Home Education “Grammaring”: The Fifth Skill In Language Teaching and Learning

“Grammaring”: The Fifth Skill In Language Teaching and Learning

grammar refers to what we know about a language such as phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics

Fez – Language teaching and learning has always been a controversial area within applied linguistics. According to Corder (1973), “what to teach or learn can be described in linguistic terms as grammar […] or in psychological terms as language skills” (p. 137). Although grammar refers to what we know about a language such as phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics, language skills are about what we do with language. This includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Controversies often arise when the boundaries between these two areas become blurred, as in the case of treating “grammaring” as a language skill. In this respect, the present article will attempt to explain the background of the issue surrounding “grammaring,” followed by a tentative definition of the term and a description of the techniques for its implementation.

The teaching and learning of grammar has always been one of the most hotly debated topics in the field of language education. The controversy over what, exactly, grammar is led to the development of different models that attempted to account for grammar differently. Grammar was considered a method of language teaching and learning within the so-called Grammar-Translation Approach. Within this approach, which draws from philology, grammar was viewed as the core of language. However, with the shift from philology to linguistics, the notion of grammar has changed accordingly. With the eruption of modern linguistics, grammar began to be described as a system of structures in addition to vocabulary and pronunciation.

With the shift from structuralism to transformational generative grammar, the notion of grammar has been redefined as the system of rules that every native speaker of a language has acquired. It is in this sense that grammar has moved from being a set of mechanical structures to being psychological, or rather, cognitive constructs. What reinforces this last premise is the fact that grammar has come to be described as a competence. A case in point here is the so-called grammatical competence constituting only one aspect of our overall communicative competence in addition to sociolinguistic, strategic, and discourse competences. A more recent view considers grammar as a skill. According to Larsen-Freeman (2001), “grammar is to be seen as a skill not as a competence” (p. 67). That is, when we speak or write, we are always involved in “doing” grammar, whether consciously or unconsciously. Hence, this process of doing grammar is termed “grammaring.”

A Tentative Definition of “Grammaring”

Various authors have attempted to define the term “grammaring” differently. Larsen-Freeman says “grammaring” can be seen as a “fifth skill.” Her definition of the word is as follows: “the ability to use grammar structures accurately, meaningfully, and appropriately” (ibid., p. 143). Although it was Larsen-Freeman who first used the term in her book, From Grammar to Grammaring, this term has gained several definitions in its subsequent use. According to Richards and Schmidt (2002):

[G]rammaring is sometimes used to refer to the process by which language learners use grammar to create messages through grammaticalizing or adding grammar to a sequence of words to create finer meaning distinctions. The linguist Diane Larsen-Freeman proposed grammaring as an important process in second language acquisition. Grammaring emphasizes grammar as a dynamic process rather than a system of rules (p. 552).

According to the definition stated above, grammar is no longer conceived as a description of language or native speaker’s competence. Thus, a paradigm shift arose about the teaching and learning of grammar. The purpose behind teaching grammar is no longer the transmission of knowledge. Rather, teaching grammar is now performed to enable students to use grammatical structures accurately, meaningfully, and appropriately. In this respect, Larsen-Freeman (2001) further states that “grammar teaching is not so much knowledge transmission as it is skill development” (p. 255). Thus, different activities have started to focus on developing such a skill.

Practical Activities for “Grammaring”

The practical activities that are used in “grammaring” fall into three categories as specified by Freeman’s definition of the term. Given that language should be used accurately, meaningfully, and appropriately, emphasis is laid upon form, meaning, and use. For example, in teaching phrasal verbs, the form is presented first. What should be explained is that a phrasal verb consists of a verb plus a particle such as “break up.” However, explaining form alone is not enough for understanding what the word means. Thus, meaning is a very important dimension to evade any possible confusion that surrenders the phrasal verb “break up,” as the latter cannot be guessed from the form only. Again, it is not enough merely to instruct students how to use “break up” in speaking or writing in English unless an explicit teaching has been supplied. Thus form, meaning, and use are equally important for the teaching and learning of grammar. In general, the practical activities that are used in “grammaring” can be categorized into: a. form, b. meaning, and c. use.

A – Focus on form:

A distinction is often made between language use and language form. In other words, there has been a continuous debate over whether to teach students the language or teach them about the language. For Larsen-Freeman, both language form and language use are equally important. In this vein, she states:

Teachers who focus students’ attention on linguistic form during communicative interactions are more effective than those who never focus on form or who only do so in de-contextulized grammar lessons (Spada and Lightbown 1993; cited in Larsen-freeman 2002).

Among the activities that focus on language form are language games, Cuisenaire rods, sentence completion, and sentence unscrambling tasks, among others. In general, there are three important activities, namely: games, use of rods, and sentence unscrambling activities.

B – Focus on meaning:

Linking form with meaning can be carried out by the use of different activities. In fact, meaning should call for some sort of associative learning (cf. Ellis 1998). This activity gives students the opportunity to associate the form with the meaning of a particular target structure. For example, it is by associating form and meaning that a phrasal verb can be understood. Moreover, meaning can also be made clear by using realia and pictures. By using real-world objects or pictures, the relationship between word and referent can be made more explicit. For example, if someone asks you what a cabbage means, and you have a cabbage, you will tell him this is a cabbage. Mimicry of the appropriate action is another way of making the meaning of linguistic “signs” more clear.

C – Focus on use:

The right form with the right meaning should be selected for the right context to ensure successful communication. A practical way of going about sensitizing students to the effect of context on language is through making use of role playing. The latter can be described, according to Larsen-Freeman (2001), as follows:

Role plays work well when dealing with use because the teacher can systematically manipulate social variables (e.g., increase or decrease the social distance between interlocutors) to have students practice how changes in the social variables affect the choice of the form (p. 261).

Role playing can be considered one of the most effective activities for developing the appropriateness of the linguistic behavior of students due to its simulation of real-life contexts.

In summary, the field of language teaching and learning has always been controversial due to the blurriness of the boundaries among its different components. One example in which controversies arise is the intersection of “grammaring” with language skills under the umbrella of the so-called communicative approach to language teaching and learning. Within the latter, grammar as a skill is taught through form, meaning, and use by following three main activities, namely rods, realia and role plays.


Celce-Murcia, M., and D. Larsen-Freeman. (1999). The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course. 2ded. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Celce-Murcia, M., and S. Hilles. (1988). Techniques and Resources in Teaching Grammar. New York: Oxford University Press.

Corder, S.P. (1973). Introducing Applied Linguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Doughty, C., and J. Williams, eds. (1998). Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2001). Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Richards J.C. & Schmidt R. (2002). The Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. London: Longman Group UK Limited.

Rutherford, W. (1987). Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London: Longman.

Ur, P. (1988). Grammar Practice Activities: A Practical Guide for Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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