Vol. 6. No. 4 F-1 March 2003
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***TESL-EJ Forum***

Teaching About Language

Karen Stanley, editor

The first time I really became aware of the concept that fields of study shift from one approach or perspective to another was when, as an undergraduate, I read Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolution and encountered the term paradigm shift. While others may have taken away different insights from that book, and though nowadays people look upon it and the effect it had on the academic community in different ways, for me it introduced the idea that professionals in a particular field tend to base their work around a particular theory or mode of thinking. When this inevitably proves insufficient to explain all happenings within that field, a new paradigm comes along. With the new paradigm come enthusiastic adherents and resistance from those who have long supported a different approach.

I have watched any number of pendulum swings in language teaching. As a language student and teacher, I have wended my way through classes which included grammar translation, the audio-lingual method, notional-functional syllabi, and the communicative approach, among any number of others. Certainly not the least of the debates about varying methods or techniques is the argument about whether or not it is useful to students attempting to acquire a second language to learn *about* language.

What follows is a discussion of this topic in the form of selected posts to the TESL-L email list of ESL and EFL pedagogy, gathered during September and October of 2002. Contributors whose email addresses are listed welcome feedback from readers.

Bill Snyder, MA TEFL Program, Bilkent University, Ankara, TURKEY

In a recent post, Merton Bland wrote:

> We teach IN the language, not ABOUT the language.

. . . I think an absolutist position opposed to teaching learners facts about the language they are learning may be counterproductive. How long will it take the learner of English to figure out that: I would have / I'd have / I would've / I woulda / I'd'a are all the same thing? Maybe Krashen is right and eventually they would figure it out. Enough monkeys, enough keyboards, you get Shakespeare. But we don't have enough time to wait for that.

Sometimes it helps in learning a language to have things explained to you. It lets you set your attention rather than randomly trying to grasp what is going on. A knowledge of Russian case forms and the factors influencing their selection helped me master them. I don't think I could have without this knowledge. As I learn Turkish, knowing about different verbal morphemes is helpful in sorting out what I'm experiencing and in attempting to use the language.

The only reason for an absolutist position here is a belief that knowledge about language can't contribute to the ability to use language. My experience tells me differently and theories of language learning (or learning in general) like Anderson's ACT* provide models that support this view. [-1-]

Thomas Robertson

"We teach IN the language, not ABOUT the language."

I have seen a great deal of truth in this statement. The children whom I teach are quite fond of imitating me. This has made me suspect that the hidden curriculum is almost as important as the official curriculum.

This statement has also been confirmed in my experience as a foreigner struggling with Korean. I have been so busy learning other subjects that I haven't had time to study the Korean textbook.

Steve Taylore-Knowles, Freelance Materials Writer, Athens, Greece

Bill Snyder wrote:

<I think an absolutist position opposed to teaching learners facts about the language they are learning may be counterproductive.>

I wholeheartedly agree. My own experience of language learning certainly tells me that explanations of the internal workings of the target language have accelerated the process of getting it all to slot into place and make sense.

There's another aspect of explicit focus on the language per se that we shouldn't lose sight of. For some of our students (and a fair few of us language teachers must have been this kind of student), the study of grammar is motivational. Grammar is good, grammar is interesting, the structure of languages is a fascinating area -- and it's a fascination that some of our students share. I think we can sell those students short if we are constantly bending over backwards to avoid explicit grammatical analysis. I also think that going into the classroom thinking that explicit grammatical analysis is boring, unproductive and will be resisted can be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I love grammar. And I've had students say the same thing to me. Induction and deduction are not alternatives. They are complementary tools.

Costas Gabrielatos, Lancaster University, UK

I absolutely agree with Bill Snyder and Steve Taylor-Knowles. What I'd like to add is my view on how the anti-explicit-grammar-teaching attitude might have come about. As the mood is on me, I offer it in recipe form :-).

Take a market-average ELT grammar or coursebook - that is, one containing partial, inaccurate, over-simplified, confusing and misleading information, with the focus predominantly on the clause/sentence level, little attention to actual discourse, and no distinctions regarding medium or context of use. Mix with mechanical, simple-minded, one-dimensional, de-contextualised practice. Transfer into a professional community with a penchant for pendulum swings and false 'either/or' dilemmas. Garnish with cursory attention to language analysis/awareness in teacher training/education courses. Serve with a generous helping of 'mere-exposure-will-eventually-do-the-trick' (if you're out, 'i+1' will also do). [-2-]

R. Michael Medley, Intensive English Program, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia

Bill Snyder wrote:

>The only reason for an absolutist position here is a belief that knowledge about language can't contribute to the ability to use language. My experience tells me differently . . .

I agree with Bill's objection to absolutist positions which forbid the teaching of knowledge "about language" because it is believed to be useless. Significant differences among learners and learning situations make all kinds of absolutist positions suspect. [The whole discussion on use of L1 that has been "raging" would have been much more enlightening if all discussants had clarified (as some surely tried to do) exactly what kind of teaching situation they had in mind].

An important resource that casts serious doubt on abolutist positions is Earl Stevick's excellent book Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them. If you take the experience of Stevick's seven learners seriously, you will conclude that "one-size-fits-all" language teaching is not a good idea.

Although the book is out of print, you can actually download it from the following link:

Merton Bland, ESL Teacher, Northern Virginia, USA

R. Michael Medley comes out against the "absolutists" who would downplay the role of traditional grammar instruction in the ESOL curriculum.

I hope you are not labeling me an absolutist in my opposition to the rote memorization of grammar rules which leaves the student unable to apply them. Krashen has differentiated between grammar learning and acquisition, the former being this force feeding for future regurgitation of grammar rules (stereotypes of old maid grammarians, inflexible in the imposition of the grammar they were taught), and the latter a sort of recapitulation of the L1 process.

If you side with Bill Snyder in his position, which grammar do you propose to teach? The one that untrained Latinist monks imposed after anybody with any common sense died in the Black Death plague (Thou shalt not split an infinitive since infinitives in Latin are a single word. Tell that to those spacemen whose motto is "to boldly go.") Or one of the more contemporary grammar systems: descriptive, inductive . . . ?

And what is correct grammar? Do you insist that beginners spring forth fully formed in what you consider the holy grammar? Some of us accept a pattern of growth. For instance, The negative usually progresses from the external negative:

--No I understand.
to the internal negative
--I no understand.
to the parsed negative
--I don't understand.

I would accept all three as correct (at the stage of development described) since all three communicate the student's distress. Naturally I would try to assist the student to the next higher level (probably by modeling).

Yes, the grammar-translation methodology left its scars on me: I didn't really begin to learn French until I finally realized that there were people out there who actually used the language to communicate (my wife of 50 years among them). [-3-]

Bill Snyder, MA TEFL Program, Bilkent University, Ankara, TURKEY

Mert Bland's response to Michael Medley (and me, indirectly, since I'm the guy who used the word 'absolutist' first) misrepresents us both by setting up straw men unrelated to our position on teaching students about language.

I do not recall mentioning either either "rote memorization of grammatical rules" or their "future regurgitation" in what I wrote. I suggested that informing students about certain facts of the language they are learning may help them by providing bases for focusing attention in interactions and for automatization in practice. Thus, this information should not be the sole focus of any course, but delivered as needed (as a "focus on form" perspective would suggest).

This position is opposed to Krashen's absolutist(!) distinction of 'learning' (knowledge that) and 'acquisition' (knowledge how). But most learning theories disregard such a distinction as artificial and unrealistic, and certainly most people working seriously in second language acquisition do not accept it. Instead they consider how 'knowledge that' is automatized in performance over time through practice.

Nor did I suggest that the information to be shared with learners be the prescriptive grammatical rules of yore. Recent advances in corpus linguistics have made available to us vast amounts of information about how English is actually structured and how those structures relate to use, especially in areas the prescriptivists never dreamed of - information, text, and discourse structure. This information should be of great use to students. Mert mentions descriptive approaches, but Krashen's pedagogy would forbid sharing even this information with students.

I don't recall mentioning expecting learners to produce perfect grammar from the get go just because they have been exposed to certain facts. Anyone who teaches language knows that learning is a developmental process. I am suggesting that part of that process is the automatization of 'knowledge that' into performance and that we can support this process with judicious presentation of this base knowledge.

Lastly, I don't recall mentioning grammar-translation at all. What I am advocating is in line with a 'focus on form' approach to teaching as advocated by Mike Long, Catherine Doughty, Jessica Williams, among others.

Costas Gabrielatos, Lancaster University, UK

Language users do know 'rules' of structure and use - only they 'know' them at different levels of awareness and to different degrees of accuracy. Chomsky's theories have aimed to describe this very knowledge in native speakers. Selinker's 'Interlanguage' aims to describe the development of those 'rules' in the process of learning an additional language, i.e. when the learner is already proficient in (at least) one native language. So, the question is really how ESL/EFL learners can be helped to formulate these 'mental rules'. One extreme believes that merely giving them the 'rules' is enough: the 'input ->intake' position/fallacy (delete as appropriate). The other extreme believes that mere (though appropriately selected and graded) exposure to language in use is the way to go about it: the 'acquisition-not-learning' position/fallacy (delete etc.). Research on the subject hasn't yielded any conclusive results, but has fortunately offered plenty of helpful insights and nudges.

I think that the pertinent/useful questions here are 'What information about language do we help learners internalise?' and 'How can we make complementary use of explicit teaching and guided discovery?' The fact that explicit grammar teaching was/is done in ineffective, unprincipled or misguided ways only highlights the need to develop more effective, principled procedures and materials (unless we're in the baby-throwing business). As for grammars, if we still use ones written by "old maid grammarians" (as Merton Bland implies) then we are indeed missing something. But grammars have progressed (along with language). There are grammar books out there (increasingly based on corpus studies) which adopt an inclusive view of grammar (incorporating morphosyntactic, semantic and pragmatic information), and describe actual language use, rather than impose rules on language. [-4-]

Bernard Hobby, Prince Sultan University, Saudi Arabia

I doubt that this debate will ever be resolved. However, in my 15 years in this field, 95% of the learners I've seen have had years of learning about the language but the reason I have a job is because they can't USE the language.

Regardless of the learning context, and whether I'm teaching or facilitating or training, my objective is to improve language use. And because of my experience I don't believe that learning about the language will EVER enable or enhance learners' ability to use the language, much less motivate them. Think of the learners who ace a grammar test but can't put a sentence together.

And when Bill Snyder writes concerning Krashen's learning and acquisition--most learning theories disregard such a distinction as artificial and unrealistic, and certainly most people working seriously in second language acquisition do not accept it.

I take exception.

Krashen's theories have worked for me, both personally and professionally. For 15 years I've been promising myself to learn about French, i.e. take a formal course, memorize verb conjugations, etc. -- I never have. I began learning French 15 years ago, because I wanted to communicate as best I could with my wife.

My development in French has been a direct result of acquisition through use. On occasion I've been completely surprised by hearing a configuration of the language jump out of my mouth that I didn't even know I knew. For me this is an example of acquisition that has occurred through use--- NOT learning "knowledge that". And if my motivation continues, I expect that my competency in the language will improve over the next 15 years---- as a result of acquisition through use.

Our learners, whether they are high school kids, business people or university students-- should be spending class time experiencing and using whatever English they have to push their envelope of knowledge in real ways that are connected to useful outcomes. Grammar study does not play a role in this. You can't get there from here.

Good grammar is subsumed in correct usage, but knowing grammar rules (or forms) will not get you correct usage.

Postscript, Riyadh, October 27th
My addition to this post has to do with acknowledging the practicalities of mounting English curriculums in the real world. I recently encountered two vocabulary items that I have begun to think might be usefully employed in this debate, without, I hope, further confusing it.

Strategic & Tactical
Learner activities which address learner needs and meet the requirements of an acquisitional approach as defined by Krashen, provide long term and permanent benefits for the language learner. I propose that these activities could be classified as strategic learning.

Learner activities which address the needs of the curriculum's exam schedule by focusing on "language that", and meet the requirements of an instructivist/ behaviouralist approach, provide the language learner short term learning. These activities could be classified as tactical learning.

What's the point?
I believe that the distinction Krashen makes between learning and acquisition is valid, useful and above all very real. By using the terms strategic and tactical to describe learner activity, we maintain Krashen's distinction, but get to call it all ----- learning. [-5-]

Costas Gabrielatos, Lancaster University, UK

(Re. Bernard Hobby's posting)

I don't think anyone argued that knowing about language can on its own lead to accurate and appropriate use; rather the argument was that it's more time-effective to combine explicit teaching, discovery and use. Also, equating rule-parroting and 'doing exercises' with actually knowing (i.e. being aware of) facts about language structure and use can't lead to any helpful conclusions.

I couldn't help noticing the recurring use of Krashen's ideas as arguments for the anti-explicit position. Although I can already hear the chilling sound of stones being sharpened, I have to say that I'm amazed by how commonsensical (and borrowed) ideas managed to be sold so successfully as a comprehensive 'theory' of second language learning.

The distinction between 'knowledge' and 'acquisition' merely (over)simplifies Selinker's interlanguage continuum, adding the reminder that learners may be able to recite rules, but that doesn't mean they have internalised them (so what else is new?). Also, what about native speakers who also have explicit knowledge of the structure and use of their language - does the 'distinction' apply to them? Have they acquired the language and then learnt it? What about social/educational contexts in which the native language is taught explicitly at school? Does the 'learning' inhibit or enhance the 'acquisition'? Haven't we all drawn on our explicit knowledge about language when editing a text in our native language?

Then we have the ubiquitous 'i+1' (an adaptation of Vygotsky's 'zone of proximal development'). (How) does it help in practical terms? Let's say we teach a class of 10 (to use the case of a fortunate teacher). Now, this means we have to accommodate ten different 'i'. If we are to present them with comprehensible input (i+1), that is, decide what sort of linguistic data and guidance to offer each one, we have to know how much each individual 'i' is and then decide how much '1' is in each case. Simple (?) Finally, there are the trivial issues of time and exposure - particularly in EFL, with learners normally attending classes for 3-10 hours a week. How long will it take for them to 'acquire' the language?

Karen Stanley, Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

I often notice a mismatch in debates concerning teaching about language. People who argue *for* this rarely if ever opt for exclusively teaching about language, but only to use it as part of their approach. However, people who argue *against* it almost always argue as if the opposite position in the debate excludes other methods.

Learning modern Greek taught me that learning about language along with other "outmoded" approaches can be helpful. During 4 hours a week for 3 quarters, I memorized passages, worked on oral grammar translation with a classmate, learned verb conjugations and noun declensions until they came out my ears, and drilled with tapes. We had limited opportunity for communicative practice. I then went to Greece because I knew I needed to really use Greek. When I got there, it took about 3 weeks before my ear kicked in. When it did, everything I had "learned" worked. My biggest regret was that I hadn't memorized more before I got there.

One problem with ES/FL students acquiring language exclusively through communicative use is that much English verb tense use has very low perceptual saliency (ie, hard to hear). Take auxiliaries: In 'they've gone' it is hard to hear the contraction. Most 'ed' endings are also difficult to hear. Thus, for many learners, a lot of important verbal morphology is not audible in the input. If they don't learn it through explanation, there is a good chance they won't acquire it.

Cases in point: 1) French immersion schools in Canada have struggled with the fact that students exit with very good oral/aural skills, but weak grammar and composition. 2) Some "Generation 1.5" students in our region finish high school unable to pass the reading section of the achievement test for a diploma; they end up with a "certificate of attendance." 3) Older adults, after 10 years in the US, fully able to communicate through spoken language, show up in academic ESL because their employers want to promote them, but they need better written skills.

Interestingly, Krashen says not to expect to be able to test the results of extended reading in acquisition immediately. I agree. But he then judges the usefulness of grammar and other "about language" instruction in that very way. Why would we expect this type of instruction to be immediately absorbed and put into production? Like much else, this instruction is a *beginning* point, that over time and with reminders results in acquisition.

I completely agree that students need communicative work in the language classroom. However, that does not mean eliminating other types of teaching. We need to provide our students with many different types of tools to find the best and most efficient way to reach their language learning goals.

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