Learn English – Explicit Grammar Instruction is/is not a waste of time?

August 2020

Dear Language Friends: 

I know it’s been a while since I shared some tips and reflections on language teaching and language acquisition.  I’ll attribute the time lapse to all things Covid! 

(Speaking about Covid, how has this pandemic changed my life? Primarily in this way: I added several activities to the week’s routine via Zoom.

In March I embraced Zoom in order to offer a weekly English conversation class to Hispanic friends, both local and distant.  With one of the gals I also spend an hour a week in an ‘intercambio’ – 30 minutes English for her, 30 minutes in Spanish for me. 

The most daring project, though, has been offering beginning Spanish (with me an intermediate-level Spanish learner!) to my grandkids by Zoom.  It is true, what they say: when you teach, you learn a ton!)

What is foremost on my mind today is what I continue to learn about explicit grammar instruction.

In a Facebook group for L2 teachers who use CI or comprehensible input, I read a thread this past week, written by some teachers newish to teaching with CI. 

These honest gals and guys expressed grief in having to give up teaching what they loved most – sharing how grammar and syntax work in another language.  They are true lovers of grammar and came into the L2 teaching world to share their joy. 

But over time, however, they have been led to realize that this way of helping students only reaches a small percentage of their students.  I applaud their willingness to put this first love aside in order to help the majority of students acquire a second language.

So, today I write to encourage them and you with a few personal observations about the usefulness of grammar to language learners.

Last September (2019) I paid for one year’s membership to an online monthly Spanish class.  The teacher and her husband produce 8 lessons a month and really do give a lot of material for the annual membership price (about $300).

Here’s the rub.  Only two of the 8 monthly lessons regularly provide content useful for automatic acquisition – an interview with a Hispanic and a music video.  The other 6 of 8 lessons/resources are GRAMMAR-focused.

And what I have found over the past year is that they do  not help me. Nor do they interest me that much.

The first month I conscientiously completed all 8 lessons including the practice grammar worksheets or ‘homework’…but found grammar lessons and practice tedious and not helpful. 

What now? Should teachers and learners avoid grammar altogether? No! For I can say honestly that I AM speaking and writing more accurately, but in a natural and automatic way, not due to explicit teaching or explicit effort on my part.  

Here’s how it works for me.  At times, my brain will NOTICE a disconnect between what I have been saying and what I should be saying. With that awareness comes an ability to make the change. Here are two recent examples:

  • In one podcast I was listening to, someone identified himself as being de Chicago. But the rest of the callers used desde Chicago…Baltimore…Houston to mention where they lived. The host of the show quickly (without any rule teaching) complimented those who said their hometowns correctly. It so happened that my brain was ready to notice and without any effort, I incorporated that correction into my speech.

  • The same thing occurred when a Whatsapp friend pointed out that in Spanish they don’t say UNA otra vez but otra vez.  One teeny-tiny tidbit offered coincided with a readiness in my brain to stash it and use it.

I can feel the difference between these natural processes and explicit grammar instruction. I have listened to some of the grammar podcasts and watched some of the videos in this Spanish course.  But I can’t think of anything that my brain was ready for and absorbed and that I now use unconsciously

Each time I use verbs such as deje/dejo and verbs that act like comí and hablé or have to choose between fue or era – I spend a few moments thinking consciously. They are not yet wired into my brain, ready to use without thinking.

So, what is the solution?

My on-going experiment as a Spanish learner is a journey in feeding on input mostly.  To be sure I do get some practice in speaking, like with my weekly intercambio and with local Hispanics I encounter at my volunteer job one morning a week.

The story is still out regarding what I think is the optimal way to acquire L2. Who knows, maybe I’ll be ready at a later date for some explicit grammar instruction?  But with ‘only’ 1436 hours of input under my belt, I can say assuredly, that now is not that time.

Hope you, too, are acquiring another L2 so you can see for yourself whether grammar helps.  And if so, in what context. At the very least, being a learner will make you a much better teacher.

Happy learning – Happy teaching!

4 thoughts on “Learn English – Explicit Grammar Instruction is/is not a waste of time?”

  1. Hello, Maria. I think such an abundance of grammar in teaching is due to the fact that it is easier for teachers to tell it than to organize lessons with lively conversational communication. It takes imagination and energy. In addition, if the teacher himself is not a native speaker, it is even more difficult for him to organize a thematic lesson without grammar. It is easier to give just diagrams and exercises. I see this in our schools. Grammar exercises do not teach us to speak or help us overcome our fear of speaking. Writing grammar and knowing how to use speech are different functions in our brain.

    1. Marina – I agree When I taught grammar, it was much easier to plan lessons, then teach them and then test them. But only the best students enjoyed the classes and had some measure of success. Teaching with stories and making them comprehensible is more fair because it’s based on the FACT that we all learned our first language. Any one can learn another language given enough input they understand and enough time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Hi Maria! Thanks for the great article. Your observations totally resonate with how I feel about learning Spanish. Do you happen to know this Spanish program: https://unlimitedspanish.com/freedemo/ ? It is TPRS based with lots of stories and questions. I don’t know about your level, but it might be worth a try.

    1. Just glancing at what the promo says about the unlimited Spanish courses, it ‘sounds’ like you learn some useful, set phrases given different situations. And the fact that they use stories, that gives context. Thanks for sharing! It was new to me.

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