Michael Swann got in on the seven action back in 2002 with “Seven Bad Reasons to Teach Grammar and Two Good Ones for Teaching Some“. Here briefly are the Bad Reasons for teaching grammar – the original article is short and worth a read (despite the fact he spoilt the concept by including two good points!).
1. Because it is there
If the grammar is in the books we have to teach it and the learners should learn it – whatever the context.
2. It’s tidy
Unlike vocabulary and even pronunciation it has clear, boxed rules to learn. As Swann points out “Learning grammar is easier than learning a language”.
3. It’s testable
Again because it is ‘tidy’ grammar is relatively easy to test unlike other messy areas such as speaking and writing. As a result grammar gains too much prominence in testing – resulting in an increased need to teach what will be tested. This is bad-washback.
4. Grammar as a security blanket
In the spirit of points 3 & 4 teaching or learning grammar gives a feeling of comfort that we are teaching and learning something rather than areas of the language where a sense of progress less tangible.
5. It formed my character
Well I had to learn all these things to teach it so it must be important. This applies just as much to many of us ‘native-speakers’ who have struggled to learn the grammar of the language we teach.
6. You have to teach the whole system
We have to teach all aspects of grammar as it is interconnected and inseparable. (And besides we have atomised the language in to grammar McNuggets in our coursebooks – so we need to reconstruct it again before we use it properly. This is my contribution to Swann’s point via Scott Thornburry).
Teachers sometimes use grammar to assert their power over their learners. The next bit is an interesting idea – attitudes to grammar and grammar testing reflect the freedom of the society. The more authoritarian a society the more adherence is paid to the learning and testing of grammar.
… and the good reasons…
Without certain common structures it is hard to communicate comprehensibly – we need to identify these. Also even if learners can communicate with minor errors these errors may become a barrier to communication if they are frequent.
The level of grammatical knowledge and application will depend on the contexts in which the learner will be speaking English. We need to have this information in order to make informed decisions.
Over to you
What do you think about these points? Where do you stand? I’d love to hear your thoughts but suggest you quickly read the original article first – although short it goes into more detail than my summary.