Is it possible to teach English but avoid teaching grammar?

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Is it possible to teach English but avoid teaching grammar?

Unread post by Phil_2016 » 21 Jan 2017, 13:38

So I'm in the middle of doing a TEFL course and have realised with all the different names for this and that of parts of grammar I am likey to be unable to remember them all. At best I could probably assist with any material that directly referenced the grammer in a course book. I just find though that it's a lot of fuss for what I already do naturally. Lots of unnecessary names to identity what I already do. I really don't think I can follow all the many names and their uses from memory. So, is it possible to teach English and avoid teaching grammar or at least just follow along some text where it is explained for you to the class?

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Re: Is it possible to teach English but avoid teaching grammar?

Unread post by Someguy » 21 Mar 2017, 16:47

Short answer:
Not really, no. Not if you want to be any good anyway. But don't let it worry you. Studying up on the grammar point for each class before you teach it should form part of your preparation - if you don't own a copy of either Swan, Practical English Usage or Parrott, Grammar for English Language Teachers then get yourself a copy of one or both. Over time you'll get more of a feeling for how it works.

Longer answer:
It's great that you have identified this as one of your limitations, and as something to address as part of your ongoing professional development as a teacher. It would be far more worrying if you got half-way through your CELTA/Trinity/whatever course you're doing and thought you understood it all completely. Realistically, nobody understands English syntax completely (there are ongoing disputes about it in linguistics to this day).

Technically, depending on where you're planning on teaching, it's possible to maintain a job teaching English with a pretty poor understanding of grammar. I spent a lot of time as a head foreign teacher in a private English college in China, where demand for foreign teachers is extremely high - there are certainly plenty of teachers there who maintain relatively well-paying jobs (on Chinese standards) with minimal knowledge of English grammar (or teaching, or pretty much any other relevant skill). If all you want to do is scam the system then there's plenty of opportunity to do that in TESOL, and many people (crap teachers, dodgy education providers, etc) do.

If you're interested in teaching well, however, then having a reasonable understanding of whatever grammar you're trying to teach is pretty much unavoidable. Of course you use the grammar naturally - you're a native speaker (I gather), you don't need rules in order to do it correctly. Learners don't have an intuitive grasp of the rules, so they have two options: learn the rules and practice them until they can use them automatically, or learn enough individual examples of correct sentences that they get an implicit feel for what the rules are.

So, first of all, do you need to teach grammar rules? If you do, then you pretty clearly need to understand the rules you're teaching. For a time, it was felt that giving learners examples and letting them get a feel for the grammar implicitly was preferable to providing actual grammar rules (this was popular in the 80s). Some teachers still teach like that. But studies over the past 20 years or so have generally found that metalinguistic feedback - that is, telling students what the rules are - can be helpful. That's not to say learners can't learn without it, but you get much further doing it than not doing it. My own experience as a teacher would seem to confirm this.

Even if you don't agree, there are practical reasons why you're going to need to deal with grammar rules at some stage during your career. Most textbooks organise lessons to some extent according to grammar points, and it's going to be pretty embarrassing if you can't explain why the answer to Question 5(a) is what it is. For another thing, if you're planning on teaching overseas, most students go to private English colleges precisely because they've learned a lot of grammar but their communicative competence is not that great. It's going to be hard to maintain credibility in the classroom if your grammar is actually worse than your students'. In my experience being able to clearly and accurately explain grammar points in ways students can connect to is one of the factors that separates highly-rated TESOL teachers from poorly-rated ones. And it's pretty difficult to explain something you don't understand yourself.

And even if you prefer the sorts of implicit teaching that were popular in the 80's or early 90's, you still need to understand grammar - even if you're not going to explain it to anyone. You need to understand that (and why) "If I had got up earlier I would have had a greater chance of catching the bus" is a harder sentence for students than "I have a dog", right? Older styles of teaching involved gradually introducing harder and harder materials to students in communicative contexts, with the idea that the rules would catch on. You need to understand what grammatical features make some sentences harder than others, which features you want learners to start using. For example, it's definitely the case that sentences with subordinate clauses (e.g. in the sentence "I know that you have a dog", "that you have a dog" is a subordinate clause) are harder to use than sentences without them ("I know him"), and learners start using them later - this is reflected in the marking criteria for most major language tests (IELTS, TOEFL etc).

So: you're almost finished your course, you're having trouble with grammar rules and the vocabulary necessary to describe them, what can you do?

1. To be blunt, man up. You're looking for work in what is at least a kinda-sorta professional field, understanding what the subject of the sentence is, what the present perfect tense is and what a second conditional sentence is are part of the professional knowledge you're expected to bring to the job. It's not that hard, and there are plenty of resources available (e.g. Swan and Parrott, see above). I don't know whether you were working in another field before TESOL - for me it was the law, and I've known plenty of former lawyers, former engineers, former research scientists and others in is profession. Just like in your previous field, there are things you need to know to be taken seriously. That's cool, you can handle it, right? What would you tell your students if they said the vocab/grammar was too hard?

2. Don't worry if you don't understand it all that well. Nobody expects you to have a complete understanding of English morphosyntax in the next 2-3 weeks. Nobody does (there are plenty of hotly-contested questions in English morphosyntax at an academic level). Having a feeling for grammar is one of the (numerous) factors that separates crap teachers from good teachers, but having a comprehensive knowledge of even the grammar that comes up in lessons to Upper-Int level is pretty much unheard-of in my experience. A lot of teachers just check what they need to teach before they teach it, and as long as you've thought about it thoroughly there's nothing wrong with that.

3. Focus on each lesson you have to teach. If you're doing something like CELTA they should be preparing you to think during planning about the kinds of issues that should come up in each class, so you're prepared for them if they happen. That's exactly the kind of mindset you need to employ here: make sure you understand whatever grammar questions may predictably come up. Over time your understanding of grammar in general will improve. Get a copy of one of the two references recommended above (Swan and Parrott) - these are widely-known in teaching circles and will help you prepare, and they're reasonably authoritative if someone has a problem with anything you said in class.

Anyway, I hope that helps.

All the best.

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