Implicit language learning is learning by doing, learning how the language works by engaging in relevant communicative tasks. The learners’ focus is on meaning, with occasional, short, teacher-instigated focuses on form. SLA research findings make it clear that implicit learning is more basic, more important and superior to explicit learning. Implicit learning is the result of deeper processing, and thus is more durable. It results in automatic, fast access to interlanguage knowledge, and it underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency.
That’s why those of us involved in the SLB TBLT course are against explicit grammar teaching of the sort found in coursebooks. Such explicit grammar teaching takes up a lot of time; it crowds out the real communicative practice needed to achieve communicative competence, it slows up implicit learning. It’s a question of efficacy, especially in teaching environments where opportunities for practice outside the classroom are limited. You can help students reach their goals more efficiently and effectively by finding out what they need to do in the L2 and by then giving them tasks to do which help them reach their objectives. The needs analysis is not difficult, and apart from a bit of heavy lifting at the start, TBLT courses are no more demanding than coursebook-driven ones, but they’re certainly more efficacious, as Bryfonski & McKay’s 2017 review shows.
It’s not that grammar teaching is completely useless. But since using a coursebook to teach grammar fails to respect the restraints imposed by interlanguage development, students often fail to learn what they’re taught. And anyway, since it’s been demonstrated that with the right kind of input and scaffolding, students can work the grammar out for themselves in their own way, why bother?
I spent 30 years teaching English as an L2, and I’ve spent almost that long reading the SLA literature, talking to SLA scholars, teaching in an MA programme, and trying to make my own sense of how people learn an L2 and the implications for teaching. But while it all seems fairly clear to me, I’m aware that it doesn’t seem at all clear to most people currently working in ELT, a fact which was brought home to me recently when I got involved in a thread on Twitter. Matthew Ellman kicked off:
Coursebook authors! Changing active sentences into the passive voice and vice versa is a complete waste of time and doesn’t teach learners anything.
Most people who joined in the discussion agreed with this opinion, and suggested various other bits of English which might or might not benefit from explicit teaching. There was general agreement that explicit grammar teaching was a good thing. I suggested that it wasn’t a good thing, which led Steve Smith to give a link to this article by Catherine Walter, published in 2012 in The Guardian, a UK newspaper:
Walter confidently claims that, while grammar teaching has been under attack for years,
evidence trumps argument, and the evidence is now in. Rigorously conducted meta-analyses of a wide range of studies have shown that, within a generally communicative approach, explicit teaching of grammar rules leads to better learning and to unconscious knowledge, and this knowledge lasts over time.
She goes on:
Teaching grammar explicitly is more effective than not teaching it, or than teaching it implicitly; that is now clear. What this implies is that the grammar in a course should be planned, to ensure coverage of the structures learners will need. Teachers cannot depend on a range of texts or a range of topics or a range of tasks to yield all the grammar in a course. Taking each class as it comes is not an option. A grammar syllabus is needed, along with the other syllabuses and word lists that structure a course.
I replied to Steve, saying that Walter’s piece was “a disgraceful misrepresentation of the evidence”, that no meta-analysis ever published made such claims, and that there were severe reservations about pre 2015 meta-analyses which looked at studies on teaching very simple forms and testing by gap filling & multiple choice questions soon after the teaching had been done. I also referred to newer studies and to the meta-analysis by Kang et al in 2018. Steve Smith replied that he’d read it, adding:
My reading of the article is that it confirms the well-known Norris and Ortega study, with a particular advantage for instruction for beginners.
Wrong!, I yelled. The article did no such thing – see Kang et al 2018, p. 13:
“implicit instruction (g = 1.76) appeared to have a significantly longer lasting impact on learning … than explicit instruction (g = 0.77). This finding, consistent with Goo et al. (2015), was a major reversal of that of Norris and Ortega (2000).
By this time I’d realised, once again, how deeply entrenched explicit grammar teaching had become. Leading teacher trainers must take some of the credit or blame for this state of affairs, because they encourage teachers to use coursebooks and to see themselves as teachers of the code; teachers who must first tell their students about the language, bit by bit; then get them to practice the bits by doing lots of focused exercises; and then, finally do short bits of “freer” practice. Where did this view come from? We have to go back a while to get the answer.
Back to the bad old, good old days
We’re back in the 1960s, 1966 to be precise, when John Carroll wrote:
“Once the student has a proper degree of cognitive control over the structure of a language, facility will develop automatically with the use of the language in meaningful situations.”
What he meant was: once you’ve taught the student the grammar of a language, the rest will follow through language use. That was how US teachers did it in the massive foreign language training programmes in the 1960s, and that was how they did it in the UK through the Situational Approach. But the results were very disappointing, even if they were slightly better than the disastrous results of grammar-translation courses and secondary school courses in foreign languages, where after 5 years teaching, students couldn’t hold the most rudimentary conversation in the target language. But they weren’t much better. The problem was that all they had was explcit knowledge of the language; they knew about it, so they could answer questions about it in tests, but their knowledge didn’t enable them to use the language in spontaneous communicative situations. It was these poor results which led to the emergence of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).
In 1967, Pit Corder proposed that we acquire the rules of language in a predictable way (some rules tending to come early and others late) and that the order is independent of the order in which rules are taught in language classes. In 1975 Krashen and Selinger published “The Essential Contributions of Formal Instruction in Adult Second Language Learning”. In 1976, Wilkins made the important distinction between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, and in 1977, Krashen published “The monitor model of adult second language performance”, which made the distinction between acquisition and learning, that is, between implicit and explicit learning. All these advances in the study of SLA were used as steps to build CLT, which rejected the “Teach the grammar first” precept, and adopted the view that students could work the grammar of the target language out for themselves if they were provided with the right input and enough opportunities to engage in scaffolded, meaningful communicative practice, where the teacher organised classroom activities and gave help with the problems they encountered along the way.
Teachers were encouraged to stop teaching grammar, to stop telling students about the language, and, instead, to devote classroom time to orgnising activities where students could learn by doing, by practicing using the language. Teachers used written and spoken texts where the language was treated holistically; they organised activities that were task-oriented not exercise-centred and that involved integrating skills not isolating them. Priority was given to student interaction, so the classroom layout changed and students spent time working in pairs and small groups.
More and more research in SLA supported the CLT movement. Most important were the studies of interlanguage development, given a framework by Selinker’s (1972) paper which argues that L2 learners develop their own autonomous mental grammar (interlanguage (IL) grammar) with its own internal organising principles. More work on the acquisition of English morphemes, and then studies of developmental stages of negation in English, developmental stages of word order and questions in English, and then Pienemann’s studies of learning German as an L2 where all learners adhered to a five-stage developmental sequence (see Ortega, 2009, for a review) put together an increasingly clear picture of interlanguage development.
Putting all the research together, it was clear, even by the mid 1980s, that learning an L2 is a process whereby learners slowly develop their own autonomous mental grammar with its own internal organising principles. Development of individual structures is not categorical or linear; rather interlanguage development is dynamic, so that at any one time, lots of different parts of the mental grammar are being revised and refined. Learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to different end-state proficiency levels, slowly mastering the L2 in roughly the same way, regardless of the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented by teachers. Teaching can affect the rate but not the route of IL development. The acquisition sequences displayed in IL development are impervious to explicit teaching. SLA shares many features of L1 learning: it is predominantly a matter of implicit learning, and explicit instruction about the L2 is constrained by the learners’ interlanguage development.
Now you see it, now you don’t
And yet, just as it was really taking off, along came coursebooks, which, by 1995 had succeeded in throwing CLT into the dustbin of history. The myth lingers that we’re still in the era of CLT, but we’re not, we’re in the era of coursebook-driven ELT, and we’ve been here for decades. OUP celebrated the 40th birthday of the Headway series in 2017, now in its 4th edition. A cursory look at any of the most popular General English coursebooks will reveal the demise of CLT: there’s little to distinguish these coursebooks from the Kernel English series which used a no-nonsense Situational Approach 40 years ago.
On we go, then
The reason why so many teachers associate their jobs with grammar teaching is because that’s what they’ve been trained to do and because they’ve been given little encouragement to critically evaluate the syllabuses and the methodology imposed by using coursebooks which enshrine explicit grammar teaching. The argument that this is an inefficacious way of going about ELT, and that there are viable, better ways, hardly gets heard. So on we go, stumbling on, putting too much faith in teacher trainers, most of whom refuse to give serious consideration to the weaknesses of coursebook-driven ELT or to alternatives.
Meanwhile, some of us, a merry, motley crew, are breaking away, sailing the good ship TBLT out into open seas. No coursebooks, no grammar teaching, just a commitment to the principles of learning by doing and learner-centred teaching. Everybody welcome!
Bryfonski, L., & McKay, T. H. (2017). TBLT implementation and evaluation: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research
Corder, S. P. (1967) The significance of learners’ errors.International Review of Applied Linguistics 5, 161-9.
Eun Yung Kang, Sarah Sok, Zhao Hong (2018) Thirty-five years of ISLA research on form-focused instruction: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research
Krashen, S. (1977) The monitor model of adult second language performance. In Burt, M., Dulay, H. and Finocchiaro, M. (eds.) Viewpoints on English as a second language. New York: Regents, 152-61.
Ortega, L. (2009) Sequences and Processes in Language Learning. In Long, M. and Doughty, C. Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley
Seliger, H. (1979) On the nature and function of language rules in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly 13, 359-369.
Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 209-231.
Wilkins, D. A. (1976) Notional syllabuses. Oxford, Oxford University Press.