were doing more speaking activities. However, if she hadn’t agreed with me, there was still scope to give her more grammar homework, while promoting interaction in class.
It wasn’t a perfect situation, as I think she would have been happier in an FCE Preparation class, but our dialogue helped make the following weeks better.
3. My own story – I once enrolled in an intensive Czech course (3 hours a day). The teacher came in each morning with photocopied grammar exercises from different books, and we filled in the gaps for most of the lesson.
The only free speaking practice we got was when one of us used the words in the sentence to change the topic! For example, if the sentence was something like this – “every year I ________ Christmas with my family in Brno” – someone in the class would then say how much they like Brno, and we’d then have a few minutes’ respite before the teacher got us back to the next sentence.
About half the class thought the lessons were fine, and the other half didn’t continue with the school.
In my case, I was not happy because at the time it was my main chance to speak in Czech. The rest of the day I spoke English at work.
This answers one important point about the grammar debate:
while it wasn’t unhelpful to do the exercises, and maybe it even helped a little, most of us had far more important priorities.
Our valuable time could have been spent better.
So it’s not that grammar is unimportant, it just could be that it’s not the highest priority for you right now.
For instance, in that Czech course, I needed real practice in speaking Czech. I needed practice in how to handle basic visits to the post office, how to discuss my work and hobbies, how to manage small talk, how to chat to people at parties.
We did none of that.
What’s your story?
What about you? Please leave your comments below, I’d love to hear what you think!
- What do you feel you need in your next English course? How important is grammar to you right now?
- What do you feel you need to do outside of class?
- How does what you think you need compare with what your teacher thinks?
- Even if you want to focus on grammar, are grammar exercises the best way to do this?
- What do you feel are the most effective ways for you to learn grammar?
- Is it more important to find a teacher who does you want, or who does what they think you need?
- How open are you to hearing what your ‘language doctor’ thinks?
As teachers, we do our best to ‘diagnose’ potential students and clients, and I believe usually students agree with our assessments.
Of course we need to take note of what students are requesting: if a student says they need to do English for Banking, I’m not going to walk in with a tennis racket and talk about Wimbledon!
But on the topic of grammar, if you think you need to do more grammar in class, but your ‘doctor’ disagrees, what should you do?
It’s certainly worth having a dialogue with your teacher, and finding out why they believe this. Maybe your teacher is spot on, and is trying to help you by focusing on speaking activities or looking at phrasal verbs.
But if you really want to do a course specialising in grammar, it’s totally your right to find the teacher who you feel is best for your needs.
So if you are looking to improve your English right now, it’s well worth speaking to 2 or 3 teachers, and choosing who you feel is the best ‘learning match’ for you.