The role of grammar in communicative language teaching
Dr. Diane Musumeci

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Dr. Diane Musumeci is Associate Professor of Italian and Second Language Acquistion and Teacher Education in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She also serves as Director of the Italian Language Program and the Spanish Project, a first year curriculum that redistributes instructional resources through technology. Dr. Musumeci has published widely in the areas of content-based instruction and the history of language teaching, including the book, "Breaking Tradition: An Exploration of the Historical Relationship between the Theory and Practice in Second Language Teaching." She also authored "Il Carciofo" a reading strategies and activities book for Italian language instruction.

"A successful way to develop second language competence in a classroom setting is to combine language teaching with interesting subject matter through content-based instruction, an instructional approach in which

  1. the syllabus is content-driven;
  2. all instruction takes place in the second language; and
  3. modifications are made to accommodate learners' developing language proficiency.

But before the discussion begins about the role of grammar in content-based instruction in particular or in communicative language teaching in general, I'd like to take a moment to define 'grammar.'

As Bob just indicated, 'grammar'--as understood by most language learners and teachers--refers to the surface structure of the language, and, so, we talk about nouns, verbs, adjectives, agreement... Moreover, it is almost always prescriptive in nature; that is, grammar instruction presents norms: how native speakers should speak or write and not what speakers typically say or write.

But language, of course, encompasses much more: It includes not only what speakers say, but also how they say it to whom in which instance and for what purpose, as well as what that message means to other speakers and how the meaning is negotiated among them. Because communicative language teaching seeks to promote this latter, broader view of language, we must be careful not to limit ourselves to too narrow a view of grammar.

Research and the historical evidence contend that people acquire language when they are engaged in the interpretation, expression, and negotiation of meaning in the second language. We also know that explicit knowledge of prescriptive rules seems to play a very minor role in language acquisition, especially in the early stages.

The question, then, is how to engage learners in these three fundamental activities: the interpretation, expression, and negotiation of meaning so that language acquisition can happen. In one way or another, all the panelists will talk about this primary focus on meaning and ways to encourage learners to make connections between meaning and form. A content-based approach addresses this form-meaning relationship by focusing on the content of the messages; that is, what learners and teachers talk, read, and write about in the second language classroom."

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