Teaching Grammar: Perspectives on Language Learning in Higher Education

Date: 18 January, 2001
Location: CILT, London
Event type: Workshop

Past event summary

A seminar for linguistics, foreign language and teacher training practitioners Chair: Professor Richard Towell

Event report

This seminar took the findings of the Nuffield Enquiry and the Government's Literacy Strategy as the starting point for an exploration into the current situation in language education in the UK and asked how Higher Education can benefit from a closer cooperation among language professionals in the teaching of grammar to students of foreign languages, linguistics and education. Approaches to grammar in the curriculum were evaluated through case studies and seminar discussions with a view to identifying new directions in language education.

The seminar was organised in two parts. The morning, devoted to a discussion of current issues in languages, linguistics and teacher education in relation to explicit language teaching, included contributions from the three sectors:

The afternoon was devoted to the presentation of case studies of current practice which aimed to reflect the successful interaction of some or all of the disciplines concerned, with a particular focus on the teaching of grammar.


The day effectively demonstrated that grammar does not have to be a dull chore that has to be suffered in order to learn a foreign language or about one's mother tongue. Rather it is considered to be an essential feature of the language curriculum and can be taught in ways that are relevant to the needs and interests of students. There was also an emphasis on integrating grammar into the overall language learning programme and in avoiding the often rather artificial sequential approach by using a discourse or functional approach based on what learners need in order to understand texts or to say what they want to say in a way that is consistent with language in use, rather than language in a grammar book. For linguistics, where teaching about grammar is the main focus there was also an emphasis on student need, relevance and a concern to help students understand the function and purpose of grammar as well as equipping them with the skills to identify and describe grammatical forms.

Broader issues that emerged from the day were the dual impediments to progress in grammar teaching methodology, summarised by Professor Richard Towell (who chaired the day) as the gradual casualisation of the language teaching profession in Higher Education and the lack of funding for pedagogical research to evaluate the outcomes of current practice and to inform future developments in this area. Professor Hudson had underlined this last as a key contribution that Higher Education could and should be making, but the current de-professionalisation of language teaching was thought by many to be a serious barrier to research in this area. It was clear from the contributions of the case study presenters that language teaching does not deserve its diminishing status, and as the Nuffield Inquiry and the Government's current drive to improve literacy in schools through a more thorough approach to language education, demonstrate there is a need for skilled professionals in this field.

In order to maintain the momentum of this seminar, that was attended by some 60 people, the Subject Centre will be continuing its programme of language seminars in the autumn and welcomes any comments and ideas from all areas of language teaching and learning. We are also keen to build a larger database of exemplars of current practice and research in this area and you are invited to submit a case study, observation or any teaching materials of your own that will be added to our case study database.

Nuffield Report: Who wants grammar?

This paper will explore the social and economic factors which have led to an increased demand that language learning should focus on grammar. It will draw on the experience of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry.

Professor Mike Kelly Nuffield Enquiry, Professor of French (University of Southampton), Director Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

Building stronger foundations: revisions to the National Curriculum and qualifications in MFL Chris Maynard Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

Download the full powerpoint presentation (PowerPoint 97, 103kb)

Over the last three years, in consultation with teachers, advisers and awarding bodies, QCA has made significant revisions to the National Curriculum and to the criteria for GCSE and GCE AS/A level. These changes put greater emphasis on grammar and the accurate application of grammatical knowledge. QCA has also produced non-statutory guidance for teachers to promote a more grammar-based approach in the early stages of learning a modern foreign language.

I shall refer to the following documents: National Curriculum programme of study and level descriptions for MFL (6 sides of A4) GCSE subject criteria for MFL (10 sides of A4, including 6 sides of grammar appendices for French, German & Spanish) GCE AS/A subject criteria for MFL (17 sides of A4, including 8 sides of grammar appendices for French, German, Spanish & Urdu) Advanced Extension Awards draft subject specification for MFL (5 sides of A4)

Grammar teaching: why, when, how and what?
Richard Hudson

1. Why teach grammar?Until recently the accepted wisdom was that the study of grammar was useless, though possibly interesting and valuable as part of a liberal education. A brief survey of research evidence will show that grammar can in fact be useful in terms of its effects on the learners' communication skills either in their first language (L1) or in a modern foreign language (MFL). This is now accepted by the DfEE in L1 teaching (as one of the pillars of the National Literacy Strategy - NLS) and (more recently) in MFL teaching.

2. When to teach grammar? Another widely held belief was that grammar was too difficult for all but the older (and more academic) students, but research shows that (given appropriate teaching methods) it can be taught at any age and ability level. However it is particularly important to teach it in HE, because this is the point in the 'Education cycle' where research can have an impact on the understanding of the next generation of teachers (and parents).

3. How to teach grammar? As with other subjects, it is easy to teach grammar badly, and the grammar-free desert from which we are emerging in the UK leaves us without established routes to success. The NLS has a very clear strategy based on explanation, exploration and application (to some area of literacy, especially writing). At HE, the needs of MFL students, Initial Teacher-Training students and Linguistics students are different, as are the demands of different areas of grammar (e.g. inflectional morphology compared with uses of tenses), so we need a range of different methods. Trying, testing (and rejecting!) methods should be recognised as a valid area of academic research.

4. What grammar to teach? Here the teacher has to answer (inter alia) the following questions with the student group in mind, bearing in mind what they know already; there is no single 'grammar' which defines its own syllabus!!
a. Global (the whole grammar at some level of generality) or selective (selected areas known to cause problems)?
b. Following the logic of the system (focussing on related patterns) or of texts (focussing on the most common patterns)?
c. Old-fashioned or modern descriptive or modern theoretical?
d. (For any answer in c), which particular analyses and terminology?

Now is the time for HE to consider these questions in preparation for the 'NLS cohort' which will reach HE in about 2008.

The servant of two masters: Teaching grammar to first year undergraduates following

English literature and QTS courses English L1 First year undergraduate BA/QTS Abstract This case study examines the way that at University College Chichester we deal with the teaching of grammar as part of a first year language programme for BA students. The student group consists in roughly equal measure of BA English students and students following a primary QTS degree. The case study looks at the way that the needs of both sets of students can be met via the study of different grammatical aspects as applied to literary texts. In particular, the case study will look at the curriculum studied in three areas: the noun phrase, the verb phrase and morphology, and will provide examples of texts which are used to develop and exemplify the three areas.

Jack Kissel, School of English, University College Chichester
Mick Randall, Centre for International Education and Management, University College Chichester

Sufficient and necessary - but necessary to who?

Modern European Languages - exemplified through English BA degree in Modern Languages Abstract The challenge: To design and deliver to intending modern languages teachers a general linguistics course that is perceived to be relevant as well as comprehensive. The only language which all these undergraduates share is English, but few, if any, of them will ever teach that language. The original solution was content-led. The topics chosen were those that might be expected to constitute part of any introduction to linguistics. Time limitations imposed constraints: coverage was limited to basic principles, but took account of the fact that students needed an adequate background for a subsequent course in Second Language Acquisition. Teaching was by lecture and practical task undertaken at home. Our revised solution is needs-led. Lexis is taught by adopting English as the point of departure, and examining how lexical systems differ in other European languages. Morphology and Syntax are taught concretely by exploring a single word class at a time in terms of its morphology, distribution and subcategories and in terms of how the class is represented in Chomsky grammar. Theoretical input mainly takes the form of pre-reading. Teaching sessions consist of review, discussion and tasks which demand that cross-linguistic comparisons be made. Result: greater commitment, greater participation - and above all, greater transfer of declarative knowledge into language awareness.

John Field Modern Language Centre Kings College London

Intensive Italian: from zero to competence (Ab initio ad astra)

Italian L2 Intensive Italian, a one-year course taking beginners from zero to A-level equivalent. Abstract Intensive Italian is designed primarily for students taking main language Italian on the Languages for Business (Hons) degree. (Most UK Universities offer an ab initio pathway in order to offset the low numbers of students taking A-level Italian in schools.) As part of the LB course, students carry out two work placements in the relevant country, the first in the third term of their second year. Intensive Italian takes students from scratch to around A-level in one year, after which they join the post-A-level students in the year 2 business Italian course and subsequently the one term work placement. Our experience is that at the end of the four years, the ab initio students achieve a better level of linguistic competence than their post-A-level peer group. This brief paper looks for possible reasons and discusses the way in which the different elements of language learning are integrated.

Anna Proudfoot Italian Department Oxford Brookes University

Raising metalinguistic awareness - theory versus practice English L1 BA(Ed) primary education

This talk will serve two purposes. Firstly, there will be a brief description of a language and learning module for first year BA(Ed) students. This module is delivered by the Department of Linguistics and English Language (DLEL) for the School of Education (SoE) at the University of Durham. The purpose of the module is to help students meet some of the requirements of the Initial Teacher Training Curriculum and to prepare them for implementing the Termly Objectives of the National Literacy Strategy. Secondly, the talk will focus on the syntax content of the course. This is a beginner's introduction to syntax, modified from DLEL's first year linguistics module. The particular focus will be the teaching of clause structure. Using questionnaire data collected from one of the groups taking the course, and input from lecturers, workshop leaders and tutors, the approach taken to teaching this structure, and a discussion on the perceived result of the approach, will be presented. This presentation will emphasise the importance of members of both departments working together to utilise the expertise of their own disciplines in order to develop a coherent relationship.

Siobhan Casson Dept of Linguistics and English Language/School of Education University of Durham

Discourse analysis as a tool for grammar teaching: some examples in French

French L2 BA & 'non-specialist' students Abstract Some of the grammatical structures notoriously difficult to master by language students are closely related to discourse factors such as textual cohesion, thematic importance or constraints on the choice of tense and aspect. For example, it is the case with determiners and pronouns, active vs passive voice and the use of different verb forms. However, even when the discursive function of these structures is acknowledged in their theoretical description, pedagogical applications remain too often bound to morpho-syntactic activities, within the confines of the sentence. This paper sets out to demonstrate the relevance of grammar practice within the whole context of communication, with the support of concepts pertaining to discourse analysis. Using French as an example, it will argue for the benefits of a grammar taught not just as a system, but as a means of producing meaning in interdependence with the other levels of language (phonetics, semantics and pragmatics).

Dounia Bissar, School of Area and Language Studies University of North London

What Grammar is actually for

English L1 First year Humanities undergraduates
Whereas those first-year Humanities students who have A level English Language, or other language, have a good grasp of grammatical terms like noun,verb, subject, object, etc, other students have very little. But practically none of either group have any notion of grammar itself having meaning, in the sense that it represents our conceptualization of the the "happenings" of life (what Halliday calls the experiential function) in terms of processes and participants (actor, goal,beneficiary, etc).In a series of 6 or 7 lectures and 2 seminars, I attempt to explain why grammar is the way it is: eg why transitives are transitive experientially, why we decide to use the passive, how mental processes show themselves to be different from material processes, how circumstances are expressed, etc.The case study will present the explanatory handouts and the exercises that students have had to work through this semester - to achieve an understanding of what grammar is for.

Dr Paul Tench Centre for Language and communication, Cardiff University.