Applying Communicative Methods to|
Teaching Grammar: An Experiment
Nguyen Quynh Giao, M.A., and Nguyen Thi Nhan Hoa, M.Ed.
Can CLT help Vietnamese students learn grammar better than
for a communicative lesson. Controlling the class and
assuring all learners’ participation and involvement is
There are many English textbooks currently available on
not easy work for the teacher!
the market, and teachers and learners of English as a for-
Because of all these problems, communicative les-
eign language (EFL) in Vietnam have a wide range of
sons may be considered unsuccessful, with both teach-
choices. Though the design of most of these books is
ers and students left unsatisfied. Furthermore, although
based on the communicative language teaching (CLT)
the communicative method has been accepted in teach-
approach, many teachers generally still prefer the tradi-
ing language skills subjects, it is still not widely used to
tional method in which grammar rules are taught deduc-
tively (the grammar-translation method). This is due to
many reasons, of which the most noticeable are the tra-
ditional role of language teachers, as well as teachers’
attitudes and experiences.
Traditionally, applying the grammar-translation
method, classes are taught in the mother tongue with lit-
tle active use of the foreign language. Grammar rules are
The subjects of our study were 50 participants cho-
explained in the mother tongue and students are expect-
sen from among 74 students in two non-major English
ed to learn them by heart and then reproduce them.
classes (D2001 VT1 and D2001 VT2) in the
The teacher is a controller while learners are only pas-
Telecommunications Department of the Post &
sively involved. The students do as the teacher says so
Telecommunications Institute of Technology (PTIT).
that they can learn what she knows. This prevents them
Their level of English was elementary. The instructor of
from producing their own language—the language is
both classes was a female teacher of English who quali-
not used meaningfully, naturally, or contextually.
fied to teach with a B.A. in English. She had been teach-
Teachers feel more comfortable when using the
ing English at PTIT for nine years.
grammar-translation method because it is familiar to
them, and thus they feel more confident. If they want to
make a change toward CLT, they may have to cope with
difficulties related to both themselves and their stu-
For our research, we followed these steps:
dents. Problems appear when an inexperienced teacher
• Initially, a grammar pre-test was given to both classes.
does activities with unclear instructions or goals.
It was done by both classes on the same day, with
Learners may make too much noise when practicing or
when the teacher is busy with other pairs or groups.
• Next, the two classes were taught with two different
They may prefer speaking their mother tongue to the
methods: one with a communicative approach (the
target language. Activities may take more or less time
experimental class) and the other with the traditional
than planned. The teacher may be confronted with dif-
grammar-translation method (the control class).
ficult queries to which she does not immediately know
• During the research period, seven lessons were
the answers. Having no English-speaking context out-
observed in both classes.
side class, students may be unmotivated. A large class, as
• Finally, a grammar post-test was given to both classes,
is often the case in Vietnam, is not an ideal environment
again on the same day, with researchers’ visitation.
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The sentences in section B comprised ten blanks of verbs
in the “will / be going to” forms (five blanks) and simple
present forms (five blanks), which the learners had just
studied and practiced. Overall, these two sections con-
The pre-test’s primary goal was to compare the two
tained 20 blanks (as had section A of the pre-test).
classes in amount of vocabulary, level of knowledge, and
Section C (drawn from Doorley and Gray,p.12) asked
ability to write communicative sentences with appro-
students to make up sentences from given prompts.
priate grammar. A secondary purpose was to find 25
These sentences built up into a letter and contained sev-
suitable research participants in each class.
eral grammatical structures. The test-takers would have
Section A of the test (drawn from Azar, pp. 14-15)
to understand it as a whole in order to make the letter
aimed to assess students’ ability to give the correct forms
meaningful. It consisted of eight sentences with different
of given verbs. The 20 blanks contrasted the simple
tenses—five using past, two using present, and one using
present (eight blanks) and present progressive tenses
future tenses. (The post-test is found on pages 22-23.)
(12 blanks). Eight of the 12 verbs expressed what the
Figure 2 presents the average scores of the two class-
subjects were doing at the moment, and the rest showed
es on the post-test. From this,it can be seen that the num-
future intention and prediction.
ber of weak students in the experimental class was much
Section B (drawn from Doorley and Gray, p. 47)
smaller than in the control class. In addition, the number
aimed to check learners’ writing skills by having them
of students with excellent marks in the control class was
create complete sentences to form a letter, based on a
just one-quarter of that in the experimental class.
series of prompts. In order to make the letter meaning-
ful, the test-takers would have to understand it as a
whole. The letter consisted of eight sentences using dif-
ferent verb tenses—three past, three present, and two
During the six weeks of teaching the assigned gram-
future. (The pre-test is found on page 21.)
mar units, the two classes were observed seven times by
According to the pre-test’s results, the students in
the researchers, using two checklists.
each class were divided into four groups: weak students
Checklist 1 (adapted from Richards and Lockhart, p.
(1-4 marks); medium students (5-6 marks); good students
19) contained five questions to check the teaching
(7-8 marks); and the best students (9-10 marks). The two
methods used and to investigate which methods did bet-
classes had the same number of good students, nearly
ter in increasing learners’ motivation. (This checklist is
half of each. The number of best students in the exper-
found on page 23.)
imental class was a bit lower than in the control class.
Data was recorded from the observations, but the
The percentage of medium and weak students in the
detailed results are not shown here (complete tables are
experimental class was a bit higher than in the control
available upon request). Instead, we report our analysis
class. (See Figure 1.)
and conclusions resulting from the observations:
On the whole, no great difference existed between
• Although the teacher applied two different methods to
the two classes’ pre-test scores for the selected research
the two classes, some of the things she did during the
participants. That is, the experimental and control stu-
lessons were the same, such as having students create
dents performed the test rather equally.
sentences or paragraphs using specific grammar rules or
sentence patterns, and using visual aids.
• Communicative activities such as pair work and group
work appeared in many observations and proved to be
After six weeks of lessons, both classes were given a
of great help in the teaching of grammar.
post-test. The post-test aimed to check the knowledge
• What the teacher did when applying the two methods
the two classes had acquired and their ability to express
most differently clearly affected learners’ motivation.
communicative sentences using appropriate grammar.
The communicative method better motivated the learn-
The structure of the post-test was a bit different from
ers in the experimental class.
that of the pre-test. Sections A and B (drawn from Azar,
pp. 46-49) assessed students’ ability in giving the correct
forms of given verbs which appeared in contextual sen-
tences. In section A, ten blanks required verbs in near
Checklist 2 (drawn from Harmer, pp. 4-7) was
future tenses: “be going to” to express prior plans
designed to investigate other aspects of the classroom
(five blanks) and “will” to show willingness (five blanks).
which were believed to affect learners’ motivation. They
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Figure 1. Pre-Test scores.
Group 1: Weak students
Group 2: Medium students
Group 3: Good students
Group 4: Best students
are, according to Harmer, the teacher, teacher/students
plays, pair work, and group work helped to improve
interaction, and lesson’s success. (This checklist is found
learners’ grammar appropriateness and accuracy skills
on page 24.)
better than grammar-translation activities.
Again, data was recorded from the observations, but
Motivation. In addition, CLT lessons brought more
the specific results are not shown here (complete tables
motivation to learners. The interesting communicative
are available upon request). Upon analyzing the data, we
lessons increased learners’ motivation, whereas gram-
reached the following conclusions:
mar-translation lessons seldom sparked interest.
• With the same teacher in both classes, the marks given
Learning grammar in communicative ways helped the
to the teacher were the same except as to the ability to
students enjoy learning English more.
make the lessons interesting, which was probably the
result of the teacher applying two different methods.
Discussion and Recommendations
• The average marks for teacher/students interaction in
the experimental class were much higher in comparison
From these major findings, we have arrived at sever-
with those in the control class. These learners had
al recommendations which we hope will be helpful to
noticeably more motivation.
the teaching of English grammar at technical colleges
• As for the lesson’s success, with different grammar
and universities in Vietnam.
points in some lessons, both classes reached their goals
successfully. Most of the activities were not too chal-
Keep the Advantages of the Traditional
lenging, so the tasks were completed.
• Conducting the lessons communicatively brought
great advantages. Yet a communicative lesson also
Changing Vietnamese teachers’ and learners’ atti-
brought some troubles, such as students’ speaking L1
tudes towards communicative English grammar teach-
instead of L2 and making too much noise when practic-
ing will not be easy, for they are accustomed to tradi-
ing. The teacher had less ability to control the class.
tional grammar lessons. And we should note the fact
Other problems included uncooperative students (who
that applying traditional methods in Vietnamese con-
did not want to work with others) and the large size of
texts generally and at PTIT in particular brings several
the class (35 students). These problems made the
advantages. Since teachers are more familiar with these
teacher’s work in assuring all learners’ participation and
methods, they have experience, confidence, and motiva-
involvement very difficult.
tion when conducting the lessons. The learners may feel
safer in practicing the teacher’s very careful explana-
Summary of Main Findings
tions of grammar rules. As a result, they can acquire
grammar rules and make correct sentences, and their
Achievement. The learners did better in the experi-
grammar knowledge helps them understand readings
mental class, with communicative grammar lessons, than
which they have later in their ESP courses.
in the control class, with traditional lessons.
From the fact that some students in the control class
Communicative activities such as language games, role-
had good marks, one can see that the traditional method
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Figure 2. Post-Test scores.
Group 1: Weak students
Group 2: Medium students
Group 3: Good students
Group 4: Best students
is of some help in improving grammar production.
Exploit Facilities and Upgrade the
Having seen both advantages and disadvantages of
applying the grammar-translation method, we should
have a proper attitude towards it, exploiting what could
In applying CLT to enhance learners’ grammar com-
be useful in our own contexts.
petence and performance, it would be useful to exploit
better the available language laboratories. Doing so
Pursue the Benefits of the Communicative
would bring learners more chances to practice.
Another point to be considered is the current test
and examination system, which was designed mainly
From our experiment, we see that a communicative
based on the traditional method. Significant changes
approach has the ability to help learners study and prac-
must be made to make the system meet the needs and
tice not only communicative skills but also grammar pat-
purposes of modern English study, and to match up with
Our hope is that applying a communicative
approach to teaching grammar would move from being
a question-mark to a normal reality at PTIT particularly
Pay Attention to the Quality of Activities
and at other technical colleges and universities generally.
Great attention should be paid to the quality of
Teachers and learners should be familiar with a stu-
classroom activities, and teachers should make these
dent-centered classroom. During the lesson, learners
activities more interesting and useful. There are numer-
should be encouraged and instructed to explore the con-
ous factors affecting quality, including:
tent and discover new language rules. They should be
given chances to play games—to practice communicat-
Suitable objectives and active language use.
ing through activities. The teacher should be ready to
Teachers should find suitable ways to balance two kinds
answer questions and help students in ways that involve
of objectives: not too linguistics-oriented, which may
them with the lesson. Students should be expected to
make tasks boring and meaningless, but also not ignoring
take their share of responsibility for their learning and to
linguistics, otherwise the tasks may not prove very useful.
negotiate and cooperate with each other. An active class-
Teachers can make activities meet these require-
room learning atmosphere will be created,and the lesson
will be more interesting and effective.
• Designing activities based mainly on actual language
Yet because communicative grammar lessons in
use. Do not waste too much time on mime, artistic cre-
Vietnamese contexts bring about certain problems,
ation, or silent brain-racking.
English teachers should study more about this approach.
• Remembering that production of the structures being
By having better background knowledge, they will learn
practiced should be done repeatedly during activities.
more from their experiences with it. To this end, teach-
• Putting certain constraints on the process of achieving
ers might attend courses or workshops, read books and
the task objectives in order to make sure that maximum
articles, and observe communicative lessons.
language use in fact takes place.
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Student interest. This is a very important character-
grammar-translation and communicative approaches
istic which can motivate learners more during activities.
can be considered a good solution to provide learners
From Ur’s point of view, some important features when
with the communicative abilities as well as the grammar
designing activities are: topic, visual focus, open-ended-
knowledge necessary for their future jobs.
ness, information gaps, personalization, and pleasure ten-
sion (pp. 19-25).
Ways of introducing the activities. Before a new
activity, teachers should give a brief introduction.
Our experiment has shown that communicative lessons
This might be compared to “selling” it to them—attract-
are more effective than grammar-translation lessons in
ing them to the activity in order to increase their
helping learners raise their ability to produce sentences
involvement and pleasure.
correctly and appropriately. Learners were more moti-
Another aspect of this is making sure the instruc-
vated when they experienced more interesting and
tions are clear. There are numerous ways to ensure this:
vivid communicative grammar lessons than their friends
giving slow and short directions, having one or some of
did in the control class. Recognizing this, and taking into
the learners demonstrate the task, giving an example
account problems experienced in Vietnamese contexts,
yourself, and asking students if they have any questions
teachers of English should have a more positive attitude
about the task. The instructions should include the
towards CLT and should seek to gain more knowledge
what final product about it and apply it in their classrooms.
or action is required, and what students can do if they
Timing and pace. These factors can turn into big
Azar, B.S. Understanding and Using English Grammar.
problems, for if activities are planned at an inappropri-
Prentice Hall Regents, 1989.
ate time, or run too long or too fast, they will be inef-
Doorley, D., and J. Gray. First Certificate English Practice
fective. Ur notes the time for practice should come in
Tests. Cassell, 1985.
the middle, not the end, of the lesson (pp. 35-36). If exer-
cises take longer than necessary, learners may feel tired
Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching.
or bored. Yet if an activity is too hurried, learners may
not have enough time to absorb or practice the
Nunan, D. Language Teaching Methodology. Prentice
material. These problems can be solved by careful
lesson planning and preparation of materials.
Richards, J.C., and C. Lockhart. Reflective Teaching in
Second Language Classrooms. Cambridge UP, 1994.
Integrate Grammar Skills Into Activities
Swan, M., and C. Walter. The New Cambridge English
During the sample lessons, we observed that some
Course. Cambridge UP, 1990.
communicative activities can be made more interesting
and useful by adapting them to be more grammar-
Grammar Practice Activities. Cambridge UP,
focused. Another factor is that in communicative gram-
mar lessons, grammar patterns are presented, practiced,
and consolidated through practical skills such as read-
ing, writing, listening, and speaking. These facts should
Nguyen Quynh Giao (M.A., TESOL, Hanoi University of
be considered during lesson planning.
Foreign Studies) is a lecturer in English at the Post &
Telecommunications Institute of Technology.
Combine the Old With the New
Nguyen Thi Nhan Hoa (M.Ed., TESOL, La Trobe
University) is a lecturer in English at Vietnam National
For the technical students at PTIT, as well as those at
Her most recent contribution to
other technical colleges and universities in Vietnam, one
Teacher’s Edition was the Lesson File,“How to Teach a
main goal of learning English is to read technical books,
Song,” in the September 2002 issue.
manuals, and instructions.
structures might be as important to them as producing
the patterns in practice. Therefore, a combination of the
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