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Towards an approach to the teaching of grammar, which is both more learner-centred and more effective in terms of the learners' long-term acquisition and deployment of the structures concerned by Nicola Holmes
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Helen Johnson proposes a 'tennis clinic' strategy as a means of rendering the presentation of language more 'personally meaningful' to learners, where students are given a communicative goal at the outset of an activity, and do their own pre-performance planning, with the help of the teacher as 'coach'. In addition to the students being more actively involved and personally motivated, because they have entire responsibility for deciding the content of what they will say, and therefore for defining what new language they need to learn in order to say it, Johnson asserts that, prior to the actual performance of the final task, students also have more time to pay attention to language and therefore more chance to actively learn from the experience, especially as the language work comes before any positive extrinsic feedback on their performance has been given. In this way the 'teaching' could come 'at a time when the students 'clearly perceived themselves to need to improve' (Johnson, 1992, quoting Brumfit, 1983), and, Johnson asserts, counteract the tendency for students to fossilize and rely entirely on communication strategies.

The creation of opportunities for rendering grammar teaching more personally relevant to learners, if it is to be truly effective, goes beyond the presentation stage and is developed in the practice stage. Although controlled practice can play a very important role, especially in developing the learners' confidence in producing a new form, it has been asserted that it is not in itself a sufficient condition for the full mastery and acquisition of a new structure to take place. Referring to Lightbown's research, Batstone comments that 'there is evidence that grammar which is taught purely through controlled exercises may not stay with the learner for long' (Batstone, 1994, p 4S, referring to Lightbown, 1983), and underlines the importance of teachers providing 'activities which involve the active manipulation of language', where the learner 'has to think for herself before she can correctly act on the grammatical rules and principles which product teaching focus on', and 'is not merely active, but actively involved.' (Batstone, 1994, p61)

There have been many suggestions, often, like Johnson's, related to task-based approaches, as to how a teacher can provide opportunities to practise new language in a more personalised, contextually relevant manner, whilst promoting the acquisition and use of grammatically rich language and counteracting fossilization, building on Prabhu's 'information gap', 'reasoning-gap' and 'opinion -gap' activities (Prabhu, 1987, pp 46-47, referred to by Nunan, 1988), Batstone proposes what he terms as 'context-gap activities, where the need for grammar in communicative tasks is heightened by the absence of shared knowledge, and which can involve an exchange of opinion or information, or reasoning and persuasion, and often include an element of ambiguity. For Batstone, such activities can heighten the personal relevance of grammar, in that:

...if we can encourage learners to use reasoned argument or debate in the tasks we design, then we will be encouraging them to exploit grammar as a necessary device for their self-expression. (Batstone, 1994, p 92. See also the list of task types in Willis, 199S, pp 149-154, and Helen Johnson's ideas for substituting pre-written materials with student generated ideas. (Johnson, 1992, p188))

Thus, the 'teaching' of grammar is likely to be more successful if it actively engages the personality and interest of the learner. However, the equal importance of engaging the learner's cognitive powers has also been central to the shift from more deductive to more inductive approaches to the teaching of grammar, with the general idea that the expenditure of mental effort on the part of the learner can facilitate his/her full comprehension and memorisation of a new structure. In my own teaching, this has led to presentations where students analyse samples of language and formulate their own rules, which, in turn, to an extent, can counter the problem of alienating terminology. I have also experienced and appreciated this approach as a student of Spanish, where the teacher gave the students the board pens, and encouraged us to write up our own summary of the rules for a new structure. In this way, from the outset, students can be fully involved, both personally and cognitively, in the comprehension of a new structure and in the formation of hypotheses about it.

The role of the teacher - why effective learner-centred grammar teaching does not constitute an abdication of responsibility on the part of the teacher, and still necessitates a degree of teacher 'control', if 'interlanguage stretching' as opposed to fossilization, is to take place

The provision of students with highly persona used, cognitively and affectively engaging, and contextually relevant conditions for encountering and eventually proceduralising new' structures leads into a final, important issue - the role of the teacher. If it is to be effective, the kind of learner-centred teaching I have been exploring, rather than resulting in a complete abdication of responsibility and control on the part of the teacher, actually requires him/her to maintain an active, if different, role, whereby he/she will need to develop new', sometimes quite complex, skills and exercise a new' type of 'control' in the classroom.
This new type of control will probably manifest itself mainly in the design and manipulation of the tasks given to students, in many of the ways already outlined above and explored by Batstone (1994) and Skehan (1994), who identify a number of ways in which teachers can manipulate task conditions and features, at the pre-, while, and post-task stages, as well as, in the case of Skehan, at syllabus level.

Batstone suggests that teachers should pay much closer attention to the language students will need to use in order to perform a task, commenting that, in many activities used in language teaching , 'learners are called on to work 'around' rather than 'with' the target grammar', (Batstone, 1994, p 61), the challenge, once again, being to counteract fossilization and encourage 'interlanguage stretching' on the part of students. (Batstone, 1994, p 7&, referring to Long, 1959, p 1~)

However, it is also important to remember that this 'interlanguage stretching' is a gradual process, approached with a degree of sensitivity on the part of the teacher, avoiding the overloading of students, hence Batstone's and Skehan's advocation of modifying the pressure on one task element at a time (sometimes providing more time pressure, at others less topic familiarity, for example), only slowly building up to an increase of pressure on all fronts, in order to assist learners in eventually achieving full 'proceduralisation' and automation' of the skills involved in language deployment that is both fluent and accurate. (Keith Johnson quite succinctly compares this process to the experience of a novice pilot in an aircraft simulator, (Johnson, 1994, p 127)).

Skehan also advocates sensitivity to different types of learner in balancing the approach taken, commenting that 'the ideal combination for learners whose natural predisposition in towards analysis would be informality of learning situation', whereas 'memory-oriented learners might complement more analytic learning situations'. (Skehan, 1997, p 188)


In conclusion, there are many issues for teachers to consider in an attempt to render the teaching of grammar both more learner-centred and more effective, not least their own role in the choice, modification and pacing of tasks; in the provision of ample opportunities for 'noticing', 're-noticing' and 'working with' different structures; and in their sensitivity to different students' learning styles and pace. Research into the best ways in which these goals can be achieved is still ongoing. In the meantime, however, teachers should retain an eclectic and open-minded approach, whereby, with a degree of experimentation, and sensitivity to and close vigilation of their students, they can attempt to create the best possible conditions in which accuracy and fluency of language use can be developed simultaneously and complimentarily.

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