A few introductory notes

Teaching advanced English grammar to university students whose degree in English is most likely to land them teaching jobs brings with it a different set of responsibilities from those that come with teaching a course for communicative purposes alone. In countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, all primary and secondary school teachers are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in teaching obtained from a licensed and accredited teachers’ college in the country or abroad.

For example, a native speaker of English without a degree in English is not considered a suitable candidate for a teaching position in the country’s primary and secondary schools. What this means is that the kind of teacher training course lasting between a couple of weeks and a couple of months and aimed at native speakers who wish to teach English as a foreign language internationally cannot legally result in a teaching post in one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s state schools.

Therefore, the average English teacher is a non-native speaker who has had four years of formal training resulting in a bachelor’s degree in English and who has not necessarily spent any time studying the language in an English-speaking country before starting a teaching career in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Perhaps this is why so much emphasis is placed on knowledge about language, which is considered to be of equal importance as English skills themselves. It may be that metalinguistic knowledge gives such a trainee an edge over the native speaker with whom they can hardly compete in terms of English-speaking skills; it may also be regarded as a way to compensate for the lack of native speakership. Whichever of these propositions, if any, are true, they may still help to understand why grammar is taken so seriously at Bosnia and Herzegovina’s teachers’ colleges.

A few theoretical arguments

First we will take one more look at the teaching of advanced grammar, metalinguistic knowledge, language proficiency, and general cognitive skills that grammar helps nurture in students, all in one go. This time it comes from a teacher trying to find answers in the empirical work of others, at the same time observing very intently the dynamics of her own classroom.

For a start, metalinguistic knowledge can be defined as ‘a learner’s explicit or declarative knowledge about the syntactic, morphological, lexical, pragmatic and phonological features of the L2’ (Roehr, 2006: 183). Such a definition of metalinguistic knowledge resembles closely what my colleagues and I try to incorporate into our respective courses. As far as grammar goes, it includes a learner’s explicit knowledge of categories such as word classes or parts of speech (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc.) as well as explicit knowledge about relations between categories (e.g. predicate of the main clause, subject of the subordinate clause, etc.).

The view that metalinguistic knowledge has a positive relationship with L2 proficiency (e.g. Ellis, 2006; Roehr, 2008) can no longer be overlooked or dismissed. At the same time, there is a new twist to the question whether explicit grammar knowledge can become implicit knowledge as grammar teachers now seek different answers. If Krashen’s non-interface position (1981) is true, the answer may lie in the structure of the human brain: explicit knowledge and implicit knowledge are two different types of knowledge located in different parts of the brain.

“Teaching advanced English grammar to university students whose degree in English is most likely to land them teaching jobs brings with it a different set of responsibilities from those that come with teaching a course for communicative purposes alone.”

Alternatively, explicit knowledge and implicit knowledge may be treated separately as two vehicles and two destinations, each fully meaningful in its own way. Ideally, their paths will cross at some point of the journey, but before they do, both kinds of knowledge deserve to be valued for the work they do individually.

There are data suggesting that students who have been exposed to explicit grammar instruction achieve a higher level of grammatical accuracy than those who have not (Ellis, 2002: 19). We are cautioned that ‘[h]owever, this does require time’ (Ellis, 2006: 96). What this translates to is that some structures require practice before they can be fully acquired (Ellis, 2006: 95) and that the practice needs to be executed consistently and strategically in order to work. The following pattern will then emerge: a grammatical structure is first presented to students explicitly and then practised until it becomes fully proceduralised.

If this fails to happen, the learner is probably not developmentally ready to acquire the targeted grammatical feature. Teachers should also not dismiss the learner’s aptitude for grammatical analysis as one of the possible factors predicting success. Likewise, practitioners have to remain alert to the possibility that the facts forming a student’s explicit knowledge about a language are ‘often not clearly understood and may be in conflict with each other’ (Ellis, 2006: 95). Most teachers will have witnessed this in their students, so it is important not to lose spirit: a combination of time and renewed effort should make a difference.

On a final note, we remain hopeful as Woll & Wei (2019: 13) report that ‘a growing number of studies have begun to acknowledge that language skills can help improve speakers’ general academic performances in a variety of content areas (p.13), including even maths and science. There is no reason not to assume that grammar has a particularly important role to play there.

A few examples of how it works in the classroom

My teaching assistant has made a rough assessment that the students taking the English Morphosyntax 1 course at the University of Banja Luka’s English Department are exposed to over 1,000 example and exercise sentences for the duration of the course. That number includes what the students receive through the lectures, two hours weekly; practical class, also two hours weekly; and a workbook that has been designed precisely to meet the needs of the course and help them prepare for the midterm, end-of-term and final examinations in English Morphosyntax 1. Admittedly, not even this kind of exposure seems enough to guarantee examination success for some of the students taking the course.

The one-semester second-year course is designed in a way to help the students recognise the various forms and functions associated with the complex noun phrase in English. In other words, although there are a few tasks that test the students’ production skills in this area of English grammar, the course is clearly aimed at their ability to understand how complex noun phrases in both spoken and written English are built. Below are a few examples of what the students are taught and tested on later in the exams.

1. Identify (i.e. circle) the premodifiers in the noun phrases below and specify their form (e.g. noun phrase, compound adjective, etc.):

  1. Instead of high-priced natural stone for the countertop, consider laminate, which performed very well in our tests, especially against stains and heat.
  2. For one thing, not all the 18th-century colonialists were keen on this whole independence thing.

The students are expected to be able to identify the premodifiers and specify their form. In the first sentence, the premodifiers include high-priced, which is a compound adjective, and natural, which is an adjective; the second sentence contains the following premodifying forms: the noun phrase 18th-century, the adjective whole, and the noun independence.

2. Identify (i.e. underline) the relative clause and determine its type (e.g. non-restrictive, sentential, etc.):

  1. The Fourth of July is also a good time to give credit where credit’s due, stamp out a few myths, and find out lesser-known truths that are even juicier than the folklore.

The students are supposed to identify the restrictive or defining clause that are even juicier than the folklore as the only relative clause in the sentence.

3. Identify (i.e. underline) the noun phrase containing a postmodifying prepositional phrase and then specify the form of the prepositional complement (e.g. noun phrase, V-ing clause, etc.):

  1. They have explored collapsing the government and setting up an alternative, temporary ‘unity government’ to request an extension to article 50, but Labour has made clear it would not support a centrist candidate to be temporary PM.

The students should acknowledge that the only noun phrase containing a postmodifying prepositional phrase in the sentence is an extension to article 50, with the prepositional phrase to article 50 acting as postmodifier and the noun phrase article 50 within it acting as prepositional complement.

“It may be that metalinguistic knowledge gives such a trainee an edge over the native speaker with whom they can hardly compete in terms of English-speaking skills; it may also be regarded as a way to compensate for the lack of native speakership.”

4. Convert the non-finite clause into a corresponding relative one:

  1. Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel has made it his mission to provide food and refuge for hundreds of former house-cats made homeless by the war in Syria.

The students are expected to understand that the noun phrase hundreds of former house-cats made homeless by the war in Syria contains a postmodifying V-ed clause that they have been asked to transform into a relative one. The non-finite clause made homeless by the war in Syria thus becomes the relative clause that/which have been made homeless by the war in Syria.

5. Use the description below to build a noun phrase in which the headword is preceded by one or more determiners and premodifiers:

  1. These hotels with five stars are on the waterfront and are decorated luxuriously.

The students are supposed to work out the headword and organise all the other content around it, coming up with the following noun phrase: these luxuriously decorated five-star waterfront hotels. The noun phrase contains the determiner these, the headword hotels, and the following three premodifiers: the modified participle luxuriously decorated, the noun phrase five-star, and the compound noun waterfront.

A few closing remarks

Generally speaking, the students make relatively slow progress, several exam resits are commonplace, high passes are few and far between, and the course receives a lot of bad publicity amongst the students.

From a teacher’s perspective, one particularly surprising outcome is that the results achieved in the English Morphosyntax 1 exam do not always match the students’ proficiency levels in English. For example, there are students whose spoken and written English is quite strong overall, yet their performance in English Morphosyntax 1 is not in keeping with that record. There are also students whose English skills are assessed below average but who do surprisingly well in English Morphosyntax 1 tests.

The students mainly fail to see the connection between one and the other even if a course such as English Morphosyntax 1 is designed precisely to help them develop and improve their English skills. Instead, the course is usually conceived of as an abstract subject matter with a life of its own and having little to do with the way English is actually used. Regardless of how vocal and persistent a teacher is in pointing out that the role of advanced grammar courses is ultimately to make one more proficient in English, the usual response is a mixture of doubt, resistance and lack of understanding.

These and similar tendencies can understandably make a teacher question her work. Some of the questions I have asked myself over the years go from ‘Am I asking too much of my students?’ to ‘Should I make English Morphosyntax 1 tests less creative and therefore easier to pass?’ to ‘Perhaps I could simply teach a little bit of grammar instead and ask them to memorise the rules?’ Yet, so far I have not succumbed to fear and weakness because I genuinely believe courses such as English Morphosyntax 1 are very much worth teaching and are every bit worth the wait before one can see them bring forth some palpable results. Even if some students never experience this breakthrough, the aha moment – not in a year, maybe not even in three or five years, I do hope that many more of them will make use of what they have learned in their English Morphosyntax 1 course when they speak and write English. They will begin to appreciate how deeply rooted in practice – how wonderfully practical – most of it really is.

It is no longer a question of whether one should stay the course or not: I really do not think that we have a choice. These, then, are the three main arguments that I repeatedly make to my students, my colleagues, and myself:

  1. Although you may see it in abstract terms, an advanced grammar course such as English Morphosyntax 1 has practical value: it helps you understand, speak and write English better.
  2. Morphosyntactic analysis, i.e. analysing English phrases, clauses and sentences, is good exercise for your brain and a tool for fostering your cognitive skills (e.g. boosting problem-solving and creativity).
  3. Metalinguistic knowledge will take you beyond learning and teaching English for communicative purposes; as prospective English teachers, you will learn how to make the most of it.

For all this and the circumstances in which English is taught institutionally in countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, the teaching of advanced grammar that comes complete with metalinguistic knowledge sometimes really does not seem to have an alternative. It is anything but easy, though.

References

Ellis R (2002) The place of grammar instruction in the second/foreign language curriculum. In S Fotos & E Hinkel (Eds) New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms (pp17–34). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Ellis R (2006) Current issues in the teaching of grammar: An SLA perspective. TESOL Quarterly 40 (1) 83–107.

Krashen S (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Roehr K (2006) Metalinguistic knowledge in L2 task performance: A verbal protocol analysis. Language Awareness 15 (3) 180–198.

Roehr K (2008) Metalinguistic knowledge and language ability in university-level L2 learners. Applied Linguistics 29 (2) 173–199.

Woll B & Wei L (2019) Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning: Broadening Our Perspectives. Final Report. The British Academy.


Tatjana Marjanović is an associate professor of English at the University of Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she teaches a bulk of linguistic courses to undergraduate and postgraduate English majors. She read for her MPhil at the University of Cambridge’s Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics. Ever since her time in the UK, she has continued to draw inspiration from Hallidayan approaches to language.