The Role of Grammar in Language Teaching & Learning


In this ever changing world, the barriers to communication and understanding must be lowered. The acquisition of linguistic skills requires that one must be able to master it and use it to communicate effectively to people who are using that same language, like English for instance. For learners of this particular language to communicate effectively, teachers in the language arts have a very important role to play in teaching every aspect of English, particularly its grammar and use. This is because, to understand and be understood, grammar is an important part of language and communication.

The English Language

The English language, a language belonging to the Germanic languages branch of the Indo-European language family, is widely spoken in six continents. It is the primary language of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and various Caribbean and Pacific island nations; it is also the official language of about 45 nations including India, the Philippines, and many sub-Saharan African countries.

Other than this, it is the second most widely spoken native language in the world, the mother tongue of more than 350 million people, and the most widely taught foreign language (Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, 2006). The United Nations uses English not only as one of its official languages but also as one of its two working languages. The language is also the dominant international language in communications, science, business, aviation, entertainment, diplomacy and the Internet (The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 2003).


English relies mainly on word order: usually subject-verb-object, to indicate relationships between words.

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But many, including native speakers of the language, are still finding it hard to use the language correctly.

In the past, there have been those willing to provide guidance to the public on “correct” usage of the language. America’s most famous lexicographer, Noah Webster, for instance, published a dictionary and speller which taught not only spelling but also pronunciation, common sense, morals, and good citizenship. Other lexicographers have also attempted to produce material that would serve as guide for the public regarding correct use of the English language (Encyclopedia of American History, 2006).

Like other languages, English has changed greatly. English easily borrows words from other languages and has coined many new words to reflect advances in technology. Changes of every sort have taken place concomitantly in the sounds (phonetics), in their distribution (phonemics), and in the grammar (morphology and syntax) (The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 2003).

English is the most widely learned and used language even in non-native English speaking nations. It is widely learned and used for communication purposes especially in the academe and in businesses. Because of this wide use of the language, it has often been referred to as the global language or the lingua franca of the modern era.  It is currently the language most often sought and taught as a second language around the world (Wikipedia, 2007).


Today, use of formal Standard English is required in the workplace and in the academe. It is the language of most educational, legal, governmental, and professional documents. It is used in newspapers, magazines, and books. It is the English we hear from radio and television announcers and persons making formal speeches. It is the language spoken in international commerce. Hence, many schools are focused on teaching students proper English speaking and writing skills.

English grammar is a body of rules specifying how meanings are created in English. Basically, English is a subject verb object (SVO) language, meaning, it prefers a sequence of subject–verb–object in its simplest, unmarked declarative statements. But word order is a complicated matter in English (Wikipedia, 2007).

Standard English can vary in different situations, but certain conventions or rules within it are fairly constant, and well-educated people deem them worthy of being observed. That is why the name “standard” is applied to this variety of English. If a person wants to succeed in the academic and business worlds, as well as in many other pursuits, he or she must master the conventions of Standard English.

Formal and Informal English

Standard English is used in so many different situations. Its use may range from casual telephone conversations to formal speeches, that it would be impossible to name a particular kind of English appropriate for each situation. Two domains of Standard English may be distinguished, however, and that is formal English and informal English.

Formal English, like formal dress and formal manners, is a language for special occasions. It is sometimes referred to as literary English. It is also the language used in serious writing. It is used in formal essays, essay answers to examination questions, formal reports, research papers, literary criticism, scholarly writings, and addresses on serious or solemn occasions.

Formal English is likely to include words that are rarely used in ordinary conversations. The sentences are likely to be more elaborately constructed and longer than those of ordinary writing. Contractions are rarely used. Formal English pays close attention to refinements in usage and avoids slang.

Informal English, on the other hand, is the language most individuals use most of the time. It is the language of most magazines, newspapers, books, and talks intended for general audiences.

The conventions of informal English are less rigid than those of formal English. Sentences may be long or short, and they are likely to sound more like conversation than the stately rhythms of formal English. Contractions often appear in informal English, and sometimes a slang expression is used.

Excellent Language Skills

While individuals can generally speak about three kinds of English: formal standard, informal standard, and non-standard, the lines between them are not always easy to draw. One kind of usage shades into another. An expression that one may think of as being informal may turn up in a formal address. A slang word or colloquial that originates in non-standard English may become an acceptable part of the informal vocabulary. Many words and constructions which one may think of as belonging to standard speech may come into use among speakers of non-standard English. This essentially means that the great majority of words and one’s ways of putting them together are common to all three kinds of English.

If the language conforms to the conventions of Standard English, one’s main concern will be to vary his or her specific word choices to meet a particular need. The need will be determined by the nature of the audience, whether one is speaking or writing.

There will be times when one cannot be sure whether a particular word or expression is suitable for the occasion. One can get help with his or her decision by turning to a textbook on grammar and usage, by turning to a dictionary, or by consulting a special book on English usage. Most of all, one can pay closer attention to the preferences of people who speak the language with obvious care.

With careful observation, one may also notice that the rules of grammar are useful but not an invariably reliable guide to usage. Grammar describes the system of a language. Usage, however, is concerned with appropriate forms of expression. The two – grammar and usage – are not always the same, for language is a living and growing thing, and life and growth are not always logical. The people who use a language are constantly changing it. Since the rules of grammar describe the way the language works, when the system changes, the rules also change.

Importance of English Grammar

Effective speaking and writing goes beyond mere acceptance of the most appropriate grammatical rules. It embraces such qualities as clarity, forcefulness of expression, honesty, originality, freshness, and often, brevity. Yet the conventions of Standard English should never be underestimated as the essential foundation of good speaking and writing. If one deviates from the conventions of Standard English, people will think more about how one is expressing himself or herself about what he or she is saying.

Any language that calls attention to itself or strikes listeners as unsuitable to the situation gets in the way of communication. For instance, if an applicant speaks casually with a prospective employer, as he or she does with close friends, that applicant may ruin his or her chances of getting the job. Moreover, if a person jokingly uses non-standard language around strangers, then these people who hear the speaker may get the impression that he or she does not know Standard English. It is thus important to know the different forms of English to make wise choices from them.

Language Teaching

English is basically the medium of instruction in most schools all over the world. In teaching the English language, most teachers begin with the parts of speech, their identification and their function. For some students, the study of English may point to certain aspects that are already familiar, like grammar for example, but for others, especially for those who will learn the language formally for the first time, grammar will not be very familiar.

Grammar is important. It gives learners the ability to talk about language by providing a terminology and a system of classification. Also by making a learner aware of the basic patterns of English sentences, grammar can help the learner develop a varied and interesting style in their speaking and writing. This is one of the main goals of the study of English.

Teacher and Learner Roles

One can hardly imagine a language learning situation in the absence of interaction between and among students, fellow students, the teacher and the textbook. Every time a student interacts with any of these sources, he or she makes various hypotheses about what is being learned, and accepts or rejects them, trying out new ones.

In an attempt to learn a foreign language, the student-learner is dependent on other people with whom he or she can interact with, as he or she develops a wide range of strategies which will be tested only in a communicative context. According to Thanasoulas (1999), these strategies can be distinguished in three categories: production strategies, comprehension strategies and interactive strategies. These strategies will not be explored in this paper. However, what is being pointed at here is the importance of human interaction in the classroom or learning setting as a condition for successful language learning and intellectual, emotional and social development (Thanasoulas, 1999).

The Teacher’s Role

It has been suggested that language teaching is a complex issue, encompassing linguistic, psycholinguistic, socio-cultural, pragmatic, as well as instructional and curricular dimensions. There are numbers of factors contributing to the dynamics of the educational process, such as internationalism and the pragmatic status of the foreign language (e.g., English), teaching and learning styles, and program characteristics. For example, the general expectation by students, parents and teachers that learners should achieve a high level of proficiency in English when they leave school influences both language policies and how foreign language learning will evolve.

Furthermore, the teaching-learning process reflects different cultural traits and traditions. In some cultures, students tend to feel more at ease in the classroom, expressing their viewpoints and agreement or disagreement; in others, a “passive” attitude towards the teacher and the target language is more common.

For instance, Greek society and its educational system favour rote memorisation, while western countries, in general, do not value it. Instead, they practice and take tons of drills to perfect their study of grammar and the English language. Moreover, such issues as the degree of preparation of teachers and the validity of testing and evaluation procedures can have a tremendous impact on language learning (Thanasoulas, 1999).

As is patently obvious, the task or act, one may say, of “teaching” encapsulates a lot more than merely providing instruction and guidelines for students. It presupposes a psychological and philosophical knowledge on the teacher’s part, so as to combine techniques in class, as well as sufficient command of the basic structure of human existence, with a view to assessing any situation accurately and appropriately (Thanasoulas, 1999).

Clearly linked to the roles defined for the learner are the roles the teacher is expected to play in the instructional process. Teacher roles, too, must ultimately be related both to assumptions about content and, at the level of approach, to particular views of language and language learning. Some instructional systems are totally dependent on the teacher as the source of knowledge and direction; others see the teacher’s role as catalyst, consultant, diagnostician, guide, and model for learning; still others try to teacher-proof the instructional system by limiting teacher initiative and building instructional content and direction into texts or lesson plans.

Teacher and learner roles define the type of interaction characteristic of classrooms in which a particular method is being used. Teacher roles in methods are related to the following issues: the types of functions teachers are expected to fulfil (e.g., practice director, counsellor, model), the degree of control the teacher influences over learning, the degree to which the teacher is responsible for determining linguistic content, and the interactional patterns assumed between teachers and learners (Richards, 1994: 23).

Undoubtedly, the teacher is called upon to perform several functions in foreign language learning. These are the following: teacher as director and manager; teacher as counsellor and a language resource; and teacher as a model and independent language user (Thanasoulas, 1999).

The Teacher as a Director and Manager. One of the main concerns of the teacher as a director and manager is to create a warm, stimulating atmosphere in which the students will feel secure and confident.

It is very important for learners to feel very much at home with both their teachers and fellow-learners, if they are to be expected to venture out into the deep waters of foreign language learning, to experiment with new and strange sounds, and to role-play in a language which they have barely begun to learn (Papaefthymiou-Lytra, 1993: 95).

Apart from assisting in creating the right atmosphere, the teacher should also make decisions on the materials to be used, as well as the activities and games which will best accord with the learners’ needs and abilities. Inasmuch as learners do not necessarily share the same cognitive and linguistic abilities, or interests and motivation, it is incumbent on the teacher to choose a wide variety of materials and teaching techniques and strategies in order to respond to the students’ interests and capacities.

To this end, the teacher is supposed to organize the class, deciding whether a specific role-play or game will be simulated in pairs or in groups. Bearing all this in mind, the teacher may help develop a learner-centred approach to foreign language learning, as he / she takes into account the learners’ preferences, tailoring the materials and strategies to their needs (Thanasoulas, 1999).

The Teacher as Counsellor and a Language Resource. The second function that the foreign language teacher is expected to fulfil is that of counsellor and a language resource. In other words, the responsibility is on the teacher to provide the learners with the necessary input in order to foster understanding of the relation between grammar, language, and communication. In short, the teacher must modify and simplify the language used according to the needs arising in each communicative situation, and to the grammatical competence and language proficiency of the students. In addition to simplifying teacher talk, it is also the teacher’s prerogative to resort to miming and facial expressions (Thanasoulas, 1999).

Learning and teaching is multi-sensory and everything in the classroom and method must imply that learning is relaxing, fun and possible to be attained (Papaconstantinou, 1991: 35).

Moreover, the teacher as a language resource should help learners to acquaint themselves with, and acquire a taste for, the target language and culture. It is the teacher’s duty to make explicit that language is not to be held in a vacuum but should always be learnt in connection to its users and the uses to which it is put.

In light of this, grammar, though it is very important, should not be the sole reference point in foreign language learning; the teacher has to draw his students’ attention to the socio-cultural and pragmatic aspects of the foreign language, in order to help them assess the accuracy and appropriacy of the language they produce, both at the sentence level and the discourse level. As J. C. Richards (1994: 157) notes, “a focus on grammar in itself is not a valid approach to the development of language proficiency.”

The teacher as a counsellor and a language resource should see it as her goal to provide enough remedial work, in order to eradicate students’ errors, and encourage learners to develop their own learning strategies and techniques, so as to discover the answers to their own questions (Thanasoulas, 1999).

The Teacher as a Model and Independent Language User. In order to become a successful communicator and model for learners, the teacher should promote a wide range of behaviours and psychological and social relationships such as solidarity and politeness.

Often learners have difficulties in adopting these behaviours because of the psychological and social distance that there exists between learners and materials. As a result, learners have a tendency to adopt the teacher’s language behaviours to indicate attitude and role relationships, rather than those presented in materials. This is understandable, of course, since the teacher is a live model, a real human being to whom they can more easily relate (Papaefthymiou-Lytra, 1993: 101).

In short, the teacher should help learners to negotiate meaning in the target language through his or her own active participation in it, and act as a mediator between the linguistic and extra-linguistic context of foreign language learning, as these are reflected in the textbooks and audio-visual aids, etc., or literature, respectively (Thanasoulas, 1999).

Teachers play an essential role in the foreign language classroom. Not only are they directors and managers of the classroom environment but they also function as counsellors and language resources facilitating the teaching-learning process. In addition, teachers can become models and independent language users in order to overcome “the inherent shortcomings of the foreign language classroom environment” (Papaefthymiou-Lytra, 1993:104).

The Learners

What roles do learners play in the design of educational programs and systems, and how much leeway are they left with in contributing to the learning process? In the last two decades or so, there has been a shift from Cognitive and Transformational-Generative Grammar Approaches to a Communicative view of learning. Learners, who were formerly viewed as stimulus-response mechanisms whose learning was the product of practice – reminding one of the well-known dictum, Repetitio est mater studiorum – are nowadays regarded as individuals who should have a say in the educational process.

“The role of the learner as negotiator – between the self, the learning process, and the object of learning – emerges from and interacts with the role of joint negotiator within the group and within the classroom procedures and activities which the group undertakes. The implication for the learner is that he should contribute as much as he gains, and thereby learn in an interdependent way” (Breen and Candlin, 1980: 110, cited in Richards, 1994: 22-23).

Three Factors Responsible for Student Learning

Age, cognitive and learning factors. Age variation in foreign language learning and learning differences between children and adults are significant factors that must be taken into account in choosing the right approaches, design and procedures.

Experiments have shown that there are a lot of biological factors at work in language learning. In young learners, both hemispheres of the brain are responsible for the language function, while at puberty it is only the left hemisphere that takes over, which makes language acquisition and learning more difficult. This process is called lateralisation and it may be responsible for learning differences between children and adults.

Cognitive and learning styles, already acquired through mother tongue, may influence foreign language learning. According to Papaefthymiou-Lytra, “Of all personality characteristics attributed to individuals, certain cognitive and learning variables have been researched to determine the degree of their influence on successful foreign or second language learning. These are: field-dependence and field-independence, formal operations, the monitor and foreign language aptitude” (Papaefthymiou-Lytra, 1993: 84-85).

Field-independent individuals are more analytical by inclination and tend to learn through reasoning faculties, whereas field-dependent individuals view learning in toto, acquiring knowledge subconsciously.

Piaget’s “formal operations” theory relates to adults’ more mature cognitive capacities as opposed to the “unconscious automatic kind of learning” (Genessee, 1977, 148, cited in Papaefthymiou-Lytra, 1993: 85) that characterizes young learners’ less mature cognitive system. According to this theory, adults are thought to deal with the abstract nature of language more easily than young learners; it is very often the case, though, that young people may prove better learners in the long run.

Another factor that influences language learning is the monitor use employed by learners.

Three types of monitor users have been identified: over users, under users and optimal users. Over users are associated with analytical conscious learning…On the other hand, under users are associated with subconscious learning and extrovert personalities…Finally, the third category is that of optimal users who seem to be the most efficient (Papaefthymiou-Lytra, 1993: 85-86).

Social and affective factors. Successful foreign language learning calls for an examination of the social and affective factors at work. First of all, the teacher should take into consideration the social proficiency which learners have attained. By social proficiency we mean the degree to which the learner employs, or taps into, the foreign language in order to communicate and negotiate meaning or achieve certain social goals.

Some learners, for example, may complain when their classmate uses their pens or pencils because they have not learnt to use language in a socially accepted way. For instance, they cannot cope with making requests, asking permission, giving condolences, etc. It is worth noting that different cultures favour different attitudes on the part of the learner and, as a result, it is very probable that most of these situations do not necessarily reflect lack of social proficiency.

Apart from social factors, affective factors also play an important role as they may facilitate or preclude learning. It is a commonplace that an atmosphere that fosters and promotes confidence and emotional stability will produce better students. Harmony in the classroom helps relieve tension and keeps the door to language processing open. A teacher’s task is like “that of an orchestra conductor, who tends to fly into higher spheres, and has a tendency to fly and pull himself and the others above everyday’s problems towards a more creative reality” (Papaconstantinou, 1991: 65).

In this “reality” the learner may easily identify with the teacher and venture out into new aspects of the target language, dealing with it in her own, individual way. Unless she feels at ease with her teacher and her fellow-students, she will not learn. If she feels rejected and is afraid of being told off or scoffed at whenever she makes a mistake, she will withdraw from the educational process and lag behind, both cognitively and emotionally.

Consequently, the content of materials for classroom use as well as classroom practices should be compatible with the affective variables influencing learners (Papaefthymiou-Lytra, 1993: 90).

Learner’s needs and interests. Indubitably, a successful course should consider learner needs. For this reason, the concept of needs analysis has assumed an important role in language learning. Needs analysis has to do with the aims of a course, as these are determined by the uses to which the target language will be put on completion of the programme.

For example, is our aim to achieve a high level of language proficiency or are we called upon to respond to the needs of, say, adult learners who need to master specific skills, such as academic writing or note-taking? All these parameters will have to inform the methods and techniques we use in class, as well as the materials design we are supposed to implement in order to achieve the best results.

With regard to learner’s interests, it is worth noting that we, as teachers, should be cognizant of the differences between children and adolescents. For instance, the former are interested in body movement and play, whereas the latter want to learn about human relationships in general and achieve a deeper understanding of their abilities, with the aim of developing a sound personality and character.

It has become evident that foreign language learning is far from a simple, straightforward process where teachers are the purveyors of knowledge and students the passive subjects who receive that knowledge. For successful foreign language learning, students must have both the ability and desire to learn. Otherwise, the objectives we set are doomed to failure.

Foreign language teachers, therefore, must be flexible enough and sensitive enough to respond well to the individual learning preferences, interests and needs of their learners in terms of materials, techniques, classroom methodology and teacher talk. After all, language learning is not a monolithic process since not all personality and environmental factors can be kept under control in a foreign language situation (Papaefthymiou-Lytra, 1993: 94).

Grammar in Communicative Language Teaching

Linguists define grammar as a set of components: phonetics or the production and perception of sounds; phonology or how sounds are combined; morphology, which refers to the study of forms, or how elements are combined to create words; syntax referring to how words are strung together into sentences; and semantics or meaning. Because all languages are characterized by these components, by definition, language does not exist without grammar (Musumeci, 1997).

Musumeci (1997) asserts however, that grammar has not always been defined in these terms. Originally, the term grammar, grammatica, referred to the art of writing, as compared to rhetoric, rettorica, the art of speaking. As used today by many teachers and learners, grammar is loosely understood to be a set of rules that govern language, primarily its morphology and syntax. But morphology and syntax are only two components of grammar. Communicative language teaching has brought a renewed emphasis on the role that semantics plays in the definition of language. Communicative language teaching is fundamentally concerned with ‘making meaning’ in the language, whether by interpreting someone else’s message, expressing one’s own, or negotiating when meaning is unclear.

Viewing grammar with all of its components helps learners as language teachers understand the complexity of what it means to know the grammar of a language. Clearly, the goal of language learning in the communicative classroom is for learners to acquire the grammar of the second language in its broadest sense, to enable them to understand and make meaning; that is, to become proficient users of the second language. Research and experience have shown that explicit teaching of grammatical rules, even if linguists were able to formulate them all, does not produce such competence (Musumeci, 1997).

Adnan (n.d.), however, disagrees with this contention of Musumeci and asserts that there are many aspects of SLA such as the strategy of learning, the role of communicative language teaching, the role of formal grammar teaching etc.

Adnan (n.d.) attempts to study the role of formal grammar teaching for two reasons: First, this has generated a great debate in second language teaching and a lot of research has been done on it. Second, there is an indication that grammar teaching has been neglected in English teaching in favour of developing communicative competence in language which results in students having poor knowledge of grammar.

Now, some people have called for the return of grammar teaching into the English class to solve the problem. It was noted that similar problems occurred in the immersion program in Canada. Although Krashen (1982) praises the program for producing learners with very high levels of second language proficiency, many researchers have for some time recognised that immersion learners fail to recognise some grammatical distinctions (Ellis, 1994).

According to Adnan (n.d.), the Indonesian language teaching circle are beginning to use the communicative approach and he is concerned that if this circle gets affected by the strong view that only communicative activities are important in developing second language proficiency, and therefore, grammar teaching is of little importance, this may lead to the same problems.

He stresses in his study that he is not advocating a grammar dominated classroom or a return to grammar translation method. Nor is he trying to advocate that communicative activities are not important either. It is stressed that they are also very important.

What is being done is discuss the research findings on the role of grammar teaching so as to have a good understanding of what it can offer and what problems it has (Adnan, n.d.).

It was determined that there were some problems that occurred in grammar teaching. And these were: it can have deleterious effects, e.g. avoidance of certain grammar points which once ‘traumatised’ the learner (Pienemann, 1987), it can de‑motivate if the teaching is not interesting, it can lead to wrong generalisation (Lightbown, 1983; Felix, 1981), and it can be ineffective if the learners are not ready. (Pienemann, 1987).

Nevertheless, the advantages are the following: formal grammar teaching can improve accuracy Ellis (1989); Pica (1985); Lightbown and Spada (1990), it can accelerate acquisition when learners are ready (Pienemann, 1987) it can help eliminate inappropriate use of expressions (Adnan, 1994), and it can result in new knowledge (Pienemann, 1984).

In light of this, it is clear that to improve learner acquisition of a second language, there is a need to consider teaching grammar at an appropriate time. Spada (1987) suggests that formal instruction may work best when it is combined with opportunities to engage in natural communication. Ellis (1990) explains how formal instruction works. According to him, the main mechanism by which instruction works is by developing explicit knowledge of a grammatical feature which subsequently helps learners to acquire implicit knowledge (which in his mind is responsible for actual performance). Pienemann argues that grammar should be taught only when learners are ready for it.

In an extensive review of research in the second language acquisition, Ellis (1994) suggests that the ideal approach to teaching is the combination of both formal teaching and engaging students in communicative activities. This is also supported by research findings in good learners’ studies which generally concluded that successful learners pay attention both to forms and functions i.e. engage in communicative use of the language.

Pienemann’s argument, namely teaching grammar when learners are ready, that is, when they begin to use it and ask about it, is appealing. This is also in line with Krashen’s hypothesis of comprehensible input. However, most have not had a standard sequence of the acquisition order of a different language like say Adnan’s language which is Indonesian, by foreign learners though it is noted by Adnan that this is being done as they do in English and German.

Before the learners are ready, grammatical explanation is kept to a minimum or presented indirectly through games or other types of exercises. Learners at tertiary levels (or perhaps adults in general) appear to need grammatical explanation from an early stage. But it is believed that time should not be sacrificed to develop communicative mainly oral skills in favour of detailed grammar teaching. Their needs should be met by providing grammar books which explain grammar in language that they can understand.


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The Role of Grammar in Language Teaching & Learning
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