Methods and approaches to language teaching have evolved throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are continuing to evolve further in the twenty first century. Currently, while new apps for language learning are being developed every day, the use of the ‘old’ methods and approaches is not being undermined by language teaching professionals. For instance, traces of the grammar translation method can be seen in “Duolingo” app for language learning. And throughout this evolution, interesting approaches to the teaching and assessment of grammar have been developed, with views about which is more effective - teaching of implicit or explicit grammar, especially in the past few decades.
The teaching and assessment of grammar up until mid- twentieth century was prescriptive as exemplified in the grammar translation method and the direct method. There was explicit teaching of the rules of grammar and the assessment too was about testing ‘the understanding’ of these rules. Such an approach stemmed from the view that any learning happened through imitation and practice required for “conditioning” as reflected in the behaviourist theories of learning and structural linguistics. Later, with the coming of descriptive linguistics and cognitive theories of learning the teaching and assessment of grammar too took a turn towards implicit grammar. And there was a rejection of teaching and assessment of the rules of grammar in the ‘communicative’ approaches to language teaching.
Now, in the context of teaching English as a second language or as a foreign language, which one should a teacher choose - teaching implicit grammar or explicit grammar? Implicit grammar is the awareness of the underlying structure of the language a language user has, which is reflected in his/her use of a particular language accurately, even in the absence of an overt understanding of the rules of the grammar of that language. For instance, a child who flawlessly speaks a language has implicit grammar of that language. Explicit grammar is the understanding of the rules of the grammar of a particular language one gets by often formally studying the rules. A person with explicit grammar would be able to easily identify and explain different parts of a sentence for instance. Apparently, while one ‘acquires’ implicit grammar, explicit grammar is ‘taught/learnt’.
Having taught English in India for over ten years and from personal conversations with friends and colleagues who have taught English in China, I see that often the attempt is to teach explicit grammar. I am not sure if it is a choice that has been made or a mere following of the tradition of the grammar translation method. This is not to say that there have been no efforts made towards helping learners acquire implicit grammar – those seem to be way too sporadic because of the sheer volume of English teaching and learning in these two populous countries. The most common way to teach grammar would be to present an element in grammar with definitions and examples and then to get the learners to learn it using phrases or sentences in isolation. Assessment too is often based on testing the learners’ ability to provide accurate instances of specific grammatical elements in isolated phrases and sentences. For instance, one might have to “fill in the blank” using the correct form of the verb in a test based on ‘subject-verb concord. This is perhaps a flawless system. It even gives the learner a scope to score a high grade.
The question is whether it empowers the learner to use language in real life contexts or even in international language assessment systems such as the IELTS test. Will a learner who has not learnt to integrate his knowledge of grammar with the four major language skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing- be able to show sustained instances of flexible and accurate use of language in real life or in standardized language proficiency tests? Why do even such learners as those who score a high grade in a college English test not perform so well in an international language test? The answers are not in outright rejection of explicit teaching of grammar. We need an approach that integrates both implicit and explicit grammar with the other four skills of language. Learners could be encouraged to acquire the implicit grammar of English with the help of listening and intensive reading tasks. And then rules of the explicit grammar could be introduced in context, as and when required, especially to help the learners understand the idiosyncrasies of the English language. This can be further strengthened by encouraging extensive reading. Furthermore, a proper needs analysis of each learner at the beginning of the course and at gradually planned intervals could help the teacher vary the focus between implicit and explicit grammar.
An argument about which – implicit grammar or explicit grammar- should be accepted or rejected is futile since both are integral to a language user’s proficiency. That a language learner in the ESL or EFL context should be empowered with both is imperative as these are integrated in real life language usage or even in international language proficiency tests. And it is also highly important that a language teacher is granted enough autonomy to decide, vary and balance between these two grammars based on the specific needs of the individual learner.