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Summary Details

Query:   Traditional Grammar Teaching
Author:  Ron Sheen
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Applied Linguistics

Summary:   Regarding Query:

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 SLA.

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 classroom.


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, 24,183-197.

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.

LL Issue: 18.1805
Date Posted: 14-Jun-2007
Original Query: Read original query


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