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Speech-fronted Program to teach English:

Avoiding teaching grammar in communicative classroom

When I introduced the Speech-fronted program to the new entrants of the Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo, there was a burning question that came from all quarters: coordinators of different sorts, teachers who taught in the program and others who were not in the program raised a question: Aren’t you going to teach grammar? My answer was “No!” Then I added, grammar is taught not the way we used to do before, that is, giving all the grammar points long before students feel the need to use them but as and when students require them to carry out a task.

Writing and reading important to improve vocabulary. File photo

This was implemented. In the detailed instructions given to students in the modules, there was one step that said “Your teacher will help you with the necessary language structures and vocabulary.” Therein, in the teacher training program, I explained to the teachers of the expectation of them in relation to the issue: when students are engaged in a particular activity in groups, there will be questions as to how to express a certain idea. Teachers are expected to go round the class, from one group to the other, attending to student requirements.

Communicative Approach

And when a group needs a certain language structure to express its members’ views, the teacher should give it to them and then come to the board and put it on the board for everyone’s use.

The next thing is not to clean the board till the activity was over. Finally, at the end of the activity, the teacher should go back to the structures that are on the board as a result of students’ requests and highlight them.

The aim of such a stance in teaching grammar to students fulfills two requirements: one, to adhere to what the Communicative Approach professes since I selected Cooperative Language Learning as the teaching methodology which branched out from the Communicative Approach; two, to support the overall aim, i.e. building student confidence via making them speak in English.

Teachers always say thus use Communicative Approach to teach English. Yet, in reality we contradict our own stance by teaching grammar deductively in the English language classroom.

Communicative Approach professes inductive way of teaching grammar and thereby discards deductive grammar teaching, which is explicit teaching. As the saying goes, grammar should be given as a sugar coated pill under the advocacy of the Communicative Approach. In reality, in most of the English courses, there are grammar lessons taught as discrete points.

This may prove to be quite effective for certain types of learners and certain programs which have different aims. At the same time, teachers may say they use not the Communicative Approach, but the Eclectic Method which is the combination of all the methods and approaches that came into existence in the history of English language teaching.

Under the latter, there is scope for teaching grammar deductively which has been taken from the direct method. Yet the Speech-fronted program under discussion has the aim of building student confidence via speech activities in English.

Need of grammar

Students are made to feel the need of grammar (and vocabulary) and are given the structures as per their own request which is based upon their needs that arise when they are at work. Such a stance underscores the ideology that learning grammar is not an end in itself but a means to an end which is more effective especially for the given program with the aim of confidence building.

The detailed instructions include the following sentence as well: “You may use the following language structures” whereby students are given examples of sentence structures that may be required to accomplish a given task. Teachers are advised to bring out more structures if students come out with problems of forming their own sentences accurately. Also, teachers are given the freedom to give their own suggestions, yet the collection of structures that appear on the board should not be too many.

Through my experience, I have noticed that adult learners like to learn grammar as discrete points. In some instances, they show special interest and make special requests for grammar. This may account for one of their inherent characteristics as adult learners, i.e. the need to know what they learn.

Language teaching

Also, it may reflect the kind of language teaching we have been carrying out over the years which has made learners coming into the classroom with expectations for learning “Grammar”.

They may have been attuned to a certain learning patterns through which they have developed their own ways and styles of learning.

As stated earlier, teaching grammar deductively may prove to be effective for certain programs with objectives different from those of the Speech-fronted Program.

But for the program, deductive way of teaching grammar is not at all promoted (in fact, prohibited) as the focal point is to make students put into practice what they already know in addition to what is required to carry out a task through speech.

The writer is Lecturer in English Language, ELTU, Colombo University.


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