rules of grammar

Grammar is not really as hard as you may imagine

And teaching English grammar is not as hard as many teachers imagine it to be.

Children master the grammar of their first language without trying,  and without actually being "taught" grammar.
    No. Wrong. Quite wrong.
    The misguided notion that grammar is a language skill that children acquire naturally is a popular fallacy that has led thousands of teachers and students to imagine that it is, by inference, some sort of optional extra where second language teaching or learning are concerned.

    Little could be further from the truth. Firstly a child's acquisition (i.e. learning) of proficiency in its mother tongue is a slow and complex process, generally taking at least five years of constant immersion, and often quite a  bit longer. And secondly it is not something that happens spontaneously. Children learn their literacy skills by being taught, firstly by their mothers, then by those around them including, later on, teachers. They listen, they mimic, and they adapt; often they say things wrong, but through a process of trial and error, they develop an understanding of what can be said and what cannot be said, and what they have to say to get the result thay want, such as a simple, "Mummy, can you read me a story." (and not "You story read mummy a can . ")

    At this stage in life, there is no conscious teaching of "grammar", but young children are taught what to say, and what not to say, by those around them. Slowly but surely, they acquire an understanding of how to put words together in the right order and the right form to express the message that they want to put over. They make plenty of grammar mistakes, just like the adults around them, but over the years, specially after they begin formal education, their understanding of grammar is developed, even if they are not actually "taught" any grammar, at least, not knowingly.

    Unfortunately, the process of first language acquisition cannot normally be transposed into second language learning, let alone second language teaching. Children reach proficiency in their native language after years of "immersion" and exposure to the medium seven days a week.

    For most learners of English as a second or additional language, the process does not start before the age of seven, and in many cases will start quite a bit later. Instead of immersion in the language 7/7 for fifty-two weeks of the year, learners will need to acquire their language in a vastly reduced time frame, maybe four lessons a week for less than forty weeks in the year. Adult language learners may find themselves having to acquire English in a much shorter period of time.

    It follows that  the teaching of second languages needs to be organised so that learners can acquire the essentials of the new language far faster than they acquired those of their native language.  These essentials fall into two main groups: words, and grammar; and of the two groups, the more important is grammar. Grammar is the architecture of language, and without grammar skills speakers or writers cannot progress to anything more sophisticated than basic communication, like for example "Me speak the English", which is ungrammatical but understandable, but also very basic. (►see What is Grammar?)

    The biggest problem with "English grammar" in the 21st century is that it suffers from a bad reputation. People believe what others tell them, or what they want to believe. Grammar is difficult. Grammar rules are impossible to understand, and even harder for teachers to explain. Learning grammar is a waste of time, and students can learn English faster if they don't bother about Grammar...  they'll pick it up anyway (for some, the high flyers, this may be true; for most it is not).

  When a teacher thinks that "grammar" is a bed of thorns full of complex rules and exceptions ready to trip up the learner at each step, that is the impression they will pass on to students. And this is not how to get students to move forward. Teaching a language is about building up students' confidence; and that starts with the teacher building up their own confidence.

    Children develop their native language skills with confidence, by hearing, remembering and mimicking those around them who are using the language with confidence. Teachers can adapt this process for second language learners by concentrating on simple principles (basic rules of grammar) and lots of good examples to go with them, and as long as the teacher is confident, some of that confidence will wash off on students.

* There's an old English saying "Why make things complicated when you can make them simple?" Where the teaching of grammar is concerned, that's the number one question that every teacher and student should ask !

Next: Learning and teaching grammar through examples
More: What is grammar?
More:  Resources A selection of pages and websites about teaching grammar

Four truths for teachers

  1. Literacy: Grammar is essential for the development of literacy skills
  2. Simplicity: The basic grammar and syntax of English are fairly simple... which is one of the reasons why English has spread all over the world.
  3. Confidence: For the successful teaching of grammar, it is vital that the teacher be able to talk confidently about grammar and explain essential points in simple terms so that students understand what they are learning.
  4. Attitude: Perhaps the most fundamental condition for success in grammar teaching is for the teacher to take a can-do attitude,  be positive about it, not negative. Teachers are there to motivete students, not to demotivate them


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