Teaching Grammar and Topics Integratedly Revisited: An Alternative for Tomorrow’s ELT in Indonesia

(A presentation paper originally; left as such)


Teaching students English should result in the students’ being able to use the language to express themselves. Being able here should be taken to mean that not only can the students use the language to communicate with other people in daily life whenever possible, but they are also able to utilize the language well with regards to its grammar, etc. This is especially so when the term ‘use the language’ refers not only to the students’ using the language in oral discourse where “creativity and anomalies are accepted” (Alwasilah 2001: 46) as long as the language is intelligible, that is, understood by the listener, but also to their using the language in written form where ideas are more rule-governed than freely expressed.

For students to be able to perform both in oral and written discourse equally well, we should start with devising ways to enable those students to be able to do that at the classroom instructional level. Given the two mainstreams of teaching contrasted here, i.e., grammar-based versus topic-based teaching with their own strengths and weaknesses, this brief paper aims to explore possible ways to integrate both employing instructional strategies that are expected to “enhance learners’ ability to notice aspects of English [its grammar] that might otherwise escape their attention while engaged in communication [talking about a topic]” (Schmidt 1990 quoted by Larsen-Freeman in Carter and Nunan [eds. ] 2001:37).

Grammar-Based Teaching

Simply put, grammar-based teaching is the teaching of a language built around the linguistic components of the language. And these linguistic components constitute grammar of the language. In practice, given this kind of teaching, teaching items go as far as ‘gerunds’, ‘past tense’, etc. English treated this way is put as a subject rather than a skill. It is taught and learned as parts, not as a whole (Goodman 1986: 8).

I recall the time when I still went to senior high school back in 1987. My English teacher utilized the book titled ‘Curriculum English SMA for Indonesia’ by Prof. J.B. Alter, M.A. She was very fond of using the book as it was very practical as far as teaching English grammar is concerned. I even managed to finish the book ahead of others because I could practically learn the items all by myself having the book.

One problem associated with grammar-based teaching is that the language items taught are given in isolation, not in context. Therefore, for example, my friends (not I—because I was an exception) knew what past tense is, but once they had to use it in context, they could not use it appropriately and consistently. An example of this is found in a student’s essay whose common mistakes—together with other students’ too—Radiana and I (2001) presented at an international seminar in 2001. It says, “…Tea drinking originated in China and Japan more than 2000 years ago. It is begin when the Chinese emperor try to make drink by using tea leaves and he realized that the drink have different taste…” (underlined to show inconsistency in past tense).

It is observed that grammar-based teaching dies hard. There are nowadays sold on the market many books—especially imported ones—catering for this kind of teaching. These books are usually adopted by courses teaching English. One precaution measure that should be taken is whether the linguistic forms taught by the books are rendered in isolation or context. This answer should help the courses decide whether to adopt and use the books or not. But one thing for sure is that courses usually teach students to be able to communicate in the language they teach. This will at least tell us something about their practice of adopting books they use.

Topic-Based Teaching

Topic-based teaching, on the other hand, is teaching built around topics. What’s taught is topics, not linguistic components. Calling them themes, Hamied (2001: 24) asserts, “themes, instead of linguistic components, are to be used in developing teaching materials.”

Books adopting topic-based teaching use topics as teaching materials, the selection of which is based on the levels for which they are meant to be. For example, for basic levels they may offer ‘childhood experience’, while for intermediate they may suggest  ‘values’, and for advanced they may recommend ‘family changing norms.’

One problem concerned with topic-based teaching is that the linguistic forms are not well-enhanced, this resulting in students’ incomplete mastery of grammar. This is especially so as teachers tend to teach topics, not language to talk about the topics.

Observed Phenomena: What Facts Reveal

As has long been held, students who have been instructed grammar of a language will not automatically directly be able to use the language. They may know a lot about the language after learning its grammar broken into various linguistic forms, but they may not have the skills to use the language to communicate ideas effectively. Hamied (2001: 25) holds, “By teaching linguistic forms and language skills each in isolation, we cannot guarantee that our students will automatically learn the English language as a linguistic and communicative entity.” Perhaps one distinct achievement that this teaching approach has ever made is the highest scores on the grammar section of the PBT TOEFL(R) test achieved by Indonesian students taking the test as reported by Alwasilah despite their inability to effectively use the language to communicate ideas (1993).

Students who have been exposed to topics only in the instruction, on the other hand, may have the skills to use the language to express themselves, but they can’t well adhere themselves to the rules of the language. Though in spoken English rules can be approximated as language intelligibility is what counts more, in written language rules play an important role in making the students’ language be understood or not. Radiana and I (2001) found that there are some 18 areas of language (such as tense, use of gerunds, passive voice, etc.) in which students make mistakes consistently and continuously when expressing themselves in written English. These problems they make can be both at the sentential and discoursal level. It is argued that this happens due to the fact that they have been exposed more to the topics at the expense of grammar during their course of learning.

Integrating the Teaching of Grammar and Topics: Proposed Strategies

When faced with two extremes—which are not necessarily choices, it is oftentimes wise to strike a balance between the two. In this context, it means that we have no choice but to integrate both grammar and topic teaching into a third alternative. By integrating the instruction of grammar and topics together, we teach our students to be accurate in what they say; and at the same time we train them to be fluent in what they say too.

In a practical term, what I am trying to say is this: If we are to teach a linguistic form, we have to think of a good topic to serve as the context in which the form is going to be used (Hamied, 2001: 24). When we seek to teach a topic, we have to find the linguistic form(s) that go(es) with the topic. This way, our instruction covers both grammar and topic integrated into one fashion.

I propose three strategies for this purpose, regardless of what English teaching institution teachers may best apply them in.

1. Teach linguistic forms, yet integrate them into topics. This is especially so when linguistic forms are more important than topics.


Childhood experience

In the instruction, teach students that to describe past events—in this case—things they did in their childhood, they have to use past forms that can be:

a. past be’s: was, were

b. past modals:

–          could

–          would, used to

c. past verbs:

–          regular –ed forms: walked, played, etc.

–          irregular forms: sang, swam, etc.

Then, give them an example of how to use them:

When I was 5, I could sing very well already. I would sing a lot at school. I would sing in the bathroom, too. I used to take part in singing contests, and I won most of them. I made my parents happy.

In the skills practice, ask students to ‘read’ the following table:


In her childhood Now
– small girl – big girl
– shy – talkative
– not have many friends – have a good circle of friends
– play with dolls a lot – hang out with friends
– spend long hours playing – spend more hours studying

2. Teach them topics, yet give them all they need to later express themselves talking about or writing on the topics. This should be the case when students need more speaking or writing practice.


Changing family norms

Teach them all the ideas about changing family norms, giving them all the necessary vocabulary. Do this by writing, or clustering the ideas.

Family types

Nuclear family

Extended family

Changing aspects


Family members’ relationship

Norms and values

Family members’ roles

Children’s rights

Parental authority


Conflicts of interest

Generation gap



Then, give them an example when necessary:

To start with, my family is a nuclear family. It consists of four members only: my father, mother, me, and my big sister. Now in terms of breadwinner aspect, I think my family has sort of changed. Both my parents work. My father….

In the skills practice, ask each student to explain about his family changing (or unchanged) aspects or norms.

3. Teach them both linguistic forms and topics. Explain all about the topics and give them all the linguistic forms necessary to talk about or write on the topics later. This strategy is devised when both grammar and topics are equally important to master.



Teach them all the ideas about values and supply them with all the linguistic forms necessary to talk about or write on the topics later.

Values are life principles that we hold dearly, that we use to regulate our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors everyday. We have values at home, on the street, at school, in the society, etc. Religion, socio-cultural norms, legal system, even personal beliefs may affect us to adopt certain values.

Now, in English, values can be expressed through:

a. single nouns: honesty

b. gerund phrases: telling the truth no matter how bitter it is

c. sentences: We have to tell the truth no matter how bitter it is

Write on the board the following expressions:

I think

I believe

I guess

I’d say

In my opinion

I mean






(add more)

Conjunctions: because, as, since all meaning the same

Explain the four important English word classes that are somehow related to one another: nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. Give the suffixes that would indicate these word classes. Give examples. Get them to see that the words potentially share the same root. It is the suffixes that differentiate their meaning and class. Then explain how they are used in context.

Give them an example:

In my work as a teacher, I think patience is an important value. I have to be patient a lot. When I teach my students, I have to teach them patiently as they have different characteristics and capabilities in learning….

In the skills practice, ask each student to explain about one important value in his life as a …


Teaching grammar alone does not guarantee that in the end students will be able to use the language to communicate ideas effectively. Teaching topics alone, on the other hand, produces students who can express themselves only in broken English. The teaching integrating both this paper has attempted to offer will hopefully bridge the gap that exists in between the two extremes. Though it may not be easily applied in some English teaching institutions due to various factors, I hope at least it contributes something to the attempt of standardizing the teaching of English in this country one way or another.


Alwasilah, A. C. (ed.) (2001). Language, Culture, and Education: A Portrait of Contemporary Indonesia. Bandung: Indira.

Alwasilah, A. C. (ed.) (1993). Dari Cicalengka sampai Chicago: Bunga Rampai Pendidikan Bahasa. Bandung: Angkasa.

Antoni, F., & Radiana, I. (2001, September). Common Mistakes Students Make and What It May Suggest We Should Do to Fix the Problem: An Account of Advanced 4 Students’ Essay-Writing Workdrafts. Paper presented at the LIA International Conference 2001, Jakarta.

Carter, N. and Nunan, D. (eds.) (2001). The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goodman, K. (1986). What’s Whole in Whole Language? New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Hamied, F. A. (2001, February). English Language Education in Indonesia. Paper Presented at The East-West Center and Ohama Foundation Workshop on Increasing Creativity and Innovation in English Language Education.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *