Is Grammar really important for second language learners?
This is a typical question that I receive from many ESL students and home schoolers. My answer is simple: “Yes!”
Grammar is the backbone of any language and without it, especially English, your meaning is completely lost. Grammar provides you with the structure you need in order to organise and put your messages and ideas across; without grammar, in the same way as a train cannot move without traintracks, you won’t be able to convey your meaning without a good command of typical grammar patterns and the underlying structures of the English language.
I understand that many students ask this question simply because they want to know where they stand in regards to their ESL learning.
Some language courses teach grammar almost exclusively, as if preparing the students to be grammarians of the second language rather than real life users. In the other extreme there are “communicative” courses in which the only thing that is done is to talk about something or to read an article and comment on it. These are very different methods and outcomes to learning a new language.
I believe it is important to have a mix of both of these methods as there are also different ways of learning English. For example, a good command of English grammar does not imply that the person is able to communicate effectively, which is the case for students exposed to grammar only methods. Many would act like robots, by reciting the grammar but are unable to express basic information. Conversation is key!
Conversation is a method for more advanced students wishing to ‘brush up’ their second language skills, but for those in need of building up the foundations of a new language, it is certainly too vague and inconsistent.
So is grammar really important for a second language learner? Yes, but we must also focus on how grammar should be presented. I want to prepare people to actually engage in communicative situations using appropriate language and patterns. I am definitely not interested in their explaining the grammar uses that a certain pattern has.
Here are some ideas for ESL teachers and home schoolers to use in their next lesson.
Create curiosity: Before you start to use new material introduce the students to the topic first. You can have them guess what the material will be and if they find themselves unable to use appropriate language, you may provide it. This is a good time to introduce new vocabulary that will be used to understand the topic. After you have created curiosity in the topic and provided students with key terms on the topic, follow my lesson structure below:
- Provide them with exposure to real language and real situations in context.
- Focus on the specific meaning of words.
- When the students have a good understanding of the new words, start putting them into sentences or phrases.
- Give them exercises for them to practice the new structure.
- Give them homework to help them practice outside of the classroom.
In these steps, you will have noticed that we create curiosity and then build on the topic by introducing key words and then building context around the words to eventually create conversations. This is reliable way in which to help your students grasp the (oft-challenging) aspects of English grammar.