Five things NOT to do when you teach grammar

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The following are some of the ‘mistakes’ common to many lessons I have observed in 25 years of modern foreign language teaching. I have been guilty of most of these myself in the past. Most experienced teachers will be aware of these pitfalls, so, I guess, this post is mainly aimed at less experienced colleagues.

1. Do not use the target language when the structure is complex and cognitively challenging

If the target grammar structure is complex and it is likely to cause cognitive overload to our students, it is preferable to avoid using the target language in order to prevent divided attention. After all, we want all of their attentional resources focused solely on understanding the grammar point(s) we are aiming to ‘teach’.

2. Do not use unfamiliar language in your examples of target-grammar-structure usage

This point relates to the previous one. When modelling the deployment of any given target grammar structure, we may want to prevent any potential source of divided attention from impairing the students’ focus on that structure. Hence, any sentence used to model or even practise the target structure at the early stages ought to occur within linguistic contexts that are very familiar to the students. Any new term or structure which the teacher will ‘throw’ in his/her modelling examples will be a potential source of confusion and distraction with very low surrender value. If one does want to use modelling sentences which contain new items, it would be good practice to provide the translation aside (e.g. in brackets) at least.

3. Do not make students go ‘productive’ straight away

In order to reduce the cognitive load in the first stages of acquisition of a given structure, students (especially the less able or confident ones) should be involved in receptive tasks and not, as often happens, ‘thrown’ straight into productive ones (e.g. translate  sentence into the target language). After a fair amount of receptive processing of the target structure through various modalities (see point 5, below) students will be better prepared for its deployment in the context of productive tasks. Thus, for example, before being asked to use the target morpheme in a structured or unstructured task, students may be involved in recognition tasks (e.g. scanning a text for examples of the target structure); grammaticality judgment tasks (where students need to evaluate how accurately the target structure has been used); multiple choice gap-fills; metalinguistic quizzes; L2 to L1 (fairly easy) translations; etc.

Of course this recommendation should not be over-generalised. There are indeed students who can ‘go productive’ straight away. However, as a norm, in every class there will be a fair amount of students who would benefit greatly from having receptive practice beforehand.

4. Do not just focus on intellectual knowledge and cloze tasks

Very often, in grammar teaching sessions, L2 instructors focus mainly on passing on intellectual knowledge about a structure and then practise that structure through masses of gapped exercises or other mechanical drills, including audiolingual-style ones. This is fine, but grammar instruction must endeavour to go beyond that by providing opportunities for the students, once they have become more versed in the use of a target structure, to use it in the context of less structured activities. The aim: to develop procedural knowledge – what skill-theorists call ‘executive control’.

Executive control is the ability to use any given grammar structure accurately in real operating conditions, i.e.: in real time, under time constraints and communicative pressure, not in a vacuum as a lot of grammar practice takes place, but in contexts in which there is negotiation of meaning between two individuals or between a student and an in-put source (e.g. radio or television). One’s degree of ‘executive control’ over a grammar structure will ultimately determine to what extent one can say one has acquired that grammar structure. So, for example, a student whose control over a given structure limits itself to being able to fill in gaps in a text accurately will be positioned at the very beginning of the acquisition continuum; conversely, someone who can apply the same structure flexibly and correctly across various semantic and syntactic contexts in unplanned speech, will be located at the opposite end of that continuum. Hence, although intellectual knowledge, gap-fills and mechanical drills can be a useful starting point in L2 structural acquisition (Anderson, 2000), grammar morphemes can only be acquired through unplanned communicative practice.

5. Do not forget there are four macro language skills, not just one or two

Often teachers practise and ‘test’ the uptake of a target grammar structure through the written medium (e.g. through translation). However, in real life, students are as likely to ‘hear’, ‘read’ and ‘speak’ that structure as they are to ‘write’ it. Thus, teachers ought to provide the students with plenty of opportunities to process that structure through all four modalities (Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing); to verify uptake of a grammar structure (at the end of a lesson or cycle of lessons) one should involve students in activities which require them to ‘recognize’ and ‘produce’ it in the context of spontaneous spoken or written text/production. For instance, at the end of a lesson or cycle of lessons on negatives, students may be asked to:

  • Listen through a number of utterances containing the negatives and demonstrate understanding of the meaning of each utterance. N.B. teachers should ensure that the vocabulary contained in such utterances is as familiar as possible to the learners (as per point two);
  • Read through a number of sentences containing the negatives and demonstrate understanding of the meaning of each sentence;
  • Engage in structured (audiolingual-style mechanical drills) or semi-structured (communicative) speaking task in which the students are required to use the target negative structure(s).
  • Deploy negatives in highly structured writing tasks (e.g. through translation) or less structured activities (e.g. producing negative sentences based on cues such as pictures).

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