The treatment of grammar in general
The emphasis on grammar in teaching English as a foreign language in general has constantly changed over the years as different methodologies and approaches have come in and gone out of fashion. Many years ago grammar-translation methods were more or less abandoned in favour of the communicative approach which paid far more attention to functional aspects of language rather than structure and form and made communicative competence the goal of language teaching. Content-Based Teaching and Task Based Teaching were a development of the communicative approach.
In more recent years, other ideas and opinions on how a language can be taught have developed and come into play, for example whether an inductive or deductive approach to teaching and learning should be used. It seems, however, that in present day EFL teaching, more of a middle ground has been reached, where a balanced mix of approaches and methodologies is seen to be more appropriate.
It has been widely accepted that to be completely proficient in a second language we need exposure to an understanding of grammar structures and form and opportunities to practice communication through speaking, listening, reading and writing in equal measure.
The teaching of grammar in Primary schools
These trends in general EFL have of course in turn affected and influenced how educationalists, teachers and publishers have considered the teaching of grammar in the Primary English classroom with one major difference: as the compulsory teaching of languages at this age level is relatively new, opinions and ideas still differ greatly. Some feel that the teaching of grammar is the most important element of learning a language and that structure and form should be explicitly and systematically taught. The method employed should maybe reflect how the children are learning about their L1 (in this case Italian) at school. Others have come to the conclusion that grammar should have no place in the classroom at all as they see it as too difficult for children and not relevant to their needs.
Both these statements, although opposing, have elements of truth. However, to fully appreciate this, a deeper understanding of both statements and the specific primary context needs to be reached.
Not only words
Without grammar we have only words and without grammar words cannot ‘hang together’ and don’t have any real meaning or sense. If we want our students to speak English with a minimum degree of proficiency and be able to begin to express what they want to say, they need to have some grammatical knowledge. As in the words of Brewster and Ellis (2002) ‘without the acquisition of basic sentence patterns and attention to form of language, problems with basic structures and, consequently accuracy, will continue and children will be unable to participate in activities which focus on purposeful communication’. So it would seem, teaching vocabulary alone is not enough and grammar most definitely has a place in the primary classroom.
Not only grammar
On the other hand, just as you cannot teach language properly and efficiently through words alone, we cannot make much sense out of grammar without vocabulary.
Furthermore, good language use requires the knowledge and understanding of both the form and function of the language. Children should be provided early on with plenty of opportunities to practice and use grammatical structures within real communicative tasks and activities, which implies the learning, understanding and eventual reproduction of grammar is intrinsically linked to the skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. Finally, it is important to remember that in any classroom but above all the young learner classroom, grammar is much more than just a list of labels, tables and rules. For any structure to be used and understood correctly it must be presented in a complete clear context that is meaningful and relevant to children. For example, a child is quite capable of learning a table of all the forms of the present continuous but they will have no idea what it means or when to use it. If on the other hand the teacher shows a child a series of holiday photos and describes what people are doing in the photos using the present continuous, an example of when and how to use this particular structure is immediately clear. Good course books present structures in clear photo or cartoon strips with dialogue that can be both read and listened to. Supplementary books that deal exclusively with grammar also still have a valid place within the primary teaching context as long as they are used as supplementary material and include grammar in context.
The importance of age
There is one factor that influences how and when we teach English grammar in Primary schools far more than any EFL trend and that is the children’s age. No other group of learners undergoes such a massive change in cognitive and conceptual development. Six to eleven year olds are still learning to learn. Children in their first years at Primary school are quicker to learn vocabulary and slower to learn structures. Maybe because many words are tangible, can be seen and can be represented physically. Structures have less obvious use, for example saying ‘Glue!’ would probably have the same result as saying ‘Can I have the glue?’ Furthermore children of 6 and 7 have great difficulty in analysing, breaking down and naming its components. However, this does not necessarily mean that grammar and structures should be abandoned at this age. Teachers can still introduce grammar but less overtly than with older groups. This is because children are very capable of learning phrases holistically. So for example they will learn ‘I’ve got’ as a single item ‘Ivgot’ or ‘Can I have …?’ as the single item ‘Canihav’. Therefore teachers should present language and structures as ‘chunks’ or as single items and set phrases. These ‘chunks’ of language should be repeated over and over again in different contexts and using different vocabulary. As children get older, they naturally begin to develop an ‘internal grammar’ which basically means the ability to recognise patterns and logical sequences and hypothesis about language. They will develop the cognitive ability to take the chunks of language or structures they have previously learnt, break them down and reconstitute them. At this stage then, from about 9 years old, the teacher can begin to introduce a more formal way of looking at grammar. The students can begin to call components by name in very simple terms, e.g. verb, noun, adjective, and so on. They can be introduced to activities where they have to perhaps separate word types into categories or have to put words into the correct order to form questions, negatives or recognise that adjectives come before nouns. This should still be only part of their grammar learning. New structures and language must still always be presented in a meaningful clear context and practiced and reproduced through communicative activities. But overall there will be a gradual transition from learning apparently no grammar to explicitly and consciously being exposed to grammar that closely follows the children’s cognitive development.