Exploring grammar learning and teaching as a student-centred process

Poyatos Matas, Cristina (2005). Exploring grammar learning and teaching as a student-centred process PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Poyatos Matas, Cristina
Thesis Title Exploring grammar learning and teaching as a student-centred process
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2005
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Michael Harrington
Michael Levy
Total pages 460
Collection year 2005
Language eng
Subjects L
380207 Linguistic Structures (incl. Grammar, Phonology, Lexicon, Semantics)
751002 Languages and literacy
Formatted abstract

In the last forty years the role of grammar in the second language (L2) classroom has changed dramatically. Grammar has moved from being of central importance in the grammar-translation method to being almost ignored in the communicative language teaching (CLT) approach, and then re-emerging as an important focus in more recent work. In the 1980s there was widespread discussion among researchers and practitioners concerning whether to even teach grammar (Celce-Murcia, 1985). But by the 1990s, the grammar debate had shifted from whether to teach grammar to how to provide more effective grammar pedagogy that can integrate grammar and communicative language learning (Sheer, 2002, 2003). As part of this shift, language teachers were encouraged to search for meaningful ways of approaching grammar learning and teaching in the communicative classroom (Doughty & Williams, 1998). 

In the same way that views in the field concerning the role of grammar have changed, so has my own approach to grammar in my Spanish language teaching practices. In a way, I have lived the grammar debate in my own personal experience as Spanish as a Second Language teacher in Australia. I was initially trained in the early 80s as a Spanish teacher in Spain, learning about the importance of grammar in language instruction and studying it in a traditional manner. In the late 80s and early 90s I did graduate study in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in England. At this time I learnt about Krashen's theories and how grammar teaching might be detrimental to language acquisition. Krashen's views in particular, and the CLT approach in general, had a very strong influence on my own teaching. I was, in Clyne's term, an "antigrammar language teacher" (Clyne, 1996). Later, in the mid 1990s, when I started to teach advanced Spanish to University students in Australia, my CLT beliefs started to waver in the face of growing demands by my students for grammar instruction. 

This thesis is a narrative account of a grammar teaching journey that began at that time. It is a journey in which I sought to develop a student-centred approach to grammar learning that would be genuinely communicative, while at the same time meet student needs for the development of structural knowledge of the language. Described here is my journey over six years from being a communicative anti-grammar teacher to one that seeks to empower students over their own grammar learning process. The early stages of this process were marked by a tension I felt between the grammar instruction that my students wanted and the communicative language teaching principles in which I believed. As I began to reconcile these two forces, my views on grammar teaching and learning changed. I realized that grammar learning and communication could not be successfully integrated unless the focus of grammar pedagogy shifted from the teaching of grammar to the learning of grammar, that is, from the teacher to the student. I also became aware of how little I really knew about grammar pedagogy, and how limited the grammar teaching options were that were presented in the pedagogical literature. 

The narrative in this thesis stretches from the second semester of 1996 to the first semester of 2002, spanning ten semesters and the experiences of ten groups of advanced learners of Spanish as a foreign language in an Australian University. The development and implementation of the different stages of the student-centred grammar learning environments are described here in detail. The process drew heavily on insights from Problem-Based Learning (PBL), Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) and Reflective Learning (RL) theories, and the roles these play are described. The ongoing development of the grammar learning environment was directly shaped by the participation and feedback of the students. This process is documented in detail, as is my response to the student comments and my own reflections. 

What will be evident in the course of the narrative is the steady movement from teacher-centred grammar teaching to student-centred grammar learning. At the beginning, when trying to respond to student demands for grammar learning, I instinctively used a traditional approach to grammar teaching, in which I was the main decision maker and in complete control of the learning process. Over the course of time I continually relinquished more and more control, with students coming to take centre stage in their own grammar learning. The active participation of students in their grammar learning was promoted by having them take the role of a Spanish grammar 'researcher'. Learners were encouraged to become more aware of their own grammar needs and the challenges they encountered in learning Spanish grammar. Central to the creation of the grammar learning environment was the grammar learning portfolio in which the students documented their grammar learning experiences and outcomes. The creation of the portfolio encouraged students to become more communicative and autonomous grammar learners. The development of the portfolio also promoted the use of problem-based, peer-assisted grammar learning in and outside the class. This on-going process of development culminated in the student-centred grammar learning environment described here that promotes a Communicative Focus on Forms (CoFonFs). 

The thesis is an action research case study (Zuber-Skerritt, 1993). This was found to be the best research methodology for the undertaking for two reasons. Firstly, because the study aimed to change grammar learning by approaching it in a communicative and reflective way, it was a process that was carried out under constant observation and evaluation, which is action research. Secondly, because it used data obtained from different groups of students participating over a long period of time, it is a case study. Moreover, evocative narrative has been used to describe the research findings, as it as it permits the participant teacher to bring all the components of this longitudinal educational experience together (Rener, 2001). Naturalistic elicited data were gathered through various methods. The data comes from two primary sources consisting of student questionnaires and student interviews, and two secondary sources in the form of student grammar learning portfolios and articles related to the historical development of grammar teaching approaches. 

The thesis begins with a discussion of grammar teaching and learning theories in Chapter 2. Here I identity key issues including the role that grammar might play in the development of second language (L2) proficiency, and the role that grammar learning might play in the language class. Chapter 3 discusses student-centred learning approaches to learning and assessment, specifically PBL, PAL, RL and Student Learning Portfolios. Here, I introduce the eight learning conditions that Egbert, Chao & Hanson-Smith (1999) believe support optimal classroom learning, e.g. "Learners have opportunities to interact and negotiate meaning" (p.3). These conditions will serve as the framework for discussing the student-centred approach developed here. The development of the student-centred grammar learning environment is described in Chapters 5 to 14, with each chapter covering one semester. For each semester I describe the process, procedures, and materials used to create a student-centred grammar learning environment. Student responses to the unit are elicited through questionnaires and, in several semesters, by interview. These responses are presented and discussed in each chapter. Where needed, modifications to the approach are made in light of student feedback and my own experience. Finally, in Chapter 15, I pull together the findings using the Egbert et al (1999) framework. The original eight conditions are expanded to include two new ones, with the ten conditions providing a better framework for describing the student-centred grammar learning approach I have developed. I believe this study advances our knowledge of L2 grammar pedagogy and establishes a basis for further research into CoFonFs pedagogy to promote meaningful and autonomous grammar learning in communicative classrooms. Even though the approach has been developed in a foreign language learning context with advanced language tertiary students, I believe the student-centred grammar learning environment developed here has the potential to be implemented in other learning and teaching contexts. 

Keyword Spanish language -- Grammar -- Study and teaching
Additional Notes Missing page x in the original thesis.

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (RHD) - UQ staff and students only
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Created: Fri, 24 Aug 2007, 18:42:03 EST