How Grammar Can Help
Motivation of Advanced Learners
by Greg Gobel
Teachers often feel challenged to think of ways to motivate themselves and their learners to want to learn grammar, i.e., as Rinvolucri points out, how to get ‘the “game” locomotive [to pull] the grammar train along.’(1) Fair enough, as a certain scariness or insecurity seems to be associated with grammar. I have heard it called the ‘Grammar Monster’; Batstone calls it a ‘beast.’(2) Perhaps these worries are sometimes in the wrong place, though, judging by two surveys I have recently done to compare teachers’ and learners’ attitudes to teaching/learning grammar. The results showed an interesting contrast in attitude regarding grammar in relation to motivation. Learners expressed a much more optimistic view of grammar as a motivating tool than did the teachers. ‘Somehow or other, teachers (or “the system”) fail to capitalise on the students’ curiosity and enthusiasm.’(3)
Grammar teaching and learning has traditionally been very form-focused. As a result, it then went through a phase in the 80’s on the periphery or not focused on at all. From both perspectives, focusing on grammar would not motivate learners. This paper, however, is written with two assumptions about grammar in the classroom, as suggested by Thompson:
- ‘Although…it is now fully accepted that an appropriate amount of class time should be devoted to grammar, this has not meant a simple return to a traditional treatment of grammar rules.’(4)
- ‘…the focus has now moved away from the teacher covering grammar to the learners discovering grammar.’(5)
With these assumptions in mind, this paper explores how we can exploit methodologically progressive ideas for dealing with grammar to help maintain advanced learners’ motivation. In doing so, we also help our learners improve their overall communicative competence by increasing their grammatical proficiency.
Why is maintaining motivation of advanced learners important?
Dornyei highlights the importance of maintaining and protecting learners’ motivation, saying it ‘needs to be actively nurtured.’(6) Maintaining advanced learners’ motivation can be difficult at times to the point where at least one activity book has been written specifically for this purpose.(7) Advanced learners, I have noticed, have reached a stage where they are highly efficient in using the language, their learning curve is not as immediately evident as with lower-level learners so they may perceive they are not improving, and some even feel that they have learned enough. These conditions can easily lead to lethargy. In my experience, even having a goal such as passing the CAE does not always maintain their motivation.
The surveys: what advanced learners tend to think about grammar
The teacher survey(8) was completed by colleagues at work and other teachers that I know. The learner survey(9) was completed by CAE and CPE level learners through paired discussion followed by individually writing notes to summarize their opinions. The surveys were not scientific, but give me a good indication of general beliefs. One survey item asked what some good reasons to teach/learn grammar are, with one of the choices being to motivate the learners. Of the learners, 82% were positive, 12% were not sure, and only one said increasing motivation would not be a good use of grammar. In contrast, only one teacher thought that grammar could be a tool for motivation. This informative difference shows learners seem to view the potential effects of focusing on grammar quite differently – more positively – than many teachers. For me, this is rather alarming because it means that teachers, including myself, may not be aware enough of what actually helps their learners want to learn.
1. Rinvolucri, 1984: 4
2. Batstone, 1994b: 235
3. Lewis and Hill, 1992: 86
4. Thompson, 1996: 11
5. bid: 11
6. Dornyei, 2001: 71
7. Cranmer, 1996.
8. See Appendix A for a sample of teacher surveys
9. See Appendix B for a sample of learner surveys
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