The Role of Grammar in Communicative Language Teaching

Communicative Language Teaching; Photo credit: needpix.com
Communicative Language Teaching; Photo credit: needpix.com
Masum Billah
Written by Masum Billah

It has been a debating issue for long whether we should teach grammar for teaching the English language or communicative language teaching should be the main focus. However, we cannot deny the fact that we use language with grammar and without grammar, we do not use it that unfolds that the problem is not grammar itself, rather the ways grammar has been taught and learned.

Communicative competence does not mean an absence of grammar instruction but rather grammar instruction that leads to the ability to communicate effectively. Grammar instruction and lessons are not limited to introducing a grammar item or items, having learners do control exercises, and then later assessing students on their ability to understand grammar items. It means designing grammar lessons to include a communicative task or activity. 

A communicative grammar lesson allows students to practice the target grammar. The beginning stages of a communicative grammar lesson often focus on accuracy while fluency becomes more important during the practice stage. Communicative tasks are important because they allow learners to practice the target grammar feature under ‘real operating conditions. Communicative grammar practice has often focused on speaking activities; however, writing activities are also an important and valid way to practice using grammar communicatively.

Language teachers ideally want their students to practice using language communicatively. In some large classes, however, the communicative practice can be challenging; putting students in pairs and groups and monitoring their activity can be difficult with many students. With large classes, teachers should not feel guilty if they cannot make each lesson a completely communicative experience; instead, they should focus on what they can do.

For instance, in a large class, a teacher might not be able to do an entire communicative lesson but might be able to do one or two interactive activities. Another way to provide students with more opportunities for communicative practice is to give them out-of-class assignments that require using the target grammar point. For instance, if students are practicing the present simple for routines, they might practice the grammar point in class and later, for homework, write a short paragraph about their daily routine.

If students have cell phones or other devices, they can record themselves producing the target language either with another classmate or on their own. For example, students might make interview questions based on the target grammar point and interview a partner, or they might write a script using the target language and record themselves acting it out.

For students with Internet access, there are numerous possibilities for productive, communicative practice. All of these activities can be carried out with a focus on target grammar points that relate to in-class lessons. With large classes, teachers might have to think a bit differently about how they plan classes, but there are still many ways to provide students with opportunities for productive, communicative language practice.

Grammar Translation Method (GTM) is only good at teaching language rules and will never be good at teaching language skill such as speaking and listening (Bahar, 2013), the method typically creates a teacher-centric classroom which means teacher dominates all activities in the classroom from explaining the lessons to correcting the students’ errors, the lessons provide no opportunity for speaking practice, learning tedious grammar rules and long lists of vocabulary does not prepare students to communicate in real-world situations.

According to Bahar (2013), learning English may not be viewed as a process of mastering language rules, which is merely focused on making correct sentences of English, but it also has to be seen as a process of developing fluency by involving functional and social dimensions of English. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) principles require students not to know target language forms, structures, and functions. They must be able to apply this knowledge in negotiating to mean. During the negotiation of meaning, the learners need to learn directly from each other, share information and knowledge they possess no matter whether they missed or misunderstood.

Therefore, Communicative Language Teaching activities frequently take the form of pair and group work requiring negotiation and cooperation between learners, fluency-based activities that encourage learners to develop their confidence, role-plays in which students practice and develop language functions, as well as judicious use of grammar and pronunciation focused activities.

While conducting classes, there would be an interaction between teachers and students through questions and responses and that can be done using the textbooks according to their interests and priorities. Our tradition of language study focuses on a meticulous analysis in a textbook-based approach involving a systematic unlocking of the meaning of each fragment of language.

Perfection is sought through a painstaking understanding of every language item. Personal creations and interpretations are not heavily promoted or valued. Care and certainty are favored above quantity and experimentation. The principle of “learning sparingly but well” (Li, 1984) requires that output be constrained by the obligation to be error-free. Memorization is a long-established learning technique, especially in the language field.

Teachers expect their students to receive rather than to construct learning and classroom relationships are based on distance and formality with a high degree of teacher-centeredness. Language use rather than language knowledge is emphasized with a consequent diminution of emphasis on grammatical forms.

The level of training of teachers, especially in rural areas, is still not uniformly high. The recruitment of English teachers follows the job assignment system where unwilling graduates are allocated to English teaching to change classroom practices and teach English communicatively would require a considerable commitment. Attempts to teach English communicatively in classrooms where resources are limited, a big number of students and changes are viewed with suspicion would involve an extraordinary level of expertise with sustained energy and enthusiasm from the teacher.

Most teachers always rely on blackboard and posters as their teaching aids. Due to the influences of teaching English from the beginning, learners are familiar with doing grammar exercises. Therefore, English grammar always plays a crucial role in learning the language. People are not able to comprehend genuinely without knowledge of grammar. Sentences without appropriate grammar structures are also hard for readers and listeners to fully understand the meaning.

Even if the words or sentences do not put on correct grammar structures, it may cause misunderstanding when conveying information to listeners. It is the reason for learning English grammar and it cannot avoid learning English grammar. So how to bring practical contexts in English grammar lessons, it should have three main characteristics that a useful context should attain: they are authentic, informative and exciting.

Firstly, the contexts should be authentic. When matters are close to life, it will bring many more effects on teaching and learning. And the most important thing is that it needs to provide full contents of the structures, usages, meanings and some model samples that the learners can redo, regain and recover it well with what are happening in their real situation. Lewis and Hill (1992, p. 28) state that the appropriateness of context can be achieved if the teacher brings something real and useful from the outside classroom.

Secondly, an informative context should be comprehensible and easy to remember. It also should have many clues to attain the target languages and provide various forms. The information on different situations should be clear, useful and practical with daily activities.

Thirdly, learners always feel interested in real contexts. They also feel excited about learning, willing to study, play the roles and eager to attend the class. Penny (1996) shows that the context should provide the background for many languages using so that students can use the information not only for the repetition of model sentences but also for making their sentences. It is necessary to bring the contexts in teaching grammar communication that will help to attain effective results.

To attain the target language, the teachers need to help the learners know how to apply forms or structures in doing tasks, spoken languages or written texts. Especially, learners can know how to recognize the form and meaning in the real situation, and they can produce both written and spoken form.  Teachers need to design real contexts by using suitable model structures.

Scott Thornbury is a New Zealand linguist and an internationally recognized academic and teacher trainer in the field of English who summarizes some rules of context, teaching grammar in context, the rule of using grammar structures, the ability to use and apply in real contexts, the rule of the economy and the rule of appropriateness about the levels, needs, interests, expectations and learning styles of the students.

Whatever training Bangladeshi English teachers of the secondary and higher secondary level receive, real change in the English classroom still stands far from teaching grammar communicatively using the context. Going beyond the existing tradition seems to be a difficult task for them and the national examination does not reflect learners’ real ability to use English in their practical world.

Hence grammar teaching with different clarifications and structural patterns still dominates the English teaching that stands as a significant barrier to develop the communicative ability of the learners.  

About the author

Masum Billah

Masum Billah

Masum Billah works as an Education Expert in the BRAC Education Program, BRAC, and President of the English Teachers' Association of Bangladesh (ETAB), Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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