To teach or not to teach, that is the question.

N.B. The following is a comment from what I have observed when teaching and does not refer to the role of explicit information on grammar in Second Language Acquisition research.


The role of explicit information in language classrooms has been perpetually argued in the research. Theorists have had back and forth debates about the use of telling a student: the past tense is regularly constructed with the suffix -ed. And yes, their comments are often supported with data (the validity of some is another discussion) but out of the lab and into the language teaching business, should grammar be explicitly taught in the classroom?

I’m not arguing that explicit information on grammatical structures is beneficial in terms of improving the quantity of language input that is accurately acquired per se. Theorists have demonstrated that learners display considerable beneficial effects from certain teaching methods without the supply of explicit information (Benati, 2004; Fernandez, 2008), some theorists even argue that rules as commonly considered, do not exist (VanPatten, 2015; VanPatten & Rothman, 2013). But as a learner in a language classroom in a country miles from your own, what benefit might grammar information hold?

Theorists have discussed the role of affective system in language learning. Krashen (1982) originally proposed the ‘affective filter’, stating that if a learner is anxious or lacks in self-confidence, the quantity of input processed will be significantly reduced. Through general observation this can be seen in classrooms around the world. If my students have just moved up from the former level, or they’re generally a shy person, they’re more likely to be panicky about the task or less likely to focus on, produce or interpret the target language. I don’t want to fall into conscious/unconscious debate here, I’m not commenting on the theory of explicit / implicit language teaching or on the role of consciousness but rather discussing what I’ve seen in my own classrooms.

When provided with explicit information about the grammar, some students feel as if they are progressing. In my pre-intermediate class there was a gasp of excitement when I mentioned the Present Perfect. They were there. They were at the “Present Perfect Level”. I heard one of them discussing this in the break – “we’ve just started the Present Perfect”. That sense of achievement and confidence filled this student and subsequently attentively listened, scribbled and completed every task to fullest of their ability. Knowing that “subject + have/had + past participle” didn’t actually change anything, they were still making mistakes by the end of the week, but by writing that in their book, their fluency and ability to connect sentences and use (a weakened form of) the present perfect in accurate places was outstanding. Some have that desire to fill out their notebook with reams of irregular verbs, others just like to see that structure written on the board with the weak form of pronunciation. If that means they feel more confident using these forms, then fabulous! Even if they never look at that list or note again, if the process of writing those rules allowed them to produce language (regardless of accuracy) and communicate then surely that’s not a bad thing.

Now, if a student is anxious and is presented with a task, even if they have the language (grammar and syntax) to complete the task, often they falter. They may be unsure of what’s ‘expected’ and therefore hold back. So imagine, you’ve scaffolded the task giving the students plentiful input that is flooded with the target feature and you give them a task that requires them to use to target feature, whether they notice they are or not. But a new student feels a little lost and anxious about producing any language. To bring focus to that particular feature, you highlight the form and the meaning of the feature, that student is able to robotically produce the feature. But. At least they’re engaging. They are producing something and listening out for that feature to understand and therefore communicate? No? Now, all the students are robotically using that specific target feature because you’ve pointed it out. This is not communication and the debate of processing capacity arises here. Surely the student is going to be overwhelmed by the explanation and won’t be able to process the actual feature. What do you do? Here I’ve found that peer-teaching has excellent results. Rather than highlighting the form/meaning as a class, group the students and choose the strong students as ‘tutors’. You’re not going to tell them what they must ‘tutor’ but you say it can be anything from the text (that was flooded with the target feature). Now the weak student has some strong examples to use in the task but the other students are also focusing on their use of adjectives or vocabulary and not robotically repeating the target feature inappropriately (well… you hope so!).

Recently, theorists have been attempting to bridge the gap between theory and practice and in doing so, pedagogies are being influenced by theory, therefore our language teaching is better informed with better results. However, even when something looks good on paper (or in data), practice can be a very different thing. Remembering that language is a living thing and that the people learning the language are living too is extremely important. Utilising the wide variety of excellent language pedagogies with the reminder that these people have feelings, I believe, will be beneficial to your teaching.

Now, my own research will attempt to provide online data regarding the role of explicit information in a particular pedagogy, but I hope this opinion piece has slightly encouraged you, as a teacher, researcher or otherwise, to consider how your students feel depending on the information you provide them.

Benati, A. (2004). The effects of structured input and explicit information on the acquisition of the Italian future tense. In: B. VanPatten (Ed.) Processing Instruction: Theory, Research and Commentary. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 207 – 225.

Fernández, C. (2008). Reexamining the role of explicit information in processing instruction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition. 30: 277–305.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Pergamon Press Inc.

VanPatten, B. (2015). Processing perspectives on instructed second language acquisition. In: J.W. Schwieter (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Bilingual Processing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p200-215.

VanPatten, B. & Rothman, J. (2013). Against “rules”. In A. Benati, C. Laval, M. Arche (Eds.), The Grammar dimensions in instructed SLA: Theory, Research and Practice. (pp 15 – 35). London: Bloomsbury Press.


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