Is English Grammar Necessary?

Is Grammar Necessary?

To Teach Grammar or not to Teach Grammar?

Author: William Lake
This article is about teaching grammar to ESL students. The advantages and disadvantages of teaching grammar to ESL students will be discussed. At this point, it must be noted that different people learn English for a huge number of different reasons. It is my opinion that a vary degree of importance should be placed on grammar depending on the student, class, and school.

The obvious place to start is with an argument I’ve heard from a colleague of mine. He says, that because native speakers can speak English with no understanding or a little understanding of grammar, ESL students too can learn to speak English with no knowledge of grammar.

The simple truth is, that without and understanding of grammar we would not know how to write and speak English. Certainly, most native speakers couldn’t tell you if they are using the present perfect tense or what conditional they are using. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have an understanding of grammar, it means that they don’t know the technical terms for grammar. Even if you don’t know the names of the tenses you are using, native speakers use them whenever they communicate in English. So native speakers DO have an understanding of English grammar, but most don’t know their present continuous tense from their present perfect. So we have established that native English speakers do use grammar, but only a few know the technical terms to apply to any given rule.

ESL learners are not native speakers and teaching ESL students should not be treated as if they are. So should we teach grammar to ESL students?
The answer is: yes, we should, but how much emphasis should be placed on teaching grammar. The average ESL student will want to learn English to be able to communicate with other English speaking people. Students who want to learn English should understand how to speak English. As it isn’t their native tongue, some grammar needs to be taught, but how much?

If you put too much emphasis on teaching grammar to the detriment of teaching the other core skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening, the student will always be thinking about what grammar to use rather than just speaking. If a student makes a simple grammatical mistake, e.g. ‘yesterday, I go to the market’, the student can still be understood but has made a grammatical mistake. This brings us to the question of why the student is learning English.

If a student only wants and requires a basic level of English, for example they are a waiter in a tourist restaurant, the most important core skill the student will require is listening. If they are not ever going to be speaking a lot of English, then the other skills are more important. This does not mean that all restaurant workers only want to speak a little, some will also want to hone their speaking, writing and listening skills to which grammar would be more important.

For a student to fully understand what they are saying in English a set of grammatical rules are required. But I believe that some teachers put too much emphasis on teaching grammar. I have some students who are brilliant at reading and writing and listening, but lack confidence on their speaking. Having questioned the student, I found that she was always trying to think about which tense she should be using before speaking. This had an adverse effect on her ability to speak English fluently and confidently. My advise to a student like this is to forget the rules of grammar that you have learnt and just try to speak as much as possible. If the student makes a small mistake, or makes repetitive mistakes this can be corrected accordingly. The student has now found a greater confidence in her speaking and the number of grammatical mistakes being made has reduced by far.

On the other hand, if no grammar was taught, the student would have problems in expressing himself or herself effectively. He might know for example, to say, I’m going to work, but might not know how to substitute the verb ‘go’ for another verb using the same tense. He could only repeat what he or she has heard. The student might subconsciously pick up the rules of grammar, but this would be a longer process.

In my opinion, teaching grammar is important, but too much emphasis on grammar to the detriment of the other core skills will disadvantage the learner. Similarly, no teaching of grammar would place the student at a disadvantage when they get to the higher levels of learning english, intermediate and advanced. A happy medium is required.

Also, depending on the age that an ESL student starts to learn will have a bearing on how much grammar is required to be taught. I have students that are 5 years old, speak a lot of English at school and watch English speaking television. I was amazed at their level of comprehension. These students are like native speakers, they understand and can be understood easily. Maybe learning grammar is less important to these students than a student to is starting to learn at say 30 years old.

In conclusion, teaching grammar is important but how much grammar is the question. This depends on the level of students, their ages, and why they are learning grammar. This question is sometimes outside of your control if your school has a curriculum that you need to keep to. Yes, grammar should be taught, but it has both it’s advantages and disadvantages. Just don’t sacrifice one skill for another. For example, too much grammar at the detriment of listening is not good, similarly, too much listening to the detriment of other core skills is not good. If you are a teacher you need to know what is required for each and every student and apply your teaching as per necessary.

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