Teaching grammar is not the ‘done’ thing these days. So why do we do it?
- It’s in the programme
Despite more functions – based curricula, most text books and school syllabus include a large section on grammar and it would be a disservice not to teach your students what they need.
- It’s expected
By the head, other language colleagues, the parents, and not least by the students themselves. Although they wouldn’t want to admit it in public, students don’t want to feel they’re wasting their time in class, or not learning what they need to succeed at school.
Besides they may well be going on to another school at some point, where they will be asked what they’ve “done”, so it’s our responsibility to “do” grammar.
- They want it
As mentioned above, many students expect and want to learn grammar, they see it as a major part of learning a language. Adults actually like learning rules, teens do too, although younger students often prefer a more games- and activity-based approach. Teens like noticing, they often appreciate being able to (albeit secretly) beat the teacher.
- It’s in the exam
You may not be the one who writes their end of year exam so you had better see what’s in it and prepare them. Even if you are, it’s only fair to test what you have taught, and testing communicative activities based on previous knowledge might not go down too well.
- It keeps them quiet
We’re not allowed to say that, but often the “grammar” part of a class will be the quiet, orderly part, useful for crowd control when the inspector is visiting.
- It works
Another radical, unpopular reason for teaching grammar is that it might just work. Research has brought up a variety of theories but many feel that students learn more quickly and avoid fossilization through learning grammar rules, or at least they are primed and ready for the moment in their development when they are actually ready to acquire a particular language notion.
How to make grammar stick – some basic principles
- Make it fun(ny) & memorable – Find the hook
I remember the day I learnt how batteries worked, it must have been about thirty years ago, but our physics teacher explained how little green men took wheelbarrows full of energy out of the battery’s front door and delivered it to the object, however being shy, they wouldn’t leave the “house” unless they were sure the back door was open/plugged in.
- Personalize it but don’t polemic it!
Examples like PSG have just been beaten by Barca may well stick in the mind, but if your student is a PSB fan he will either develop a mental block about the present perfect, or hate you for life!
- PPP or OHE?
Lewis (1993) proposed replacing the dated P-P-P methodology with observe-hypothesize-experiment. It’s accepted that the learning is deeper and “sticks” more when it is effortful, so don’t just hand out the answer, make the students sweat for it.
Some ideas for finding the GREAT in Grammar
- Drawing dictation
We’re all familiar with picture dictation but just humour me and draw – in a large sunlit room is a wide high window, under the window is a modern glass table, on the table is a set of old-fashioned, red and yellow Russian dolls. Next to the dolls is a small, greyish metallic box, in the box is a medium-sized, heart-shaped golden key, this is the key to… WHAT?
Now describe the room, the window, the table, the dolls, the box, the key. Having remembered the exact order of the adjectives used to describe these objects can you check your adjectives to describe the key’s use are in the right order.
For homework ask the students to write descriptions from memory, write similar text to be used on partner next lesson.
- Sans anglais nul victoire!
When I explain question word order I ask the class to come up with their “motto” using the initials that correspond to Auxiliary-Subject-Verb, one class came up with this and the students remember it from one year to another. Getting the class to come up with it is more efficient than just giving them an answer.
- Last week I went on holiday and I…
Students take it in turn to finish the phrase, only using the same verb once, the next student must remember what all the previous ones did in the correct order before adding his own activity.
For homework, students can maybe add an extra phrase with detail ( John went swimming, the water was cold). Ask them at regular intervals and you can guarantee the whole class will remember the past of buy forever because Anna bought a pen in the holidays.
Other memory games work well with preposition practice, show a complex picture using familiar vocabulary for a couple of minutes, then get Students in pairs to recreate it.
- Model texts
Often students find an activity difficult because we don’t scaffold enough, I’m guilty of the “here’s’ one example no get on and write your own novel” technique, however with enough help anyone can create/write anything
This idea comes from a recent webinar by Charles Hadfield. It’s a great idea on how to produce effective poetry about photos or images, your day, or whatever you choose
Line 1- Where?
Line 2 – A (adjective) (person)
Line 3 – What are they doing?
Line 4 – What are they thinking of?
Waiting in her room,
The anticipating teacher
Thinking of tea.
As you know Haiku are three line poems, with a total of 17 syllables, five for the first and last line, seven for the middle one. Normally they are on the subject of nature, but we can stretch the definition a little for learning purposes.
Thank you letter/invitation
Often given in written part of examinations it is a good idea to give some practice using frameworks, for example after Christmas:
Thank you very much for the__________________, I really love it/them because I can use it/them to_______ (do what)______________ ______(when)__________. We had a great time in the holidays, we_________________________________________, and you, did you___________?
Variations include giving the text or frame as a dictagloss in class, to write up (from memory) for homework, or write your own using frame for homework.
- Passive general knowledge quiz
Give Students five examples, such as “Hamlet was written by which famous playwright?” and then have them write their own questions for big class quiz. The bonus point to “win” will obviously be to ask which tense the questions are in.
- Superlative Interview
Hot seat a celebrity – one student comes to the front and is either a character from a recent text/book being studied in class, or a favourite celebrity and others have to interview him, frame questions such as What is the biggest/best …..
Variations – class have to guess who Student is by the answers given, for homework – write up interview, good practice for reported speech.
Another good way of practicing the superlative is Puchta’s reverse quiz, call out “answers” such as “Everest”, “the Amazon” and students must give the question, i.e. “What’s the highest mountain in the world?”
- Comparing –
In pairs students brainstorm all the reasons they prefer English or Maths, tennis or football, for example. So often textbooks compare subjects like Porsche/ Beatle, etc. thatprovoke only one answer so you end up writing having to write hundreds on the board.
By comparing something that will grab their attention, Messi v Ronaldo, favourite pop groups, football teams, etc. you can add some personal interest to the subject.
These are just a few ideas to find the great in grammar, please share yours too!