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Concourse 2

Teaching grammar

teaching

Why do we teach grammar?

There are teachers who will tell you, with a straight face, that what English language teaching is, or should be, about is teaching people to communicate rather than teaching the grammar of English so they don't do it.  It is as if they believe that the two can be separated or that we can separate teaching people new words from helping learners to communicate better.  The assumption is that learners will absorb the grammar by exposure and the need to communicate their ideas.
That is not the line taken here.  In this guide we start from the premise that:

... language learning is essentially learning how grammar functions in the achievement of meaning and it is a mistake to suppose otherwise. .... A communicative approach does not involve the rejection of grammar.  On the contrary, it involves a recognition of its central mediating role in the use of and learning of language.
(Widdowson, 1990: 97/8)

and

... we are still too ignorant about the basic processes of language learning to be able to state dogmatically what can and cannot contribute to them.
(Littlewood, 1981: 9)

That's still true, unfortunately.

Can you think of two good reasons for teaching grammar?

Click here when you have.

There are probably more bad reasons for teaching grammar and they include, e.g., Because that's how I learned the language, Because I can test it, Because it's a nice tidy system (even though it isn't, really) and so on.


training

How do we teach grammar?

Some learners enjoy the challenge of learning grammar and unravelling the systems of a foreign language.  These learners look forward to grammar lessons with bated breath.  They are not, however, in the majority.
Most learners want to do things with the language, not study it as another subject at school like history or physics.
What are the implications of all this?  Think for a moment and then click here.
present

"Today we are going to look at the uses of the past simple"

Starting a lesson with words like that is not going to have everyone sitting up and begging for more.  Can you think of a slightly more involving way to introduce the focus?  Click here when you have.

The point here is that it is unwise to tell students who 'don't like grammar' that the lesson they are about to endure is focused on it.  You need to imagine ways of using the grammar to make meaning rather than learning the grammar and then using it.

focusing on meaning

A simple way to do this is to start the lesson with meanings.  Here's an example of an introduction to a lesson.

thinking about a holiday
Wanderer, Backpack, Hike, Away, Path, Mountain Hiking Statue Of Liberty, New York, Ny, Nyc, New York City
Sandals, Flip-Flops, Footwear, Beach Pelicans, Sea, Beach, Bird, Black, White, Feathers
Horse, Cowboy, Boy, Western, Wild, People, Male, Fun Freerider, Skiing, Ski, Sports, Alpine, Snow, Winter

Click here when you have determined what the grammar focus of the lesson might be.  There are a number of possibilities.

other ways

You don't need to use visuals to present grammar point of course, although they are very helpful.

Using reading texts
reading
Depending on the level and the targets, you can find or invent a reading text which helps the learners to notice the grammar point.
For example:
Hi,
We are taking a short break in the country next week and wondering if you would like to come.  We've rented a cottage and are staying for 3 days.  The cottage is really too big just for us (there are three bedrooms) so you will have space to yourself.  While we're there, I'm going to do some fishing and the boys want to go walking and bird watching.  Mary is probably just going to sit around and read as usual.
Think about it.  If you like we'll pick you up and we'll all go together in my car.  Or you can come separately.  You'll find the place easily so you won't get lost (I hope!).  I'll give you a call next week and we'll talk about it.  OK?
Best wishes,
Helen.
Look at the words in red.  Is Helen sure about the future, making plans or saying what people intend?
Using listening or video texts
listeners
These can work in the same and dialogues are just as useful when presenting concepts.  The idea above can be turned into a dialogue and recorded:
Hi, John?
Yes, hello Helen.  What can I do for you?
Well, we are taking a short break in the country next week and wondering if you would like to come.  We've rented a cottage and are staying for 3 days.
Sounds nice but I expect I'll be in your way.
Not at all.  The cottage is really too big just for us (there are three bedrooms) so you will have space to yourself.
OK.  What's the plan?
While we're there, I'm going to do some fishing and the boys want to go walking and bird watching.  Mary is probably just going to sit around and read as usual.
I'll think about it.  How are you getting there?
If you like we'll pick you up and we'll all go together in my car.  Or you can come separately.  You'll find the place easily so you won't get lost (I hope!).  I'll give you a call next week and we'll talk about it.  OK?
OK.  But I'm working away on Tuesday and Wednesday but I'll probably be at home on Thursday.
OK.  Talk later.  Bye.
Bye.
Look at the words in red.  Are the speakers sure about the future, making plans or saying what people intend?

The important point here is that the context and intentions of people are firmly set up in terms of meaning before you look at the grammar we use to express those meanings.

checking concepts

Presenting grammar by putting meaning first is only half the story.  As you present a model such as:

I'm going to New York next week

you need persistently and consistently to check that your learners have grasped the essence of the meaning implied:

  • Is he talking about now?
  • Does he already have a plan in his head?
  • Has he bought the flight tickets?
  • Is he sure he's going?

Answers to questions like this do two things: they reinforce the concept and they tell you whether the learners have got it.
For more on concept checking see the guide to checking learning.


Mind the gap

Gap-fill tasks are often a good way of giving learners controlled practice of the form but they aren't the only way.

Which is the more interesting task?

more interesting

It is sometimes actually easier to write an exercise which gets the learners to say something about themselves which is true and mildly interesting than to write a gap-fill task which is dull, unmotivating and doesn't lead to any kind of communication.


visualise

Using visuals for practice

Human beings make meaning from pictures so using them is a good way to connect grammar and meaning.  What's more, the more impressive or touching an image is, the more memorable will be the form connected to it.  Here are some examples but if you search the web for 'fascinating pictures' or 'emotional pictures' you'll find a huge range to pick from.

Image Examples of forms to elicit / practise
anger How is he feeling?
What happened to make him so angry?
How will you apologise?
point at, shout at, be upset about, rave about, shout about etc.
lonely wh-questions
going to
has just done

speculation modals: might / may / could 
fear frightened of / afraid of / terrified by
enjoy / hate / love watching etc.
can't bear / can't stand

intensifying adverbs / gradability
(utterly terrified, very scared etc.)
happened Past tenses: The earthquake struck at ...
Present perfect passive: The buildings have been destroyed
accident I was on my way to ... when ...
I was driving to ... when ...
While I was ...
Because ...
Suddenly, Unexpectedly, Stupidly he ...

Subordinating conjunctions (because, although)
Conjuncts (however, nevertheless etc.)
Reporting the facts in present perfect / past simple/progressive: He's had a terrible accident.  He was driving home when ...
Modals of speculation: He might have, He could have
accident
home Present perfect for very recent events: She has just come back from ...

In addition to single pictures, if you can assemble a set of images and force them into a narrative, that's a useful way to present and practise tense forms.

window

You have, of course, an ever-changing and useful image in your classroom.  It's called a window.  Using the facts of what is happening outside the window is a way of practising:

Articles
What can you see?
I can see
a police officer.
What's
the police officer doing?
He's writing down
the number of a car.
Where is
the car parked?
etc.
Present tenses
There's an interesting ...
The tree's growing next to ...
The house over the road has a ...
Relative pronoun clauses
I can see a house which is ..., A man who is ... etc.
Adjective order
There's a large, blue car parked on the corner.
Prepositions:
It's near, behind, next to, opposite, in the corner of etc.
and so on.  Only your and the learners' imagination is the limiter.


Related guides
development section for the guides to teaching grammar in that section of the site
theory of teaching grammar to see how theories affect practice in this area
checking learning for a guide to how to make sure that input has resulted in uptake
activity types for a guide to the three essential forms of activities and what they do


References:
Littlewood, W, 1981, Communicative Language Teaching, An introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Swan M, 2002, Seven bad reasons for teaching grammar - and two good reasons for teaching some, in Methodology in Language Teaching, Richards and Renandya eds., CUP 2002, pp.148–152 also available at http://www.mikeswan.co.uk/elt-applied-linguistics/seven-bad-reasons.htm
Widdowson, H, (1990) Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press