Grammar Instruction for Adult English Language Learners: A Task-Based Learning Framework

Article excerpt


Over the past few decades, grammar instruction has moved from its central position in traditional language teaching approaches to playing virtually no role in communicative approaches. This article first gives a historical perspective of grammar instruction. Then it outlines the 10 principles of instructed language learning formulated by Ellis and shows how using Willis' Task-Based Learning Framework in grammar instruction for adults responses to many of the 10 principles. Sample task-based lesson outlines that incorporate the framework to teach specific grammatical features are also provided.


Over the past few decades, grammar instruction has moved from its central position in traditional language teaching approaches to playing virtually no role in communicative approaches. Although recent studies have suggested that some form of grammar teaching is necessary in second language classrooms (Ellis, 2006), there is considerable controversy as to whether grammar teaching should be based on the traditional grammar teaching approach or on a focus on form approach where linguistic forms are addressed in a communicative language teaching context.

Traditional Language Teaching Approaches

For centuries, language teaching was dominated by theories and practices that put grammar in the center of language learning. This was evident in the GrammarTranslation Method and the Audiolingual Method. The Grammar-Translation Method was first used in the teaching of the classical languages such as Latin and Greek. The major characteristics of the method include explicit teaching of grammatical rules, memorization of vocabulary lists, and translation of passages from one language to the other. The Grammar-Translation Method produced students with extensive knowledge of grammatical rules but little communicative ability.

The Audiolingual Method was developed as a reaction against the Grammar-Translation Method, with a focus on the development of spoken language. Nonetheless, spoken language was still presented in highly structured sequences of forms. Classroom techniques usually include repetition of models and memorization of dialogues. The goal of these teaching techniques is for students to produce the target language accurately. Learners' errors were viewed as bad habits that would be hard to break if they became established. Therefore, all errors were immediately corrected as they occurred (Celce-Murcia, 1991).

Communicative Language Teaching

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) as a language teaching approach arose in the 1970s as a reaction against the view of language as a set of structures. Proponents of CLT claim that the goal of second language acquisition should be communication rather than memorization of a system of rules (e.g., Widdowson, 1978). In CLT classrooms, students are encouraged to use the language in unrehearsed contexts where learners negotiate meaning through interaction with others (Omaggio, 2001). Innovative activities such as information gap, role plays, and games aim to engage learners and sustain learner motivation. The learnercentered and communication-centered approach made CLT popular among language teachers (Kumaravadivelu, 2006).

Krashen's Monitor Model of the 1970s and 1980s greatly influenced the rise of Communicative Language Teaching (Hinkel & Fotos, 2002). Krashen's Input Hypothesis (198 1) posited that the learning of a second language depends on comprehensible input, that is, input slightly above the level of full understanding ('i + 1 '). Comprehensible input is essential and sufficient for language acquisition. Thus, the instruction of linguistic forms is not needed in the communicative method of second language teaching. Instead, learners would arrive at intuitive "correctness" (Krashen & Terrell, 1983, p. 58) of their language as long as they have access to comprehensible input.

Careful examination of the effectiveness of purely meaning-focused CLT revealed that when second language learning is entirely meaning-focused, second language learners do not acquire high levels of grammatical and sociolinguistic competence (Doughty & Williams, 1998). …