A list member wrote:
The shift in the role of grammar in English language teaching interests me greatly. The current dynamic perspective of grammar where it is used in context and not as a separate entity undoubtedly benefits students. But having studied in the old school, where we were acquainted with grammar rules and engaged in grammar drills, I cannot deny the thoroughness and expertise this method has granted us in the language learning process. I seek suggestions on how to incorporate grammar drills and rules in ESL classrooms without making it an arid practice and without losing focus on the communicative approach.
I would suggest there may be a contradiction here, or rather forces working against each other: the grammar instruction, because it is more concrete, tends to be tested as discrete items, easy to answer, easy to study for, easy to grade, and really easy to teach. OTOH, the communicative stuff tends to be open and casual and global in nature. Now I do test for communication, i.e. do my students (first and second year h.s.) grasp the meaning of what they are reading/hearing. The grading is global.
If the teacher gives tests with discrete item questions on the grammar, he will no doubt review the material before the test and students will take notes on it to study…… for the test. But the communicative body of material is nebulous and not easily given to discrete items (although a Q/A format works pretty well). What will happen is that the students will focus on the grammar b/c it’s easier to study and easier to learn and it is easier to answer questions over it. It is up to the teacher to run the class so that the message is clear: the progress of the students will be measured in terms of their ability to comprehend written and/or spoken L2. If that is not the thrust of both the instruction and the testing, students will ignore input and focus on grammar.
The above writer “cannot deny” what the grammar method bestows but lots of us can. He clearly went on to learn his L2 and believes studying the grammar enabled him to learn it well. It will take a lot of solid research to show such teachers that the alone will do the job, and that research is not forthcoming. Bill VanPatten mentioned at a conference a huge research project he was part of (heading up?) that might contribute a lot. In the meantime, I hope that teachers will focus on meaning and on communication and be aware of unintended signals they may be sending to students about what is really important in the class.