Scott Thornbury recently wrote an article titled “The Persistence of Grammar,” which was published in the TESOL Applied Linguistics Interest Section Newsletter. In the article, he questions why the grammar syllabus has persisted in language teaching, despite the research evidence showing its ineffectiveness. “The grammar syllabus” refers to the practice of breaking apart the grammar of a language into pieces and then teaching each piece separately in a defined order—for example, “First, we teach the present tense. Next, we teach the past tense. Then, we teach the future tense.” Students are expected to learn these forms by producing them accurately in practice activities.
As Thornbury points out, SLA researchers generally agree that this kind of approach to instruction is not effective. But despite about 50 years of research evidence, most language textbooks are still based on a grammar syllabus. Why is there such a disconnect? Why has the grammar syllabus persisted?
To answer this question, Thornbury surveyed ESL/EFL teachers online. He gave them a list of seven options to choose from to explain why they think the grammar syllabus has persisted in textbooks and in classrooms. According to the results, one of the most common reasons teachers gave was “Students expect it.”
I’m not too surprised by this answer because I think students’ expectations do play a large role in how we teach, and it’s important to consider our students’ expectations. But I also think that we are sometimes too quick to make assumptions about our students’ expectations and are sometimes overly accommodating to those expectations. Should we continue following the grammar syllabus simply because our students expect it?
I’ve found that most of my students enjoy TPR (Total Physical Response), TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling), Story Listening, whole-class novel reading, Free Voluntary Reading, and other methods and strategies that provide them with a lot of comprehensible input and that allow them to communicate using the target language in meaningful ways—even if those methods differ from their initial expectations.
Yes, some students come into class with the expectation that they will learn lots of grammar rules, do grammar drills, copy down notes during lectures, and memorize long lists of vocabulary words. But just because they have that expectation doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to change their minds after they are exposed to a new way of doing things. In many cases, I think students only have the expectation of a grammar syllabus because they’ve never been given another option.
I’ve found that most of my students are willing to adapt to a new way of learning, even if it feels a little different to them at first. And some students are even relieved. For those students who have taken language classes in the past and have struggled because they couldn’t understand and remember all those complicated grammar rules, a communicative, comprehension-based class is like a breath of fresh air. They can finally experience a feeling of success.
Explaining the rationale behind our methodology also helps students who are new to it. I’ve written before about how I explain to students why I teach the way I do. After all, the reason why students have expectations in the first place is because they’ve been given those expectations by other teachers or by their education system. So why not change those expectations? If we work to educate our students about how languages are acquired and if we expose them to different ways of learning in class, we can help to change their expectations.
Of course, there will still probably be a few students who prefer a more “traditional” approach. I’ve found that, in most of my classes, there are usually 1 or 2 students who really want lots of grammar explanations and grammar drills. But should we really structure our entire class just to please those 1 or 2 students?
One of the programs where I teach is an adult ESL program that serves almost all Chinese adults. Since the Chinese education system has a reputation for emphasizing memorization and drills, a lot of people assume that Chinese students only want to do drills in class. And while I’ve found that there are some students who have this expectation, there are also many students who are willing to try out a different way and who often discover that they enjoy this different way and that it can lead to a big improvement in their communicative abilities. Often, I think, our students’ expectations are not as big of a problem as we think they are.
Of course, I can’t speak to every single teaching context. Perhaps there are some teaching environments where it is a huge struggle to help students change their expectations and embrace a more communicative approach to language acquisition. But I still think it’s worth a try. We won’t know whether our students are willing to change their expectations unless we give them the chance to try an alternative.
I hope that this post can be an encouragement to other teachers who are considering moving away from a curriculum driven by the grammar syllabus. There are times when our teaching may clash with students’ expectations, but it’s also the only way to expose them to something different and to start changing their expectations. The change is not as scary as it might seem.