Teaching Grammar

Grammar is central to the teaching and learning of languages. It is also one of the more difficult aspects of language to teach well.  Many people, including language teachers, hear the word “grammar” and think of a fixed set of word forms and rules of usage. They associate “good” grammar with the prestige forms of the language, such as those used in writing and in formal oral presentations, and “bad” or “no” grammar with the language used in everyday conversation or used by speakers of nonprestige forms.
Language teachers who adopt this definition focus on grammar as a set of forms and rules. They teach grammar by explaining the forms and rules and then drilling students on them. This results in bored, disaffected students who can produce correct forms on exercises and tests, but consistently make errors when they try to use the language in context.
Other language teachers, influenced by recent theoretical work on the difference between language learning and language acquisition, tend not to teach grammar at all. Believing that children acquire their first language without overt grammar instruction, they expect students to learn their second language the same way. They assume that students will absorb grammar rules as they hear, read, and use the language in communication activities. This approach does not allow students to use one of the major tools they have as learners: their active understanding of what grammar is and how it works in the language they already know.
The communicative competence model balances these extremes. The model recognizes that overt grammar instruction helps students acquire the language more efficiently, but it incorporates grammar teaching and learning into the larger context of teaching students to use the language. Instructors using this model teach students the grammar they need to know to accomplish defined communication tasks.
Goals and Techniques for Teaching Grammar
The goal of grammar instruction is to enable students to carry out their communication purposes. This goal has three implications:
  • Students need overt instruction that connects grammar points with larger communication contexts.
  • Students do not need to master every aspect of each grammar point, only those that are relevant to the immediate communication task.
  • Error correction is not always the instructor’s first responsibility.
Overt Grammar Instruction
Adult students appreciate and benefit from direct instruction that allows them to apply critical thinking skills to language learning. Instructors can take advantage of this by providing explanations that give students a descriptive understanding (declarative knowledge) of each point of grammar.
  • Teach the grammar point in the target language or the students’ first language or both. The goal is to facilitate understanding.
  • Limit the time you devote to grammar explanations to 10 minutes, especially for lower level students whose ability to sustain attention can be limited.
  • Present grammar points in written and oral ways to address the needs of students with different learning styles.
An important part of grammar instruction is providing examples. Teachers need to plan their examples carefully around two basic principles:
  • Be sure the examples are accurate and appropriate. They must present the language appropriately, be culturally appropriate for the setting in which they are used, and be to the point of the lesson.
  • Use the examples as teaching tools. Focus examples on a particu
    lar theme or topic so that students have more contact with specific information and vocabulary.
Relevance of Grammar Instruction
In the communicative competence model, the purpose of learning grammar is to learn the language of which the grammar is a part. Instructors therefore teach grammar forms and structures in relation to meaning and use for the specific communication tasks that students need to complete.
Compare the traditional model and the communicative competence model for teaching the English past tense:
Traditional: grammar for grammar’s sake
  • Teach the regular -ed form with its two pronunciation variants
  • Teach the doubling rule for verbs that end in d (for example, wed-wedded)
  • Hand out a list of irregular verbs that students must memorize
  • Do pattern practice drills for -ed
  • Do substitution drills for irregular verbs
Communicative competence: grammar for communication’s sake
  • Distribute two short narratives about recent experiences or events, each one to half of the class
  • Teach the regular -ed form, using verbs that occur in the texts as examples. Teach the pronunciation and doubling rules if those forms occur in the texts.
  • Teach the irregular verbs that occur in the texts.
  • Students read the narratives, ask questions about points they don’t understand.
  • Students work in pairs in which one member has read Story A and the other Story B. Students interview one another; using the information from the interview, they then write up or orally repeat the story they have not read.
Error Correction
At all proficiency levels, learners produce language that is not exactly the language used by native speakers. Some of the differences are grammatical, while others involve vocabulary selection and mistakes in the selection of language appropriate for different contexts.
In responding to student communication, teachers need to be careful not to focus on error correction to the detriment of communication and confidence building. Teachers need to let students know when they are making errors so that they can work on improving. Teachers also need to build students’ confidence in their ability to use the language by focusing on the content of their communication rather than the grammatical form.
Teachers can use error correction to support language acquisition, and avoid using it in ways that undermine students’ desire to communicate in the language, by taking cues from context.
  • When students are doing structured output activities that focus on development of new language skills, use error correction to guide them.
Example:
Student (in class): I buy a new car yesterday.  Teacher: You bought a new car yesterday. Remember, the past tense of buy is bought.
  • When students are engaged in communicative activities, correct errors only if they interfere with comprehensibility. Respond using correct forms, but without stressing them.
Example:
Student (greeting teacher) : I buy a new car yesterday!
Teacher: You bought a new car? That’s exciting! What kind?
Strategies for Learning Grammar
Language teachers and language learners are often frustrated by the disconnect between knowing the rules of grammar and being able to apply those rules automatically in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. This disconnect reflects a separation between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge.
  • Declarative knowledge is knowledge about something. Declarative knowledge enables a student to describe a rule of grammar and apply it in pattern practice drills.
  • Procedural knowledge is knowledge of how to do something. Procedural knowledge enables a student to apply a rule of grammar in communication.
For example, declarative knowledge is what you have when you read and understand the instructions for programming the DVD player. Procedural knowledge is what you demonstrate when you program the DVD player.
Procedural knowledge does not translate automatically into declarative knowledge; many native speakers can use their language clearly and correctly without being able to state the rules of its grammar. Likewise, declarative knowledge does not translate automatically into procedural knowledge; students may be able to state a grammar rule, but consistently fail to apply the rule when speaking or writing. To address the declarative knowledge/procedural knowledge dichotomy, teachers and students can apply several strategies.
1. Relate knowledge needs to learning goals.
Identify the relationship of declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge to student goals for learning the language. Students who plan to use the language exclusively for reading journal articles need to focus more on the declarative knowledge of grammar and discourse structures that will help them understand those texts. Students who plan to live in-country need to focus more on the procedural knowledge that will help them manage day to day oral and written interactions.
2. Apply higher order thinking skills.
Recognize that development of declarative knowledge can accelerate development of procedural knowledge. Teaching students how the language works and giving them opportunities to compare it with other languages they know allows them to draw on critical thinking and analytical skills. These processes can support the development of the innate understanding that characterizes procedural knowledge.
3. Provide plentiful, appropriate language input.
Understand that students develop both procedural and declarative knowledge on the basis of the input they receive. This input includes both finely tuned input that requires students to pay attention to the relationships among form, meaning, and use for a specific grammar rule, and roughly tuned input that allows students to encounter the grammar rule in a variety of contexts. (For more on input, see Teaching Goals and Methods.)
4. Use predicting skills.
Discourse analyst Douglas Biber has demonstrated that different communication types can be characterized by the clusters of linguistic features that are common to those types. Verb tense and aspect, sentence length and structure, and larger discourse patterns all may contribute to the distinctive profile of a given communication type. For example, a history textbook and a newspaper article in English both use past tense verbs almost exclusively. However, the newspaper article will use short sentences and a discourse pattern that alternates between subjects or perspectives. The history textbook will use complex sentences and will follow a timeline in its discourse structure. Awareness of these features allows students to anticipate the forms and structures they will encounter in a given communication task.
5. Limit expectations for drills.
  • Mechanical drills in which students substitute pronouns for nouns or alternate the person, number, or tense of verbs can help students memorize irregular forms and challenging structures. However, students do not develop the ability to use grammar
    correctly in oral and written interactions by doing mechanical drills, because these drills separate form from meaning and use. The content of the prompt and the response is set in advance; the student only has to supply the correct grammatical form, and can do that without really needing to understand or communicate anything. The main lesson that students learn from doing these drills is: Grammar is boring.
  • Communicative drills encourage students to connect form, meaning, and use because multiple correct responses are possible. In communicative drills, students respond to a prompt using the grammar point under consideration, but providing their own content. For example, to practice questions and answers in the past tense in English, teacher and students can ask and answer questions about activities the previous evening. The drill is communicative because none of the content is set in advance:
Teacher: Did you go to the library last night?
Student 1: No, I didn’t. I went to the movies. (to Student 2): Did you read chapter 3?
Student 2: Yes, I read chapter 3, but I didn’t understand it. (to Student 3): Did you understand chapter 3?
Student 3: I didn’t read chapter 3. I went to the movies with Student 1.

 

Developing Grammar Activities

Many courses and textbooks, especially those designed for lower proficiency levels, use a specified sequence of grammatical topics as their organizing principle. When this is the case, classroom activities need to reflect the grammar point that is being introduced or reviewed. By contrast, when a course curriculum follows a topic sequence, grammar points can be addressed as they come up.
In both cases, instructors can use the Larsen-Freeman pie chart as a guide for developing activities. For curricula that introduce grammatical forms in a specified sequence, instructors need to develop activities that relate form to meaning and use.
·         Describe the grammar point, including form, meaning, and use, and give examples (structured input)
·         Ask students to practice the grammar point in communicative drills (structured output)
·         Have students do a communicative task that provides opportunities to use the grammar point (communicative output)
For curricula that follow a sequence of topics, instructors need to develop activities that relate the topical discourse (use) to meaning and form.
·         Provide oral or written input (audiotape, reading selection) that addresses the topic (structured input)
·         Review the point of grammar, using examples from the material (structured input)
·         Ask students to practice the grammar point in communicative drills that focus on the topic (structured output)

·         Have students do a communicative task on the topic (communicative output)

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