Language Systems – To Grammar or Not To Grammar

It is often said that dealing with grammar instruction in class is rather dull, let alone, demanding on both learners and teachers. The first ones might consider it as something heavy-going to take on board. The latter ones might consider it demanding on the grounds that preparation is a key element when delivering a grammar-based lesson.

Unfortunately, grammar treatment tends to be downgraded and, to make matters worse, regarded as not instrumental in enabling learners to use the language more accurately.  Much to the contrary, approaching grammar instruction should be a necessary condition for language acquisition since grammatical competence can enhance communicative competence.


The role of Noticing in Language Learning

According to Schmidt (1995, p. 20), the noticing hypothesis states that what learners notice in input is what becomes intake for learning.

As I see it, the fundamental idea of noticing is that an awareness of a particular area of the target language, be it grammar,  lexis or pronunciation, can lead learners to explicitly perceive how the language is used in that very area as well as to enhance the incorporation of these elements to their own language performance. In other words, noticing can lead or, should I say, leads to improved performance.

As a matter of fact, I think the whole thing bears resemblance to that experience that we all have had when hearing an idiom that we have met in written form but never actually heard. The same is pretty much applicable to grammar instructions in which learners may have encountered a grammatical item but never got round to using it accurately. From my point of view, it is a sort of an aha-moment in which learners suddenly say to themselves, “Wow, that’s how it’s used.” I have come to notice that it often happens when teenagers start using their right side of the brain and become less emotional and more analytical.


The effect Grammatical Choices have on meaning

The consideration of grammar assumes that both form and meaning are central to language learning. However, it is also assumed that receptive and productive knowledges are organised differently and the process activating those is somehow distinct. The bulk of the question here is that receptive knowledge, which is generally cued by form, has to be recoded and reorganized for semantic cueing to achieve the intended meaning. That is to say, in reception forms are primarily processed for meaning whereas in production the intended meaning is decided upon, conceptualized and delivered through forms.

Bearing such factors in mind, it is worth pointing out that noticing on its own is not enough to enable learners to both recode and reorganise meaning. Hypothetically, in natural circumstances learners have to notice a particular grammatical form and relate it to its intended meaning, not to mention, the complexity of meanings such item may be attributed to. More than just noticing a grammatical item, a learner should be able to walk an extra mile and at some point be able to transform this ‘noticing’ into ‘intake’ for learning in both future perception and production.


Ingredients in the language learning process

Taking up the idea of grammar as a process or doing it whilst interacting, grammar is something which develops or grows organically. According to Thornburry (2001) grammar is a complex system comprised of 4 main points:

1)      It is dynamic and non-linear as it does not develop step by step but moves as a whole.

2)      It is adaptive and sensitive to feedback since its use and usage will require (re)coding and (re)organization according to its environs.

3)      It is self-organising in the sense that its open system will allow room for rule making and, eventually, knowledge development.

4)      It is emergent in the sense that it generates both local and global interactions amongst its components.  


Larsen-Freeman points out that a grammar lesson should have three key steps

(Consciousness-raising, Practice and Feedback), whereas Batstone would pinpoint other three key steps (Noticing, Grammaticization and Reflection). One may think that both sequences are pretty much the same, though. Having said that, a tentative outline to a grammar-based lesson would technically have the following steps.

1)      Exposure: Create conditions for SS to pick up language. A lexicalized stage.

a)      Input One (Anecdotal): Recalling – Memory work

b)      Input Two: (A Resource): Recalling – Memory work

2)      Noticing: Transform Input into Intake (Orally and Written Perceptions)

a)      Discovery Activities: Observe the Target Language (TL)

b)      Consciousness-raising: Observe and draw conclusions

c)      Recording: Written record of what is observed and discussed

3)      Output: Experiment with Target language

a)      Task preparation: Thinking time (attention to form/meaning)

b)      Peer pre-testing: Facilitate proceduralisation of TL

c)       Free Discussion: Activate, extend and expand the use of TL

4)      Feedback: Reflect on the learning process (target language)

a)      Review and reflect on what is covered in the lesson

b)      Identify issues which crop up in the lesson

c)      Analyse such issues and their effects on the TL

d)     Map out changes / choices when using the TL

Note that there is always a possibility of an Anticipated Output before Noticing step.


The role of the teacher in language learning

Amongst many attributes given to a teacher here follows a list of the most common ones.

a)       Motivator – being the fuel which keeps the motor running.

b)      Controller – taking control of the class in every aspect possible.

c)      Assessor – checking work and providing feedback.

d)     Resource – being model of language and practice.

e)      Coach – encouraging learners’ active role in the classroom activities.

f)       Tutor – guiding learners through the learning process.

g)      Organiser – guiding learners through tasks ensuring what is to be done.

h)     Facilitator – Encouraging learners to communicate with one another.

i)        Counsellor – helping learners with their language-learning related issues.

j)        Scaffolder – supporting, extending and reformulating learners’ utterances.



I have mentioned before that preparation is a key element when delivering a grammar-based lesson. Hence, either choosing or designing activities to this end, it is wise to avoid form-based tasks in which form alone is the only cue to help learners make sense of the target language.

On the grounds that the greater the distance is, the more grammar is needed, such activities seem to be really demanding. However contextualized the task might be there is always a risk of a knowledge gap, a factor which can potentially affect the intended meaning. On the other hand, some learners, adults in general, seem to capitalise on such mathematical approach to grammar.

Alternatively, one may choose or design meaning-based tasks as springboard to notice forms. This way, learners would be provided with the opportunity to notice these forms, say, Past Simple (unconnected to the present) and Present Perfect (connected to the present) and the way such forms are used to convey meaning.

Consequently, not only is it absolutely necessary to have a positive approach to grammar instruction in class but also how pleasurable this can be done in order to allay learners’ fears when confronted with a grammar lesson.

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Adriano Zanetti

Adriano Zanetti – BA in Letras, Post-graduate in Language Teaching Methodologies, RSA Dip. DELTA. An educator for 30 years, an ELT consultant/teacher trainer at A2Z English Consultancy, a teacher/trainer/coordinator at FISK São João del Rei and Cambridge Assessment English Speaking Examiner. A Pronunciation SIG member responsible for Pronunciation courses for teachers/students. Presented several times in LABCI/ABCI conferences, Braz-Tesol Regional/National Chapters and different institutions in MG. /

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