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LINGUIST List 18.1805

Thu Jun 14 2007

Sum: Traditional Grammar Teaching

Editor for this issue: Kevin Burrows <kevinlinguistlist.org>

To post to LINGUIST, use our convenient web form at http://linguistlist.org/LL/posttolinguist.html.
        1.    Ron Sheen, Traditional Grammar Teaching

Message 1: Traditional Grammar Teaching
Date: 14-Jun-2007
From: Ron Sheen <ronsheenmailme.ae>
Subject: Traditional Grammar Teaching

Query for this summary posted in LINGUIST Issue: 18.1081

Regarding Query: http://linguistlist.org/issues/18/18-1081.html#1

April, 2007, the Linguist List posted on my behalf a query concerning members'
perceptions of 'traditional grammar teaching' (TGT). Following are my comments
on the result of that query. In fact, no member offered a substantive response
thus possibly indicating a lack of interest in the subject.

Now, clearly, members are free to respond or not to such queries. By the same
token, however, the questioner is free (I hope) to comment on such a complete
lack of response providing that he or she demonstrates its relevance to the
field in question. In this case, the field is applied linguistics as it relates
to issues of second language acquisition (SLA) and classroom second or foreign
language learning (CSFLL). Following, then, are comments on the apparent lack
of interest manifest in the lack of response and a demonstration of its
relevance to SLA and CSFLL.

Before coming to them, however, I need to make clear the perception of
contemporary TGT upon which I base them. First, it is NOT what it is often
caricatured in its 18 th and 19th century versions. It is an approach which
has changed with the times and is based on the assumption that learners need to
understand the grammar of some feature of a language before moving on to
practise it. Such understanding includes that of both the grammatical forms
themselves and the related form-meaning relationships. The practice parts of
the approach include a concern with the four skills of reading, writing,
speaking and aural comprehension. Further, the practice is always
meaning-oriented and not based on meaningless drills. It moves initially from
controlled practice to freer communicative use to then become part of the
language of the classroom. For exponents of this approach, see Swan and Walter
(1990) and Ur (1996) amongst numerous others. It is also related to a cognitive
skills-learning approach as in DeKeyser (1998).

Now, if the available empirical evidence revealed that teachers and learners had
no interest in TGT and that in comparative studies, it had consistently proven
to be the least effective of all approaches, applied linguists would be
justified in showing no interest in this approach. This, however, is not so;
the reverse is, in fact the case as the following demonstrates:

1. TGT is the approach to teaching and learning favoured by most teachers as
reported in Horan (2003) and as evidenced by the sales of books based on TGT
such as Ur (1996) and Swan and Walter (1990). Given this, the lack of interest
in it on the part of applied linguists may well confirm the impression held by
most teachers that applied linguists are more interested in theorizing on the
nature of SLA without taking into account the realities of the classroom.
Witness as evidence of this the numerous conference themes which address the gap
between theory and practice.

2. TGT is an approach also favoured by most classroom learners (Naiman et al.,
1978; Carrell et al, 1996).

Now, given (1) and (2), applied linguists should be interested in TGT even if
their purpose is only to demonstrate how ineffective it is in order to put
teachers and students on the right track.

3. It is worthy of note that all innovations in CSFLL in the last half century
have deliberately excluded TGT therefrom on doctrinaire grounds and all have
failed to produce the promised improvement when implemented in classrooms. (see
Sheen 2005 for the provision of the necessary supportive empirical evidence for
this claim.)

Given (1), (2) and (3), no applied linguist interested in seriously
investigating the true nature of SLA can afford to ignore the issue of the
comparative effectiveness of TGT and this because countless numbers of
near-native speakers of foreign languages have achieved such advanced competence
thanks in part to TGT. Unfortunately, however, ignoring is what has occurred
for the contemporary applied linguistic mindset perceives SLA as being akin to
first language acquisition in being input-based though different in its
entailing bringing learners' attention to grammar in brief time-outs from
communicative activity (Lightbown, 1998; Doughty, 2004).

How has this occurred?

Following the failure of the doctrinaire application of Krashen's input
hypothesis as in 'strong communicative language teaching' (Howatt, 1984), Long
did the field a service in the late 80s and 90s in making it acceptable to
investigate some forms of grammar instruction as a legitimate part of SLA.
Unfortunately, he excluded a focus on formS as in TGT stigmatizing it as
'Neanderthal' (Long, 1988:136) whilst advocating a 'focus on form' as the only
legitimate approach (Long, 1991). This lead has unfortunately resulted in
applied linguistic departments concentrating on 'focus on form' and discouraging
graduate students from even daring to raise the possibility that the positive
effect of focus on formS as in TGT needs to be taken into account in research on

4. This exclusion of TGT from consideration has been justified by a systematic
misrepresentation of the findings of method comparison research which have been
characterized as demonstrating no significant advantage for any method. (Long
and Crookes (1992) and Doughty (2001))

This argument is only sustainable if one fails to cite the majority of research
studies which have demonstrated a significant advantage for the effects of
exponents of TGT. (see Von Elek and Oskarsson, 1973 which describes the findings
of all studies up to that point; Kramer, 1989; Palmer, 1992; Kupferberg and
Olshtein, 1996; Sheen, 1996, 2005; Erlam, 2003; White, 2002) Furthermore,
Norris and Ortega (2000) in their meta-analysis failed to bring out the
convincing findings in favour of TGT exponents by omitting the following
studies: Kramer (1989), Palmer (1992), Kupferberg & Olshtein (1996), Sheen
(1996). Had they included the findings of these studies, their findings would
have been overwhelmingly in favour of TGT-type approaches rather than failing to
distinguish between the comparative effectiveness of focus on form and focus on
formS in their findings.

Finally, the current literature reveals that the roles of explicit grammar
teaching and ensuing practice in SLA CSFLL are now being afforded more
attention. (see, for example, Ellis, 2006). Unfortunately, however, that
attention continues to either ignore or misrepresent the findings in favour of
TGT (see Sheen, 2006; Swan and Walter, 2006 for a response to Ellis, 2006).
Further, the editors of journals and books support this uncritical approach by
failing to oblige authors to address all the available findings in this domain.
If such editors continue to fail to oblige applied linguists to be accountable
for all the available empirical evidence and fail to oblige them to address the
solid criticisms of their mindset in the literature (see, for example, Swan,
2005), applied linguists will continue to exclude TGT from considerations and
continue to remain in their ivory tower far removed from the realities of the


Carrell, P.L., Prince, M.S., & Astika, G.G. (1996). Personality types and
language Learning in an EFL context. Language Learning, 46, 75-99.

DeKeyser, R.M. (1998). "Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning
and practising second language grammar" in C. Doughty & J. Wlliams (Eds.) Focus
on Form in Classroom Language Acquisition, (pp. 42-63) Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Doughty, C. 2001. "Cognitive underpinnings of focus on form" in P. Robinson
(ed.): Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Doughty, C. J. (2004) "Effects of Instruction on Second Language Learning. A
Critique of Instructed SLA Research" In (Eds) VanPatten, B, J. Williams, S.
Rott, M. Overstreet, Form-Meaning Connections in Second Language Acquisition.
181-202. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: London.

Ellis, R. (2006). Current issues in the teaching grammar: An SLA Perspective.
TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), 83-107.

Horan, A. (2003). English grammar in schools. In P. Collins & M. Amberber (Eds),
Proceedings of the 2002 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society.

Howatt, A.P.R. (1984) A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Kramer, P. (1989) 'The classroom acquisition of German and the Input Hypothesis'
Salt Lake City, University of Utah Ph.D. Dissertation.

Lightbown, M. P. (1998). "The importance of timing in focus on form." In C.
Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.) Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language
Acquisition, (pp, 177-196)
Long, M.H. (1988) "Instructed interlanguage development" In L. Beebe (Ed.),
Issues in second language acquisition: Multiple perspectives (pp. 115-141),
Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Long, M. H. (1991) "Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching
methodology" In K. de Bot, R. Ginsberg, & C. Kramsch (Eds.) Foreign language
research in cross-cultural perspective (pp. 39-52). Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Long, M.H., & Crookes, G. (1992). Three approaches to task-based syllabus
design. TESOL Quarterly, 26, 27-56.
Naiman, N., M. Frohlich, H. Stern and A. Todesco (1978) The Good Language
Learner. Researh in Education Series 7 Toronto: OISE.
Norris, J. M. and L. Ortega. (2000) "Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A
research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis." Language Learning 50: 417-528.

Palmer, A. (1992). "Issues in evaluating input-based language teaching
programs." In J. C. Alderson & A. Beretta (Eds.) Evaluating Second Language
Education (pp. 141-166) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sheen, R. (1996). "The advantage of exploiting contrastive analysis in teaching
and learning a foreign language." International Review of Applied Linguistics,

Sheen, R, (2005) ''Focus on FormS as a means of improving accurate oral
production'' A chapter in Investigations in Instructed Second Language
Learning, (Eds.) Alex Housen & Michel Picard, "Studies on Language Acquisition"
(SOLA) at Mouton De Gruyter, Series Editor, Peter Jordens. 271-310.

Sheen, R. (2006) Response to 'Current Issues in the Teaching of Grammar: An
SLA Perspective' of R. Ellis. TESOL Quarterly, 41.
Swan, M. (2005) "Legislating by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based
Instruction"Applied Linguistics 26:376:401.

Swan. M and Walter, C (1990) The New English Cambridge Course. Cambridge: CUP

Swan, M. and Walter. C (2006) "Teach the whole of the grammar: A response to
Ellis (2006)". TESOL Quarterly, 41.

Ur, P. (1996) A course in language teaching Cambridge, England: Cambridge
University Press.
Von Elek, T. & Oskarsson, M. (1973). Teaching Foreign Language Grammar to
Adults: A comparative study. Almquist & Wiksell: Stockholm.

White, J. (2001). "How can teaching affect progress on a grammatcial feature?".
SPEAQ Annual Convention, 1-3 November, 2001, St Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada.

Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics

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