Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Can we do without the teaching of formal grammar in schools today?

Having studied in Ethiopian Schools from 1975 to 1984, my initial memories of grammar lessons go back to the teaching of formal grammar in all schools of Ethiopia. While the preferred mode of testing in the final exams was objective, what with the use of multiple choice questions, the pedagogy was as traditional as the teacher could permit. Formal Grammar was taught in the schools of Ethiopia and this included Grammar Rules, although it cannot be claimed that the teaching of Grammar was out of context or for that effect isolated from the teaching of writing skills. This was probably because of the fact that the student had to choose the correct answer from a multiple choice of options. At the school level, test papers would include various objective forms of questions such as, fill ups, true and false options and the third mode would be multiple choice. The system had its own benefits and weaknesses. One of the benefits of the Objective form of assessment was that you had more questions in the paper, you could test a wider area of the syllabus, and it discouraged rote memorisation in students-especially as the presence of multiple options in every question would aid easy recall of what the student had learned earlier in class. One of the biggest disadvantages of the Objective style of assessment was that the students’ writing skill abilities were highly compromised! The student could be assessed for wide coverage of the syllabus, wide knowledge, but then as far as assessment of In-depth knowledge was concerned, one would have to acknowledge the success of the Subjective form of assessment that still forms an integral form of assessment in India, at all levels, and especially at the twelfth board level. Various problems were faced by students from Ethiopia who wanted to pursue their higher studies in Indian Colleges as they found it difficult to convert to the Subjective form of assessments where they had to write extensively on a particular topic. The impact of having gone through the multiple choice form of assessments meant that students coming from Ethiopian schools were not able to write more than a few sentences in an essay type question requiring the student to write a good two hundred words!
But then to return tot the main topic, the question of whether or not to teach formal grammar and the rules, I remember that my Mother had with her a hardcover Grammar book titled High School English Grammar and Composition by Wren and Martin. This was an amazing book, and it still is, a book that was the ultimate guide to grammar. After the revolution took place, the Ministry of Education took some time to replace the Contact Series of textbooks which were also very good books for learning formal rules of grammar and enhancing comprehension skills. The Contact textbook for grade nine was the thickest of all the books since it contained more lessons and exercises on grammar topics like tenses, direct and indirect speech, active and passive voice, transformation of sentences from simple sentences into compound, and complex and vice versa. Students were literally drilled and grilled on grammar rules, and clauses were taught in depth, thus they would be aware about the difference between adverbial conjunctions and conjunctions functioning as adjectives and conjunctions functioning as nouns. Clauses were always taught through the joining of individual sentences and clauses. I don’t see how this method of teaching clauses and the transformation of sentences can ever be termed as being out of context with writing skills or being in isolation from other language skills. If the students were being taught to apply their knowledge of grammar rules  to form new and more effective sentences, that too without repetitions, then I don’t see why we can’t continue to use the same methods even today!
When I started my teaching career in 1994, in India,  Formal Grammar was taught from grade six to grade eleven. The amount of formal grammar taught in grade nine of the English Core course was the greatest with  the maximum time being devoted to the teaching of tenses, direct and indirect, transformation of sentences, joining of sentences with different linkers, infinitives, and voice-Active and Passive Voice. Today, I wonder if students of the same classes would have any clue about the meanings of the topics mentioned above, such as non-finites, transformation of sentences, or even modals, forget the difference between the present participle  and the Gerund! Yes, it is true that many of the students in those days could not speak very fluently in English, but then they did know how to write long passages with the least number of errors. Today we have veered away from the teaching of formal grammar, our students speak in different accents, but then they are not able to use the present perfect continuous tense in their writings, and they falter when asked to convert the direct speech into the reported speech. Many students of English find it difficult to differentiate between the rules for transforming statements into the reported speech and the rules for changing questions into the reported speech, and they continue to use ‘that’ even while reporting questions! When you tell them that tell them that you can’t change the sentence, ‘ I jumped from the  the first floor,’ into the passive voice, then you need to explain that the verb, ‘jumped’ is in the intransitive form and therefore cannot be used in the passive form. The question is, how do you teach students to write good English unless to teach them basic grammar rules? What do you do when the syllabus doesn’t give room for teaching the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs? When we talk about the communicative or interactive approach of teaching English and forget to teach our students basic grammar rules, are we not fooling  ourselves into thinking of English as a first language for student’s whose mother tongue is not English but Hindi or Tamil? Somehow in our eagerness to jump on to the Western Bandwagon, we have somehow forgotten that there is a big difference between the pedagogy of teaching English as a first language and the pedagogy of teaching English as a second language. True, Noam Chomsky has claimed that every child is born with neural networks in the brain which have been programmed for grammar, but then what I would like to ask the curriculum framers on the continent is whether these neural networks are not programmed for the native  tongue? If so, then it is clear that students need to be given enough exposure to the learning of formal rules of grammar in any second language. Hindi and English are two distinct languages which have a distinct set of grammar rules. You just cannot translate the Hindi sentence, ‘Woh Itihas pad raha hai.’ into ‘He is reading History!’ You also tend to get muddled up about the tense forms when translating sentences from Hindi to English.
The question that I would like to return to again, is whether we can really afford to ignore the teaching of formal grammar rules to students of India, and that too, learners for whom English is a second language? I guess this question needs to be thoroughly researched by linguists and curriculum framers in India. I still remember  going through my Father’s Uncle’s sermons that had been written in an immaculate hand and had no discernable grammar errors, forget about spelling errors! My own grandfather, a presbyter and the Principal of a Diocesan school in the town where I lived wrote with an excellent hand, his sermon notes contained perfect, semantically  accurate sentences and he had a wonderful vocabulary. Both grandfathers had studied till the Matric level, that is the grade ten standard. My grandfather later did his  Adib Fazil in Urdu,followed by his B.A.Hons (English), and teachers’ training. Both of my Grandparents’ command in written English had been the result of a rigorous education that involved the teaching of what might be termed as formal Grammar! Today, there is a noticeable deterioration in the students’ grasp of rules of good grammar with the result that  they are not able write grammatically accurate sentences in their final term papers. The CBSE board keeps instructing its teachers and evaluators not to cut marks excessively for grammatical, spelling and expression oriented inaccuracies. This is apparently because the very focus of teaching English in schools in India has shifted to a communicative approach. It is enough if a student has written ‘I going to school everyday.’ because according to curriculum framers, he or she is communicating the notion of going to school and that is enough. If you call this language, then what about the bloopers and blunders that we see on trucks and banners throughout the country in which do communicate an idea but make us laugh our hearts out! Are our students, therefore to be the butt of jokes for writing grammatically inaccurate sentences, and are we to reward them for communicating their ideas in the most creative ways? Take a look at some of the words that I found on the backs of trucks and other places:
water late
What is noteworthy in the above photograph is a worthy example of communicative English but then what I find difficult to accept in the slogan, ‘Water Late Then Never’ are three things, first, there has been a wrong use of the word ‘Water’, it should have been ‘Better’, the word, ‘Then’ should have been, ‘Than’ and then is the fact that the slogan doesn’t end in an exclamation mark, if not a full stop. Does this mean, therefore that we can do without the formal rules of grammar? Would you like your own child to make such errors in syntax and semantics?
2012-04-05 17.37.24
Unless of course you would like to drop your extra flakes here,
And sure you don’t mind the Prawns ( A Gread), well, whatever that means!
2013-03-27 17.58.39
And if you were baffled by what the sign means, well I wouldn’t blame you! If language is about communication, then it is also about communicating effectively, and not just communicating gibberish or nonsense! To think that you can promote the teaching of English as a medium of communication and yet ignore  knowledge of the formal rules of Grammar is simply absurd!
To conclude, I would like to remind the reader that most languages like French and Hindi pay particular attention in making the student aware of the rules of Grammar. When I studied French from the Alliance Francaise at Addis Abeba, later appearing for the subject in my twelfth boards, I remember how much pains my French teachers put into making us understand the rules for subject-verb agreement, conjugation they called it. French, which is one of the most logical and  beautiful languages in the world has an intricate structure of grammar rules, and woe betide the student of French who hasn't learned his rules for participles! Hindi, another language that happens to be my mother tongue also requires a sound knowledge of grammar rules. The masculine and the feminine forms of the words have to be learned very carefully, although to this day I mix them! The 'matras' in Hindi also have to be memorised, there is no other alternative. Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, which incidentally I speak fluently but cannot write or read is another language which cannot be mastered without an understanding of formal rules of grammar. If all these languages, (French, Hindi and Amharic) require a strong foundation in the knowledge of formal rules of grammar, then how is English different from them?


  1. I very much enjoyed reading this and am glad I clicked through from linked-in. Your final few examples in the photos was very amusing and I couldn't help but smile. I think that your indignation is not fully justified. The beauty of English is its flexibility. When reading Shakespeare it is fascinating to see how much of the language he uses is of his own creation. The reason that our language is so dominant in the world is said to be because it adapts. We have words like bungalow, chutney, pyjama, due to this adaptation. What you see as errors may simply be the natural development of the language as it grows. It is true that such changes can give amusement and that they are very telling of the origin of the speaker but some of them become part of the language and add to its richness. Not everyone uses the term kushti here, but there are few who don't recognise it; there are fewer still who know it is not originally an English word, and fewer again that know its origin. English will never be static, it grows and changes with every new generation because it is impossible for anyone to get everything correct and easy for anyone to make errors or adopt new expressions. One example being the difference between the use of fewest and least; in that respect you might wish to check your own grammar; or not, as it is all part of the development of the language.

    1. Hi, Harry!
      It was good to see your comment on my blog. The article is not however about venting indignation, but the fact that today, fewer people write grammatically accurate sentences including probably all of us. The problem crops up when the language being taught is a second language and the student tries to translate what he thinks in his native tongue into English. The meaning changes! While no doubt, soon we will have Hinglish in India it will still follow certain basic rules of grammar so that there is some common understanding about what is being conveyed! Thanks all the same!