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What is grammar and how should
we teach it ?
by Jeanette Corbett

- 2

I say this as each learner learns at a different pace, as they learn they need to complete various stages, they notice, structure, elaborate, restructure before it becomes part of their internal language. As there are various stages, it is clear that learning is a process however deductive presentations expect production of structure accurately .We cannot expect instant results, accuracy is not linear based and learning is cyclical, generally a learner needs to get it wrong before they can get it right (1).

Neither do deductive presentations take in account the cognitive needs of the learner. A deductive presentation I particularly remember, was with a class in Poland. I gave the students two sentences to contrast and define the rule, then after controlled practice attempted a freer speaking activity - it failed. Quite rightly, the students had switched off after seeing the two sentences. A lesson I learnt that day was - think motivation, they need a process to get to the language and think about it, before being asked to use it, if indeed they chose to use it

Additionally, explicit presentations fail to consider language as a whole. With guided discovery we can present grammar in a context through a task, listening or text. Also guided discovery includes activities which aim to motivate the learner and activate their cognitive skills. From experience, I know a motivated learner is one who is discovering the information for themselves and the teacher acts as a guide in the process.

I admit that my favourite medium of presentation, using guided discovery is text, as learners can see the language in use. Recently, I used an email from a friend teaching in Saudi Arabic to guide students towards the language to express obligation. Students were genuinely interested in learning about a different culture, which lead to natural conversation, comparing the countries. After completing comprehension questions they identified the target language and the differences in use and meaning. Then they compared Spain to Saudi Arabic, using the email as a springboard and focusing on an different area such as work, life, differences between men & women etc. There was a context for the students and a process to get to the language, while allowing them to think about it.
Previously, I have used a letter about my home town to compare against a Spanish town, focusing on comparatives. This lead on to several student tasks including a introductory letter to a pen pal and a tourist poster for their town.
I have found postcards from friends on holiday have been particularly useful to contrast language used and style of comments made, focusing on the overall meaning of the message by the structures used rather than a specific formulae for postcard writing.

Presentation does not have to be through text. I recognise there is a need to vary the form of presentation to generate student interest and supply a balanced input of skills. It is important that a teacher's preferences do not create a skills imbalance among learners.

I know that Spanish learners are concerned about their listening skills. Though current coursebooks do provide us with usable tape scripts for language presentation, sometimes it is good to use authentic tape scripts. Last year I used a radio interview with a pop star to present different question forms. First we looked at the meaning of the question and the reaction of the interviewee, before focusing on the form. Then we focused on word stress. It generated a lot of interest and equally was a natural springboard for a later freer speaking activity.

Another form of presentation which was particularly motivating is the use of puzzles, students had to solve the problem using a set of clues. As they used a clue, they ticked a box to indicate either yes or no. When they had all possible combinations, they used the information to complete a smaller chart, which formed the rule. It is cognitively challenging but not to the extent that it excludes attention to form.

In my opinion, quite often the success of a grammar presentation comes from the context, it is important for the learner. From it they have the opportunity to explore discourse by noticing the language in use and develop as active learners as they make their choices on how to use the language, as in the email from Saudi Arabic and holiday postcards.

Above all I feel context is important because it allows students to see how and why different forms and meanings exist. Language is context sensitive, if language is presented in a text a learner can use the surrounding text to understand the meaning of the words. If the presentation is through a dialogue, they can use the situation and relationship of the speakers to understand the meaning of individual items, as with the radio interview.

Here we have returned to meaning, I believe by presenting grammar in context, our learners will develop a better understanding of meaning. A good analogy for a presentation would be that of an upside down pyramid, first introducing the wider meaning of the situation to learners then moving down to focus on the form, as I did with the email and radio interview. Then introducing a open task to allow learners to use the language in context. An open task, would be one which has a communicative purpose and will stretch the learner's language.
Tasks that I have used, always link back to the context of the lesson but allow students to personalise the language. I believe it is important to personalise a task or activity for students, then they can apply the language to their own lives and probably this helps them in their language development. Also it is more motivational, students always enjoy sharing information about their experiences or lives.

When considering a context, I consider whether to use authentic or pedagogical material. I generally believe it is important to provide learners with a balanced mix. Quite often pedagogical material is necessary because it is difficult to match authentic material to a particular rule (2). However from experience, I prefer to use authentic material - it is real world and it deals with communicative meaning more effectively than course written materials. I feel it is better that a learner understands the wider message and meaning as well as the form of the language. Equally student have a highly sense of achievement if they have understood something from the real world.
With real world material I think we can start to redress the balance between what is pedagogical and descriptive, then allow the learner to make choices about what language they would like to use.

Finally linking back to my experience, I know that learners learn better when they have discovered grammar for themselves.
Consider both these scenarios- number one a teacher begins a class, then asks the students what grammar they studied last week - she will probably be met with silence. Number two a teacher begins a class, then asks the students about the previous lesson what they talked about, read or listened to in class - someone remembers a topic, a task then it generally leads on to students using the language as they remember parts of the lesson, occasionally the teacher may need to prompt students with comments they said, but language is produced. This to me, this is evidence that learning is taking place - students recall the topic/ context then several activities before they elaborate with the language that they remember. They may not reproduce the language accurately but recalling it they are part of the way. It also tells me that were motivated to learn as the style of presentation had been challenging, they may comment about what was difficult or easy. Also that the context was applicable to their lives - real world, as they remember perhaps making personal comments.

Finally, when I began teaching, I was often frustrated when a student got a structure wrong from a previous lesson or didn´t remember a particular word. But now as listen to my students in class, I agree with Nunan.

As our learners learn, we need to remind ourselves they do not need to learn something perfectly but numerous things simultaneously (1)

But then to add my own personal comment - then plan presentations which allow them to focus on language from a context, then activities which allow them to make their own choices about the language to use.

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