MAKING AN IMPACT: Teaching Grammar Through Awareness-Raising

by Rod Ellis

Rod Ellis is currently a professor at the Institute of English Language Teaching and Learning, University of Auckland, New Zealand. He is also the director of the Institute. Previously, he taught at Temple University in Japan and Philadelphia. He has also worked in Spain, England and Zambia. He has written several books about second language acquisition and has also published a number of ESL and EFL textbooks that are used widely throughout the world, including the Impact series.

How can we teach grammar in ways that enable learners to learn grammar? This has been one of the key questions that researchers have grappled with over the last thirty or so years.

This question arose as a result of research that showed that language learners have their own built-in 'syllabus' which governs both when they learn particular grammatical features and also how they learn them. The research demonstrated what many teachers have long known - namely, that students often don't learn the grammar they are taught. It indicates why this is so; learners only internalize those grammar features that they are ready to learn and they learn each feature very gradually, passing through a series of transitional stages.

There are perhaps two ways in which teachers can try to address this problem. The first is to make sure that the teaching syllabus matches the learner's own syllabus. That is, teachers need to teach specific grammatical features when they know that the learners are ready to learn them. The difficulty with this solution is that it is not easy to find out if learners are at a stage of development that will enable them to learn a particular structure. This calls for quite sophisticated diagnosis. Another difficulty is that we still do not have anything like a complete picture of what the learner's syllabus looks like. In short, this solution is probably not very practical.

The second solution is to circumvent the problem. We can do this if we direct the teaching of grammar at explicit knowledge rather than implicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is knowledge about grammar - understanding the rules. Implicit knowledge is knowledge of grammar - knowing the rules in an intuitive way that enables them to be accessed quickly and easily for purposes of communication. It is this kind of knowledge that underlies the learner's built-in syllabus and which is acquired gradually. We can avoid the difficulties of trying to match the teaching syllabus to the learner's syllabus if we make explicit rather than implicit knowledge the target of instruction.

Of course, such a solution only makes sense if it can be shown that learning explicit knowledge is useful. Current theories of second language learning suggest that explicit knowledge is important in a number of respects. First, it helps learners to be more grammatically accurate by monitoring what they say or write - they can 'edit' out some of the errors they make because they have not yet acquired the necessary implicit knowledge. Second, explicit knowledge can help learners to acquire implicit knowledge. If learners understand how a grammatical feature works they will be more likely to notice it when they are listening or reading. Current theories claim that noticing is essential for the development of implicit knowledge.

How, then, should we teach explicit knowledge of grammar? The traditional way is through direct instruction - the teacher tells the learners what the rules are. An alternative way is to use a grammar-discovery approach. This involves providing learners with data (in the form of a listening or reading text) to illustrate a particular grammatical feature and getting them to analyze it so as to arrive at an understanding of how the feature works. In effect, this requires learners to become active-thinkers in order to discover for themselves how the grammar of the language they are studying works.

The grammar-discovery approach has a number of advantages. It is likely to be more motivating than the direct approach - in general, learners find it more interesting to discover something for themselves than to be told it. It turns grammar into a 'content' that the learners can communicate about. In other words, learners can use the target language as the medium for discovering grammar. In this way, a grammar discovery task doubles up as a communicative task. After all, learners can just as well talk about grammar as the countless other things language teachers get them to discuss. Perhaps the biggest advantage, however, is that grammar-discovery tasks help learners to develop the analytical skills they need to dissect language for themselves. In this way, they can continue to discover how the grammar of the language works on their own when they are outside the classroom. The grammar-discovery approach helps to foster the curiosity and the analytical skills needed to work on language autonomously - one of the hallmarks of successful language learners.

Together with Steven Gaies, I have recently put together some materials designed to teach grammar through awareness-raising (see Ellis and Gaies 1998). Each unit is based on a grammatical problem that we know learners of English as a second language commonly experience (e.g. the use of the present progressive tense with stative verbs as in * I am weighing 60 kilos). The learners begin by listening to a text that contains examples of correct usage. They first process this for meaning. Then they listen again, this time focussing their attention on the target grammatical feature (i.e. they are helped to notice it). Next, they use the data to try to arrive at an explicit understanding of the rule (e.g. the kinds of verbs that are not used in the present progressive tense). This provides a basis for an error-identification task, where they can check if they have understood the rule clearly. Finally, there is an opportunity for the learners to try to use the correct grammatical structure in their own sentences.

These materials incorporate a number of novel features. First, they aim to teach grammar through input-processing by helping learners to attend to particular grammatical features; they train the skills of noticing. This contrasts with traditional approaches which aim to teach grammar through production practice of one kind or another. Second, the materials make use of oral texts on the grounds that learners need training in being able to notice grammatical features when they are listening. This is very difficult for learners, particularly if the features are redundant (i.e. are not essential for understanding the meaning). Third, the materials employ a grammar-discovery approach. Learners are shown how to analyze the data in order to arrive at an understanding of how a grammatical feature works. Fourthly, the materials provide practise in monitoring - the learners are asked to use their explicit knowledge to identify and correct errors of the kind that they typically make.

Grammar teaching has undergone a lot of rethinking in recent years. There are some theorists, such as Stephen Krashen, who believe that it should be abandoned, or at least relegated to a very minor role in a language programme. There are other theorists, such as myself, who recognize the problems inherent in the teaching of grammar, but who believe that ways round them can be found. Irrespective, of these differences of opinion, many teachers will continue to feel the need to teach grammar. Perhaps, what is important, is that they do so with an understanding of the difficulties involved in learning grammar and experiment with possible solutions. Teaching grammar through awareness-raising is one possible solution.

Ellis, R. and Gaies, S. 1998. Impact Grammar. Hong Kong: Longman.

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