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Grammar Teaching in ESL/EFL: What matters is not to teach or not to teach it, but how to

Grammar should be viewed as a resource, taught integratively with language skills learning, and is aimed to develop students' communicative competence.

"I never teach grammatical rules. Asking the pupils to watch videos or see pictures, let them pronounce new words and singing aloud together are major learning activities in my English class," an Elementary English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher in Jakarta said. Quite similar to her, an EFL teacher in a senior high school claimed grammar is not necessary. "The goal is to enable the students to communicate in English and comprehend English texts. I know many of their expressions are ungrammatical. But I think it will improve when they learn more", he said. Another teacher who also teaches in a senior high school said grammar instruction takes a large portion in her classrooms. When I was learning English, grammar teaching helped a lot. It will help my students, too". Many of my colleagues also do the same," she added. 

Grammar teaching has long been one of the most controversial areas in the teaching of English as a second language (ESL) or foreign language (EFL). In the literature, three different groups concerning grammar teaching emerged. The first group backs Krashens' input hypotheses, recognized as "anti-grammarians" as they disbelieve grammar instruction role in language learning. This group argues that grammar is not needed because what learners need to improve both their fluency and accuracy is comprehensible input. The second group, "pro-grammarians", assert that formal grammar teaching should not be abandoned because it significantly helps learners to achieve second or foreign language accuracy and speeds. The third group mediates these pro-grammarians and anti-grammarians by claiming that the inclusion or exclusion of grammar instruction depends on the variables involved in the ESL/EFL teaching. If the class aims to develop learners' receptive skills, the register learned is informal, and the learner's goal is for survival, grammar is not necessary. But If the class aims to develop learners' productive skills, the register learned is formal, and the learner's goal is for professional needs, grammar is highly necessary. 

As views of grammar vary, the pendulum of grammar teaching in ESL/EFL has been swinging between the dichotomy of inductive and deductive approaches, and ESL/EFL teachers tend to use the approach they experienced while learning English. Pahissa and Tragant (2009) reported how three experienced English non-native teachers in Spain treated grammar differently. The first taught grammar, including terminologies, explicitly. She even used translation to teach grammar. She believed grammar teaching and translation helped her when learning English. The second minimized grammar, never used terminology but employed translation. When he learned English, he also experienced the same approach and found translation a useful strategy. The third teacher, despite his preference for the communicative approach which requires less grammar, his lack of confidence in vocabulary, and in the command of the target language made him teach grammar more than he actually wanted to. 

Should grammar be taught in ESL/EFL classroom? To answer this question, we need to understand what we mean by grammar. In a general term, grammar is a set of rules with which an individual can make accurate and meaningful sentences in a language. Brown (2001) defines it as “the system of rules governing the conventional arrangement and relationship of words in a sentence.” 

Since grammar is the law of language that enables us to speak and write correctly in the language, it must and can be taught. Robinson and Fengs’s (2016) study revealed that explicit grammar instruction made students’ overall writing scores significantly increased. Wang (2010) found that grammar instruction positively and significantly correlates with Chinese middle school students’ English proficiency and college entrance tests. The study of Podmenik (2015). Mulroy (2003) accentuated, “Sentences always have and always will consist of clauses with subjects and predicates and of words that fall into classes fairly well described as verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Individuals who understand these concepts have a distinct advantage over others where the use of language is involved—and that means everywhere‖.” 

If some classes succeeded in teaching grammar why did many other classes fail? This indicates that what matters in grammar instruction is the way it is taught. The inclusion or exclusion of grammar instruction as implemented through the teaching of the three EFL teachers at the beginning of this article did not result satisfactorily. A professor of English at a university in Jakarta complained about the inability of freshmen in his classes to effectively write even simple sentences. He remarked, "They had learned English for six years or more. But the majority were not sure when to use a noun and when to use an adjective. Their oral English is also inadequate. It's very hard to catch what they say or convey through their paper. They just write or speak in Bahasa Indonesia using English words." Students' problems to speak and write correctly due to their poor grammar is actually a common phenomenon. Westin (2013) and Bloomberg News (2012) showed that the writing skills of college students in the US also decline, and one of the causes is their weakness in grammar. Tarawneh and Almomani (2013) found that despite having learned a great deal of grammatical knowledge and vocabulary, most Jordanian English students were unable to speak English accurately. Amara (2015) reported that Arabic speakers committed a great number of errors although they had learned English grammar. 

Why did grammar instructions fail? Lap and Fisher (1991) revealed that many English teachers still employed the traditional grammar teaching method adopted from the Greeks and Romans' study of rhetoric and logic that dominated English teaching during the last century. In past classrooms, it was usually implemented by asking students to memorize and drill parts of speech and prescriptive rules. Teachers employing this method believe that students' knowledge of these prescribed rules will eventually enable them to use language correctly.

In today’s ESL/EFL classrooms, traditional grammar teaching is generally implemented in either an inductive or deductive approach. Using the inductive approach, teachers usually start by exposing the students with various target language uses or forms and the students should discover the rules themselves. In the deductive approach, conversely, teachers first explicitly introduce a rule and the students should practice it through different examples. Both approaches may help learners know about many grammatical rules and terminologies. But that knowledge does not facilitate the learners' language use due to two reasons. First, they just learn grammar as grammar, as a subject concerning a set of restrictions about what is permitted and what is prohibited in language use. Consequently, most of them tend to view such knowledge repressive which kills their creative use of language. Secondly, grammatical rules are learned in isolation from language use. This causes most of them unable to use the rules in communication. Their ability to define and identify parts of speech or main clauses and subordinate clauses, for instance, does not improve the quality of their speech and writing. 

The best grammar instruction is based on the view of grammar as something that liberates rather than suppresses. Hall and Pegrum (2004) states, "Grammar should be a friend, not an enemy." This could be done by regarding grammar as a resource that facilitates communication. To actualize it, grammar should be integrated into language skills learning. Grammar is best taught by exposing students with real language uses containing the targeted grammatical points—e.g. by watching videos of dialogues or reading texts—using grammatical rules explicitly to explain the points, and then assigning the students to practice using the points in real communication (speaking or writing). Thus, students should be provided extensive opportunities to listen, read, speak, and write in the classroom. 

Exposure to authentic materials (recordings or videos of dialogues and texts) to start grammar learning is very essential because these materials serve as a context where grammar is real. Such materials, of course, need to be selected in accordance with the students' language mastery level, need, and interest. Using short movies to watch and short stories might increase the students. Interest. The grammatical rules in concern should also aim to develop the students’ communicative competence. Knowing the grammatical rules and terminologies is not enough. They should be used by the students in speaking and writing. Nazari (2011) reported that explicit grammar instruction increased Iranian EFL learners’ receptive and productive language skills. 

Should grammar terminology be explicitly taught, too? Certainly, yes! Students' knowledge of the terms like part of speech and tenses help make grammar learning effective. Suppose a student wrote the following sentences (an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence indicates it to be ungrammatical).

  1. *She buy these books last month.
  2. *Millenials look for convenient in all products they buy.
When the teacher tells the students that these sentences are wrong, she might ask, "Why are they wrong?" Without referring to the concepts of 'simple past tense', it will be quite hard to describe that the first sentence happened last month. Thus, the verb must be in the past form (i.e. 'bought'). In the same way, the concept of 'parts of speech' will help explain that the word placed after the verb 'look for' should function as an object, and an object in English grammar must be a noun, a noun phrase, or a pronoun. Therefore, the adjective 'convenient' must be replaced with the noun 'convenience'.

The complexity of grammar terminology should certainly be suited to the students' English mastery level. The higher the mastery level, the more complex terminology can be included.

To conclude, grammar should be taught in ESL/EFL classrooms because grammar provides students the rules to make accurate and meaningful sentences in the target language. However, grammar should be taught integratively with language skills learning and is aimed to develop students' communicative competence. The best scenario for teaching grammar is begun by exposing students with real language use containing the grammar point to learn, using related rules of grammar explicitly to explain the grammatical points, and assigning the students to use the learned grammar in real speaking and writing. ***

Do you have a personal experience concerning grammar teaching in ESL/EFL classes?  We’d like to hear from you. Please write your views or feedback in the comments section below.

Author: Parlindungan Pardede (


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I agree with the opinion that the necessity of learning grammar depends on the learner. If the learners have a goal of being able to speak so that others can understand them - such as workers who want to work abroad - then teaching grammar is not a necessity. But when the learners have a goal to become a professional in English or aim to become an English teacher - like ESL or EFL students - then learning grammar is a must. And yes, grammar is something that is very complicated and has a lot of rules that make many people feel confused, bored, and complicated in learning grammar, which making them have an understanding that learning grammar is very difficult. So, to be able to master grammar, we must learn it little by little according to the portion we can learn every day and of course, it must be learned regularly. Thus, we will not be confused and feel that grammar is something complicated. We can learn grammar more easily by integrating it with language skills so that we can improve both our grammar and also our language skills such as writing and speaking.

  3. I totally agree with this article, learning grammar is very important for us who is study English. There are two types that people who learn English. First is learn English just to make them can speak English ,the second learn English for them who want become an educator. In my opinion learn grammar it will be better if our teacher or lecturer shows us some video or short story about grammar. Indirectly, the students can fasten got the idea what is the grammar about . I've experienced when I was in Junior High School I choose to learned English just to improve my speaking in English. I don't care about the grammar because I think learn grammar is difficult ,my teacher always reminded me to learn that . At the moment I have some of friends from aboard and we talked through social media which is in the written form. What I've wrote they could not understand because of my grammar. Then I realized that learn grammar is very important and I realized What we're say is not necessarily the same as what we write.

  4. Yeah, that's true. Some people say that learning grammar is not really necessary. I think, someone might be good at using English without having to master grammar, but because that person is more often practicing, by listening and speaking. When I asked my sister what was the obstacle that she face in mastering grammar, she answered, lazy. That's because she feels it's not too important to do, because it's not part of her passion, what I mean is, she doesn't use it in her work environment. Conversely, someone who works in the world of education (educators) certainly needs to master grammar. In addition, grammar needs to be mastered for every student in taking the TOEIC, TOEFL, etc. tests required by a company as a condition of admission. So I agree with the third group that mediates pro-grammarians and anti-grammarians.

  5. Grammar is the difficult and complicated lesson when we learn about language. In generally, every person can speaking and listening in English without grammar. We can understand that but not in writing. In education, grammar is such an important thing. I'm very agree with this article. "Grammar should be taught in ESL/EFL classrooms because grammar provides students the rules to make accurate and meaningful sentences in the target language". With grammar, we can improve our language skills. With grammar, we know the grammatical points of language.

  6. For those who desire to quickly become proficient in English, we are often faced with dilemmas such as: Should we begin with mastering grammar? Is grammar important? If asked to many people (though not all) some might say that grammar is important, or maybe not. Regardless of the debates that might exist, studying grammar (grammar) is in my opinion clearly important. Even so, learning grammar is not the only key to success in being able to master English. "The language is acquired, but grammar (grammar) is learned." Not everyone who is proficient in English is a graduate of English Literature, which means that not everyone studies grammar in detail while in college. Therefore I agree with this article. Having become accustomed to English and fluent enough, we can take the next step which is to continuously hone skills by consciously deepening and learning grammar. Learning grammar is especially important if we want to improve our writing skills and understand more complex language structures, for example when reading heavier or heavier reading.


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