I teach grammar…but I can quit any time I want…


I recently read Michael Swan’s detailed and at times wickedly funny critique of Task Based Instruction.  While his depiction of a pure TB syllabus seems to me a little too stereotypical (and in truth he does clearly say that he is not going after teachers who utilize TBI as one component of their program, but instead going after TBI purists), his frustration with wave after wave of paradigm shifts which often result in the devaluation of useful and effective teaching methodologies seems to me dead on.  And his main critique, that a narrowly structured, TB syllabus (or lack of syllabus as the case might be), is, “unsuitable for exposure-poor context where time is limited,” and that in certain situations, “planned approaches incorporating careful prioritizing, proactive syllabus design, and concentrated work…offer the best chance of success,” also seems extremely reasonable. 


One might quibble about exactly what Michael means by “success.”  Perhaps his success, constrained as it is by time and language exposure issues, might be very different from a teacher working in a different environment and with a different learner population. But working in Japan, where a vast majority of junior high and high school English language classes are held primarily in Japanese (I would be surprised if learners are exposed to more than 10 minutes of English during an actual 50 minute class), I also find myself hoping to get the most functional linguistic bang for each minute of class time. 
Scott Thornbury muses on some of the same issues as Michael in an excellent blog post on input, although Scott’s slant is a little more on the, “yes, balance is necessary” side of the spectrum.  There is nothing I could point to and say, “no, no, no, that’s not right,” but I wasn’t nodding along in agreement as I read Scott’s post either. 


Perhaps the reason is that for roughly 25% of my class time, I am teaching pre-selected grammar material, and about half of that time I am doing it in a pretty teacher-centered way.  Sometimes I catch myself feeling bad about it.  I’m just thankful to have read Paul Nation’s 4-Strand article recently.  It helped clear away some of the shame.  And here I guess is the crux of what I want to say and what I think made Michael’s article resonate with me…why the heck should I feel guilty about teaching grammar? And what exactly is wrong about occasionally leading a class through a traditional teacher-student dynamic? 


I’m not looking for an easy out.  I’m not going to suddenly start standing up in front of all my classes and turn into the great verbal fountain of grammar which runs nonstop for 50 minutes.  I’ll go to work every week and keep trying different approaches in class.  I’ll keep striving to make class more interesting, more fun.  But there is nothing inherently wrong with a balanced program which contains teacher-fronted and form focused classes.  And Michael’s article is the first one in a long while to remind me of that simple fact.

One thought on “I teach grammar…but I can quit any time I want…

  1. Hi Kevin,I think most would agree that there is nothing wrong with occasional, "old fashioned", teacher-centred grammar teaching but I am not sure if that's what Michael Swan has in mind. You see, Swan and his co-author Catherine Walter always talk rather disparagingly – but very convincingly I must admit – about other methods, such as TBL or Lexical Approach. One may get an impression that linear PPP-style grammar teaching with occasional reading thrown in is all they want in an English lesson.LEO


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