The problem with trying to teach grammar

Well, one of them, at least.

Hana had a great post about her grammar test.  I commented there but decided I should add more to the discussion here.

She said:

The reason why a grammar test can turn into a nightmare is because English grammar is really tricky and your knowledge of it will never be completely satisfactory.

That’s true.  Sort of.  I think it would be more accurate to say your knowledge will never be complete.  (But maybe that is my US bias.  Maybe to Hana that means exactly the same as completely satisfactory.  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?)

She acknowledges that there is often no single correct answer and says:

I don’t really want to pretend I have all the answers up my sleeve, but I’m sometimes fed up with the there-is-really-no-correct-answer cliché. If you tell your students that there is no correct answer, what’s the point in testing them at all?

And that is maybe the best question of all.  The answer, I guess, is that we test grammar because we are required to.  I had to test grammar in the course I taught last summer.  I had to test grammar when I taught Developmental Writing a few years ago.  I don’t think many teachers anymore test grammar because they want to.  I could be wrong on that, though.  But testing grammar is difficult.

It would be easy if there were one correct answer to everything. But there are usually many answers that could be correct grammatically. Sometimes with more context, the field can be narrowed,but sometimes that can lead to more possibly correct responses. How can I expect students to respond with the one answer I have in my mind when I write the question? But that is what I do whenever I write a grammar test.  I know what I am testing with that question, but the students don’t.  They see it as a question totally without context.  And in that case, there are probably numerous correct responses.  And we as teachers have to accept them as correct, I believe.

To avoid this, we could always tell them what construction we want to see in the answer (Complete the sentences with the past simple tense.) Then it isn’t really testing their abilities to use the grammar correctly, though.  It is only testing their recall of that particular grammatical point (simple past in my example).  And that to me is a waste of time.  Memorization of past tense forms is necessary but it doesn’t mean they know when to use them.

Another way to test grammar is in authentic writing.  This is the best way, I think, but it is more difficult to grade.  And it would take a lot of effort to be sure the test was going to elicit the forms you wanted to test because as with any test, students can see possible answers we don’t see until they point them out to us.

One thing to keep in mind, I think, is that English grammar is changing.  I got an email from my boss the other day, head of a university department, telling me that her phone must have ate her earlier message to me.  I cringed.  But I understood what she was saying.  And she is far from being alone with this “mistake”.  I don’t think many people in the US younger than myself would even notice the problem because it is so widespread.

I think teaching grammar is important, but it has to be done in context.  And even then it is tricky.  I could totally relate to what Hana said at the end of her post:

To conclude my post, I’d say that grammar tests like the one I just described do suck and I’ll be very careful when designing something similar next time. Anyway, my students will probably consider me a schizophrenic once I hand out the corrected tests on Monday because they’ll see how many times I’d changed my mind before I came up with the final score.

Here’s to the schizophrenic in all of us who teach grammar!  I’d be more worried if we refused to change the grade just because the student didn’t give the response we expected.

No one ever said English grammar was easy.  Teaching English grammar is even more difficult!

2 thoughts on “The problem with trying to teach grammar

  1. Thank you for this post, Nancy. I second ever word of it and I’m glad to hear we’re all in the same boat. I particularly agree that the best way to test grammar is through authentic writing. The students I talk about in my post are required to write a longer piece of text once a week and I believe that it is the most valuable practice for them and the most reliable type of testing. I’m definitely going to stick to this method and I’ll probably quit traditional grammar tests. You touched on a very interesting topic; you say that English grammar is changing. I’m glad you brought that up because there’s another dilemma I face every day: should I accept answers which are deemed incorrect but are widespread (such us *less* people)? I think that the teacher should make it clear what’s correct and what’s less correct but still acceptable. It’s obviously not easy, but that’s what make ELT so exciting, ain’t it? 🙂

  2. I think this is where it is important to talk about register. If you want to communicate, less people may be OK, but if you are writing something for school, you should say fewer people. My students, who hear English as it is spoken by native speakers every day, are quick to ask about things they have heard that don’t seem to fit with what they are learning. I try not to talk in terms of correct and incorrect but standard and non-standard. It doesn’t solve anything really, but it makes me feel better!

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