The Influence Of Language Learning Theories English Language Essay

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A syllabus is simply defined as a statement of what material is planned to be learnt which reflect presentation. The stress of this definition on outcomes rather than process shows a traditional understanding of syllabus which matches with grammatical syllabus (Hutchinson and Waters, 1987:80). Grammatical Syllabus is also known as Structural Syllabus, is a formal or traditional syllabus which is considered as a type of synthetic syllabuses. In grammatical syllabus, grammatical structures form the central organizing feature. It is one of the most common types of syllabus which is probably the oldest in modern education. Against all the huge volume of criticism from the proponents of several new trends developed after that, grammatical syllabus is still used today in the contents of many course books and learning resources. The Grammatical Syllabus is rooted in structural linguists for the most part of its content. The focus is on the knowledge and skills which learners should achieve as a result of teaching, not on how they can accomplish them. The Grammatical Syllabus is the best known example of a Synthetic Syllabuses which makes use of a crucial teaching strategy to make such a syllabus. The synthetic approach to syllabus design, as Wilkins (1981a) describes is an arrangement in that different parts of a language are taught independently from each other. It is a step by step process of gradual increase of the known parts until the entire structure of the language fits in place.

Rabbini and Gakuen (2002) claim that grammatical syllabus is the most widespread syllabus type in which the selection and grading of the content is based on the difficulty and simplicity of grammatical items. The key feature of this outcome-based syllabus is the expectation upon the learners to internalise products or structures step by step and insert it to the large compilation of grammar in their minds. The aim of this paper is to describe the embedded teaching situation or situations that best suits to grammatical syllabus along with a discussion of challenges including its strengths and weaknesses that belong to this kind of syllabus.

Key features

The grammatical syllabus is an organised succession of structural points (Wilkins, 1981a) while Richards and Rogers (1987:148) describe it as a plan to present linguistic items. It is also referred to as structural syllabus. Whatever terms you may prefer to use, it contains and arranges the content of a language learning module. The main characteristics of the grammatical syllabus can be organized around several points as the following.

Underlying Theory: The assumptions backing this Syllabus are based on the system view of language, notions of simplicity and complexity for the selection and grading of content and step by step presentation (Richards and Rogers, 1987). These are explained below in detail:

Language is a system which consists of a set of grammatical rules; learning language means learning these rules and then applying them to practical language use. Richards and Rogers (1987) underline learning the structurally related elements of the language system as the goal of language learning.

The syllabus input is selected and graded according to grammatical notions of simplicity and complexity. These syllabuses introduce one item at a time and require mastery of that item before moving on to the next.

This type of syllabus maintains that it is easier for students to learn a language if they are exposed to one part of the grammatical system at a time.

Grammatical and Lexical Focus: The content of the grammatical syllabus is based on the priority given to teaching the grammar or structure of the target language which also includes vocabulary of the language. Thus, the grammatical syllabus has two content components in general. One the one hand, a list of linguistic structures, that is, the grammar to be taught, and on the other hand, a list of words, that is, the lexicon to be taught. This method has long been acknowledged and is firmly established, working on the units of grammar and vocabulary as the fundamental elements in a language. These elements should be learned one at a time through a strategic effort which Wilkins emphasise (Wilkins, 1976:2), and then these bits and pieces acquired will eventually be included in the entire language structure.

Selection and Grading: There are standards for sequencing in this syllabus, so that material is presented in explicitly announced and taught levels, stages, etc. For instance, levels such as novice, beginner, intermediate, advanced, or 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, … stages on grades. Howatt and Widdowson (2004) take us back to the climax of structural methods in fifties and sixties, when the leading principle of English language teaching was "...the careful selection and grading of grammar patterns and vocabulary." (Howatt and Widdowson 2004:300). Secondly, the range of most useful words can be focused due to the limits of relying on frequency alone. Richards (2001a) propose that the usefulness of chosen material is assessed based on its relevance to the needs of learners. Mackey (1965:78) advises both print materials (e.g. books and periodicals) for counting reasons and those read by learners must be similar. Richards (2001a) also suggest embracing words that are used for defining other words as useful words. For instance, container assists in describing carton, glass, and jar. The third category contains the most teachable words because some words are not simply among the most frequently occurring or useful words in the related language samples, especially in the beginning part of a course, but they are easy to teach and practical. Mackey's choice of the most teachable words consists of those words related to available situations and themes (Richards 2001b:8), in other words, those words like the names of things, which can be pointed to in the physical environment. He states that short words are considered to be more learnable than long words. Sometimes, items could be easier to teach since they look like words in the learner's native language very much. The author goes on to suggest words like seat, with subcategories of meanings which includes stool, bench and chair. Mackey (1965) agrees on the selection criteria of frequency, usefulness and teachability for grammar whilst Richards (2001a), who differentiates selection of vocabulary from grammar, does not agree with the same criteria for grammar selection. He believes that examining frequency or usefulness of grammatical structures is not sufficient and ordering should also play a major part. Such ordering, termed grading, is what Palmer (1964) explains as, "passing from the known to the unknown by easy stages, each of which serves as a preparation for the next" (Palmer 1964:67). He qualifies this claim by explaining that, "…from the more important, useful or fundamental to the less important, useful or fundamental" (Palmer 1964:70). Thus, this is not simply from easy to difficult. Mackey (1965:83) also maintains that some forms are crucial at the beginning while some others may be brought in much later. Palmer holds that "certain moods and tenses are more useful than others" (Palmer 1964:68) and therefore should attract our initial focus. Grammatical points, for example prepositions, should be taught in order of their level of importance and those significant rules and exceptions should be presented in terms of their vitality. As a case in point, he regards several irregular structures are very useful to master in a language and if necessary they should be incorporated and presented before long even though this goes against the general codes of gradation. Palmer (1964) assumes that many languages have a set of basic rules in grammar which build up the entire language structure, so learners have to put the crucial points first in their agenda and go back to details only after that.

Simplicity and learnability principles: Richards (2001a:11) also holds that selection and grading should be erected on two pillars of simplicity and learnability. He views the grammatical syllabus as a logical sequence of graded grammars offering an opportunity to master the grammar of English in a slow but sure manner.

According to the principles discussed, grammatical syllabus can only permit simple and important structures made of the formulae of: Subject plus Verb and then plus either Object, Adverb, or complement. Yet, it cannot permit complex and peripheral structures such as: complicated sentences with an embedded neither...nor structure, or sentences with a pre-posed structure which usually serve to convey emphasis (Richards 2001a: 11).

Another important feature for Richards is learnability of material to be presented. The significance of this criterion is based on the idea that learning some grammatical structures is easier than learning certain others. This assumption dates back to the inspiring work of Dulay and Burt, who worked on children morpheme structures extensively; who found out that a certain general order can be envisaged for acquiring certain structures in learning a second language. This observation was then confirmed by the breakthrough that two children groups from widely divergent linguistic backgrounds incidentally managed to internalise a set of grammatical items in almost the same order of learning (Dulay and Burt 1974).        

Learning aims: placing grammar at the centre of the syllabus followed by some attention to learning the basic vocabulary of the language to be learned. The educational aim of learning a language for all learners is primarily mastering the grammar rules of it, which is supplemented by important useful and frequent vocabulary of that language.

Synthetic Procedure: in grammatical syllabus the linguistic constituents of target piece of learning are examined in the beginning stages of teaching. Then, the language of the course is broken down into smaller grammatical elements and offered in a firmly controlled succession. The material is presented in an increasingly complex order, beginning from the simple grammatical structures to a more complex grammatical structure. The learners are open to the elements one at a time and keep the target language sample limited. What is planned is a gradual coverage of items in the syllabus until all the chosen grammatical items become known one by one. What learners should do at the end of the day is to synthesize again, like making up all pieces of the puzzle, the separated bit by bit language elements.

Strengths of grammatical syllabus

There are rational grounds for learning principles supported in grammatical syllabus; a summary of which are in the following points. Firstly, the learners who progress from simpler to more complex grammatical structures are more likely to easily take hold of the grammatical systems. Secondly, the practicality of grammatical syllabus, in which teaching and assessment are relatively uncomplicated, because teachers are involved with straightforward discrete-point knowledge and skills. There is no high demand on teachers who are not quite fluent in the language they teach, for the fact that a high level of language ability is not necessary for explaining grammatical points and conducting pattern drills. The third point is the very supportive environment grammatical syllabus provides for developing the writing skills. The fourth advantage is the guarantee that basic vocabulary of students is enhanced. The fifth merit is the relative facility of sequencing and selection of teaching items compared with other syllabuses (Wilkins, 1976). Richards' (2001a:154) defends grammatical syllabus by highlighting reasons for its persistent attractiveness and claiming that the communicative ability contains the ability to use grammar in itself. In fact, since the sociolinguistic aspects of communicative competence are ignored in a strict form of this syllabus, it is still useful in a context where the language learners do not have immediate communication needs.

Weaknesses of grammatical syllabus

The grammatical syllabus is not just well-known for being the most widespread syllabus in practice but it also is known for its abundant share of critics who pinpoint several weaknesses with this approach. Amongst all, Wilkins (1976) and Richards (2001a) openly admit that learning grammatical structures is at best only a part of total language learning. Since form is the specific focus of this syllabus type, meaning is not the interest and attracts very little concentration. Wilkins (1972:147) claims that just a single grammatical form may be semantically very complex since a single grammatical structure may supply several functions and vice versa. That is, any function is presentable through a number of grammatical forms invariably (Wilkins 1976:9).

However, Paulston's (1981) views are different on this issue and she claims that it is not at all problematic, because dissimilar to notions proposed by Wilkins (1976), language forms cannot be separated from functions. For her, the quality of being generative makes the forms a point of departure, upon which syllabus should be organised because they "can generate infinite meanings and many functions, rather than to organize the content along a finite list of functions" (Paulston 1981:91).

Still, Wilkins (1981b:99) has strong reservation on the way material is graded and ordered in a grammatical syllabus, because of an absence of some means to determine the relative complicatedness of form and thus the difficulty level of grammatical structures.

Yet another criticism that surfaced, which is probably the most difficult to defend against, is that the grammatical syllabus ignores the important communicative skills (Richards, 2001a:153). In other words, Howatt and Widdowson (2004:300) repeat the same thing in essence by indicating that the grammatical syllabus is based on observing well-formed Standard English sentences but in fact well-formed standards are not always observed in spontaneous communication. After all, the focus on form in grammatical syllabus is at the expense of meaning which gives up fluency for the sake of accuracy. This point leaves the grammatical syllabus vulnerable to criticism. Krashen (1982) is among the critics of teaching along any order, particularly when the syllabus aim is acquisition rather than conscious learning.

Rabbini and Gauken (2002) pinpoints a problem for the syllabus designer working with grammatical syllabus in that a grammatical sequencing may not be based on reliable links amongst the structural items. A more basic criticism is that the only focus of grammatical syllabus rests upon one aspect of language, which is grammar, to the expense of many other aspects that exist in a language. Still another criticism revolves around the point that findings of recent corpus based research propose a discrepancy between the grammar of the spoken and of the written language increasing the amount of grading work necessary in grammar based syllabus.

The potential disadvantage of the grammatical syllabus is its emphasis on language structure to the neglects communicative ability. It does not address the immediate communication needs of the learners learning a language within the context of a community where the language is spoken.

Certainly a big weakness is that it hampers the student's creativity because it limits learners within the confines of particular rules. Unlike later approaches, students have no say in determining the content of syllabus and left at total discretion of teacher or, worse still, the syllabus designer. Even advantage of practicality does not go unchallenged as Nunan (1988) notes that sometimes a simple grammatical rule is very difficult to explain.

Influence of language teaching and learning on grammatical syllabus

Syllabus types have always hugely influenced methods in vogue at the time (Richards, 2001b). The same goes for grammatical syllabus which is related in many ways to the methods mostly rooted in the structural linguistics. Methods and approaches such as Grammar Translation Method provide an abstract model of grammar (Richards and Rogers, 2001b: 37) which facilitates the application of grammatical syllabus. In Audiolingual Method, the selection of key structures to explain one at a time to learners resembles the presentation of grammatical syllabus (Richards and Rogers, 2001b :65) and Situational Language teaching "continues to be widely used in many parts of the world particularly when the material is based on the grammatical syllabus" (Richards and Rogers, 2001b :47) as the presentation of grammatical structures in Situational Language Teaching is based on a grammar-based syllabus since it fits best with the presentation, practice, and production (PPP) model of teaching. So, the teacher following grammatical syllabus is most likely using either Audiolingual Method or Grammar Translation Method, or a combination of them, but they can use an eclectic approach as well. Whichever used, the content of the syllabus is determined by giving priority to teaching the grammar or structure of the language.

The language analysis in Grammar Translation Method authorised teaching of the most frequently occurring words as Palmer (1964:69) has suggested teaching the usual sense or more frequently occurring sense among different meanings that a word might have. In both Grammar Translation and Audiolingual Method, one step further than teaching a range of standard points, as in grammatical syllabus items, should firstly pass through being the most frequent (e.g. Vocabulary, selected based on the number of times or occurrences of each lexical item in different texts (Mackey, 1965). Although remotely conceivable, grammatical syllabus can have a distant relationship with communicative approaches to language teaching as Richards (2001a) insists by claiming that some structures are indispensable early on and their teaching cannot be delayed despite their difficulty. The reason he brings for their introduction near the beginning is their 'communicative need'. So, a grammatical syllabus should also take account of structures with high communicative value. For instance, simple past tense is an early requirement since " is difficult to avoid making reference to past events for very long in a course" (Richards 2001a: 13). To take this further, the grammatical syllabus can be somewhat applied to the Natural Approach in learning English as a second language. Bailey, Madden and Krashen (1974) claim that adults process language in a similar order children do and we should follow them strictly. Their study shows two different types of orders, the first one is only reserved for children who learn English as a first language and the second one is shared by both adult and child second language learners. It is also related to Teachability Hypothesis as more recent research along the same line from Pienemann (1984:186) has insisted that the structures' teachability in the second language is limited by similar processing constraints that confirm the natural language acquisition development sequence. In it, every step along the way is a requirement for the next step. He points out that for any teaching to support learning, the respective points should be presented at the right point in time. So, he has a favourable attitude towards teaching because teaching can have "an accelerating effect on acquisition for learners who are ready for it", (Pienemann 1989:61). However, there is a point he suggests to be aware of. He warns that if teaching is against the presumed natural sequence then "it impedes rather than promotes language acquisition" (Pienemann 1984:209). Furthermore, the formulation of Pienemann's work (Pienemann 1984), pays attention to grammatical syllabus. In Teachability Hypothesis the issue of learnability or teachability is taken as a legitimate standard for the choice of structures.

The relationship with methods is not always in approval. Sometimes, grammatical syllabus creates a reaction that leads to a hypothesis in language teaching. The case against the grammatical syllabus raised by Krashen (1982: 25-26) is an example, which can be summarized as the four arguments against giving a precise input to the children: Firstly, it should be acknowledged that all students may not be at the same stage and the 'structure of the day' may not be just above their present level, what Krashen terms i + 1, for at least some of the students. To ensure every student benefits, there should be natural communicative input, far from grammatical syllabus. Secondly, in a grammatical syllabus, the fact that each structure is presented only once is problematic since more often than not, some students miss it due to being absent, not paying attention, or simply insufficient practice or input. What happens to the student is the possibility to have to wait until next term for a review of all structures. Thirdly, a grammatical syllabus implies an unrealistic awareness of the order of acquisition, which is obviously beyond knowledge of many people. Finally, Krashen criticises the grammatical syllabus for the strictly narrow focus on what can be discussed. A focus on grammatical points usually prevents real communication using the second language, because naturally it is difficult for people to really get interested in or engaged with a discussion or even reading anything if the underlying reason is only to practice a specific structure. Grammatical syllabus shares some features with synthesis reflected in the language teaching methods as follows:

Syllabus content is ultimately based on an analysis of the language

to be learned, whether this be overt, as in the case of structure,

word, notion or function, or covert, as has usually been the case

with situation and topic. . . . it is assumed that the unit, or

teaching point, which is presented will be what is learned and that

it is efficient to organize and present material in an isolating

fashion. SLA research offers no evidence to suggest that any of

these synthetic units are meaningful acquisition units, that they are

(or even can be) acquired separately, singly, in linear fashion, or

that they can be learned prior to and separate from language use.

(Long and Crookes 1993: 26-7)


In sum, there are three aspects which are covered in the work and these are:  

firstly, the strengths and the weakness of grammatical syllabus based on the theories of language learning and teaching which makes the next element as well as the aspect of situations where grammatical syllabus is functioning.


In spite of its downsides, grammatical syllabus is still the most established model for designing course plans. As a consequence, we can neither reject nor accept this type of syllabus entirely. In reality, an ideal syllabus does not exist and it is wise to select a combined or integrative syllabus, rather than a particular one considering social and context and educational goals. Despite being old- fashioned and weak in theory, if anything, grammatical syllabus is very practical and the most long-lasting syllabus, often to the surprise of its critics. The traditional power that grammar wields explains most of its success and informs other syllabuses that have grammar at their heart. Cook (2001) pinpoints the role of grammar when he claims that "to be the central area of the language around which other areas such as pronunciation and vocabulary revolve" Cook (2001:19). The persistent place of grammar despite all new development is also confirmed by Richards (2001a: 152) who explains that grammar remains the main component in numerous language courses because of the students' deeply rooted mindset. He refers to those parts of the world where both students and teachers expect some grammar teaching in any syllabus and regard its absence as an unjustifiable lack. There is no cause and effect relationship, but the historical success of students who were trained based on the grammatical syllabus perpetuates the idea that there is something with this syllabus that s associated with success. The sheer number of students and many years since grammatical syllabus is around relative to other syllabus types provides it with a huge advantage that may guarantee its continuation despite all the problems and critics.