is grammar and how should
we teach it ?
by Jeanette Corbett
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
our learners learn, we need to remind ourselves they do
not need to learn something perfectly but numerous things
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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