'Language ability cannot be taught; it can only be learned'

There are lots of blog posts, academic articles, and ongoing heated discussions in the actual and virtual ELT staff rooms all over the world about whether we should teach grammar at all.

Those who argue for the teaching of grammar say that we need to know the rules of a language to be able to use it properly. They say grammar gives us the skeleton from which to hang the flesh. Those against it argue that English in particular is not a grammar-based language and in fact, all a language-learner needs is access to level-appropriate, authentic 'input' and a thirst for learning.

Having listened to both sides of this argument, and having applied both of them to my own teaching, I can make a couple of tentative observations:

1. Sometimes students want grammar like children want candy. But just because they want it, should we give it to them? Well, if the child is paying your wages, then yes, maybe you should. But is it good for them? It is not a meal in itself but will do no harm and keep them happy. Being happy, however temporary, can also be helpful in facilitating learning, but of course ultimately we want to do what is best for our students.

2. Authentic input can leave some learners demotivated and feeling that they will never 'get' the language. To find level-appropriate material and finding ways for students to engage with it can place a lot of pressure on the teacher and may lead to the occasion lesson which crashes and burns. We've all been there, haven't we? Personally, I feel we need to take a step into the unknown to grow and develop so I don't place much weight by this view.

3. Grammar can solve 1 & 2. It can be used as an access point into a listening or reading activity, either by identifying a specific grammatical structure before or after engaging with the 'authentic' material.

As you may have picked up if you have read any of my other posts, In conclusion I almost always opt for a 'do what works for you' and for the sake of consistency (and lack of imagination) I say the same here: grammar may not be way to learn a language, but it can most definitely help provide structure and a base for exploring and engaging with the language, and that can only be a good thing.


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