Grammar: A, B, C

You’re delivering a receptive skills lesson and decide as a follow-up to focus on a grammatical item. The next grammar point is important, so you decide to deliver it using the PPP format. Later in the semester an area of language crops up which is merely an extension of a previously taught one, so you opt for a Guided Discovery approach. Whatever the approach, there is one certainty: the opportunities to tackle grammar will vary due to the ever changing needs of your learners. 

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Take Teacher A, for example, prefers to dedicate an entire lesson to an item of grammar, beginning with the presentation stage and culminating in freer practice. While this approach might work very well for him and his learners – presumably because he has mastered the lesson format due to lots of practice – for sure numerous new, exciting and organic opportunities for language exploitation will have presented themselves during general chit-chat with his learners – opportunities he will have missed by nipping flowing conversation in the bud and moving onto the lesson proper.

Yet, by not ‘moving on’ and instead responding to such opportunities could potentially be very effective for the learners to grasp a piece of grammar, as the need for it has naturally arisen.

However, in his blog on grammar Scott Thornbury (online), in quite a light-hearted way, points to a scenario too many teachers are well-acquainted with, whereby they present language or even seize the opportunity to tackle it but end up going down the road of ‘explaining’ it, leaving the learners to sit in silence and ‘absorb’ the explanation.

Explanation is merely one tool an ELT professional should have at their disposal (Scrivener 2011), not the medium by which teaching should take place. So, as to avoid an over-reliance on explanation, Teacher B opts to deal with the grammar as a follow-up in a receptive skills lesson.

The advantage of this is the supposed clarity of context – the learners have just seen the grammar in use, so extracting it and working on it should be quite easy and fruitful, right?

But what if we take a step back and ask ourselves: How many times does the target grammar appear in the text? Is the text authentic? Is the target language used in a natural way? Does it sound better written because that’s what it lends itself to?

To my experience, all the major coursebooks out there use texts which are neither authentic nor awash with a single grammar point – very often it appears only once or twice in a text. So why are we focusing on it?

Perhaps we decided to go for it because the text really does make the meaning of the target language clear, which is great and quite ideal for language extraction. However, if this is done post-skills, then haven’t the learners just successfully read, understood and responded to a range of questions about the text without having focused explicitly on the target grammar?

If it is important to have a clear context in order to present the meaning of the target language as vividly as possible, then this is perhaps best achieved with the teacher creating a situation themselves, moving away from boring text and making it more interesting for the learners.

Or maybe it would be even more interesting to get the learners to set up the context themselves. You would just have to think about how to get them to successfully set it up (scaffolding quickly comes to mind). Also, this way you would simultaneously be taking a step in the direction of creating a Student-Centred classroom and learning experience.

So, if none of the approaches are flawless, then it may be just the right idea to vary how you deal with grammar from lesson to lesson in order to maximise the opportunities for effectiveness, which is exactly what Teacher C does.

Teacher C goes into the classroom, plan and materials at hand, ready to deliver a lesson on the various forms of the future. However, as the teacher enters, the class is talking about a cultural festival that took place at the weekend which they all attended. The teacher goes with the flow and takes the opportunity to fine-tune the learners usage of past simple versus past continuous.

Later on, Teacher C is looking at the contents page of the coursebook for the class and studies the upcoming grammar points. None of them are past simple vs. past continuous – this is a grammatical point covered in the pre-intermediate book, something which the learners should have theoretically mastered by this stage.

“By this stage”, says Teacher C to himself, “who decided that?”

As time goes on, Teacher C realises three crucial things about language teaching and learning:

The acquisition of grammar is a long and organic process, whereby learners do not acquire a bit of grammar during a single unit of a book but need to come back to a grammatical point again and again until it enters their useable linguistic repertoire

Teaching random grammatical points without a vividly clear context is pointless and fruitless, so much so that the book’s typical 10-sentences-without-a-context-exercises are mere meaningless chores.

Coursebook syllabi are incapable of identifying grammar which is needed by the learners, as each class is made up of different learners with different needs and interests.

As a result, Teacher C moves away from the coursebook as far as grammar is concerned and focuses more on fine-tuning the grammar his learners are already struggling with, extracting language where and when it appears, and, above all, building a context and a real-world task that really demands the meaning of a new item of grammar.

References

Thornbury, S. (online) “G is for Grammar Lesson” in An A-Z of ELT
http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/g-is-for-grammar-lesson/

Scrivener, S. (2011) 3rd ed. Learning Teaching
Macmillan

*Image courtesy of Oliver Tacke at http://www.flickr.com/photos/otacke/10034617715/

6 thoughts on “Grammar: A, B, C

  1. Teacher C makes an attractive picture 🙂 Having/Developing such flexibility would be really useful. Still, I’d feel a little unconfident having no plan for a lesson being afraid of making a lesson a bit chaotic. Do you think it is a matter of experience?

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    1. Responding to your students in real time uses a different muscle compared to delivering a lesson pre-planned, but I don’t think it’s much harder. Of course, you can shift little by little.

      The most important lesson I took from ‘Teaching Unplugged’ was to say yes to opportunities to communicate. Just saying ‘yes’ to what your students already want to say, rather than shutting them down in favour of your ideas (or your coursebook’s) is a big relief. Now I love interruptions to the lesson, and when a student’s had some big news, when current events intrude, etc.

      Now, I still have coursebooks and I still plan lessons, but I try and be responsive when planning and when teaching. I -try- anyhow. ^_^

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      1. Real-time, real-life, real responses to our learners are great and, as you rightly point out, in them lies a wealth of opportunities. Just today, for example, I needed my class to brainstorm words for beginning questions; I had a bit of stalled start and I heard one student say something to another student, so I asked what he had said. The response? “Nothing, only a question.” I won’t go into too much detail but let me just say it was a golden opportunity and I couldn’t have asked for a better start 🙂

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  2. Nice post. You know I’m in full agreement with the sentiment (eschewing explanation, more cyclical syllabi that actually respond to learner’s needs and interests), but I’m concerned with the practicalities.

    How did teacher C’s off-the-cuff lesson focus on a grammar point they’d not prepared for at all? Was it a productive skills lesson with a heavy amount of error correction? Do they have a repertoire of prepless and materialless exercises for every grammar point?

    And if so… why prepare a lesson at all?

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    1. A great comment to kick start a discussion on the topic! 🙂

      I think a teacher like C will have at their disposal a number of activities which can be used for language work, very much like how many teachers see a text in a book and then bring in a range of lexical-based exercises (not worksheet but in-class activities). For example, Teacher C hears about the festival (mentioned in the blog) and quickly establishes some of the class went, some didn’t; those who didn’t have to make questions for those who went; the teacher first quickly elicits how to make Y/N and Wh-questions in the past. Asking and answering the questions will produce language, possibly incorrect language, that could be collected for Delayed Error Correction. Even if the language is all good, then C would still collect in examples and get the learners to reword them, rephrase them, change the register, change the voice. If you’ve got younger learners maybe C could have got them to act out a scenario from the festival, with a narrator explaining everything in the past. Or pair the learners up, one says what happens at the festival in present, the other learner puts it into the past. If you want skills work, then elicit the structure and language for writing a review and then get them to produce a review of the festival.

      Basically, there’s a wealth of on the spot activities that could be used; the list could go on.

      I think the question “why prepare a lesson at all?” is something which is being posed more and more in the ELT world, as teachers slowly start to move away from a knowledge-based profession to one where their skills are what make the lesson. Once upon a time learners had to get the knowledge from the teachers (hence the old grammar-translation explanation style of teaching) but nowadays learners have access to the English completely free thanks to technology. If we accept most of learners get most of their English learning outside of class (be it at school or at home), then the lessons are more for using the language and playing with it.

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