Teaching Grammar to Adults and Second Language Learning Research

By Fitch, Deborah A. | Education, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Teaching Grammar to Adults and Second Language Learning Research


Fitch, Deborah A., Education


When I tell my community college students to say, "It is I," instead of, "It is me," they look skeptical, perhaps believing this is the jargon of English teachers. I delay the full explanation until we study nominative and objective pronouns. Then the dawn breaks on several faces, and some miraculously begin using the correct pronouns in their compositions. The justification for teaching grammatical rules can be supported by research into how adults acquire a second language.

While the teaching of grammatical rules to adolescents may have little transfer to their writing, much research indicates adult learners are different. Since "adult learner" is typically defined by researchers as someone beyond puberty, then some juniors and seniors in high school as well as college students may learn differently from younger students. The teaching of grammar with all of its boring rules does pay off for older learners. After being exposed to the rules for using the apostrophe, for example, and doing some exercises, students do transfer this knowledge to their compositions because I can see their corrections in their drafts.

Support for teaching grammar to adult learners comes from linguists and from well-known researchers in the field of second language acquisition, who have noted a significant number of similarities between how one acquires one's first language and how one acquires a second language (S. Ervin-Tripp, 1974; R. Ellis, 1985). Further research is needed because as Susan Ervin-Tripp points out, research methods in first language acquisition and in second language acquisition differ, but perhaps those of us who teach English to native speakers can learn from those who teach English as a second language.

One relevant theory, the controversial biological hypothesis, is that the specialization of the brain's right and left hemispheres regarding language functions is not complete until around puberty. The right hemisphere is associated with holistic processing and may act initially in assimilating patterns (rules) to be used later by the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is associated with the creative use of language and with the motor operations involved in speaking and writing. It is older learners who tend to make use of the left hemisphere's analytic processing. While many researchers, such as Fred Genesee (1982), refute this hypothesis, nevertheless, it has long been a predominant view among educators that the learning process is qualitatively different for children than it is for adults.

Stephen Krashen (1981), for example, found that age influences second language acquisition in a number of ways. Older learners are better suited to study form and to use what they have learned in "monitoring," a self-editing process. At the end of my course, many students tell me they have become aware of grammatical rules when they speak and correct themselves, thus engaging Krashen's monitor. One student commented, "I now realize stupid mistakes that I have made all of my life and can change them."

Furthermore, research and practical experience tell us that adults often want to know the nature of the errors they are making. All of my students tell me to keep teaching grammar the "old-fashioned" way. That is, asking them to study rules, do exercises, and discuss answers. According to McLaughlin, Rossman and McLeod (1983), repeated performance (carefully constructed drills) can lead to an automatic routine; in other words, with sufficient practice there is eventually no need to recall the rule because it has become a "higher-order plan" flexible enough to be applied in different lexical settings. Those in the field of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) would be quick to assert their opposition to textbooks that are written mainly to teach specific grammatical rules without much attention to meaningful prose. I agree that such books should be supplemental, and since I teach a composition class, students also get plenty of practice applying the rules in their writing. …

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