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Learning and teaching english as a second language

Introduction

Based on my experience of learning and teaching English as a second language (ESL), studying grammar is definitely an essential component in second language acquisition. Yet, since there are many different types of grammar in English, which one is relatively more important to ESL learners? Which one should they study?

Owing to limited time, it seems impossible to discuss each type of grammar here. Therefore, as shown in the title, this paper will only focus on discussing two specific types of grammar, namely traditional grammar and functional grammar.

Traditional grammar has been chosen as one of the foci for this study because I have acquired my second language, English, mainly through studying traditional grammar in school. So, I believe it is effective in helping learners to acquire the language.

On the other hand, functional grammar has been chosen as another focus for this study because of its nature --- focusing on the purposes and uses of language (Emmitt, Pollock & Komesaroff, 2003). It is believed that functional grammar may be the grammar model which can best comply with the most popular teaching approach nowadays, the Communicative Language Teaching approach, which is based on the concept of how language is used (Harmer, 2007).

Besides that, owing to the fact that I am an ESL learner as well as an ESL teacher, this paper will only focus on discussing the importance of grammar to second language learners but not first language learners.

Finally, it is hoped that working on this paper can help enrich my knowledge of English grammar and, at the same time, derive useful implications for ESL learners and teachers.

Literature Review

Some literature on English grammar and language learning has been reviewed in order to lay down a good foundation for the later discussion. This literature review consists of the following four main parts.

Importance of Grammar to ESL Learners

When it comes to the discussion on the role of grammar in second language learning, Cook (2001) has clearly recognized the importance of grammar by pointing out that every speaker of a language actually knows the grammatical system of the language and that grammar is an indispensable component in second language learning as it governs the formation and structure of every sentence a speaker produces or comprehends for communication (p. 39).

To be more specific, Emmitt et al. (2003) have even listed the benefits that ESL learners can gain from studying grammar. Emmitt et al. (2003) have suggested that grammar can help second language learners to “develop a more conscious knowledge of language structures and features”, to better understand “the complexities of the relationship between text and context”, to “develop analytical skills to be able to interrogate and question the meanings in texts” and to “talk about language (metalanguage)” (p. 96). Thus, based on the above-mentioned, it is important for second language learners to study grammar.

Traditional Grammar

What is traditional grammar? Regarding to the definition put forward by Cook (2001), traditional grammar is a bottom-up approach to analyze sentences by labeling the parts of a sentence with names and giving rules which explain how the parts can be combined to form the sentence (p. 21). Basically, as mentioned by Cook (2001), traditional grammar comes from the grammars of Latin which are prescriptive in nature (p. 21).

According to LaPalombara (1976), traditional grammar always starts from “defining and classifying English words into part-of-speech categories”, proceeds to “more inclusive sentences components”, and finally reaches “a discussion of the sentence itself” (p. 23). With this bottom-up nature, one should not be surprised to see that introducing the eight parts of speech of the English language is often the first thing to do in a language classroom which adopts traditional grammar in language learning.

It is found that few researchers and scholars have shown their support for traditional grammar. As mentioned by LaPalombara (1976), traditional grammar has even been criticized by some linguists for its inappropriateness to begin with parts of speech as this wrongly assumes that “most students are already consciously aware of the entire grammar of English sentences” (p. 23).

Although traditional grammar has received certain criticisms mentioned above, no researchers or scholars have completely rejected it. Based on LaPalombara's (1976) analysis, traditional grammar still plays an important role in language learning. First, it is still being taught in many schools all over the world. Second, not every concept or belief in traditional grammar can be condemned out of hand. Besides that, in fact, many traditionalist concepts are now being reviewed with new respect (p. 22). Apart from these, Professional Training Company (2008) has also pointed out that it is impossible for traditional grammar to be abandoned as most of the terms in traditional grammar are still being used and understood by most people and they can be found in most reference books.

Functional Grammar

Now, let us take a look at what functional grammar is. As defined by Emmitt et al. (2003), functional grammar is a type of grammar which focuses on the purposes and uses of a language, and it is developed by studying spoken and written language in the contexts of their use. Moreover, in functional grammar, the language is viewed as a resource for making meaning, describing actions and providing choices when learners make meaning (Emmitt et al., 2003, p. 92).

With reference to what Butt, Fahey, Spinks, and Yallop (1995) said, there are three metafunctions in functional grammar describing how people use language. The first one is the ideational metafunction which “uses language to encode our experience of the world and to convey a picture of reality” (p. 13). The second one is the interpersonal metafunction which “uses language to encode interaction and to show how defensible or binding we find our propositions or proposals” (p. 13). The third one is the textual metafunction which “uses language to organise our experiential, logical and interpersonal meanings into a coherent, and in the case of written and spoken language, linear, whole” (p. 14). In addition, as suggested by Emmitt et al. (2003), these three metafunctions work concurrently in all the texts. As reflected from the above-mentioned characteristics, functional grammar actually adopts a top-down approach to analyze sentences, starting from understanding the overall idea of the sentence to analyzing the smaller parts embedded in the sentence.

Like other types of grammar, there are also some constraints related to functional grammar. According to the analysis made by Dik (1980), functional grammar fails to support “transformational operations in the sense of structure-changing rules”, simply focuses on “defining construction rules which directly generate the target set of well-formed expressions”, and avoids “the decomposition of lexical items in terms of any sort of meta-language” (p. 2).

Nevertheless, the usefulness of functional grammar has been recognized by some researchers and scholars. Referring to what mentioned by Gerot and Wignell (2000), teaching functional grammar is highly useful for helping learners to produce spoken and written language correctly (p. 3). Woods (2001) has also supported the use of functional grammar by suggesting that it can actually guide learners to choose the right expression to express what they are trying to say (p. 11). Last but not least, Beikoff (1996) even thinks that functional grammar is more useful than traditional grammar as it links words which share the same purpose instead of breaking a sentence up into discrete words.

Purposes of Study

The main purposes of this study are as follows:

First, through reviewing literature on traditional grammar and functional grammar, it is hoped that a better understanding of the nature, characteristics and usefulness (to second language learners) of these two types of grammar can be achieved.

Second, through comparing the nature and usefulness of traditional grammar and functional grammar and considering ESL learners' needs and preferences for these two types of grammar, it is hoped to find out which type of grammar mentioned is relatively more important to ESL learners.

Third, through analyzing the relative importance of these two types of grammar to ESL learners, it is hoped that practical implications can be derived for teaching English as a second language.

Methodology

Apart from the previous library research and my first-hand observation of ESL learners in the local language classroom, the following mini research has been carried out in order to collect some empirical data about ESL learners' needs and preferences for traditional grammar and functional grammar. By doing so, it is hoped that a more comprehensive discussion of the topic can be generated.

In the following, I would like to briefly introduce the participants and their learning contexts. The procedures for conducting this mini research will also be mentioned.

Participants & Learning Contexts

Altogether there were 29 participants consisting of 17 boys and 12 girls. They were all Form Five students studying in the Science stream. They were from the same class in the same local CMI secondary school which used Chinese as the medium of instruction. In addition, they were all ESL learners who were being taught by the same English teacher (i.e. the researcher). Basically, all the students learned about the use of verbs in their junior secondary education.

Procedures

(i) Data collection

First, the participants received a 10-minute mini presentation of traditional grammar related to the use of verbs (Please refer to Appendix (i)). This presentation was conducted by the participants' English teacher (i.e. the researcher).

Next, the participants received another 10-minute mini presentation of functional grammar related to the use of verbs (Please refer to Appendix (ii)). It was also conducted by the researcher.

Finally, the participants were asked to complete a feedback form which was designed by the researcher to collect the participants' opinions about the two types of grammar (Please refer to Appendix (iii)).

(ii) Data analyses

The data collected through the methods mentioned above would be analyzed and presented in table-form. The insights gained from the data would then be further examined and discussed with the help of the findings obtained from the literature review and my first-hand observation in local ESL classrooms. Besides that, some of the participants' opinions in the feedback form may also be cited as reference or supporting evidence.

Results

Here are the results obtained from analyzing a total of 29 feedback forms returned by the participants after the mini presentations of traditional grammar and functional grammar.

Table (i): Participants' feedback on which type of grammar is more useful for helping them to organize their knowledge about verbs

Participants'

English Proficiency Level

Number of Participants

who chose

Traditional Grammar (TG)

Number of Participants

who chose

Functional Grammar (FG)

High

3

6

Medium

2

8

Low

2

9

Total

7

23

Note: One participant (whose English proficiency level was low) chose both traditional grammar and functional grammar.

From Table (i), some specific results or findings can be yielded:

Most of the participants, 76.7% (i.e. 23 out of 30), considered functional grammar to be more useful for helping them to organize what they have learned about the use of verbs.

No significant relationship between the participants' English proficiency level and their choice of grammar could be found.

Table (ii): Participants' reasons for considering traditional grammar / functional grammar to be more useful for helping them to organize their knowledge about verbs

Participants'

English Proficiency Level

Reasons for considering

Traditional Grammar (TG)

to be more useful

Reasons for considering

Functional Grammar (FG)

to be more useful

High

TG is simple and basic; having learned TG before and for a long time

Being used to using TG; having developed a habit of using TG; TG is good for sentence structures

Having learned TG since being a child, and finding it hard to replace TG with FG

Meaning comes first in FG, so one's feelings can be expressed more easily

FG is more systematic and good for learning

FG is easier than TG, and allows one to organize sentences more easily

In FG, one can complete a sentence by thinking of the verb/verb groups first

It is easier to understand FG as it starts from functions which are useful for one to express himself

Being interested in the concept of verb groups; FG can help one to understand English better

Medium

TG is easy to learn since being familiar with most of the TG grammar rules; actually textbooks' grammar is the same as TG grammar

TG is easier to master because of having learned TG for a long time

With FG, one can understand the meaning of a sentence more easily; FG is more practical than TG as it can help one organize the sentences

FG is more useful for students because many students do not like to remember too many things

FG is better for one who tends to think about the meaning of the sentences first and then proceed to words

FG's presentation is more systematic and logical

The categorization of verbs in FG is more detailed; in FG, students just need to remember some categories and then they can form sentences

FG starts with meaning, and there will be less interference caused by those TG grammar rules.

It is easier to start with meaning; in FG, one does not have to memorize all those parts of speech

With FG, it is easier to manage and organize the verbs that have just been learned

Low

TG clearly categorizes the tense and aspect, so it is easier to manage and use

Both TG and FG are useful. This is because in different situations, one should use different types of grammar to organize what have been learned.

FG offers more freedom with fewer rules; FG categorizes verbs into different types according to their functions and meaning; FG is easier to remember

FG offers a clear categorization of verbs; it can link to personal experience, so it is easier to understand FG; FG is more meaningful

FG is more practical, less complicated, and easy to link to personal experience

The FG usage is closer to our daily life; its categorization of verbs is more diversified, and this interests learners

FG is easy as it allows one to start from meaning and then proceed to sentence structures

Both TG and FG are useful. This is because in different situations, one should use different types of grammar to organize what have been learned.

FG is easier to understand and less complicated

In FG, one can learn more about the meaning of verbs, and it makes one find it easier to think of the sentence

FG is easier to understand and helps one to manage the sentence structures

Note: One participant (whose English proficiency level was low) commented on both traditional grammar and functional grammar.

From Table (ii), some specific results or findings can be yielded:

Participants from different proficiency groups have got similar reasons for their preference for traditional grammar or functional grammar.

Most participants considered functional grammar to be more useful for helping them to organize their knowledge about verbs because they found functional grammar easier to understand and remember as it starts with meaning and links to one's personal experience. Also, the participants considered functional grammar to be useful for helping them to express their ideas and organize the verbs they have learned because functional grammar categorizes verbs into different types according to their functions and meaning. In addition, they commented that functional grammar is more systematic and less complicated.

Some participants preferred traditional grammar because they found themselves more familiar with the traditional grammar rules and they found traditional grammar easier to manage as they have been learning it since they were small. Besides that, they thought traditional grammar would be more useful for them due to its clear categorization of tense and aspect and the fact that most textbooks are still using traditional grammar.


Table (iii): Participants' feedback on which type of grammar is a better system for helping ESL learners (who know little or nothing about English verbs) to learn about the use of verbs

Participants'

English Proficiency Level

Number of Participants

who chose

Traditional Grammar (TG)

Number of Participants

who chose

Functional Grammar (FG)

High

7

2

Medium

4

6

Low

5

5

Total

16

13

From Table (iii), some specific results or findings can be yielded:

Slightly more than half of the participants, 55.2% (i.e. 16 out of 29), considered traditional grammar to be a better system for helping ESL learners (who know little or nothing about English verbs) to learn about the use of verbs while the other half, 44.8% (i.e. 13 out of 29), thought that functional grammar should be the better one.

No significant relationship between the participants' English proficiency level and their choice of grammar could be found.


Table (iv): Participants' reasons for considering traditional grammar / functional grammar to be a better system for helping ESL learners (who know little or nothing about English verbs) to learn about the use of verbs

Participants'

English Proficiency Level

Reasons for considering

Traditional Grammar (TG)

to be a better system

Reasons for considering

Functional Grammar (FG)

to be a better system

High

TG is better as it is worrying that students may simply translate Chinese into English by using FG as FG starts with meaning

As for ESL learners, most of them are easy to become confused about grammar. TG is better than FG because it is basic and more convenient to construct the sentence structures

Unlike FG, TG is easier to understand as it has fewer categories of verbs

Since learners are not familiar with English, they should know the structure as shown in TG first

TG is easy to be understood because of its standard formulas. TG is very helpful for helping learners to complete a sentence step by step through following the standard formulas

TG is less confusing as FG has got more subcategories

TG is easy to learn; it is better for learners to learn the basic system of grammar first as it is easy to manage

FG has fewer categories and it is easier to manage and less confusing

FG can reduce learners' resistance to the abstract concepts like the parts of speech, and hence it is easier to understand and manage

Medium

TG is more systematic and, hence, it is easier for new English learners to manage

Learners come across TG more often in daily life

TG is easier to master as there are formulas like S+V+O

TG is good for consolidation

FG's content is more related to what learners think in terms of meaning

FG is funnier and more attractive, so it can attract students to learn more and practise more often

FG is simpler, easier to manage, and more flexible in terms of usage

FG is easier to remember as it starts with meaning

FG is easier to understand as it starts with meaning

FG's characteristic of starting with meaning can help learners to remember the verb usage more easily

Low

TG is easier to understand as it presents grammar step by step and shows learners the use of verbs clearly

TG's rules for parts of speech and sentence structures are clearer

TG is easy to learn and basic to new English learners

TG is easy to learn

TG is more legitimate

It is easier to make sentences by using FG as FG starts with meaning and its categories of verbs are easier to remember

FG is more vivid and practical, closer to daily life, easier to understand

FG is easier to understand

FG starts with meaning, and it is easy to understand

FG can help learners understand the sentence meaning and verb meaning more easily

From Table (iv), some specific results or findings can be yielded:

Participants from different proficiency groups have got similar reasons for their preference for traditional grammar or functional grammar.

Some participants perceived traditional grammar as a better system for helping ESL learners (who know little or nothing about English verbs) to learn about the use of verbs because they considered traditional grammar to be the basic and legitimate type of grammar and, hence, ESL learners who are new to English should study traditional grammar first. What's more, the participants also found traditional grammar more systematic and believe it should be a better system for the new ESL learners as it provides a clear set of standard formulas and parts of speech to help learners build up their knowledge about verbs and sentence structures step by step.

Some participants decided to recommend functional grammar to these new ESL learners because they found FG easier to understand as it starts with meaning and functions, and is more related to daily life. So, they considered functional grammar to be a better system for the new ESL learners as it can help these learners to master and remember the verb usage more easily, and reduce their resistance to the abstract concepts like the parts of speech as in traditional grammar. Finally, these participants commented that functional grammar is funnier and less confusing for the new ESL learners.

Discussion

In order to figure out which type of grammar is relatively more important to ESL learners, traditional grammar and functional grammar will be examined and compared in the following three aspects with the help of findings gained from the literature review, my first-hand observation of ESL learners in the local language classroom, and the mini research previously mentioned.

Nature of the Grammar

As shown in the literature review, there is a great difference between traditional grammar and functional grammar in terms of their nature. Traditional grammar adopts a bottom-up approach, which starts analyzing sentences at word level (Cook, 2001). However, functional grammar adopts a top-down approach, which studies the sentence as a whole first and focuses on the purposes and uses of the language (Emmitt et al., 2003). Owing to this difference in nature, it is believed that functional grammar is relatively more important to ESL learners.

First, traditional grammar is thought to be mentally too demanding to ESL learners. This is because ESL learners have to study how to identify and categorize all English words into the eight parts of speech when they first start learning English through traditional grammar. Actually, this can be pretty stressful for ESL learners whose first language follows a different type of grammar or a different set of rules in categorizing words. They will probably encounter great difficulties in memorizing the abstract concepts about the parts of speech, and become demotivated in learning English before they reach the sentence level in their second language acquisition.

On the other hand, functional grammar is considered to be mentally less demanding to ESL learners as it focuses on the purposes and uses of the language instead of rigid word classes, and starts with the meaning of the sentence when it comes to sentence analysis.

Most importantly, functional grammar is communicative by nature and this has been reflected by the three metafunctions (namely ideational metafunction, interpersonal metafunction, and textual metafunction) as suggested by Butt et al. (1995). According to my classroom observation, most ESL learners mainly learn English for communication. Therefore, the nature of functional grammar suits their needs.

To conclude, functional grammar is assumed to be relatively more important to ESL learners in terms of its nature.

Usefulness of the Grammar

Theoretically speaking, based on the literature review, it has been found that functional grammar is relatively more useful and important to ESL learners due to its communicative nature and its focus on the purposes and uses of the language. For instance, as mentioned by Gerot and Wignell (2000), teaching functional grammar can help learners produce spoken and written language correctly (p. 3). Woods (2001) has also pointed out that functional grammar can help learners pick the right expression to express their ideas clearly (p. 11). This usefulness of functional grammar in communication certainly makes functional grammar more important to ESL learners as it has been observed that most of them aim to learn English for communication.

Yet, practically speaking, based on my observation, the importance and usefulness of functional grammar has been diminished by the lack of learning materials for functional grammar and the frequent use of traditional grammar in ESL teaching and ESL textbooks. This phenomenon has been pointed out by LaPalombara's (1976) as well as Professional Training Company (2008).

Summing up, it is still believed that functional grammar is relatively more useful and important to ESL learners in terms of usefulness. However, it should be noted that the popularity of traditional grammar (due to its well-established influence in second language acquisition) has undermined the relative importance of functional grammar to ESL learners.

ESL Learners' Needs and Preferences

With reference to the participants' feedback obtained from the mini research, nearly 80% of the participants have found functional grammar to be more useful for helping them to organize their knowledge about verbs as it categorizes verbs into different types according to their functions and meaning and it is communicative and less complicated by nature.

While this seems to suggest that functional grammar should be relatively more important to ESL learners due to its above-mentioned characteristics, more than half of the participants have got another answer (i.e. traditional grammar) when they were being asked which type of grammar is a better system for helping ESL learners (who know little or nothing about English verbs) to learn about the use of verbs. The reason behind is that they consider traditional grammar to be the basic and legitimate type of grammar, and they believe ESL learners who are new to English should study traditional grammar first. What's more, they also find traditional grammar more systematic and more capable of providing a clear set of standard formulas and parts of speech for helping learners to build up their knowledge about verbs and sentence structures step by step.

Thus, regarding to ESL learners' needs and preferences, it is really hard to tell which type of grammar mentioned is relatively more important to ESL learners as there are different types of ESL learners and it is a well-known fact that each individual learner may have different learning needs and preferences.

Conclusion: Which type of grammar is relatively more important to ESL learners?

Concerning the nature and usefulness, functional grammar has been found to be relatively more useful and important to ESL learners. However, when taking ESL learners' needs and preferences into account, the relative importance of functional grammar has been diminished. It has then become rather difficult to tell which type of grammar is relatively more important to ESL learners as both traditional grammar and functional grammar may suit different ESL learners' needs and preferences in different contexts or situations.

Implications

Based on the findings and insights gained from the previous discussion in this study, several implications have been derived and they are now being shown below.

Introducing Functional Grammar to ESL Learners

As it has been found that functional grammar is relatively more important to ESL learners due to its nature and usefulness, it is worth introducing it to ESL learners in the language classroom. This can be done by first explaining the rationale and system of functional grammar to the learners, and then showing them the concepts and steps stated in functional grammar for helping the learners to construct meaningful sentences.

Instead of always sticking to traditional grammar in ESL learning, introducing functional grammar to ESL learners may offer them an alternative way to organize what they have learned about their target second language.

Providing Training in Functional Grammar for ESL Teachers

Since it is worthwhile to introduce or teach functional grammar to ESL learners, proper training in this type of grammar should be provided to ESL teachers. To achieve this, a series of workshops on the nature, characteristics, usage and teaching methodologies of functional grammar should be offered by professional educationalists to novice and in-service teachers. It is hoped that this can be done as most ESL teachers have acquired English in the form of studying traditional grammar and they may not necessarily have the knowledge and skills about teaching functional grammar.

Increasing Learning Materials about Functional Grammar

As pointed out by LaPalombara's (1976) as well as Professional Training Company (2008), the use of traditional grammar is still prevailing in ESL textbooks and references. Therefore, if functional grammar is to be introduced or promoted, corresponding learning materials about functional grammar must be increased in terms of amount and variety. These learning materials can be developed by publishing companies as well as the school-based curriculum teams.

Limitations

There are three limitations related to the mini research conducted.

Small Sample Size

Since there were only 29 participants in this study and they shared very similar academic backgrounds and learning contexts, this small and limited sample size may not be able to reflect the real situation about ESL learners and the findings obtained may not be able to make generalizations about ESL learning.

Limited Time

Owing to limited time, only a limited amount of findings could be elicited from the participants through the two questions stated in the feedback form.

Gender Difference

Among the 29 participants who took part in this study, there was a marked difference between the number of males and that of females. Since different genders may have different perceptions and learning preferences, this gender difference may affect the validity of the findings.

Suggested Areas for Further Research

After all, the issue whether traditional grammar or functional grammar is relatively more important to ESL learners is not simply an either-or question. More comprehensive and in-depth research must be further conducted in order to obtain a clearer picture of ESL grammar learning. Here are some suggested areas or topics for further research.

Effectiveness of Functional Grammar in the ESL learning context

It is suggested that further research or a detailed action research can be conducted in a real ESL learning context such as a local language classroom in Hong Kong so as to figure out how effective and useful functional grammar is to ESL learners.

Usefulness of Other Types of Grammar

It is recommended that the usefulness of other types of grammar such as generative grammar should also be investigated in order to see if there are some other types of grammar which may help ESL learners acquire their second language in a more effective and less painful way.

ESL Learners with Different Cultural Backgrounds

It has been wondering if one's cultural background may affect his/her learning needs and preferences, which may in turn require a specific type of grammar to assist their ESL learning. Thus, it is worth conducting further research in this area.

Conclusion

Working on this paper has given me a golden opportunity to research on the various types of grammar and enrich my knowledge of the English language. It is hoped that further research can be done in the areas suggested previously and more insights can be obtained, which would in turn enhance the effectiveness of ESL learning and teaching.

Finally, it is sincerely hoped that the implications derived from this term paper will do some help to the ESL learners and teachers in Hong Kong.


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