The Language Teacher
November 2000

"But I have to teach grammar!": An analysis of the role "grammar" plays in Japanese university English entrance examinations

Michael Guest

Miyazaki Medical College

High school English teachers in Japan often argue that the reason they are unable to teach meaning-oriented lessons based on a communicative methodology is not because they believe that a grammar-translation methodology is inherently superior, but rather due to the fact that they feel they must teach grammar in order to prepare students for university entrance exams (Hino, 1988; Yukawa, 1994; Gorsuch, 1998). Although many have recently come to utilize communicative methodologies and tasks with lower-age groups and classes designed for non-university track students, the reality is that as students start to prepare for university entrance exams almost all communicative classes are dropped with the university-track students put on a steady diet of grammar lessons in preparation for the exams (Kitao & Kitao, 1995).

In this paper, I'd like to question the validity of this oft-heard justification for employing a grammar-based pedagogy. Over the past several years, the English sections on university entrance examinations have been modified in order to move away from purely grammatical, discrete-item content (Law, 1995; Brown, 1995). So if, in fact, current university entrance examinations do not demand discrete, item-specific grammatical knowledge, then the justification that grammar must be taught (to the exclusion of other English skills) in order to ensure student success on the entrance exams, is outmoded.

To this end, I will analyze the English entrance examination content of Kyushu University, a representative public university, as well as the "Daigaku Nyushi Center Shiken" (the "Center" test), both as they appear in the 1999 Eigo Mondai no Tettei-teki Kenkyu (English Test Problem Research - Public Universities). In analyzing the test tasks I will explore to what degree a successful undertaking of the exam questions requires knowledge or mastery of varying aspects of English such as grammar, lexical patterns, social communicative norms (including pragmatics), rhetorical and other schematic knowledge as well as the mode of answer (multiple-choice, translation, analytical skills, reordering, etc.). The degree to which each of these categories is manifest in these exams should likewise influence the content of high school English teachers' lessons, if they are truly intent upon best preparing students to pass these exams (Brown, 1995). However, to do so effectively we first have to gain a clearer understanding as to what scholars and high school teachers actually mean by grammar.

"Grammar", "syntax", or "transformations"?

Swan (1995) defines grammar as the rules that show how words are "combined, arranged and changed to show differ ent meanings" (p.xxiii). More scholars are beginning to define grammar in this way, not merely as the internal structure of a language, but the structural means by which meaning and communication are realized. Halliday's (1994) grammar identifies three communicative metafunctions that grammatical rules serve and argues that these functions can be interpersonal as well as ideational and textual, any structure in fact that aids in elucidating meaning. Moreover, both of these influential grammars are descriptive, not prescriptive, arising from the analysis of authentic texts. Also, Lewis (1993), Carter (1987), Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992), among others, have emphasized the blurred boundaries that exist between lexis and grammar. A true understanding of lexical items such as lexical phrases, it is argued, includes knowledge of their grammatical relations such that semantics is never really separated from structure. Lewis (1993) refers to this as grammaticalized lexis and views grammar as an implicit category discoverable within the knowledge of lexis, not as a distinct entity. Given such definitions of grammar, it should be clear that even if one chooses to teach grammar, one certainly need not automatically use a grammar-translation methodology.

Analysis of Japanese high school classrooms, (Hino 1988; Gorsuch 1998) as well as the selections taken from the most popular test preparation textbooks, however, reveal that something quite different, something much narrower, is meant by grammar. First, Januzzi (1994) notes that classroom and textbook samples are usually decontextualized and thus not intended for the purpose of elucidating a meaning. Secondly, he notes that the unit of analysis is invariably the sentence that limits the scope of the term to the internal working of a single type of textual unit. Thirdly, the grammar taught is invariably prescriptive (Gorsuch 1998), not descriptive. It is best then that teachers who teach in this manner do away with the term grammar when describing their pedagogy as they are not teaching grammar but rather rules of syntax, which is a part of grammar but cannot be equated with the term as a whole.

Moreover, a look at the actual tasks that students undertake in the classroom as well as senior year English textbooks reveal an even more limited field of study. After receiving both positive and negative feedback on an opinion and perspectives piece I published in the January 2000 TLT (Guest, 2000), regarding what I considered to be unfounded criticism of Japanese high-school English teachers, I informally interviewed both students and high-school English teachers as well as visited two classrooms to observe English lessons. What I noted was that while non-university track students are given wider doses of the currently popular communicative methodologies, students with intentions to enter universities appear to still be subjected to largely yaku-doku or similar discrete-item, memorization-based lessons. This suggests that what Hino (1988), Kitao & Kitao (1995) and Yukawa (1994) have noted in the past and that which Gorsuch (1998) and Mulvey (1998) have recently claimed still constitutes the dominant pedagogy for those students planning to take university entrance examinations.

Among such claims is that the great majority of in-class work that students do in preparation for the exams is based upon transforming of discrete grammatical items (yaku-doku), invariably by translating English texts into Japanese (Mulvey, 1998; Gorsuch, 1998). A typical example from Keiryusha's (1998) supplementary textbook, Steady Eibunpo, ( Kai, H., Kai, R., & Kai, Y.) shows a Japanese text under which we find "walks / every / he / to / day / school" (p.7). The student is then asked to reorder the words in order to match the Japanese translation, clearly an exercise in syntactical transformation. Since such texts are invariably limited to smaller sentences the effect is that students are basically being asked to do transformations of formalized patterns with translated vocabulary items filling in the terminal strings. Another example of this from Steady Eibunpo is a task in which students are asked to transform the sentence "Mary is very smart" into a set pattern of the form: "How . . . is!" (How smart Mary is!) (p.6). Similarly, All In All - Book 3 (Tanigaki, 1999), also a popular supplementary text, follows a section on English to English transformation of a discrete grammatical feature "She is the tallest girl in her class" is to be transformed into "No other girl in the class is as tall as she" (p.27) with Japanese to English translation exercises focusing upon the same grammatical principle. Such exercises appear regularly in virtually all Monbusho approved textbooks.

While more extended reading texts appear in the standardized Unicorn (Suenaga & Yamada, 1999) series, the task focus is less upon decoding meaning or discussion than it is upon translating new lexical items from the extended text, practicing their intonation and pronunciation, and doing transformation exercises based upon salient grammatical patterns found in the text. Although these extended texts in fact allow for the possibility of a variety of practice tasks, it appears that for many high school teachers they little more than as yaku-doku fodder (Kitao & Kitao, 1995; Gorsuch, 1998).

This leads to a few obvious questions. Do entrance exams really include tasks that involve direct transformations of texts like these, focusing upon established rules of syntax? Do these tests really require a predominance of English to Japanese translation skills? If so, is the translation largely a translation of some discrete grammatical principle or rule, or is it more holistic and comprehensive? Do most test items require an active or passive application of English knowledge? Let's look at the examination tasks themselves in order to answer these questions.

Daigaku Nyushi "Center" Shiken (The "Center" test)

This is the general examination that almost all university entrance candidates take before taking specific university entrance exams. It is the exam that high school teachers most often focus upon when claiming to be preparing students for university entrance exams. In fact, booklets of previous Center tests are widely used in high school classes for university track students, believing that this year's center exam will likely resemble those of the previous few years.

The first of the five sections on the center exam focus upon intonation, pronunciation (matching pairs) and sentence stress of discrete items respectively, with multiple-choice answers. The second part of this section is a fill-in-the-blanks-with-the-appropriate-response exercise that demands knowledge of set lexical phrases, particularly those having an interactive, social function, as they are embedded within casual conversational contexts. For example (p.4):

A: What are your plans for this weekend?
B: I haven't really thought about it. _________.
A: I'm thinking of going to the beach. Want to come?

Students are required to fill in B's blank with the most plausible phrase from a multiple-choice list of four answers: (a) How do you plan to go?, (b) I'm planning to go mountain climbing, (c) I've booked our room, (d) Why do you ask?" with the correct answer being letter (d). Here we can see that an understanding of the social, rhetorical and pragmatic functions of the lexical phrase "Why do you ask?" is necessary in order to successfully answer the question. A similar pattern appears on other questions in this section, the next of which requires students to understand the lexical phrase "How can you tell . . . ?" as well as the appropriateness of responding to this using the pragmatic force of the rhetorical question, "Didn't you see . . . ?"

The second section comprises the most explicitly grammatical section of the test, in which students are required to insert the appropriate lexical item or phrase into a set text. Interestingly, however, correctly guessing many of the answers in this section does not require knowledge of grammar per se as much as it does an understanding of lexical properties and cohesion within an extended text. For example (p.5):

A: I like my job but I wish I made more money.
B: Me too. If I _____, I'd buy a new car.

Here the node word is wish. If the student is familiar with the lexical qualities of wish, that the item connotes an unreal situation and thus collocates with "if + past" (could providing a further hint here), the answer is obvious. This example demonstrates the blurry boundaries between grammar and lexis since the collocation contains a grammatical feature (tense) but collocations themselves are lexical properties. About half of the questions in this section are indicative of this lexico-grammatical category. A few items are thoroughly based upon knowledge of discrete grammatical items (i.e., "John _____ to like fried rice!" along with the following answers: (a) dares, (b) looks, (c) seems, (d) wants) but an equal amount are thoroughly lexical (i.e., matching definitions to the words rent and nod).

Section three demands the students reorder a set of disordered words into coherent sentences. This section demands knowledge of sentence syntax and corresponds most closely to the content of high school grammar lessons but takes up less than 15% of the total number of items in the examination. Finally, the fourth, fifth and sixth sections are made up of three lengthy, extended readings, which serve as something of a centerpiece for the test. In the first extended reading, students are asked to demonstrate an ability to order cause and effect by reordering a set of paragraphs in English. This calls first and foremost for an understanding of cohesion. While understanding the cohesion of grammatical items is important, an awareness of rhetorical or thematic cohesion is more central to the objective (reordering paragraphs) in this section. An understanding of the lexical properties of cohesive signals (i.e., Although . . .) is also crucial here. In the last two extended readings, the students are asked to do the following: (a) analyze an article on international symbols in order to reveal their general comprehension of the content, and; (b) analyze a story that includes dialogue (p.10-11), and make hypothesis about the characters' motivations. For example, in the following passage, "When Mimi heard Robert say 'What cheese?'" students are asked: "How did she probably feel?" and "What particular point suggests that Mimi was nervous about her date?" the latter question being about the character's state of mind. This section demands an understanding of the social use of English, in particular, pragmatics: "Why did Mimi hold her breath when the redheaded boy asked Robert about the smell?" Analytical skills, advanced lexical, structural recognition skills, and an ability to negotiate meaning are crucial to success in this section.

In conclusion, we can see that the Center test is not a grammar test at all but rather is made up of a whole cornucopia of categories as Brown (1995) and Mulvey (1999) have noted. In fact, grammar (of the type that dominates high school classes and textbooks) takes up less than 15% of the total length of the test. The apparent predominance of sentence syntax within high school curricula is surely not in proportion to its value on this all-important examination.

Kyushu University's Exam

Unlike the Center test, this examination is taken only by students attempting to enter this prestigious institution. I have chosen to analyze the English section of Kyushu University's entrance exam first because public university exams tend to be representative of a nationwide examination standard and also because it conforms to a national norm for public universities according to Brown & Yamashita's (1995) analysis of public university entrance exams.

This examination contains five sections. The first (p.202) is an extended reading section. From this, students are asked to (a) translate selected sentences into Japanese, (b) expound upon the referent for a specific demonstrative this, and the abstract general phrase one thing and; (c) answer a series of true/false questions regarding general content within the paragraph. This may seem closer in kind to the type of practice students undertake in high school classes but on closer observation it is in fact not. None of the sentences to be translated contain a noticeable grammatical element of the type that can be practiced or learned as a detachable rule. For example, the students are required to translate: "All these things he threw down like a farmer casting aside a spade in a temper." Success in translating the multiple clauses successfully in this sample depends more on understanding the rather arcane phrases casting aside and in a temper. This is, of course, a lexical problem, not a grammatical one. Fully understanding the meaning of this and one thing as well as the following true/false section demand an understanding of cohesion and rhetorical construction, which implies a more holistic approach to a text. Naturally, elements of grammar are contained herein but the required skill goes far beyond the specific application of grammar rules that most students are taught and practice in high schools. In fact, such analysis and comprehension-based texts, demanding advanced lexical analysis skills are increasing on entrance exams (Law, 1994; Mulvey, 1999).

The second and third parts of the test are nearly identical in terms of the task types, the third adding a question that asks the students to ascertain which type of the word miss (from a list of five) best corresponds to the sense of the term as it appears in the text. This is a lexical and not grammatical, task. The fourth section asks students to translate a Japanese paragraph into English. The text contains a number of complex conjuncts, and adjuncts that demand, again, that students be aware of the construction of rhetoric beyond the sentence level, demanding integrated analytical skills. The text also contains numerous abstract nouns as node items that will require lexical, not grammatical, knowledge in order to be rendered meaningfully into English.

The final section is open-ended and contains an extended productive element. Students are required to complete a story (about 100 words) that begins, "From the moment I found that I had overslept, I knew it was going to be a bad day." In this task, a focus upon meaning, a sense of coherence (choosing and applying a suitable rhetorical pattern), and the application of a tone sympathetic to the narrative genre take precedence over the correct deployment of specific grammatical rules. Suffice to say that such top-down processes are almost never taught or practiced as preparation for university entrance exams (Yukawa, 1994; Gorsuch, 1998).

Conclusions, Implications and Suggestions

There seems to be little connection between high school teachers' stated need for an emphasis upon grammar and the key items or tasks that appear in either the center or public university entrance exams. Not only is grammar as such not really taught for exam preparation, but in fact, few exam tasks require the syntactical transformation type of exercise that are practiced in classrooms. From looking at the content of the Kyushu University's English entrance exam, we can see that discrete grammatical features in and of themselves never constitute the answers to examination questions. Fewer than 10% of the total number of problems on the center exam required any direct syntactical transformations unlike the fill-in-the-blanks with the correct grammatical form tasks or sentence-based word re-ordering exercises that are so common in high school textbooks and classrooms. Rather, grammar seems to be but one element subsumed under more varied, integrated, comprehensive skills. In short, the entrance exams demand more discrete skills than a simple mastery of grammar, whereas tasks often taught in high schools as preparation for these tests actually amount to something more narrower than grammar.

Of course, grammatical knowledge gleaned from high school practice tasks need not be relevant only in terms of an exact matching task appearing on entrance exams. It could be argued, for instance, that the practice of manipulating specific grammatical patterns would aid in the translation exercises as well as some of the rhetorical ordering tasks. However, the highlighted texts within the extended test readings offered up no identifiable single forms or patterns to be translated. Success depended more on understanding the lexical and semantic properties of key words in the texts or the rhetorical form of a particular genre. In fact, as exam texts become more extended and discursive in nature the more likely the text will include numerous exceptions to and variations from grammatical rules.

Nowadays scholars speak not of grammar as having prescriptive rules but rather of descriptive conventions that are flexible and meaning-directed. Many of the translation texts on the exams could, as any professional translator can tell you, be paraphrased in many different ways with the intentions and tone including both the author and genre, not discrete syntax patterns, being the crucial translation tool. Therefore, any notion that the repeated study of sentence syntax can result in a decoding into a correct translation would seem to be suspect. Similarly, ordering rhetoric patterns depends more on the holistic ability to organize thoughts and ideas coherently than it does on the ability to transform the minutiae of syntactical patterns, which are but one minor means by which the meaning of a text is conveyed.

This distinction between holistic and discrete item approaches (often referred to as top-down and bottom-up respectively) is a crucial one and both are necessary to ensure exam success (Carrell, 1987). As it stands now, students are filled with the need to memorize and practice decontextualized sentence patterns that do not carry much value on the entrance exams and remember a host of one-to-one translations for lexical items as well as their pronunciation, solely a bottom-up approach. This seems to be such a waste of time and energy. The chances of a specific lexical item being singled out on an exam problem is infinitesimal in relation to the number of items one is going to have to memorize in passages of such complexity. This is also true of preparation for the stress and intonation sections. It seems to be a crap-shoot, a pot-shot, "let's hope that the words I've memorized happen to be the same ones that appear on the test" approach.

Does it not seem more reasonable then to have students absorb discrete lexis and syntactical minutiae through a more top-down, meaning-based curriculum? After all, the extended readings on both exams, and, in particular that of Kyushu University, demand general and holistic skills both in reception and production. If students insist on a focus of memorizing discrete lexical, syntactical and prosodic forms, they can only hope and pray for the one-off chance that they will encounter these items on the exam. A top-down, holistic approach, however, would involve a deliberate pedagogical focus upon the meaning of the text, that is, a general, comprehensive understanding of the content before any analysis of its constituents take place. And even any subsequent analysis of discrete text items should not abstract these items from the text but rather note how they help the text cohere or provide the text with interpersonal and stylistic resonance. It is important to realize that grammar is meaning-driven, so any examination will be more common sense and instinctive when such discrete items are likely to be absorbed into the bigger picture. Many task-based syllabi as well as the lexical syllabus propounded by Lewis (1993) are methodologies that utilize this type of approach.

Moreover, by employing this method, learners would be able to approach larger texts with greater confidence, understanding their rhetorical structures, their internal lexical relations, and having refined their analytical and comprehension skills. Finally, this would allow for a meaningful study of English, especially as a means of communication, consistent with the manner in which scholars now view the function of grammar. This better allows one to bridge the gap between the communicative and structural elements of the language. By absorbing such a pedagogy into one's high school teaching methodology not only would learners then likely find English study more fun and meaningful and develop more practical communication skills (as content and meaning-based focuses would engender), they would also likely have greater success on the university entrance examinations! What more justification does one need?

Michael Guest has lived in Japan for 13 years, and currently teaches at Miyazaki Medical College. His current research interests include lexical studies, spoken grammar, and cross-cultural pragmatics. He received his MSC in Applied Linguistics from Aston University in 1997. <>


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