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The grammar discovery approach

In this article, teacher Joanna Buckle delves into the grammar discovery approach. But what is it and does it work?

One nineties development in English language teaching was the ‘grammar discovery’ approach. It’s now been around long enough to have been incorporated into a number of textbooks. In this method, students are given a set of examples of a particular grammar point, such as the present simple tense, and asked to extrapolate the rules for its use from the context. But how much theoretical backing does this approach have?

The grammar discovery approach appears to be inspired by the popular vocabulary teaching method of guessing the meaning of new vocabulary in context. However, it is difficult to see the necessity of such a time-consuming process where grammar is concerned. It may be an attempt to compensate for the very old-fashioned perspective that language teaching is basically the teaching of grammar in the form of tables of conjugations and so on, sometimes known as focus on form or forms. From this, often unstated, and uninformed, point of view, teaching anything else is seen as a sign that the teacher doesn’t really understand grammar well enough to teach it.

On the other hand, modern language teachers tend to rely on the findings of the field of second language acquisition, and the lexical approach, to inform their teaching. Language is seen as a collection of set phrases, acquired from infancy onwards, and deployed by a speaker or writer to construct meaning. These collocations can be learnt as ‘chunks’ of language, as naturally occurs in first language acquisition, and deployed for the purpose of communication. This is seen as potentially a more successful route to second language acquisition than a focus on grammar.

But in terms of the rationale behind the grammar discovery approach, while structured, planned, and manageable ‘guessing meaning in context’ activities are frequently used for vocabulary, they are only a small part of an extensive reading course that focuses mainly on reading for gist, or scanning and skimming. This approach would of course be combined with explicit vocabulary teaching, whether as self-study or classwork.

The reason for teaching this strategy is to discourage teachers and learners from reading everything carefully, because this is not what readers do in academia, or as they learn to read in their first language. Academic readers, and all proficient readers, have to deal with vast quantities of reading material, without feeling that they must look up every unfamiliar word, or even read more than a chapter, or a paragraph, of a book they have selected.

While dictionary work is valuable in a piece of writing that must be studied in depth, or for some self-study, taking this approach will slow a reader down to the point where they give up. Praising a learner for locating the one piece of information they can understand in a difficult text is far more helpful. After all, think of the way students read and reference works in higher education; we choose the books and articles that we think will be helpful, and simply skim read for the main topic, using the title and topic sentences, and scan for a specific word or phrase, to find a viewpoint that will back up or refute our ideas.

The same does not apply to the teaching of grammar, which is not something that first language learners consciously extrapolate from context. Therefore, an inductive approach is not necessary. As the field of second language acquisition demonstrates, young children take a few years to practice forming sentences before they automatically rule out incorrect grammar options. We do not teach much grammar in English language classes in UK schools, beyond naming basic word types and so on, for this reason. Therefore, the strategy many English language instructors are tentatively inching towards is dropping grammar teaching altogether in favour of a skills- and vocabulary-based approach.

Whether or not a skills-based approach is more effective, teaching grammar points through guided discovery does not seem to have a sound theoretical basis, and seems to be rather frustrating and time-consuming for teacher and learners alike. The grammar discovery method appears to originate from the findings of modern research into language teaching, which appear to suggest that explicit grammar teaching may not be necessary at all.

However, most students are used to being taught language through the use of verb tables and so on, and tend to be reassured by the explicit presentation of these language features in class. And considering that adult language learning is more challenging than that for a small child, it is probably better to use a little traditional grammar teaching to give your learners confidence and maintain your credibility as a language teacher for learners that may know nothing about modern language teaching methodology. Unfortunately, thinking of the numbers of language learners from traditional education systems, who may not see the purpose of learning a foreign language as communication, this may mean most learners.

Whether dialect speakers should have to learn the grammar of Standard English is another debate, but as it is acquired naturally with extensive listening and reading, it is probably simpler for all to keep one form of English as the written standard in Britain and Ireland. Significantly different dialects, such as Scottish English, certainly profit from being recorded in writing, such as the dialect poetry of Robert Burns. However, entire books in a less widely-spoken non-standard dialect of English can be difficult to read fluently, and probably would be confusing even for speakers
of the dialect.

Those who are widely-read will pick up the fact that written English needs to be in the standard form, though this may be more difficult for dialect speakers. However, education in English language classes into the historical and ethnic basis for the regional varieties of English, and some examination of texts in dialect in the course of the regular syllabus, such as the excellent ‘Penguin Book of Caribbean Poetry in English’ would have an enormous effect in countering the wide-spread prejudice against speakers of regional working-class dialects that is only now being reduced through the British media, with comedians such as Johnny Vegas and Mickey Flanagan. Without some explanation of their historical origins, it tends to be assumed that dialect speakers are simply ignorant, and incapable of or untrained in speaking Standard English and using the grammar.

But certainly, what no first language learner does, either as a baby or in high school, is try to consciously extrapolate the rules for grammar use from the context. In first language learning, grammatical structures are acquired through years of avid listening, in other words, years of exposure to vast quantities of input in context, and it is the language acquisition device in the mind postulated by Chomsky in his theory of universal grammar that successfully captures the language accurately. Students and teachers alike tend to be confused by exercises that ask them to use the grammar discovery method, and it seems probable that an inductive method is often ineffective for the teaching of structures.

Image courtesy of Library
Joanna Buckle
Joanna Buckle
Joanna Buckle has worked as an English language teacher for nine years, most recently for The American University of Sharjah. She has an MA in English Language Teaching and is currently studying for an MA in Journalism at The University of the West of England. Joanna has previously published five articles on the topic of ELT. Joanna's first book of fiction, 'Trailing Gold', is out on April 25th this year.
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