06 Jul The Importance Of Making Grammar Meaningful

This month, Michael Newby, Head of Teacher Training, talks about how grammar has to be meaningful to make sense and give us some tips on how to achieve this in the classroom.

Here’s a brief lesson for you in Chinese Mandarin.

The rules of conjugation are pretty straightforward and simple in Mandarin; there are no verb changes as everything is expressed in the present tense. It doesn’t matter whether you wish to express your plans for the future or describe something you did the previous day. It doesn’t even make a difference if you opt to use first, second or third person pronouns. If you do wish to detail an event that occurs away from the present time, you simply add time adverbials. So, for example, you would say “wo wan ji ta ming tian” for “I play guitar tomorrow”, and “ta wan ji ta zuo tian” for “she/he play guitar yesterday.” OK, so all that remains is to provide you with some verbs and you will be able to communicate in Chinese Mandarin in no time at all!

If this, indeed, was the case, then language teaching would have died out a long time ago with detailed grammar books and the internet. The simple fact remains that picking up a second or third language takes more than what David Crystal simply refers to as “knowing about grammar.” It is this approach, however, that still takes hold of some language instructors when it comes to teaching grammar; they simply believe that by helping learners understand the rules and forms of different structures it will lead to a thorough understanding of the target language and, eventually, full acquisition. So what is the difference between knowing about grammar andknowing grammar?

We all know how to use the syntactic tools of our mother tongue in order to effectively communicate with other people and express our wishes and desires. Even if we can’t explain what these so-called rules actually are or how they are used, we have all acquired these patterns and idiosyncrasies without too much effort on our part. We don’t need to be made explicitly aware of how the present continuous is formed or how it is commonly used in order to successfully express ourselves using it. Native English speakers rarely study the grammar of their own language at school, but, nevertheless, millions upon millions of people in the UK, Australia, the USA, and Canada – to name just some of the countries that list English as a native language, still manage to converse and communicate about a wide number of topics both accurately and fluently.

So, how does this come to pass? The obvious answer is that we get so much exposure to our L1 through our parents, teachers, friends and the media that we acquire it whether we want to or not. There is so much information out there that it would, in fact, be harder not to know our mother tongue! This is much harder to replicate in the language learning classroom, mainly due to the unreal conditions that inevitably exist in such an environment; for starters, the teacher tends to be the only native speaker in the room and, therefore, the sole source of this information. This, naturally, forces language instructors to believe that they should take up the role of the all knowing language resource – imparting words of wisdom and hoping that something sticks in the minds of their learners. Although this may be successful for some students, it doesn’t help all, as it implies that we all learn in the same way and at the same pace. This just isn’t true – students can learn from each other through interaction and peer-teaching.

Another implication of this approach is that input = output; the idea being that if you provide clear and
detailed information in some format, then learners will be able to mimic it in the language that they produce. This is a far too simplistic view of how our brains works in this field. The process can be much better described asinput > intake > structure/restructure > automation. Despite looking pretty linear in the way I have written it down, the process is actually more cyclical, as the information we require may not be sufficient enough, so we need further input before it can be consolidated. So, what does this actually mean?

Firstly, it should go without saying that learners require some form of inputon a particular item of structure or lexis. The traditional method of the teacher lecturing on the form, meaning and usage is one such method. As I have said earlier, however, this only helps students “know about” the language. A much more effective means is to get students to notice the language in action. Think about a time you have
patiently and carefully taught a particular point only for your students to make the exact same mistake you have just covered. What modern researchers in second language acquisition now tell us is that these inaccuracies occur because the learners hadn’t fully processed the information because they either weren’t ready for it or they saw no present need or purpose to focus on the target language – even if they seemingly were paying attention to the teacher, and might even be able to construct a sentence in a controlled-practice task. Why do we use the Present Perfect; why should our learners study that particular structure at that particular moment; because you (or the book) say so? If your learners can clearly see (or notice) how the language point is used and how useful it actually is, then they are more likely to process it. This is what is known as intake. Activities such as guided discovery tasks can work so well with this.

Furthermore, this input has to be varied and there should be a lot of it. As we know, not all students learn in the same way or at the same pace. The more variation we put into the input we provide – newspaper stories, songs, readers, pictures, photos, YouTube clips, anecdotes, etc, the more likely it is that the information will grab our learners’ attention. The more we cater for different learning styles, the greater chance we have of facilitating the learning process and intake for the majority of our students. The amount of input we give the people in the classroom should also be sufficient for their needs too. This input should not be limited to a simple presentation of the language at the beginning, but should run throughout and be
recycled often. Can we really expect our students to get told something once and have it sink in on a deep enough level for it to become acquired knowledge?

The next step along this path involves giving learners the opportunity to try and incorporate this new information into what they already know, or think they know, about the way the language works. This is what we refer to asstructuring or restructuring. Can you think of a time when a learner or group of learners started to make mistakes using language that they used to be accurate with?

For example, with my students learning English, it is not uncommon to have a learner use the irregular past form ‘went’ correctly one day, only to start incorrectly producing ‘goed’ a few days later. The first instinct of the language teacher is to correct the student and then scratch their head over why the learner
suddenly messed it up. What can often be missed is the reason why the learner made such an attempt despite ‘knowing’ the correct form a few days previously. The learner may actually be correct in their thought process. Consider what the student might have picked up in the time between those utterances; perhaps you have had a class where the regular ‘ed’ form in the past was highlighted or the student was exposed to it by some other means outside of the classroom. They have made a hypothesis about the rules of the language and correctly surmised that when we talk about things in the past, sticking ‘ed’ on the end of a verb tends to work pretty well. It stands to reason that they would then test this new hypothesis using what they already know. At some point, the learner will get further input (perhaps through correction and feedback or simply through further exposure to the language) and realise that there are, in fact, two different ways of catergorising verbs and so the process continues until it has becomeautomated.

Consider your own experiences in the classroom and what problems and difficulties your students have when it comes to picking up new grammar and vocabulary. What other ways could you facilitate their learning in order to solve these issues? Ask yourself whether or not you provide enough varied input and, just as importantly, if it gives your learners the chance to notice the language and its meaning for themselves.


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