Planning the grammar lesson – heading for M.A.R.S.

Please note: this post was co-authored with Dylan Viñales during a Garden International School professional development afternoon and Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’.

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In this post I lay out the approach to grammar instruction I undertake in a typical lesson. I shall start by outlining what I believe the main aims and concerns of grammar instruction should be. I will then proceed to describe the three-phase framework I adopt and the typical tasks I carry out at each stage.

2. Aims and focus of grammar teaching

2.1 Knowledge vs Automization

Grammar teaching in many language classrooms is about passing the knowledge of how a grammar rule works . The presumption is that if students evidence that they have understood how the target grammar structure works  through a cloze or a written translation task, they have learnt it and the class can move on. This is however an overly simplistic  view of grammar acquisition, as it equates language learning with merely storing facts in Long-term memory – as you would do in any other content-based subject such as History, Geography or Biology.

The product of this kind of grammar instructions is students who, after four or five years of language learning instruction take forever to conjugate verbs across tenses; who often talk like ‘robots’, pausing in between words to decide which verb/adjectival ending or tense to select; who constantly back-track as they speak, self-correcting grammar mistakes that are caused more by lack of fluency than by a knowledge gap. Useless to say, many of these students often cannot cope when they attempt to use the target language in the real world.

As I reiterate ad nauseam in my blogs, language learning being about SKILL not Knowledge acquisition,  grammar instruction ought to aim primarily at enabling learners to accurately and rapidly apply L2 morphemes  across all four language skills and through a vast array of contexts at real-life-communication speed or R.O.C. (Real Operating Conditions).This implies an important mindshift as it entails  involving students in extensive skill-based grammar practice of both the receptive (listening, reading and translation) and productive sort (writing and speaking under time pressure) which ultimately aims at automization.

2.2. Process vs Product

It follows from the above that the focus of instruction should not only be the visible, i.e. the tangible outcome of a lesson, e.g. the nice little paragraph in the perfect tense which gives us the false reassurance and evidence we proudly show our colleagues that our students ‘have got it’; grammar teaching should also be about the invisible, i.e. the processes that lead to spontaneity / automaticity in language understanding and production.

This means engaging students in activities which develop each of the processes and sub-processes leading to the accurate application of a given grammar rule in real time across all four skills (e.g. as part of a spontaneous conversation).

Teachers ought to identify such processes and explicitly address them in their teaching and curriculum design. Example: producing a sentence like ‘If I had lots of money I would buy a Ferrari’ in French requires mastery of the Imperfect  Indicative (I had) as well as the Present Conditional (I would). To enable students to produce such sentences automatically with any personal pronoun (you, he, we, etc.) I will have to ensure first that those specific tenses and moods have been automatized or at least highly routinized.

Most of the time this doesn’t happen; the result: students who struggle to produce such sentences, not because they do not understand the underlying rules, but because they have not automatized the necessary sub-steps the application of that structure requires.

2.3 ‘Spontaneous’ grammar = spontaneous speech

Every prominent UK-based ML educator these days emphasizes the importance of fostering spontaneous speech in the language classroom but very few (e.g. Professor Macaro, bloggers Steve Smith and Jake Hunton) talk about the importance of ‘spontaneous’ grammar production. Yet it is difficult to fathom how, in school-based language education, one can even remotely hope to be able to develop student spontaneous speech without first achieving spontaneous (= highly routinized) grammar production.

Grammar instruction MUST be first and foremost about bringing about ‘spontaneity’ in grammar production.

3. A basic framework for grammar lessons and grammar teaching principles

Here is the basic framework I use in grammar lessons. I call it MARS. (Modelling/Awareness-raising Receptive processing, Structured production). The three phases are listed in chronological order but receptive processing activities can occur in the final phase, too, should the teacher feel that a reading or listening-as-modelling task or two may be needed as a pre- writing or pre-speaking activity. The sequence I tend to use is: Listening > Reading > Writing > Listening (snappy decoding-skill/pronunciation reminders using Micro-listening enhancers) > Speaking; I often alternate Listening and Reading tasks as I feel fit, so the above sequence is not set in stone. However, I do always stage writing tasks before speaking ones.

Please note: the 3 phases envisaged below do not have to occur all in one lesson. If the target structure is quite complex, it is preferable to cover the Modelling/Awareness-raising, Receptive processing and some Writing in one lesson and more Writing and Speaking in a follow-up session ( in which speaking would receive most of the emphasis).

3.1 Modelling and Awareness-raising  (PHASE 1) 

In the first phase of this approach the instructor models the target structure and raises learner awareness (e.g. through cognitive comparison) of the differences between the first and second language usage. This is the equivalent of the Presentation phase in the traditional PPP model that you will have been taught on your PGCE or CELTA course.

During this phase one should ensure that cognitive load is lessened by:

  1. using the first language if rule is complex;
  2. producing examples which contain language items the students are very familiar with;
  3. avoid engaging students in production unless you are dealing with particularly gifted students;
  4. providing the L1 translation of the examples in order to foster inter-lingual comparison;
  5. avoiding presenting exceptions to the rule you are presenting (do it later).

In this phase the teacher may decide to use a deductive or an inductive approach. In the deductive approach, the teacher explains the target grammar structure and provides examples of its usage. In the inductive approach, on the other hand, s/he presents the students with examples of the application of the target grammar structure and asks the students to work out the underlying rules  by themselves – although the teacher may intervene when the students are stuck with guiding questions. Inductive teaching involves problem solving and consequently greater cognitive investment which means, at least in theory, that it should bring about better retention.

There is no consensus as to which method is more effective; I use both, depending on the challenges posed by the target structure, the group I am working with and, of course, the time available – inductive teaching being obviously more time-consuming.

3.2 Receptive processing (Phase 2)

This is the most neglected area in explicit grammar teaching instruction. In most of the lessons I have observed in 25 years of teaching the teacher goes immediately from modelling to some form of production. This may work with some students. However, learning is greatly enhanced by getting the students to process the new grammar structure extensively, many times over, through reading and listening tasks which focus them on its formation and usage across a range of linguistic contexts. In a previous blog I gave the following rationale for this phase:

(a) receptive processing is less cognitively challenging than production, especially when effective support/scaffolding is provided; (b) if the texts in use contain language the students are familiar with, they provide old material to hook the new items to, which may facilitate retention; (c) it models the application of the target structure in context, not in a communicative vacuum (as the sentences used by teachers and course-books as examples do); (d) reading allows more time for students to process the new information – production puts much more cognitive and emotional pressure on them; (e) aural modelling through listening – when the transcript of the track is visible to the learners- can be valuable in preventing many decoding/pronunciation errors which may impede acquisition – going back to the English present perfect scenario: think of the pronunciation of ‘I have read’ as opposed to ‘I read’; of ‘I have written’ versus ‘I write’. In French, I have significantly reduced the voicing of ‘-ent’ in the third person plural of the present indicative (e.g. ils parlent) by extensive modelling through listening practice.

Important tip: this phase ought to begin with tasks which pose a relatively light cognitive load thereby allowing for more focus on the target structure.

3.2.1 Reading tasks

These may include :

  • Grammaticality judgment quizzes such as ‘Right or wrong?’ (students asked to decide, working alone or in groups, if a sentence is wrong or right and explain why); ‘Spot the correct one’ (two, three or four sentences are given which have the same intended meaning but only one is correct; students have to spot it and explain why it is correct) – this task lends itself well to a Kahoot quiz; Cloze tasks with options. It is imperative that the language used in each of the above is extremely familiar to the learner.
  • Sentence re-ordering tasks (the words in a sentence are randomly and incorrectly arranged and students are asked to place them in the right order) – obviously not all grammar structures lend themselves to this type of task;
  • Sentence builders (see example here) (teacher writes sentence in the first language; students to translate it by putting together the words/phrases in the sentence builder)
  • Text searches (student need to find as many instances as possible of target-structure use in a series of short texts and translate the sentences they are contained in orally or in writing );
  • Error identification and correction (students are given a set of sentences some of which are right and some of which contain one mistake referring to target structure use; students must identify the mistakes and explain and correct them)
  • Short-text translations. This is definitely one of my favourites. I always include translations in this phase of my grammar teaching. These are three ways I use it in my lessons: (1) write L2 sentence on screen/whiteboard and students translate on mini-board under time constraints; (2) group-work (students are given a set of sentences to translate; (3) I utter the sentence and students write on mini-boards;
  • Narrow reading texts with comprehension tasks. I always mention these in my blogs as I believe they are extremely useful (read here to know more about them)

Usually, I use at least three or four of the above tasks in each grammar lesson of mine ensuring that every task recycles the same vocabulary in order to facilitate comprehension. Morevoer, I always alternate these tasks with some of the LAM (Listening-as-modelling) activities described below. It goes without saying that easier tasks should go first and that there should be a logic to the way the above activities are sequenced.

3.2.2 Listening-as-modelling (LAM) Tasks

The following low-prep/high-impact tasks are some of my favourites LAM activities. Some of these tasks do involve some reading and writing, so they do more than addressing listening skills. Listening-as-modelling tasks are very important as an incorrect pronunciation of key grammatical features can seriously (negatively) impact communication and future learning. Think about the past of ‘to read’ in English ‘I read’, how easy it would be to presume that it is pronounced like the present ‘I read’; or, in French, the common mistake of voicing the silent ‘e’ in the ending of the first person of the present tense (e.g. ‘je parle’) which sound like the first person of the imperfect (e.g. ‘je parlais’); etc.

(1) Micro-listening enhancers (MLEs) (see examples of MLEs here) – these are of great help when working with highly inflected languages such as French, German or Spanish, as they can focus students on word endings thereby preventing many typical pronunciation mistakes L2 learners of these languages often make (e.g. my pet hate, the pronunciation of ‘-ent’ in the third person plural of the present tense in French).

(2) Partial dictations – these are a very effective follow-up to MLEs and are a great means to verify if students have acquired sound coding/decoding skills and to raise awareness of how the gapped elements fit in a sentence (e.g. word order of adjectives in French, Spanish and Italian ).

(3) Dictations – These can be used for a range of purpose, besides the obvious one of practising spelling and decoding skills. For instance, they can be employed (a) to promote cognitive comparison between the L1 and the L2. Example: in teaching word order in French one could write a sentence exemplifying the rule ‘noun before adjective’ in English; one would then dictate the French translation of that sentence to show how in French the adjective follows the noun instead and ask the students to notice the difference ; (b). To model transformational writing such as sentence-recombining strategies (see paragraph below)

(4) Sentence builders (using a sentence builder, teacher makes sentences for students to write on mini-whiteboards in the L1 or the L2 to model syntax)

(5) Paired reading-aloud with translation and/or critical listening – (1) Translation: students read short texts to each other and translate orally what they hear their partner say. (2) Critical listening: students evaluate pronunciation of the key-words involved in the application of the target structures.

(6) Narrow listening with comprehension tasks (same principle as Narrow reading)

3.2.3 Structured production (Phase 3)

Here are a few minimal prep/high impact activities I use in this phase. Written tasks

(1) Parallel texts with partial translation (students are given parallel texts where the L2 version is gapped; the gaps are obviously placed where the target structure is used in order to focus the students on its application in the text);

(2) Cloze tasks

(3) Translations (from L1 to L2)

(4) Sentence recombining tasks – two sentences are given and students are required to blend them in one new sentence using the target grammar structure. Example: Sentence is ‘My mother is 42. She is a lawyer. She really enjoys her job.’; Target structure is relative pronouns; Cue is:  ‘who, whom, which or where’ Recombined sentence could be: ‘My mother, who is 42, works as a lawyer and really enjoys her job’

(5) Old school drills (to practise verb conjugation and agreement in inflected languages (e.g. French, German and Spanish). Example (Spanish) : Maria ______ ( present indicative of ‘IR) = Maria va. As far as verb-conjugation drills are concerned, there are a few online verb conjugators (e.g. my own which really help.

(5) Picture tasks. These are another one of my favourites. Students must describe a picture making up sentences which include the target structures. Depending on the structure and the challenges it poses, one may decide to provide more cues , scaffolding and resources.

(6)Short essays with prompts. Students are asked to write a short essay with bullet prompts which cue them heavily as to what they are supposed to write so as to elicit use of the target structure(s). Oral tasks

These are usually the most neglected productive tasks and possibly the most important ones in bringing about automization.

(1) Sentence builders. Students, working in pairs, give each other sentences in the L1 to translate into the L2 using a sentence builder. I usually make this into a game; I prepare a deck of cards with the English sentences to translate and the students take turns in picking a card and translating it. Students work in groups of three, one of them being the referee; the more accurate player wins.

(2) Communicative drills. I usually start with these. Students are given prompts in the L2, L1 or in English. The tasks are constructed to elicit use of the target structure in a communicative context. Example (Teaching SER versus ESTAR in Spanish in the contexts of health issues):

Partner 1  :  Doctor I am ill

Partner 2:  What is the problem?

Partner 1: I am feeling nauseous and my stomach hurts

 Partner 2: Where is the pain ? etc.

(3) ‘Find someone who…’ with cards – It is one of my favourites. Students are given a card with fictitious name and details. The task is to find 8-10 people with specific details on their cards. Students go around asking questions which aim at eliciting those details; in the process, the deployment of the target structure is elicited (read here for more on this activity).

(4) Picture tasks with prompts. (see above)

(5) Oral sentence recombining. Oral version of the sentence-recombining task described above)

4. Lesson-planning Tips

(1) Narrow down the focus of your grammar lesson as much as possible

(2) Carefully consider L1 interference and mistakes commonly made by the average student you teach. How can you pre-empt them?

(3) Identify every single cognitive step involved in the application of the target rule and address each of them through extensive practice in the lesson.

 (4) Use as many ways as you can think of to explain the target rule. The more angles, analogies and visual representations you can use to explain the target rule, the more likely you are to make that rule ‘stick’. Try to come up with something memorable, like an acronym, a visual narrative or a diagram.

(5) Plan your examples carefully, ensuring they are clear and unambiguous – do not improvise!

(6) Recycle the same vocabulary over and over again throughout the lesson in order to ease cognitive load

(7) Zoom in and zoom out – as you plan the lesson you must focus as much on the lesson-at-hand (zoom in) as on what you have covered already and are planning to cover in the future (zoom out).

(8) Make sure that the final part of your lesson or cycle or lessons does not simply end with a receptive-processing activity; your aim should be bringing about automization. Hence, you may want to use an oral task requiring the students to use the target structure in oral production (e.g. through picture tasks or communicative drills under timed conditions).

5. Concluding remarks

Whether we decide to opt for a deductive or inductive instructional approach, the end-goal of grammar teaching must be the high routinization of the target grammar structure across all four skills. What is meant by this is that the students should be enabled – through extensive practice – to apply the target morpheme or syntactic pattern rapidly and correctly, in the context of ‘spontaneous’ speech. This entails going beyond the current models of grammar instruction used in UK-based Modern Language education whereby grammar is imparted and tested through cloze tasks and written translation. The attainment of automization of the target grammar structures must be our primary concern when we explicitly teach L1 morphology and syntax.

Some language educators might frown upon my advocacy of automization and drills – words which are reminiscent of some legacy methods. The problem is that what we have done in the last three or four decades is completely throw away the old for the ‘new’ without recognizing that grammar/translation, old-school oral and written audio-lingual drills and communicative language teaching have all got something important to bring to the table. Learning a language is like learning to play tennis or football; first you need lots of modelling and drills; then less challenging, ‘low-stake’ matches; finally, after much practice, one may be ready for the tournament and take on the champions.

Another important concern must be that students are provided with as many chances  as possible to succeed at learning whatever morpheme or syntactic structure we aim to teach. This calls for an approach which reduces as much as possible learner cognitive load and provides tons of recycling across all four language skills. The approach laid out in this post aims to accomplish that through the following principles:

  1. The target grammar structure should be presented in familiar linguistic contexts, i.e. within sentences which contain syntactic patterns and/or vocabulary the students have routinized previously;
  2. Plenty of receptive practice which (a) allows the less confident and gifted learners to process the target structure(s) in less cognitively heavy and less threatening contexts; (b) facilitates and reinforces understanding, should the teacher’s explanation of the rule not be fully grasped; (c) embeds the learning in a meaningful communicative context rather than in a ‘vacuum’ as happens when the rule is presented through loose sample sentences on a board or computer screen;
  3. Structured learning through a movement from smaller units of discourse to bigger ones and from highly structured to less structured ones.

Should grammar instruction stop at the last ‘S’ of MARS, i.e. ‘Structured production’? The answer is no, of course. The follow-up to MARS, refers to two phases I call Expansion and Autonomy, in which the learners are given opportunities to use the target structure in the context of increasingly less structured interactional communicative tasks across an increasingly wide-ranging set of topics.

A third phase, Routinization, will occur when the teacher is satisfied that the student can perform the target structure autonomously through a wide enough range of linguistic contexts; at that point, the main concern will be speeding up the rate of target structure deployment with automization as an aspirational goal.This phase should unfold longitudinally in subsequent lessons once the students, after frequent spaced practice, will have become confident and versed in the deployment of the target structure and ready to ‘walk’ on their own two feet, so to speak, without the ‘crutches’ provided by word-lists, sentence builders, verb tables and other scaffolding methods. In order to better understand what I mean by Expansion and Autonomy, please read the last section of this blog. To peruse a practical example of my approach, read this post detailing how I taught the French negatives to a group of 15 year old students last week.

To find out more about my approach to teaching get hold of the book Steve Smith and I co-authored ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’.

10 thoughts on “Planning the grammar lesson – heading for M.A.R.S.

  1. Dear colleague,
    I find your article quite illuminating and to the point of the alternatives we have as educators while teaching grammar. Thanks for the review.:)Thanks for adding another perspective on teaching English grammar to learners of other languages.
    The issues that you address definitely call for discussion with the present situation of TEFL,however, I would like to look closer into two points in your methodology the need to foster learners’ sense of achievement and use of translation from L1 to L2.
    I definitely agree that students need to be offered as many chances as possible to succeed at learning, however the procedures you suggest look a kind of elaborate, time consuming, neglecting the potential of context in deployment of the grammar structure.How about stressing more the production in different forms through personalization and production of different products( written or recorded or videoed) that can be used later for group review?
    As for the translation it is definitely the only evidence that we as educators can lay hands on, however we are so far away from the contexts that our students are going to use the target grammar item that maybe it’s better to let them focus on the message rather than accuracy.
    And as a final word I think that self- sufficiency is also an issue nowadays with so many internet resources available, don’t you agree?
    Thanks again for the review of the types of exercises that we can you use and a GREAT THANK you for the effort to bring back in the instruction tools the translation and dictation.
    Only those who have struggled with the context and making meaning out of the blurb could see what you have done! Thanks again and keep on Daring!
    Slava Tcherpokova
    Teacher of English

    Liked by 1 person

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