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Teaching Grammar: Implicit or Explicit?

By: Prof. Larry M. Lynch

Based on my 15 years of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teaching experience, the statement “grammar teaching should be implicit, not explicit” could be argued both for and against. Whether to teach grammar as an extracted focus of ELT (English Language Teaching) or more passively as an inductive, integral topic has been the theme of countless debates on the part of institutions, professors, grammarians and language researchers for decades. Grammar is the branch of linguistics dealing with the form and structure of words or morphology, and their interrelation in sentences, called syntax. The study of grammar reveals how language works, an important aspect in both English acquisition and learning.

In the early 20th century grammarians like the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas and the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen began to describe languages and Boas' work formed the basis of various types of American descriptive grammar study. Jespersen's work was the fore-runner of such current approaches to linguistic theory such as Noam Chomsky’s Transformational Generative Grammar.

Chomsky, who studied structural linguistics, sought to analyze the syntax of English in a structural grammar. This led him to view grammar as a theory of language structure rather than a description of actual sentences. His idea of grammar is that it is a device for producing the structure, not of a particular language, but of the ability to produce and understand sentences in any and all languages. Since grammar is the means by which we can understand how a language “works”, a definitive study of language grammar is essential to language study.

Strictly explicit grammar study however, and even grammar-focused lessons are often not communicatively based. They can therefore be boring, cumbersome and difficult for students to assimilate. The strict teaching of grammar / structure, except with students of the Logical – Mathematical or Verbal – Linguistic multiple intelligences, can be frustrating and highly ineffective.

Grammar teaching should be implicit

In the early 20th century, Jespersen, like Boas, thought grammar should be studied by examining living speech rather than by analyzing written documents. By providing grammar in context, in an implicit manner, we can expose students to substantial doses of grammar study without alienating them to the learning of English or other foreign language. I also agree with this implicit approach of teaching grammar. The principal manner in which I accomplish this is by teaching short grammar-based sessions immediately followed by additional function-based lessons in which the new grammar / structure is applied in context.

The hypothesis is that adult language students have two distinct ways of developing skills and knowledge in a second language, acquisition and learning. Acquiring a language is “picking it up”, i.e., developing ability in a language by using it in natural, communicative situations. Learning language differs in that it is “knowing the rules” and having a conscious knowledge of grammar / structure. Adults acquire language, although usually not as easily or as well as children. Acquisition, however, is the most important means for gaining linguistic skills. A person’s first language (L1) is primarily learned in this way. This manner of developing language skills typically employs implicit grammar teaching and learning.

Grammar teaching should be explicit

This does not exclude explicit grammar-teaching entirely, however. Some basic features of English language grammar structure are illogical or dissimilar to speakers of other languages and do not readily lend themselves to being well understood, even in context. In cases where features of English grammar are diametrically opposed or in some other way radically different from the manner of expression in the student’s L1, explicit teaching may be required.

Aspects of English language grammar that may offer exceptional challenge to EFL students include use of word order, determiners (this, that, these, those, a, an, the), prepositions (in, on, at, by, for, from, of), auxiliaries (do, be, have), conjunctions (but, so, however, therefore, though, although), interrogatives, intensifiers (some, any, few, more, too) and distinctions between modal verbs (can, could, would, should, may, might, must). Phrasal verbs also present considerable difficulty to Spanish speakers learning communicative English.

Some students also are logical or linguistically-biased thinkers who respond well to structured presentation of new material. Logical-Mathematical and Verbal-Linguistic intelligence learners are prime examples of those that would respond well to explicit grammar teaching in many cases.

Based on my English language teaching and on my second and third foreign language learning (L2, L3) experience, an exclusive approach using either implicit or explicit methodologies is not as effective as utilizing one or the other of these approaches as required. Although it is essential to teach elements of language and develop communicative abilities in our students, there is no one best way to introduce and provide practice in them. Young learners have more natural facility in acquisition, while adults may benefit substantially from more “formal” language learning. Learning styles and intelligence strengths are also a significant factor.

There are many generally accepted ways of introducing the sounds, structure and vocabulary of English, including colloquial forms of conversation and the four basic communication skills. Grammar provides for “communicative economy”. Grammar teaching should be implicit, or explicit, as teaching / learning conditions may dictate helping to minimize the student response teachers fear most, “Teacher, I don’t understand.”


About the Author: Prof. Larry M. Lynch has taught EFL, published ELT articles as an expert author, presented at numerous TESOL conferences and trained teachers in the USA, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Panama and Spain. His work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, South American Explorer, Escape from America, Mexico News and Brazil magazines. At present he teaches at the Universidad Santiago de Cali in Cali, Colombia. To get original, exclusive articles and content for your newsletter, blog or website or information on TEFL presentations, specialized teacher training programs or conference speaking engagements contact him at: lynchlarrym at gmail dot com
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