Teaching Grammar

August 30th, 20117:38 am


Teaching Grammar

Teaching Grammar


The term grammar is perhaps one of the most misused and misunderstood words that pertain to language. Generally, the term has come to encompass not only the structure of a language but also aspects of usage and social acceptability.

Teaching grammar may be defined as the study and description of the grammar for forming words (morphology) and combining them into sentences (syntax). The words are arranged into syntagms (segmental level) and combinations of phrases are incorporated into sentences and texts (suprasegmental level).

Virtually all methodologists and teachers of grammar agree that a good command of grammar is a necessary prerequisite to fluent speaking of the language as it affects the learner’s performance in four linguistic modes: listening, speaking, reading, writing. The reaction to the subject matter from teachers of grammar seems to be varied: from jealous to avertive; some indulge in it, others simply avoid studying or teaching it. Though there are others who enjoy studying English grammar and willingly accept the challenge of presenting it clearly and interestingly to the learners.

Students are inquisitive learners and ask for explanations when misunderstanding occurs. When a student makes an error, the EFL/ESL teacher is supposed to detect it, diagnose it, and furnish effective correction strategies, remedial work if such necessity arises.

There are different types of grammar: traditional, comparative or descriptive, differential, structural, transformational, transformational-generative, functional and others.

Traditional grammar involves the teaching of grammar through analysis, as opposed to teaching it through analogy (compare Audio-Lingual Method or Grammar-Translation Method). Traditional grammar originated in Greece in the 5th century and was developed on the basis of Greek and Latin. Traditional grammarians were mainly concerned with the standard literary usage; they tended to condemn more informal and colloquial usage both in speech and in writing as “incorrect”. Furthermore, they often failed to realize that the standard language is, from the historical point of view, merely that regional or social dialect which has acquired prestige. The grammar involved the study of the parts of speech, their paradigms and paradigmatic relationships (declarative, imperative, affirmative, interrogative, and negative sentences). Traditional grammar was subsequently applied, with few modifications, to the description of a large number of other languages (Lyons, 1970).

Differential grammar in Halliday’s et al. opinion is a system of superimposing the grammatical patterns of one language upon those of another. Differential grammar makes it possible to determine some of the main grammatical difficulties involved in learning the target language. Thus, what is required is a special type of description that accounts for all types of differences and equivalents. Firstly, we must establish limits of tolerance and areas of usage; secondly, we must distinguish the unique forms from alternative ones. For example, the adverb well in He speaks well of you is the equivalent of an adjective Він про вас доброї думки (cf. 116, p. 68).

Differential description of grammar, as described in the book cited, is concerned with a small fixed number of possibilities and a clear line between them. For instance, the Past Indefinite tense of regular verbs is expressed by adding the suffix -d, or –ed to the infinitive. In lexis, on the other hand, there may be a limited choice too, as between positive and negative forms; but there may be a wide range of possibilities, for example: He was sitting on the chair /bench/stool/seat… These two types of choice are known respectively as “closed” and “open”. The range of possibilities in a closed choice is called a “system”; that in an open choice a “set”. The closed system is thus characteristic of grammar, the open set for lexis.

A short statement of the definition would be thus: grammar deals with closed system choices which may be between items this, that; he, she, we or between categories (singular, plural; past, present, future); lexis is concerned with open set choices which are always between items (chair, bench, seat, stool).

Thus differential grammar is a modification of traditional grammar; paradigms are replaced by a system of choices and categories and notions of norm and usus are introduced.

The theory of structural grammar also known as phrase-structure grammar or immediate constituent grammar is associated with the names of such linguists as L. Bloomfield, C. Fries. According to L. Bloomfield “a sentence is an independent linguistic form, not included by virtue of any grammatical construction in any larger linguistic form”. W. Elkins gives a formal definition: “ a sentence is a linguistic unit consisting of sound and meaning symbols that follow the structural pattern N-V and produce an intonation pattern satisfactory to the speaker/listener.

The parts into which a sentence can be segmented are the constituents of the sentence. The term immediate constituent (IC’s) refers to those constituents that together form a higher-order constituent. In our example, a and walk are the IC’s of a walk, took, and a walk are the IC’s of took a walk, while John and took a walk, are the IC’s of the sentence. Since the sentence is commonly regarded as the largest unit of syntactic description, John took a walk cannot be said to be an IC of anything. It is true of course, that certain relations do exist between a sentence and the context in which it occurs, but these relations are of different order from the sentence-internal relations with which a syntactic description is concerned. The immediate constituent grammar differs from traditional grammar in its concentration on structural meanings which are “specifically signalled by a complex system of contrastive patterns” (Fries).

Ch. Fries provided frames to enable anyone to derive for major word classes — noun, verb, adjective and adverb. It referred to the major classes by number, the minor ones by letter. The authors of structural grammar developed the technique of immediate constituent analysis, a technique of splitting a sentence into its immediate constituents, which in turn were broken down into their immediate constituents and so on to the ultimate constituent. The aim of their structural grammar approach was to be as concrete and objective as possible. An attempt was also made to devise a system whose purpose was to indicate all the phonetic clues to grammar.

Transformational grammar, developed by N. Chomsky, tried to give a mathematically precise description of some of the most striking features of language. Of particular importance in this connection is the ability of children to derive structural regularities of their native language – its grammatical rules – from the utterances of their parents and others around them, and then to make use of the same regularities in the construction of utterances they have never heard before. N. Chomsky has claimed that the principles underlying the structure of language are so specific and so highly articulated that they must be regarded as being biologically determined: that is as constituting part of what we call “human nature” and as being genetically transmitted from parents to children.

N. Chomsky claims that an understanding of transformation and grammar is essential for a philosopher, psychologist, biologist or linguist whose wish is to take account of man’s capacity for language [J.Lyons, 1970].

Transformational-generative (T-G grammar) is a grammar in which transformations are included among the rules, by which a set of grammatical items are specified. This approach to grammatical analysis, first published by N. Chomsky in his book “Syntactic Structures”, has been the main source for ideas about the method of description (cf. R. Scott, E. Morokhovs’ka). Its theory attempted to provide descriptions of many aspects which structural grammar did not touch upon. N. Chomsky states that grammar must be based on two things: observation of language and ability to satisfy the native speaker’s intuition about his language. For example, it must be explained that active and passive sentences are related to each other; that some pairs of sentences, though alike on the surface, are different at a deeper level. Thus, the following pair of sentences The man was eager to please and The man was easy to please are alike in their surface structure but are different in their deep structure. Consider the rules required to form the sentence The headlights penetrated the darkness. According to T-G analysis, it is a sentence (S) that consists of a noun phrase (NP) followed by a verb phrase (VP); in turn, the (NP) consists of a determiner (D) and a noun (N); the (VP) consists of a transitive verb (Vt) and a noun phrase (NP) and this last (NP) consists of a determiner and a noun. This information can be represented in a tree diagram:

Such analysis becomes generative when it is expressed in the form of rules. The analysis above could be expressed in the following rules:

1. S – NP+VP

2. VP – Vt+NP

3. NP – D+N

4. Vt – penetrated

5. D – the

6. N – headlights, darkness

In these rules the arrow means written as. Rules that allow for a single symbol at a time to be written or replaced by another symbol or string of symbols (e.g. D, N) are known as “phrase-structure rules”. By adding further words to the right-hand side of rules 4, 5 and 6, they could produce hundreds of sentences.

Transformational grammar has provided much new information about its nature; it is explicitly generative and its rules are arranged in a definite sequence. The “rules” of a generative grammar are not to be identified with the prescriptive “rules” that formed a part of traditional grammar. A prescriptive grammatical rule is a statement – such as “you should never end a sentence with a preposition” – that tells us whether we are right or wrong to use a particular construction. Generative rules have no such implication of social correctness. They are objective descriptions of the grammatical patterns that occur.

For a practical application of teaching grammar see O. Thomas and E. Kintgen, R. Scott, E. Morokhovs’ka, and others.

Other types of grammar are historical which trace the development of the structure of a language back to its origins, comparative or descriptive which traces the development of contemporary language forms in a number of different languages, and functional in which meanings are emphasised over forms.

For many years situationally based dialogues have provided students with a corpus of foreign language words and expressions with which to work. The situations, frequently found in present-day textbooks, describe experiences common to the foreign culture, introduce the students to typically American or British way of interacting and reacting. In some textbooks (Streamline, Headway, etc.) students are expected to comprehend the meaning through action-chains or through simple English explanations. The Total Physical Response relies exclusively on the use of physical actions at introductory level of instruction where verbal rehearsals accompanied by motor activity increase the probability of successful response.

Dialogue instructions can serve several purposes; some dialogues are designed to demonstrate grammatical rules, and examples of rules in use and the variations of paradigms are introduced systematically in the exchanges.

Bill — Where are you going this evening?

Jane — I am going out with my family. We are going to the cinema.

Bill — What are you going to see?

Jane — “Gone with the wind”. My cousin’s going with us. He and his wife are going to meet us there.

The aim of grammar-demonstration dialogues is to lead students to inductive recognition of the rule or the paradigm. These dialogues need not be memorized: they can be studied and discussed, dramatized and used as a basis for recombinations. They lead naturally to grammatical explanations and intensive practice exercises through which the operation of the rule or paradigm becomes clear to students, enters their repertoire, and is then used by them in a genuinely communicative interchange.

To sum it up, grammar in its development has traversed the way from observation to elucidation, from didactics to analysis, and from analysis to conceptualisation. Two steps can usually be distinguished in the study of grammar. The first step is to identify units such as “word”, “phrase”, and “sentence”, the second step is to analyse the patterns into which these units fall, and the relationships of meaning that these patterns convey. But no grammar-book has so far registered all multifarious kinds of formal patterning and abstract relationships.

Близнюк М.І. Курс лекцій з методики викладання англійської мови. – Чернівці: ЧДУ, 1999 – с.