TESOL 2017 Session: Should Grammar Be Taught Separately or Integrated into Skills Classes?

The ESL Library team had a fantastic time at the TESOL 2017 conference in Seattle last week! We appreciate this yearly opportunity to find out what teachers want and need from our site. We love chatting with the teachers who come to our booth, and we also enjoy attending as many sessions as we can. Last week I had the chance to attend a great grammar discussion led by Charl Norloff from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Charl’s started her session (Grammar: Taught Separately or Integrated into Skills Classes?) by asking participants to think about how they usually teach grammar. Do we prefer teaching grammar explicitly (presenting and explaining the grammar point separately before any practice) or implicitly (eliciting the grammar through another lesson, such as a reading passage, with no separate grammar instruction)?

Explicit Vs. Implicit Grammar Instruction

When Charl asked participants what there preference was, explicit or implicit grammar instruction, the response was 50/50. Some teachers felt strongly that one method was better than the other, while many others stated that a combination of both styles worked best for their students. (A combination with slightly more emphasis on explicit instruction is my personal preference for teaching grammar.)

Learning Styles

Learning styles were brought up several times. Not all students learn the same way, and while explicit instruction may work for some, implicit may work better for others. Some teachers mentioned they have tried both methods in class to see what a particular class responds to best. Other teachers were limited to the curriculum/methods set by the school.

Difficulty of the Grammar Target

Some teachers said they choose to teach explicitly or implicitly depending on the difficulty of the grammar point. For example, the simple past is easy enough to teach implicitly by having students find examples in a reading passage, whereas the subjunctive may not be as easy to spot.

Difficulty Finding Materials for Teaching Implicitly

Other teachers noted that with implicit teaching, it isn’t always easy to find a passage that has multiple examples or that lists all the exceptions to a rule. Several teachers said they were forced to write passages themselves because they couldn’t readily find a real-life passage with multiple examples of a grammar target, and this is very time-consuming for them.

Meaningful Input

Charl also mentioned that regardless of explicit or implicit grammar instruction, teachers need to provide a rich set of opportunities to use the grammar (i.e., meaningful input). No matter how our learners acquire the grammatical knowledge, we must follow up with plenty of speaking and writing exercise to ensure they truly grasp the grammar target.

Putting Explicit & Implicit Grammar Instruction into Action in Our Materials

What else could the writers and editors for ESL Library take away from this session in terms of how we can benefit our subscribers through our grammar materials?

Explicit Grammar Materials

With the many teaching and learning styles out there, explicit grammar instruction will always have a place in the ELT realm.

During this session, I realized that we are on the right track with our Grammar Practice Worksheets (comprehensive grammar lessons) section. For the past two years, we’ve been adding speaking and writing components to all of our new grammar lessons (and many of our older ones). As Charl mentioned, these types of exercises are valuable for knowing if our students can produce the grammar target outside of simple grammatical drill-type exercises. Our newer Grammar & Usage Resources (grammar charts, tips, and lists) are also handy for explicit grammar instruction (or to hand out later to those students who aren’t quite getting the implicit instruction).

Implicit Grammar Materials

While explicit instruction is still valued, there is also an increasing demand for the implicit, communicative approach to grammar teaching and learning.

Our Grammar Stories section is a great place to find ready-made implicit grammar lessons that present the grammar target in the context of a reading passage. I also realized that we should be adding a grammar component to our other four-skills lessons (such as Discussion Starters, Famous People, Everyday Dialogues, etc.) more often. At times, we have a short grammar exercise that focuses on something mentioned in the reading or listening passage, such as adjective clauses, tag questions, etc. We could work this type of exercise into these lessons more often so that students learn how to recognize grammar targets independently (or with less guidance, at least) and in context. During the session, many teachers suggested a reading passage followed by an exercise that asks students to find the grammar target in context (by underlining all instances of it, for example), and this is something we can easily add to our materials.

Which method works best in your classroom?

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Leave a Comment ↓

  1. Aaisha Hamed Hilal Albusaidi says:

    Jun 01, 2018 at 7:37 am

    I didn’t feel you answered the first question: should grammar be taught separately?

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jun 01, 2018 at 2:23 pm

      Hi Aaisha,

      The goal of this post was sum up everything that was discussed in this conference session. Teachers have very different opinions about this. As I mentioned in the post, the audience was divided pretty equally, and I mentioned my personal preference of teaching grammar separately (though I do both). Personally, I find that my students benefit greatly from explicit teaching, but I often try to find grammar in context to use before or during the lesson as well.

      Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question. It varies greatly according to the teacher’s experience/personal preference and the students’ needs. Often the grammar target and the textbook play a role in the decision to teach grammar explicitly or implicitly as well.

  2. Henry Quan says:

    May 15, 2017 at 5:32 pm

    I have never seen parents taught grammar to their kids when they were growing up and learning to speak. Nor have I ever known any parents, English speaking or otherwise, tried to teach their kid grammar. Yet I wonder how their kid can speak grammatically correct English.

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 16, 2017 at 12:14 pm

      Keep in mind that language acquisition as a child is very different from language acquisition as an adult. First language acquisition is also different from second language acquisition. It is so much easier to learn a language as a child, even a second or third language, because children’s brains are wired to soak up and process language in a way that adult brains are not. I usually point this out to my adult learners when they are feeling discouraged—it is much more challenging for them, which is why they can sometimes benefit from clear explanations of the underlying grammar.

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