There is a strand of opinion within the fraternity of EFL that rejects all explicit grammar teaching.
This isn’t a straw man. I work for three language schools, and one of them has a policy of never explicitly teaching grammar points. “It’s not a secret,” my boss there told me, “and if your students ask what the name of a tense is, then you can tell them.” But the textbooks, schemes of work, lesson plans and resources do not envisage teachers ever saying “this is the present perfect continuous.”
The rationale for this – that we learn to speak our native languages without any explicit grammatical instruction – makes some logical sense, though I am unconvinced: being fully immersed in a language from birth is rather different to the circumstances in which most people learn further languages. Many parents do explicitly teach their children English grammar: not to use double negatives, for instance, and the correct forms of the past tense of the verb ‘to be’.
But when parents say ‘no, not you was, “you were” … they don’t say ‘this is the correct second-person form of the simple past’ do they?
Well. No. They don’t. But I think too much can be extrapolated from this.
Children are going to hear “was you?” or “I didn’t do nothing” a lot. But these are straightforward errors, and if they aren’t easily corrected (because the incorrect forms are so prevalent) then at least there’s no conceptual misunderstanding. Someone who says “was you there?” when he means “warst Du da?” knows how the language works. He just got the form of the second person simple past wrong. So it doesn’t need a more detailed explanation. Which is a good thing, because there isn’t one.
(Now this next paragraph may be completely wrong. I invite correction by a grammarian. Seriously. I’m conscious that this isn’t really my discipline. But here goes.)
Is this the same for double negatives? It feels like it is. I remember my mother patiently explaining why we don’t say ‘I didn’t do nothing.’ But this is – is it? I think so, but I’m not a linguist – a quirk of the English language. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a double negative. It’s not wrong in every language. French negatives are, in a sense, ‘double’ – the French put both ne and pas in a sentence to make it negative. They say, for example, ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe.‘ We don’t translate this as ‘this isn’t not a pipe.’ Colloquially, indeed, sometimes the French will drop one of the two parts of ne pas. Do French parents tell their children not to say “c’est pas vrai“? Do their teachers patiently explain that this is a ‘single negative,’ which is grammatically incorrect? I don’t know.
Anyway, back on topic.
There are two reasons why, when teaching English to Germans, I like to teach grammar explicitly, including the formal terms which are, I understand, currently a bone of contention in teaching English to schoolchildren for whom it is their native language.
The first is that my students like it. They want to know.
This may or may not apply to schoolchildren. My guess is that it will apply less. It is perhaps a more adult, and – if I may be indulged a crude national stereotype – a more German mindset to want not just to know how to say something correctly, but also the reason why. If I’m using the prescribed ‘no-grammar’ method in class, the most common question I get asked is ‘what’s the rule?’
When I explain the rule (which, you’ll remember, is grudgingly allowed) my students want to be told the formal term. So I tell them. I tell them the rule, and I tell them what it’s called. Sometimes I’ll give them an exaggerated wink and say, in what I imagine to be the conspiratorial manner of a politician revealing a particularly juicy piece of gossip to a lobby correspondent, “this is what we call a ‘gerund.'”
If I’m being scrupulously honest I’ll concede that there’s an element of vanity here. I have a sneaking suspicion that not all of my colleagues have a comprehensive grasp of what a gerund is. And so they shy away from using such terms. (At my most cynical I might even wonder if a language school which can’t find guarantee that all its employees know what a gerund is would be wise to make a virtue of not requiring them to pass on that information to their students.) When I say ‘don’t worry too much about remembering the definition’ before labelling something with its correct term, I know that my students will scribble it down anyway; I also know that they will think better of me for having told them. And yes, I like it when my students seem to approvingly nod and think ‘yeah, this Englishman knows his stuff.’
But I still think it’s worth explicitly teaching the terms, even if the real reason why I do it is a bad one. It’s just more efficient.
Last week, for instance, I taught the passive. According to the prescribed method I should have just used the form incessantly with my student until he grasped it intuitively. But fortunately I see this student in his own office, so I can pollute the flipchart with as much explicit grammar teaching as I like.
And it’s just so much more efficient for him to remember that this is the passive. He’s going to have to remember how to do it anyway; isn’t it better to call it by its name? Especially if, as sometimes happens, the name is a clue as to how and when to use it. Just remembering that there is a ‘continuous’ present tense as well as a ‘simple’ present tense might help to remind people learning English that ‘ich rauche‘ could be translated as I smoke or I am smoking, and that they mean rather different things.
Does this matter? I wonder if this sort of terminology is an intermediate-level thing. For beginners it’s less of a priority than learning vocabulary and simple tense forms which are fairly intuitive and for which exposure to incessant use will work. (My five-year-old daughter picked up the regular form of the past tense easily, but is only now reliable on irregular forms, and still occasionally talks about having ‘buyed’ or ‘eated’ something.) For very literate adults whose grasp of a language is very strong the rules probably aren’t necessary either: they don’t need aids or guides either to understanding meaning or to precise communication.
Is this why there is an alliance of published authors, education academics, and primary school teachers against explicit teaching of grammatical terms?
To be clear I’m not suggesting that teaching English to adult speakers of other languages is the same as teaching grammar to native speakers in schools. I’m just suggesting that, at some point between the EYFS and the PhD, it might be helpful to introduce the formal grammatical terms.
I’ll end, as it looks like we have another crushing Ashes defeat to look forward to, with a reference to cricket. I spent fourteen glorious summers coaching the game to schoolboys, at all levels from 2nd XI to under-twelves and under-fourteen ‘F’ teams. (Yes, F teams. All-boys boarding school. Great stuff, the F team. Lovely lads. And surprisingly reasonable cricketers.) In nearly every team I had someone who didn’t know what the fielding positions were. Now it’s not strictly speaking necessary for a cricketer to know where midwicket is. (If you don’t know, but you’re guessing, you’re probably wrong.) And for a beginner it probably doesn’t matter. A half-decent captain, even in a school ‘B’ team, will notice a big gap where a fielder probably ought to be. If he asks his team-mate to field at midwicket, and is greeted with a blank stare of incomprehension, he can point and say ‘over there’. If he’s a good player he’ll be sufficiently involved in the game that after a while he’ll just pick it up. But for intermediate, moderate players knowing the names of the fielding positions is useful.