Teaching Foreign Language Grammar: Inductive or Deductive?

Approaches to teaching are always improving, or, maybe we should say changing.  When there is momentum behind a new, innovative or highly-supported methodology many of us get behind it and begin to implement it, as best we can at least.  Teachers are particularly prone to “buy-in” when we see colleagues (real or virtual) having some level of success with a new methodology.

Teaching Foreign Language Grammar: Inductive or Deductive? (French, Spanish)The wave of communicative language teaching is currently, and rightfully, the foreign language teaching methodology that is supported by the foreign language teaching community. This has helped put the teaching focus on guiding students toward authentically communicating rather than simply learning about the details of the language.

One of the biggest debates or challenges among the communicative language teaching community is the topic of grammar instruction.  There are lots of questions and concerns around this.  Should we teach grammar?  Should we only provide examples of language structure through comprehensible input? What is the “right” way to teach or expose students to grammar structures in a second language?  Implicit or explicit grammar instruction?

Some researchers in language acquisition and teachers claim that grammar should be taught explicitly, as rules.  Others point to the teaching of grammar implicitly, suggesting that students acquire language structure only through meaningful exposure in context.  As a result they create their own “language rules” implicitly rather than having the rules taught explicitly.  Let’s make sure we have a solid understanding of the two approaches to language instruction.

  • Deductive instruction is a “top-down” approach, meaning that the teacher starts with a grammar rule with specific examples, and the rule is learned through practice.
  • Inductive instruction is a “bottom-up” approach, meaning that the teacher provides examples of the structure in context and students make observations, detect patterns, formulate hypothesis, and draw conclusions. PACE Model is an example of this approach.

I prefer to move beyond anecdotal evidence and consider the benefits of the two types of grammar instruction as they are presented in language acquisition research.

Brown (2007):

  • “While it might be appropriate to articulate a rule and then proceed to instances, most of the evidence in communicative second language teaching points to the superiority of an inductive approach to rules and generalizations.”

Shaffer (1989) :

  • “Evidence against the notion of an inductive approach should not be used for difficult structures.”

So, where does this leave us?  As much as we as teachers would like one tried and true way we all know that teaching and education is mostly a mixture of effective techniques.  To this end here are some thoughts from Shaffer:

  • Implicit grammar instruction is effective for language structures that are regular and consistent as this allows students to observe patterns, make generalizations and form linguistic rules.
  • Explicit grammar instruction is more effective for language structures that are irregular, inconsistent and less commonly present in communicative language.

Ultimately it would seem that a varied approach is necessary depending on the regularity or irregularity of a the focus structure.  The important thing to keep in mind is the active engagement of the student in whichever process is used. The inductive approach lends itself to active engagement using a process such as the PACE Model.  When teaching irregular language feature deductively be sure to provide opportunities for students to use the structure communicatively and also provide additional comprehensible input activities that contain the focus structure.

Brown (2007).  Principles of Language Learning and Teaching.  Pearson Longman

Shaffer (1989).  A Conversation of Inductive and Deductive Approaches to Teaching Foreign Languages. The Modern Language Journal 73.4

4 responses to “Teaching Foreign Language Grammar: Inductive or Deductive?

  1. Heather

    I am wondering about the variability in discussing various approaches to teaching grammar depending on the age (so developmental appropriateness) and language levels of the learners. The question of grammar – when, how much, how – is always on my mind. While I have used the PACE model in the past – with intermediate, HS students, I now teach mostly novice level, Middle School students, and do not actively teach a lot of grammar. Instead, “grammar” is imbedded in all communicative activities, mainly through using sentence starters and chunks of language. Bill Van Patten’s latest book “While we are on the topic” has helped me clarify my thinking on this subject with reference to current SLA research.

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  3. Corey Chandler

    The dichotomy of implicit and explicit grammar instruction and the impact on simple versus complex structures presented in the article is not accurate and a misrepresentation of Shaffer’s work. With a little more context of what Shaffer said from the study cited, it becomes clear that Shaffer’s citation is use out of context. Here is the quote; That students did as well with
    the inductive presentation as with the deductive offers strong evidence against the notion that an inductive approach should not be used
    for difficult structures. Another issue addressed by the study was whether the inductive approach is too difficult for weak students. The teachers had rated their students as either weak, average, or strong. The correlation between
    ability and approach was not significant (see table VI), which contradicts Ausubel (1) and Carroll’s assertion that an inductive approach
    is too difficult for slow students. Seems like there is a strong argument for implicit grammar teaching here and not an argument for balance given the studies cited.

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