Grammar at Upper
by Sam Smith
does learning grammar involve?
up again the idea of grammar as a process, or of doing it
whilst interacting, grammar is something that develops, or
grows organically. Scott Thornbury calls it a complex system
and makes 4 points about its composition.
1. It is dynamic and non-linear, it doesn't develop step by
step but moves as a whole. Likening it to the way a shoal
of fish moves.
2. It is adaptive and sensitive to feedback. This time likened
to an ant hive adapting their movements due to their environment.
3. It is self-organising. It wants to see and make rules.
Similar to the way a child's world and language knowledge
4. Finally, it is emergent. It has the power to make connections
from component parts. E.g. it can make the noun phrase 'not
all of the three famous Andrews sisters' from individual meetings
with e.g. 'both of the men', 'two dogs', 'the Blues Brothers',
'not half' .
(Thornbury 2001, 48-52)
is therefore to facilitate this emergent, complex system to
grow and to do this in the most effective way.
A learner will acquire a structure when he or she is ready
for it, by a process that could well involve steps backwards
as well as forwards. E.g. the u-shaped curve of acquiring
an irregular past tense - eat, ate (the learner uses it as
a lexical item), eated (they apply the rule for regular),
ated (maybe) and finally, ate (again). (Thornbury 2001,46)
This process is following a pattern of noticing a feature,
formulating and applying a rule, experimenting, re-noticing
and again experimenting.
Batstone proposes the cycle of noticing, structuring, re-noticing
and re-structuring as the pattern that emerging grammar takes
(Batstone 1994,42) and suggests that helping learners to do
this will facilitate learning.
However, more is needed to make the language fully useable.
The learner must practice to be able to use the language they
have been (re)noticing and (re)structuring.
As language is stored and used in pre-composed chunks (Lewis
1993,19) it is suggested that this is what fluency is based
our ability to use lexical phrases that helps us speak with
fluency. This prefabricated speech has both the advantages
of more efficient retrieval and of permitting speakers (and
hearers) to direct their attention to the larger structure
of the discourse, rather than keeping it narrowly focussed
on individual words as they are produced.
(Nattinger and DeCarrico, p32, quoted from The Lexical Approach,
has significant implications for the learning of grammar,
in that it is not until the language has been proceduralised,
i.e. stored as something ready to be instantly produced, that
acquisition can be said to have fully taken place. (Batstone
1994,45) Another relevant point which emerges from the above
quote is that of using language whilst paying attention to
the discourse and other factors of production and comprehension
such as articulation and perception together in real-time.
This synthesisation is necessary so a learner can get on with
the business of interaction without having to worry about
processing language at the same time.
(re)notice - (re)structure - proceduralise
points to keep in mind when teaching grammar.
like to briefly refer back to 2 previous points. The first
is that of by encouraging learners to use strategies and through
the nature of conversation, we are only really providing fluency
practice, which is needed for making language fluid and automatic,
but through its nature could actually be detrimental to the
learners developing interlanguage. In most spoken activities
the pressure on the students is high, encouraging learners
to rely on lexis instead of grammar to realise interaction.
The second point is related to that of distance or a gap in
Scott Thornbury uses these 2 principles to create his 2 rules
of thumb when designing grammar activities.
greater the distance, the more grammar. (That is to say, where
there is a knowledge gap or a social gap, words alone will
be insufficient to bridge that gap.)
2. The fewer the processing demands, the more grammar. (That
is to say, where there is reduced pressure and more planning
time, there is a greater likelihood of 'grammaring' as opposed
goes on to point out that combined with these 2 points, learners
will need to know how precise they have been and that feedback
must be explicit and immediate, giving 4 points to bear in
mind in grammaring activities:
Low context dependence.
· High incentive for precision.
· Low pressure.
· High feedback.
(Thornbury 2001, 21)
How should we go about teaching grammar?
we do to encourage the process of (re)noticing, (re)structuring
Firstly, the language needs to be made available, a lot of
input must be provided and awareness raised to linguistic
features to turn it into intake, following the principle that
once something has been noticed, it is likely to be noticed
again and repeated noticing leads to acquisition.
Thornbury suggests consciousness-raising or grammar interpretation.
Among the characteristics of consciousness-raising (C.R.)
· The attempt to isolate a specific linguistic feature
for focused attention.
· The provision of data which illustrates the target
feature, as far as possible from texts which have already
been processed for meaning.
· The requirement that learners utilise intellectual
effort to understand the targeted feature. Learners are encouraged
to hypothesise and test these hypotheses.
(Willis and Willis 1996,64)
of C.R. exemplified by Thornbury is that form should matter
to meaning in solving the task, for example, using answer
phone messages from his friends who are either still on holiday
or already home students are forced to pay attention to the
use of either past simple or present perfect to decide which.
For this and more of this type of exercise see appendix 1.
C.R. activities of this type 'are designed to raise learners'
awareness regarding specific grammatical items in order to
promote the 'restructuring' of their mental grammar'
of activity is valid at all levels. At upper intermediate
level it can be particularly useful for raising awareness
to the finer points of grammar and lexical grammar that are
quite likely to go unnoticed as the students are happy that
they understand without taking the chance to develop further
by paying attention to the language.
Three types of activity which work well for this purpose are
retranslation, reformulation and dictogloss or grammar dictation
where high feedback is provided in the comparison of the students'
version and the 'ideal' version. For examples of this type,
see appendix 2.
students need to produce the language to help them proceduralise
it. When designing tasks for this purpose we need to refer
back to the ideas raised about processing demands and distance.
to increase distance are:
· reduce the students shared knowledge, e.g. giving
them different pictures to tell a story together without showing
each other the pictures.
· Increase formality, e.g. getting them to write a
formal report of the task they have done.
· Bend their schema, e.g. writing something in the
style of a newspaper report, where the chronological order
and written order do not coincide, or just change things away
from the usual way of their happening.
For examples of this type see appendix 3.
Some ways to reduce processing demands we are:
Repeat a task. Martin Bygate demonstrates some excellent improvements
in accuracy, range, complexity, repertoire and lexical selection
and collocation when learners do this. (Bygate, in Challenge
and Change 1996, 142)
Give preparation time before a task. Pauline Foster demonstrates
surprising improvements in fluency, syntactic and lexical
variety, complexity and accuracy. (Foster, in Challenge and
· Change the medium from spoken to written, or mirror
an internet chat room in a slow motion conversation. (Thornbury
Thornbury, Uncovering Grammar, Heinemann, 2001
Scott Thornbury, Reformulation and Reconstruction: Tasks that
Promote 'Noticing', ELT Journal Volume 51/4 October 1997,
Oxford University Press 1997
Rob Batstone, Grammar, Oxford University Press, 1994
Rob Batstone, Key Concepts in ELT - Noticing, ELT Journal
Volume 50/3 July 1996, Oxford University Press 1996
Peter Skehan, Second Language Acquisition Strategies, Interlanguage
Development and Task Based Learning, in Grammar and the Language
Teacher, edited by Martin Bygate, Alan Tonkyn and Eddie Williams,
Prentice Hall, 1994
Michael Lewis, The Lexical Approach, Language Teaching Publications,
Martin Bygate, Effects of Task Repetition: Appraising The
Developing Language of Learners, in Challenge and Change in
Language Teaching, edited by Jane Willis and Dave Willis,
Pauline Foster, Doing The Task Better, How Planning Time Influences
Students' Performance, in Challenge and Change in Language
Teaching, edited by Jane Willis and Dave Willis, Heinemann,
Dave Willis and Jane Willis, Consciousness-raising Activities,
in Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, edited by Jane
Willis and Dave Willis, Heinemann, 1996
David Nunan, Language Teaching Methodology, Prentice Hall,
David Nunan, Teaching Grammar in Context, ELT Journal Volume
52/2 April 1998, Oxford University Press, 1998
Helen Johnson, Defossilizing, ELT Journal Volume 46/2 April
1992, Oxford University Press, 1992
Martin Bygate, Alan Tonkyn and Eddie Williams (editors), Grammar
and the Language Teacher, Prentice Hall, 1994
Jane Willis and Dave Willis (editors), Challenge and Change
in Language Teaching, Heinemann, 1996
31, originally from Bradford in the UK, has been teaching
for 5 years, in Ukraine (2 years), Poland (1 year) and
Spain (2 years) and also at summer schools in Folkestone
and London. He currently lives & teaches in Madrid.
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