Nassaji ( 2004)
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Nassaji ( 2004)
Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (2004) 24, 126B145. Printed in the USA.
Copyright 8 2004 Cambridge University Press 0267-1905/04 $12.00
6. CURRENT DEVELOPMENTS IN RESEARCH ON THE TEACHING OF
Hossein Nassaji and Sandra Fotos
With the rise of communicative methodology in the late 1970s, the role of grammar
instruction in second language learning was downplayed, and it was even suggested
that teaching grammar was not only unhelpful but might actually be detrimental.
However, recent research has demonstrated the need for formal instruction for
learners to attain high levels of accuracy. This has led to a resurgence of grammar
teaching, and its role in second language acquisition has become the focus of much
current investigation. In this chapter we briefly review the major developments in
the research on the teaching of grammar over the past few decades. This review
addresses two main issues: (1) whether grammar teaching makes any difference to
language learning; and (2) what kinds of grammar teaching have been suggested to
facilitate second language learning. To this end, the chapter examines research on
the different ways in which formal instruction can be integrated with communicative
Continuing in the tradition of more than 2000 years of debate regarding
whether grammar should be a primary focus of language instruction, should be
eliminated entirely, or should be subordinated to meaning-focused use of the target
language (for historical reviews see Howatt, 1984; Kelly, 1969), the need for
grammar instruction is once again attracting the attention of second language
acquisition (SLA) researchers and teachers. We briefly review arguments against
and in support of grammar teaching before examining the approaches to grammatical
instruction investigated in current research.1
Arguments Against Grammar Teaching
Much grammar research over the past few decades has concentrated on
determining whether grammar should be taught at all. This focus has been motivated
in part by debates in the field of cognitive psychology over the role of explicit versus
implicit language learning and whether such learning occurs through conscious
manipulation of information or primarily through unconscious processes when
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people are exposed to language input (Bialystok, 1990, 1994; N. Ellis, 1994; Reber,
1967, 1989, 1993). Theoretically, the debate was represented by Krashen’s (1981)
distinction between conscious learning and unconscious acquisition of language. It
was claimed that language should be acquired through natural exposure, not learned
through formal instruction. It was therefore believed that formal grammar lessons
would develop only declarative knowledge of grammar structures, not the procedural
ability to use forms correctly, and that there was no interface between these two
types of knowledge since they existed as different systems in the brain (see reviews
in DeKeyser, 1998, 2001; R. Ellis, 2001, 2002a; Skehan, 1998).
This position was supported by evidence from studies on the acquisition of
English morphology, particularly the findings that speakers of different first
languages (L1s) learn English morphemes in a similar order (Bailey, Madden, &
Krashen, 1974; Dulay & Burt, 1974). These results led to the claim that similar
processes underlie both first and second language (L2) learning and that, if L1
learners do not require formal instruction to learn languages, neither should L2
learners (Krashen, 1981; Schwartz, 1993; Zobl, 1995). Schwartz (1993), for
example, claimed that “only positive data can effect the construction of an
interlanguage grammar [italics are the author’s] that is comparable to the knowledge
system that characterizes the result of first language acquisition” (p. 147).
Similar claims were also made in the context of Universal Grammar (UG)
and its application to SLA. Researchers argued that if UG is accessible to L2
learners, then L2 learning, like L1 learning, occurs mainly through the interaction of
UG principles with input (Cook, 1991; Dulay, Burt, & Krashen, 1982; Schwartz,
1993; also see Goldschneider & DeKeyser, 2001). Again, formal instruction was
seen to be unnecessary.
Research Supporting Grammar Teaching
Current research in SLA, however, has led to a reconsideration of the role of
grammar in the L2 classroom. There are at least four reasons for the reevaluation of
grammar as a necessary component of language instruction.
First, the 1980s hypothesis that language can be learned without some
degree of consciousness has been found theoretically problematic. Schmidt (1990,
1993, 2001) suggests that conscious attention to form, or what he calls “noticing,” is
a necessary condition for language learning (see also Leow, 1998, 2001, 2002;
Rutherford, 1987, 1988; Tomlin & Villa, 1994). He emphasizes the role of attention:
The concept of attention is necessary in order to understand
virtually every aspect of second language acquisition (SLA),
including the development of interlanguages (ILs) over time,
variation within IL at particular points in time, the development of
L2 fluency, the role of individual differences such as motivation,
aptitude and learning strategies in L2 learning, and the ways
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interaction, negotiation for meaning, and all forms of instruction
contribute to language learning. (Schmidt, 2001, p. 3)
Although some researchers have questioned Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis
(e.g., Truscott, 1998), most SLA investigators agree that noticing or awareness of
target forms plays an important role in L2 learning (e.g., Bialystok, 1994; Bygate,
Skehan, & Swain, 2001; DeKeyser, 1998, Doughty, 2001; R. Ellis, 2001, 2002a;
Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen, 2001a, 2001b; Fotos, 1993, 1994, 1998; Nassaji,
1999, 2000, 2002; Nassaji & Swain, 2000; Robinson, 1995, 2001; Skehan, 1998;
Swain & Lapkin, 2001). In addition, investigators such as Skehan (1998) and
Tomasello (1998) have presented findings indicating that language learners cannot
process target language input for both meaning and form at the same time. Thus, it is
necessary for learners to notice target forms in input; otherwise they process input for
meaning only and do not attend to specific forms, and consequently fail to process
and acquire them.
A second reason for the renewed interest in L2 grammar instruction is
evidence that L2 learners pass through developmental sequences. Based on
empirical evidence from German learners of English, Pienemann (1984, 1988, 1999)
developed what has been known as the teachability hypothesis, which suggests that
while certain developmental sequences are fixed and cannot be altered by grammar
teaching, other structures can benefit from instruction any time they are taught.
Based on this hypothesis, it is possible to influence sequences of development
favorably through instruction if grammar teaching coincides with the learner’s
readiness to move to the next developmental stage of linguistic proficiency
(Lightbown, 2000). Recent suggestions on the place of grammar in the second
language curriculum, particularly in classrooms with a communicative focus (e.g., R.
Ellis, 2002b), take these considerations into account.
A third reason for renewed interest in grammar instruction is a large body of
research pointing to the inadequacies of teaching approaches where the focus is
primarily on meaning-focused communication, and grammar is not addressed.
Extensive research on learning outcomes in French immersion programs by Swain
and her colleagues showed that, despite substantial long-term exposure to meaningful
input, the learners did not achieve accuracy in certain grammatical forms (Harley &
Swain, 1984; Lapkin, Hart, & Swain, 1991; Swain, 1985; Swain & Lapkin, 1989).
This research suggested that some type of focus on grammatical forms was necessary
if learners were to develop high levels of accuracy in the target language. Thus,
communicative language teaching by itself was found to be inadequate (also see
Celce-Murcia, Dörnyei, & Thurrell, 1997; R. Ellis, 1997, 2002b; Mitchell, 2000).
A fourth reason for the reconsideration of grammar teaching in the L2
classroom is evidence for the positive effects of grammar instruction. This evidence
comes from a large number of laboratory and classroom-based studies as well as
extensive reviews of studies on the effects of instruction over the past 20 years (R.
Ellis, 1985, 1990, 1994, 2001, 2002a; Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991; Long, 1983,
1988, 1991). For example, studies of the effects of instruction on the development of
RESEARCH ON THE TEACHING OF GRAMMAR 129
specific target language forms (e.g., Cadierno, 1995; Doughty, 1991; Lightbown,
1992; Lightbown & Spada, 1990) as well as corrective feedback on learner errors
(Carroll & Swain, 1993; Nassaji & Swain, 2000) indicate that grammatical
instruction has a significant effect on the attainment of accuracy. In an early review,
Long (1983) concluded that grammar instruction contributes importantly to language
learning. In later reviews, R. Ellis (1990, 1994, 1997, 2001, 2002a), N. Ellis (1995),
and Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991) suggest that, while instructed language
learning may not have major effects on sequences of acquisition, it has facilitative
effects on both the rate and the ultimate level of L2 acquisition. Similarly, a recent
meta-analysis of 49 studies on the effectiveness of L2 instruction (Norris & Ortega,
2000) concludes that explicit instruction (presenting the structure, describing and
exemplifying it, and giving rules for its use) results in substantial gains in the
learning of target structures in comparison to implicit instruction (usually consisting
of communicative exposure to the target form) alone, and that these gains are durable
How Much and What Type of Grammar Teaching?
Despite such empirical support for grammar instruction, however, there is
still controversy over the relative importance of explicit grammar teaching. This is
due to the complex relationship between teaching and learning, and the fact that how
something is taught is not directly related to how it is learned. At one extreme are
those who have persistently denied the importance of any explicit instruction in
language acquisition. Krashen (1993), for example, describes the effects of grammar
instruction as “peripheral and fragile” (p. 725), arguing that explicit grammatical
knowledge about structures and rules for their use may never turn into implicit
knowledge underlying unconscious language comprehension and production. He
suggests that studies showing an effect for formal instruction present only “modest
increases in consciously-learned competence consistent with the claims of the
Monitor hypothesis” (Krashen, 1999, p. 245). Truscott (1996, 1998) also rejects the
value of explicit grammar instruction on similar grounds, arguing that its effects are
short-lived and superficial and that grammar instruction alone may not promote what
he called “genuine knowledge of language” (p.120). Truscott suggests that if studies
have shown benefits for form focused instruction, such results have been obtained
from tests that measure only explicit metalinguistic knowledge, not the learner’s
ability to use the target language in spontaneous communication.
Other researchers have taken a more cautious approach, not questioning the
need for explicit instruction but rather objecting to traditional grammar teaching
pedagogy which treats language as an object of learning and has consisted of
grammar lessons in which grammatical structures are explicitly presented by the
teacher in a decontextualized manner. The traditional assumption has been that
through such conscious presentation and manipulation of forms through drills and
practice, learners will develop the kind of knowledge they need for communicative
language use. However, Skehan (1996) suggests that this traditional
presentation-practice model is not supported by current research. He maintains that
“the belief that a precise focus on a particular form leads to learning and
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automatization . . . no longer carries much credibility in linguistics or psychology”
Even those researchers who support explicit grammar instruction have
suggested that it may not directly lead to implicit knowledge or to immediate
changes in the learner’s interlanguage (Batstone, 1994; R. Ellis, 2002a, 2000b, 2003;
R. Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen, 2002; Lightbown, 2000). For example, Ellis et al.
while there is substantial evidence that focus-on-forms instruction
results in learning as measured by discrete-point language tests
(e.g., the grammar test in the TOEFL), there is much less evidence
to show that it leads to the kind of learning that enables learners to
perform the targeted form in free oral production (e.g., in a
communicative task). (2002, p. 421)
While not denying a role for explicit instruction, N. Ellis (2002) suggests
that language learning is ultimately implicit in nature, “the slow acquisition of
form-function mappings and the regularities therein. This skill, like others, takes
tens of thousands of hours of practice, practice that can not be substituted for by
provision of a few declarative rules” (p. 175). Ellis’s consideration is supported by
other researchers, particularly those involved in research on cognitive processing (for
example, see DeKeyser, 2001; Doughty, 2001; Robinson, 1995, 1996, 2001).
However, this does not mean that grammar instruction is not useful. Rather,
what is suggested is that learners must also have opportunities to encounter, process,
and use instructed forms in their various form-meaning relationships so that the
forms can become part of their intelanguage behavior (see Larsen-Freeman, 2003).
Reviewing research on the effects of grammar instruction on SLA, Spada (1997)
notes that when learners receive communicative exposure to grammar points
introduced through formal instruction, their awareness of the forms becomes
longer-lasting and their accuracy of use improves. Reviewing recent studies on
formal instruction, R. Ellis (2002a) suggests that when grammar instruction is
extensive and is sustained over a long period of time (several days or weeks), such
instruction contributes to the development of implicit knowledge as measured by
performance on free production tasks. Instruction also promotes accuracy in the use
of difficult forms such as English articles. He therefore notes (2001, 2002b, 2003)
that current research strongly supports the need for provision of communicative
opportunities containing instructed grammar forms, and he recommends a
combination of form focused instruction and meaningful communication, suggesting
possible intervention points for instruction in a task-based communicative curriculum
Thus, current research indicates that learners need opportunities to both
encounter and produce structures which have been introduced either explicitly,
through a grammar lesson, or implicitly, through frequent exposure (also see reviews
in Gass, Mackey, & Pica, 1998; N. Ellis, R. Ellis, 2001, 2002a, 2000b, 2003;
RESEARCH ON THE TEACHING OF GRAMMAR 131
Lightbown, 2000, 1995, 2002), a consideration raised several decades ago by Swain
in her work on learner output (1985, 1995).
Current Approaches to Grammar Teaching
Because of problems presented by traditional structure-based grammar
teaching, Long, (1991) proposed an approach that he termed “focus on FORM,”
distinguishing it from a “focus on FORMS” approach to teaching grammar (see the
discussion in Long & Robinson, 1998). Whereas focus on FORMS involves discrete
grammatical forms selected and presented in an isolated manner, focus on FORM
involves the teacher’s attempts to draw the student's attention to grammatical forms
in the context of communication (also see DeKeyser, 1998; Doughty & Varela, 1998;
Long, 2000). Using a psycholinguistic perspective, Doughty (2001) has recently
described the cognitive processes that take place when learners become aware of
forms in input. However, Long (2000) takes a more pedagogic view, suggesting that
this approach is effective for teaching grammar since it is learner-centered and tuned
to the learner’s internal syllabus.
Although no research has directly compared the effectiveness of a focus on
form and a focus on forms approach, and the difference between them is suggested to
be difficult to operationalize (R. Ellis, 2002b), the idea of focus of form has been
widely advocated in the literature. Pedagogically focus on form can be achieved in
many different ways. For example, Nassaji (1999, 2000) proposed that focus on
form can be achieved through process or through design. Focus on form through
process occurs in the context of natural communication when both the teacher and
the learner's primary focus is on meaning. Focus on form through design is
deliberate and is achieved through designing tasks which have deliberate explicit
focus. Focus on form can also be achieved reactively through providing reactional
feedback on learners' errors or preemptively through discussing grammatical forms
irrespective of whether an error has occurred or not (Ellis et al., 2001a, 2001b; Long
& Robinson, 1998).
A number of researchers have argued (e.g., Doughty & Varela, 1998; R.
Ellis 1994, 2002a, 2002b, 2003; Robinson, 2001) that if the goal of second language
learning is the development of communicative competence, enabling learners to use
language for communicative purposes, then grammar and communication must be
integrated. However, the challenge is to identify the best ways of doing so in L2
classrooms (Nassaji, 1999; Nassaji & Cumming, 2000) and to maximize the
opportunity for a focus on grammar without sacrificing the focus on meaning and
communication. Several proposals have been made during the last 10 years on ways
to combine some form of grammar instruction with the provision of opportunities for
communicative input and output, and a number of studies have researched their
In the next section, we briefly review research on alternative ways of
treating grammar, including studies on processing instruction, interactional feedback,
132 HOSSEIN NASSAJI AND SANDRA FOTOS
textual enhancement, focused grammar tasks, collaborative output tasks, and
discourse-based grammar teaching in L2 classrooms.
VanPatten (1993, 1996, 2002) suggests that one way to teach grammar
communicatively is through processing input or what he called processing
instruction. In this approach an initial exposure to explicit instruction is combined
with a series of input processing activities, consisting mainly of tasks that encourage
the comprehension of the target structure rather than its production (see also R. Ellis,
1995, 2003). These activities have been suggested to help learners to create form-
meaning connections in input and hence process grammar for meaning (Lee &
VanPatten, 1995). Due to the explicit focus on form component of this approach,
some researchers have equated it with Long’s focus on forms (e.g., Sheen, 2002).
VanPatten (2002), however, argues that since the aim of this approach is “to assist
the learner in making form–meaning connections during IP [input processing]; it is
more appropriate to view it as a type of focus on form” (p. 764).
A number of studies have been conducted by VanPatten and his colleagues
to investigate the effectiveness of processing instruction for the learning of grammar
(Cadierno, 1995; VanPatten & Cadierno, 1993; VanPatten & Oikennon, 1996) and
the results indicate a favorable effect. Additional studies have been carried out
involving a range of grammatical structures and target languages. While some have
produced evidence supporting the advantage of input processing instruction over
traditional grammar instruction, others have failed to produce such evidence (Allen,
2000; Benati, 2001). DeKeyser and Sokalski (2001) suggest that the effectiveness of
processing instruction depends on the morphosyntactic complexity of the target
structure as well as the length of the testing time, suggesting that input processing is
more effective for promoting comprehension skills, whereas production-based
instruction is more effective for promoting production skills. Thus, the effectiveness
of this type of instruction may depend on the nature of grammatical form as well as
the type of skill involved. More research is required to explore the exact effect of
input processing and the ways in which it may influence different language skills.
Interactional feedback refers to various negotiation and modification
strategies such as repetitions, clarification requests, confirmation checks, and the
like, which are made by learners or directed to them to facilitate understanding. Such
interactions draw the learners’ attention implicitly or explicitly to aspects of the
target language such as grammatical forms (Lyster & Ranta, 1997; Nassaji & Swain,
2000; Van den Branden, 1997). This approach is based on the theory that such
interactional strategies highlight linguistic or pragmatic problems, pushing learners to
intentionally modify their output in order to produce more accurate and
comprehensible utterances (see R. Ellis, 1997, 2003, for a discussion of the
Interaction Hypothesis; also see Gass et al., 1998). Researchers have also made a
distinction between two types of negotiation, negotiation of meaning and negotiation
RESEARCH ON THE TEACHING OF GRAMMAR 133
of form (R. Ellis, 2002b; Lyster & Ranta, 1997; van Lier, 1988). Negotiation of
meaning refers to conversational strategies used to signal or repair problems in
communication. These strategies are typical of ordinary conversation or teacher–
students interaction in L1 subject-matter classrooms (see Nassaji & Wells, 2000).
Negotiation of form, for example, recasts, refers to interactional strategies used
mainly to respond to erroneously used forms (Lyster & Ranta, 1997).
A growing body of research has explored the effectiveness of interactional
feedback for SLA. Some of these studies have investigated the effects of these
interactions on the development of L2 grammar forms (Doughty & Varela, 1998;
Iwashita, 2003; Long, Inagaki, & Ortega, 1998; Nassaji, 1999; Nassaji & Swain,
2000; also see the review in Gass, Mackey, & Pica, 1998). For example, a series of
studies conducted by Mackey and her colleagues (Mackey, 1999; Mackey & Oliver,
2002; Mackey & Philp, 1998, McDonough & Mackey, 2000) examined the effect of
interactional feedback on the development of English questions and found that
compared with control groups, the feedback groups progressed further in terms of
their ability to form questions. Doughty and Varela (1998) investigated recasts on
the learning of past and conditional sentences, finding that learners who received
corrective recasts in response to their errors made more progress in use of past tense
forms than those who did not. Lyster (2001) investigated the role of interactional
feedback with respect to error types and its effects on immediate learner repair. He
found that, while negotiation of form was more effective than recasts and explicit
corrections in relation to lexical and grammatical errors and the unsolicited use of
learner’s first language, recasts were more effective in relation to phonological
Ohta (2000, 2001) used a sociocultural framework to examine the role of
private speech in adult foreign language learners of Japanese, finding that learners
favorably responded to recasts. Within the same framework, Aljaafreh and Lantolf
(1994) investigated the effects of interactional feedback in the context of adult ESL
writing, and found that feedback negotiated between the learner and the teacher and
within the learner's zone of proximal development played an important role in second
language learning (see also Nassaji & Cumming, 2000). Nassaji and Swain (2000)
conducted a similar study comparing negotiated feedback with random feedback.
These researchers also found that negotiated feedback was more effective than
feedback provided randomly and nonnegotiatively, though the effects of the two
were strongly mediated by the explicit nature of the feedback.
Thus, the results of studies on interactional strategies suggest the
effectiveness of these strategies in promoting SLA. However, as Nicholas,
Lightbown and Spada (2001) have pointed out, no firm conclusions can yet be
drawn, particularly about the role of recasts. For example, Lyster and Ranta (1997)
found that, although recasts were the most frequently used interactional strategy by
teachers in French Immersion classrooms, elicitation was more effective in
encouraging learners to reformulate their erroneous utterances. However, a study by
Ellis, Basturkmen, and Loewen (2001a) found that recasts were not only the most
frequently used type of strategy, but that they also led to a high degree of uptake of
134 HOSSEIN NASSAJI AND SANDRA FOTOS
the target forms. Such results indicate that more research is needed to examine the
effects of interactional strategies not only in response to different types of grammar
features but also in different classroom contexts.
There are a number of studies that have investigated the effects of textual
enhancement on drawing the learner’s attention to grammar, and the method has
been described as the least explicit and the least intrusive method of focus on form
(Doughty & Varela, 1998). It involves highlighting certain features of input that
might go unnoticed under normal circumstances by typographically manipulating
them through boldfacing, italicizing, underlining, or capitalizing. The assumption is
that such manipulations enhance the perceptual saliency of the target structures, and
this, hence, increases their chance of being noticed. A related technique is the
provision of numerous instances of target linguistic forms in the input, called an
input flood (Trahey & White, 1993). Again, the assumption is that frequent exposure
to target items enhances their saliency and hence results in noticing the forms
(Schmidt, 1990; Sharwood Smith, 1993). Whereas studies by Doughty (1991) and
Fotos (1994) reported positive results in terms of awareness of target structures and
proficiency gains resulting from textually enhanced structures, a study by White
(1998) did not show that learners who received textually enhanced input differed
significantly in their ability to use the target structure compared with those who did
not. White concluded that the method of enhancement may not have been
sufficiently explicit to draw the learners’ attention to the type of linguistic features
that involved L1–L2 contrasts. Similarly, Leow (2001) investigated the effects of
textual enhancement on learning Spanish formal imperatives and found no advantage
for enhanced text over unenhanced text. Finally, Izumi (2002) compared two types
of focus on form strategies, output and visual input enhancement, on the learning of
English relativization by adult ESL learners, finding that those who produced output
developed more than those merely received input. However, the visual enhancement
did not result in gains in accuracy using the target form.
Thus, the results of the studies on textual enhancement suggest that, while
this strategy may promote noticing of grammatical forms (Fotos, 1994, 1998), it may
not be sufficient for their acquisition. Thus, while noticing may be a necessary
condition for acquisition, it is not the only condition. As Batstone notes, if learners
want to learn grammar effectively, they have to “act on it, building it into their
working hypothesis about how grammar is structured” (1994, p. 59). This may not
happen unless the learners are exposed to continued and sustained noticing activities
as well as ample opportunities for producing the target form.
Focused tasks. The use of communicative tasks has been widely advocated
in second language classrooms, but usually these tasks have been interpreted as
having a primary focus on meaning. Thus, Nunan (1989) defined communicative
tasks as “a piece of classroom work which involves learners in comprehending,
RESEARCH ON THE TEACHING OF GRAMMAR 135
manipulating, producing, or interacting in the target language while their attention is
principally focused on meaning rather than on form” (p. 10). However, three types
of structure-based tasks have been proposed recently to promote learner awareness
and practice of target forms. Although the tasks are aimed at making grammar forms
salient to the learner, this is achieved through communicative activities. Such tasks
promote awareness, since the learners’ attention is drawn to the nature of the target
structure; yet they are also communicative, since the learners are engaged in
meaning-focused interaction. Rod Ellis (2003; Nobuyoshi & Ellis, 1993) has
described such tasks as “focused” compared with unfocused tasks that are designed
purely for communication. He describes these tasks (2003, p. 151) as (1) structure-
based production tasks, (2) comprehension tasks, and (3) consciousness-raising tasks.
For structure-based production tasks, use of the target form is required to
complete purely communicative activities (R. Ellis, 1995; Loschky & Bley-Vroman,
1993; Mackey, 1999; Nobuyoshi & Ellis, 1993). Thus, the task material is not
grammatical in nature, although the learners must produce the target structure to
complete the task. Comprehension tasks are designed so that learners must attend to
and comprehend target forms in carefully structured input (R. Ellis, 1995; VanPatten,
1996), and they usually consist of a stimulus requiring the learner to make a response
(R. Ellis, 2003). Whereas the previous two task types introduce grammar structures
implicitly in communicative contexts, consciousness-raising tasks (Fotos, 1993,
1998, 2002; Fotos & Ellis, 1991; Leow, 2001; Sheen, 1992) require learners to
communicate with each other about target grammar structures; thus the grammar
forms are the task content. Such tasks present examples of the target structure and
require learners to manipulate the structure, often generating rules for its use (Ellis,
Research on the use of such tasks suggests that grammar points with a few
easily taught rules are more amenable to form-focused instruction through task
performance than structures that are governed by a great many rules (see DeKeyser,
1998; R. Ellis, 1995, 2003; Robinson, 1996). However, it has also been found (R.
Ellis, 2003; Loschky & Bley-Vroman, 1993; Robinson, 1996) that meaning-focused
activities such as tasks containing communicative instances of target forms are useful
for developing learner awareness of grammar structures that are too complex to be
understood through formal instruction alone. Additional research (Robinson, 2001)
indicates that complex tasks result in greater attention to input as well as increased
awareness of output compared with simple tasks. Thus, tasks with grammar
structures as implicit or explicit content, even cognitively demanding tasks, appear to
be effective in promoting awareness of the target grammar structure, but, again,
further research is indicated.
Collaborative output tasks. As mentioned, research by Swain and her
colleagues has shown that despite many years of exposure to meaningful input,
French immersion students often lacked high levels of accuracy in certain
grammatical forms. Swain (1985, 2000, 2001) suggests that this is because the
learners were not pushed beyond their current level of interlanguage. She therefore
argues that output of the L2 plays an important role in SLA (1985, 1995, 2000, 2001,
136 HOSSEIN NASSAJI AND SANDRA FOTOS
in press). Thus, when learners attempt to produce the L2, they notice that they are
not able to say what they want to say (Robinson, 2001; Swain, 2000, 2001), and this
“pushes” them to achieve greater accuracy. Pushed output also provides
opportunities for formulating and testing hypothesis. When learners produce the
target language, such production allows for deeper syntactic processing because they
have to “move from the semantic, open-ended, strategic processing prevalent in
comprehension to the complete grammatical processing needed for accurate
production” (Swain, 2000, p. 99). In a recent article, Swain (in press) describes the
output hypothesis, the research context in which it was formulated, and the research
evidence that supports its various functions. She also argues for the importance of
output as a process, not just a product of language learning.
One way of promoting pushed output is through focused communicative
tasks where learners are pushed to reproduce language forms accurately (R. Ellis,
1997, 2003; Nobuyoshi & Ellis, 1993). Another way of achieving this is through the
use of collaborative output tasks that require learners to cooperatively produce
language (Swain, 2001). For example, the dictogloss (Wajnryb, 1990) has been
effectively used for such collaborative output tasks. Here the teacher reads a short
L2 text twice and asks the learners to work in groups or pairs to reproduce the text as
accurately as possible. The effectiveness of dictogloss has been investigated in
studies by Swain and her colleagues (Kowal & Swain, 1994; Swain, 2000; Swain &
Lapkin, 1998, 2001). These researchers suggest that dictogloss tasks not only
promote meaningful interaction in the L2 but also lead to improvement in accuracy
in the use of target forms. Kowal and Swain (1994) also found that when learners
produced the target language during such tasks, they noticed gaps in their linguistic
knowledge which then triggered a cooperative search for the solution. Comparing
the effect of a dictogloss task with a jigsaw task in which pairs of students worked
together to create a story based on a series of pictures, Swain and Lapkin (2001) note
that the dictogloss task led to more accurate reproduction of the target forms than the
jigsaw task but both “generated a similar and substantial proportion of language
related episodes” (p. 111). Thus, the various task-based approaches to grammar
instruction appear to be successful in promoting awareness of target forms and
promoting accuracy gains but, again, further comparative research is necessary.
Discourse-based grammar teaching is an important component of other
recent approaches to grammar teaching reviewed in this discussion. Here instruction
of target forms is supported by extensive use of authentic or simplified discourse,
including corpus analysis, to supply learners with abundant examples of
contextualized usages of the target structure to promote the establishment of form-
meaning relationships (Batstone, 1994; Carter, Hughes, & McCarthy, 2000; Celce-
Murcia, 2002, Celce-Murcia, Dörnyei, & Thurrell, 1997; Hinkel, 1999, 2002a, 2002b
2002c; Hughes & McCarthy, 1998). Research by Carter, Hughes, and McCarthy
(2000) and Hughes and McCarthy (1998) emphasizes the difference between spoken
and written English grammars and recommends the use of corpus analysis to provide
learners with authentic examples of spoken L2 forms. Celce-Murcia and Olshtain
RESEARCH ON THE TEACHING OF GRAMMAR 137
(2000) call for the end of a primarily sentence-based approach to grammar
instruction, noting that grammar instruction requires both a top-down and bottom-up
approach (Nassaji, 2002). The first relates target structures to the macrostructure of
the text as a whole, a discourse-analytic approach, whereas the second specifies the
function of target structures, a microanalytic approach.
In her studies of ESL learners’ writing Hinkel (1999, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c)
finds that even highly educated learners tend to be influenced by their cultural
rhetorical and discourse traditions when writing in the L2, and require extensive and
persistent instruction in L2 grammar and the complex feature of L2 texts. Noting
that grammar teaching is usually treated separately from the teaching of writing, she
recommends that instruction in L2 writing include explicit instruction on grammar,
lexical forms and rhetorical patterns as exemplified by authentic text and discourse
(2002a). She also presents research findings (2002b, 2002c) indicating that, although
difficult forms, such as the English tenses and passive need to be instructed, such
forms “cannot be studied in isolation from their syntactic functions and pragmatic
uses” (2002b, p. 235). Thus, recent approaches to grammar emphasize the need for
provision of extensive exposure to, as well as focus on, the target forms to promote
Current research clearly indicates that grammar feedback is necessary in
order for language learners to attain high levels of proficiency in the target language.
However, traditional structure-based grammar teaching approaches have been
replaced by treatments which may or may not include an explicit discussion of target
forms and the rules for their use, but present the forms in numerous communicative
contexts designed to promote learner awareness of meaning–form relationships and
to permit processing of the form to occur over time. Although the exact nature of
this kind of instruction and the various forms it can take in second language
classrooms are still far from clear, it is now suggested that among the essential
conditions for acquisition of grammatical forms are (1) learner noticing and
continued awareness of target forms, (2) repeated meaning-focused exposure to input
containing them, and (3) opportunities for output and practice. It is also recognized
that, because the acquisition of grammar is affected by internal processing
constraints, spontaneous and accurate production cannot be instantaneous but will
naturally require time as learners move toward mastery.
1. The authors would like to thank Rod Ellis, Eli Hinkel, and Merrill Swain for their
helpful comments on a draft of this chapter.
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