What is the “right” way to teach grammar in a second langauge? The debate between implicit and explicit grammar instruction has been raging on in the academic world for almost a century now. Language teachers everywhere have argued both that grammar should be taught in a concealed, integrative manner and in an overt, separate manner. Others are so against teaching grammar that they suggest that students simply “figure out” the rules rather than explicitly learning them.
Conflicting evidence shows that both methods have their respective logics. But how can we tell which is best for our own purposes? Since most of us are used to explicit grammar instruction since our days in elementary school, let’s look at the pros and cons of this type of instruction and determine whether it is effective or not.
To Teach Grammar, or Not to Teach Grammar?
Pros of Explicit Grammar Instruction
- Learning a language: Explicit grammar instruction is conducive for “knowing the rules” of a language. In addition, it provides a solid knowledge of grammar and syntax In other words, this all amounts to mastering how the language works.
- Reveals Exceptions: Explicit grammar instruction is useful for pointing out the particularities of a language, the exceptions. For example, overtly discussing word order and irregular verbs in the English language results in a greater awareness of the intricacies of the language.
- Better for some, but not all: It seems to be the case that some people are just better explicit learners. Logical, mathematical and verbal types of intelligence seem to be more readily inclined to learn and adopt grammar explicitly.
- Better for adult learners: Our capacity to acquire new languages declines as we age. As a result, this also means that explicit grammar instruction becomes more relevant as we get older as well. “Formal” language learning seems to be a better approach for adult learners.
Cons of Explicit Grammar Instruction
- Acquiring a language: Implicit grammar instruction is better for “picking up a language” or arriving at a practical use of a foreign language. Implicit instruction therefore helps the learner prepare for natural, communicative situations where rules are often forgotten or broken.
- Achieving fluency: Implicit grammar instruction is actually the way we acquire our very first language at an early age. When we are little we do not pay attention to the rules behind language but rather how it works in practical, real situations. Implicit instruction therefore promotes the gaining of basic linguistic skills that are essential to language.
- Promoting actual memorization: Probably the greatest threat of explicit grammar instruction is the danger of empty memorization. By promoting the “knowing of rules,” explicit instruction also encourages a superficial acquisition of the language. Without knowing how to apply them, rules are pretty much useless.
Perhaps an Inclusive Approach Best
It seems that explicit grammar instruction has both its ups and downs and is not void of fault. Nonetheless, both explicit and implicit grammar instructions have pros and cons. So what are we to do? Following Prof. Larry Lynch’s advice, the best method is probably an inclusive approach to grammar instruction which includes both implicit and explicit characteristics, such as by using Brainscape’s Spanish Sentence Builder.
The reality is that one is not preferable over the other; rather each one is most appropriate in specific scenarios and individuals. The best form of grammar instruction is conditional upon the particular learning situation. You simply have to decide on a balance that is right for you.
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