Grammar gains its prominence in language teaching, particularly in English as a second language (ESL) or English as a foreign language (EFL). It is beyond doubt, without good knowledge of grammar, learners’ language development will be seriously constrained (Widodo, 2006).
In Malaysian context, learners’ mastery of grammar rules is crucial as at the end of the day, learners’ language accuracy is assessed through written and spoken assessments. Those who could write or speak with minimal errors will normally be awarded a high mark. Even though it is significant for learners to use English accurately, the emphasis on the teaching of grammar among ESL teachers vary. This is strongly influenced by the realities of Malaysian ESL classrooms.
REALITIES OF MALAYSIAN ESL CLASSROOMS AND THE NEED FOR GRAMMAR EMPHASIS
A group of excellent ESL learners are in this class; typically the ‘front’ class, the ‘best’ class or the science’ class. The learners are able to write excellent essays and present ideas in English confidently. Their language accuracy is high; perhaps, there exists occasional language errors. Should teachers teach them grammar? Well, it depends. Frankly speaking, these excellent learners may not even be interested in any grammar lessons as in reality they are very confident with their level of proficiency. Perhaps, some of them are overconfident too. In fact, sometimes they are keener to polish their performance in other tougher subjects like Additional Mathematics and Physics.
This class has good users of English. They have no problem to understand most of the English words and are able to communicate in English quite effectively. However, there are some language errors either in the written or spoken form. Language errors can sometimes be noticeable. Must these learners be taught grammar? Definitely, yes. Perhaps improving their mastery of basic grammar requires several months. If trained and coached properly, these learners do have the potential to score an A or at least a strong B in English in public examinations.
This third real scenario concerns classrooms with average ESL learners. These learners are able to understand many English words. They have the ability to express themselves in English fairly well, however, errors are frequent and noticeable. These learners do need grammar lessons. No doubt their language accuracy may not be totally perfect after ongoing grammar lessons but attempts must be made to reduce their errors.
Have you taught a group of below average ESL learners? Their vocabulary is not wide and most of them have problems understanding what they read especially when the vocabulary level is high. In term of essay writing, this below average learners do make an attempt to complete the writing task, however, most of the time, their piece of written product is much shorter than the required length. Errors are very frequent and some are multiple in nature. Should grammar be taught to them? Once again, it depends. If I were to teach them grammar, I would just aim to reduce multiple-word errors especially in essays. I will surely not have a high expectation in term of their progress in producing error-free structures. Personally, I give less emphasis on the teaching of grammar among below average learners as I need to spend more time addressing other crucial issues such as motivating them to write, development of ideas and fulfilling the required length.
Most of the learners in this classroom are weak in many aspects; vocabulary, grammar, maturity and intelligence. Most of them cannot understand clearly what is read. Expressing their ideas in written or spoken form is a monumental task for them. Their written product will be very limited and full of gross errors. Certain parts of their essay are incomprehensible due to errors which are multiple in nature. Should grammar be taught to them? I would say no. It does not mean that I am not worried about their grammar but it is just that this group of weak ESL learners has a host of serious issues. Most of the time, improving their language accuracy is not a priority. A lot of precious time will have to be invested to teach them basic sentence construction, tenses, subject-verb-agreement and other grammatical items. There is no guarantee their grammar will improve even within a long period of time. Since time is so limited for teachers to do so many things, we need to be selective in deciding our emphases. Therefore, grammar is not a priority here. To me, it is already a true blessing if ESL teachers can ensure they attempt to write essays based on the required length. As long as they are able to write a meaningful piece of writing, I will be very glad.
It is very common to have a classroom with mixed-ability learners. Sometimes, the gap could be so big and wide. In this case, should teachers teach grammar? Again, there is no fixed and definite answer. I guess, the teacher has to see who the majority is in the class. If most of the learners are average, then grammar has to be taught. However, if weak learners dominate, then it is up to the teacher to decide. In any class with mixed ability learners, there will always be a group that outnumbers the others. The decision to teach grammar should be based on the dominating group.
CRITICAL ISSUES IN GRAMMAR TEACHING AMONG ESL TEACHERS …..REALITIES CONTINUE
I would say all ESL teachers in Malaysia are fully aware of the importance of having good grammar either in spoken or written form. They know that learners stand a chance to score well if they only display minimal language errors; on the other hand, learners’ mark or grade will be severely affected if they commit serious language errors. Do all ESL teachers teach grammar? Well, the answers vary. Generally, these are the realities of grammar teaching in most Malaysian classrooms:
All ESL teachers in an institution do their best to teach grammar; they always give their best attempt to improve their learners’ mastery of grammar so that errors can be reduced significantly. In the end, their learners have a better grasp of grammar rules and become better users of English.
There is no solid teamwork in grammar teaching in school. If there are seven English teachers in the school, perhaps only three or four ESL teachers are really committed with all sorts of intervention strategies to enhance their learners’ mastery of grammar. The rest just do not care; they have no concern to polish their learners’ grammar despite the need to do so. Perhaps, grammar teaching is avoided as some teachers lack knowledge of grammar (Nazari and Allahyar, 2012). Consequently, the efforts to enhance language quality among learners are not concerted, thus, affecting the overall achievement of the organisation.
Grammar is given emphasis by most ESL teachers in the organisation, however, it needs to be systematic as there are some flaws which must be addressed. For an instance, grammar is only given emphasis among Form 3 and Form 5 learners; the rest of the learners get little grammar practices. Another possible flaw is the unsystematic way of teaching grammar; some teachers focus on crucial grammar topics whereas some others do not; some teachers teach grammar on ongoing basis while some of them teach only when they can. It is also a common phenomenon that some ESL teachers teach grammar rules extensively but some of them merely conduct very brief grammar lessons.
Improving learners’ language accuracy is a ‘lone ranger’ effort or non-existent in certain schools. Sometimes, only one ESL teacher gives all the commitment to implement intervention strategies to enhance the mastery of grammar. It is disheartening when the Head of English Panel or the Head of Language Department has little or zero concern on having at least one grammar intervention strategy to help learners reduce language errors especially when they write.
Grammar lessons or intervention strategies are implemented in the classroom without learners having a clear idea why they have to commit doing grammar practices. No doubt, some teachers explain clearly, nevertheless, some other ESL teachers simply ask their learners to complete grammar tasks without highlighting the crucial need of having lesser language errors. As a result some learners regard grammar lessons or activities as meaningless or boring; they are not committed to complete their tasks wholeheartedly.
The intervention strategies to improve grammar fail to indicate learners’ progress clearly. This can happen when the grammar tasks are the same from the beginning till the end. However, if the grammar strategies are implemented in phases, progress can be recorded better. It is easier for teachers as well as learners to gauge progress. The tasks in each phase can vary in terms of level of difficulty, the number of errors allowed or the number of perfect sentences produced. In general, if there are three phases, phase one tasks are simple and they are followed by phase two tasks which are tough. Then, the tasks are more challenging when they reach the third phase. Learners’ ability to complete those tasks accurately should indicate their progress.
No doubt, there are numerous views on the teaching of grammar. Personally, in our Malaysian context, I believe there is a need to give emphasis on the teaching of grammar through formal instructions as it helps significantly with learners’ language accuracy. It is up to the teachers to choose any approach to teach grammar. Personally, due to time constraints in our ESL classrooms, I prefer the deductive approach in teaching grammar.
I always believe the ESL teachers are the best decision makers in their own classroom. However, before any decision is made, they must examine their realities and needs. In term of the teaching of grammar, ESL teachers need to examine closely their learners’ language accuracy and the level of learners in each classroom. Then, they have to decide on the intervention strategy that best suits their learners.
As for the Head of English Language Panel, it is very crucial to ensure there is a concerted and comprehensive effort to teach grammar involving all members of the panel. Having a well-planned and systematic grammar intervention strategy is an added advantage. Improving learners’ language accuracy is not and never a solo journey. All English teachers in the panel must work hand in hand and uphold this, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much”.
So, any of the realities mentioned above close to your own teaching context? Wherever we are, we always need to reflect critically on everything that we do. Yes, we are only humans and have our own drawbacks as ESL teachers. However, these facts should not hinder us from giving our best to enhance our learners’ language accuracy. All we need to do is give our best shot and keep on trying no matter what!
Nazari, A. and Allahyar, N. (2012). Grammar Teaching Revisited: EFL Teachers
between Grammar Abstinence and Formal
Grammar Teaching. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, Volume 37, Issue 2, 2012. https://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1691&context=ajte
Widodo, H.P. (2006). Approaches and procedures for teaching grammar. English Teaching: Practice and Critique May 2006, Volume 5, Number 1. citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.615.3645&rep=rep1...