“How important is grammar?”

“I am new to EFL. Where should I start in terms learning grammar for myself?”

Whatever you personally feel about grammar, students themselves think grammar is important. They expect grammar. They were fed grammar at school, both with regard to their own language and foreign languages. Some feel stupid or inhibited if they can’t formulate a sentence with correct grammar.

The importance of grammar varies from language to language and culture to culture

In Anglo countries we tend to place more emphasis on teaching kids and students practical skills, rather than focusing primarily on theory. In many parts of the world – South America, Mediterranean, Germany and much of Asia – theory tends to come first and occupies around 80% of the time spent studying a subject, with 20% on practically applying it. This means that at the University of Pisa, where I work, a medical student may not actually touch a patient until their sixth year!

So for students, grammar is expected. It is something clear and definite. It has rules that they can cling on to.

The dangers of overteaching grammar

One of the misleading aspects of TEFL is that coursebooks are often grammar driven, with a lot of rules that apparently need teaching. For some teachers, this grammar focus can be a good thing, it’s like a crutch: it helps you keep in control and give structure to your lessons. However, over-teaching grammar means that the students’ other skills (oral, listening) will suffer.

You might find it helpful to remember that:

  1. You don’t need to teach everything – prioritize those points will most need to carry out their daily English needs and (future) job.
  2. You do need to master the rules of whatever grammatical point you teach. And it helps if you actually like grammar.
  3. You shouldn’t just explain the rules to your students, but most importantly WHY the grammar point is useful for them to learn.
  4. Students should not confuse knowing grammar with a consequent inevitable ability to write and speak in English. 

You cannot be expected to learn all the grammar straight off. Most textbooks follow a very similar order of grammar presentation. So you could set yourself a task to learn one grammar point per week in correspondence with the course book.

In any case if you are planning to teach for more than a couple of years, you really need to learn your stuff! This will make your interest in teaching grow, will save your face during lessons, and will have obvious benefits for your students.

Adrian Wallwork

Cartoon: Matteo Berton (https://matteoberton.com/)

Categories: Grammar