When and how should grammar be introduced?
Progression in grammar learning in the implicit method is not simply from incorrect to correct, or from correct use in one situation to numerous contexts (Macaro, 2014, p113). Consideration needs to be given to allow planned and scaffolded use of the grammar, through to spontaneous use of the grammar (Macaro, 2014). It is important to consider how and when to introduce grammatical elements, and it is not as straightforward as moving from the simple to the complex (Pachler and Field, 2001, p128). As Spada and Lightbrown (1993) note, ‘it is neither necessary nor desirable to restrict learners’ exposure to certain linguistic structures which are perceived as being “simple”‘. As Grauberg (1997) underlines, even the simplest of exchanges require complex language. Nonetheless, the sequencing of grammar learning can be seen as necessary to enable learners to build up patterns and structures incrementally (Pachler and Field, 2001, p128). Pachler and Field recommend that, in order for pupils to develop an understanding of language and generate language of their own, pupils should focus on language with transferable value, such as key verbs, lexical items (define), pronouns, adjectives, adverbs or gender markers (p128).
Whilst grammar can be carefully planned and structured, this does not mean that learners learn grammar in a linear fashion. As Heafford (1990) highlights research has shown that ‘learning did not occur in a linear fashion but was an organic process characterised by backsliding, leaps in competence, interaction between grammatical elements’ (p10). This, therefore, has implications for curriculum design. As Turner (1996) highlights, a purely thematic, topic-based approach to language, with an unsystematic and disorganised presentation of grammar is unhelpful to pupils. She instead advocates a spiral approach based on grammatical aspects of a language in conjunction with semantic aspects (the meaning of words and sentences structured around a particular topic or semantic field). This she stresses should be underpinned by the usefulness to the pupil.
Pachler (1999a, p97) suggests that development in grammar learning takes place over four stages which closely mirrors the process of the inductive method:
- Noticing– patterns and naming in own words
- Integrating – process of identifying and labelling through personal rule formation needs to be related to existing grammatical knowledge
- Internalising – learners apply their own rules in order to manipulate language forms for their own purposes. The form is then committed to the long-term memory.
- Proceduralising – use of the structure becomes ‘autonomatic’ through regular usage in a range of contexts.
Ellis (1997, p91) suggest that young learners and those new to the language should first of all learn grammatical structures which:
- Refer to easily recognisable categories
- Can be applied mechanically
- Are not dependent on large contexts
Pachler and Field (2001, p134) go on to recommend that further consideration should be given to the selection of grammar items for a particular topic or theme. For instance:
- Which items need to be recycled from previous units covered?
- Which items meaningfully build on existing knowledge?
- Which items should not be explained in full at this stage, but will require revisiting at a later stage?
- Which items can be treated as lexical items at this stage? (in other words, treated purely as words, rather than grammatical rules).
Regardless of how children acquire grammatical understanding, either through inductive or deductive methods, it is important that children have an opportunity to practise grammatical structures through what Pachler and Field (2001) term the habit-forming stage (p142). This is when learners reach a point that they get a ‘feel’ for what looks or sounds right.
Rutherford (1987) advocates a process of consciousness raising focusing learners’ attention on aspects of the L2 which the teacher suggests is pertinent. This is to sensitise the learner to the structure of the L2. Hawkins (1984) deems grammar learning to be a voyage of discovery and argues against a prescriptive model. He suggests that teachers need to understand a range of techniques and strategies to suit the differing needs and tastes of the learner.
Using songs in grammar teaching
Listening and responding to songs can be an excellent way of encouraging students to apply their grammatical knowledge. There are a multitude of activities, but below I have outlined four which could be food for thought:
- Choose a song that mainly uses a single grammar structure or one that uses several different tenses or grammar points. In the first instance, students can use total physical response when they hear a particular structure or word class.
- A second activity also involves listening skills. Students listen out for specific structures or language points in the song, e.g. adjectives, adverbs. They then replace them with synonyms or antonyms and reflect on the new version.
- Take the verbs of the lyrics of a song to develop a gap-fill exercise. First ask the pupils to predict what the verbs might be. Then, on listening to the song, the students can write the correct version of the verbs.
- Finally, provide the students with the lyrics to a song and ask them to change the tense. This enables them to practise using different tenses and verb forms in a more engaging way.
Human/ card sentences
Human sentences can be a very useful way to reinforce word order and endings. In this actitvy, the class is split up into a number of groups. Members of the group are each given a word and the group needs to arrange themselves into the correct order. Pachler and Field (2001) also suggest a number of games with sentences on pieces of card which are then cut up. These can be recorganised by individuals or pairs. One example of this activity may involve changing a sentence into a question, or changing a present tense sentence into an imperative.
Crime scene game
This is a useful game to reinforcing a range of grammar teaching. Pachler and Field (2001) suggest setting the scenario in English (for example, the crown Jewels have been stolen) or in a primary school it would be preferable to create a crime scene in the classroom.
For beginner learners, children describe the crime scene or a villain in order to reinforce word order. They also describe anything that is missing from the classroom. Children can then create “Wanted” posters, ensuring that word order (including adjective order) is correct.
For more advanced learners, in pairs pupils play the role of suspects and have to prepare a story between them which acts as their alibi. This reinforces basic past tense. In secondary schools this game can be used to reinforce the use of perfect and imperfect tenses. The rest of the pupils then question each person in the suspect pairs and compare their stories. Written reports can be created too.
Big Green Monster
This is a fantastic book written by Ed Embley which is available in a range of languages. This book builds up a description of the different characteristics of a monster, page by page. I have used this book inductively to teach the notion of word order for adjectives and also to develop rules for adjectival agreement in other languages (both gender and plurality). After creating their own monster faces on a plate, children use a writing frame to create their own version of the book.
This can be done with any grammatical structures. At a basic level two sets of words are created: one with pronouns and the other with conjugated verbs (to have, to be, to like are useful constructions).One child lays the pronoun card and the other the conjugated verb. The first person to spot a pair shouts ‘snap’. A more active version of this game involves children being given a card (containing either a pronoun or conjugated verb) and they have to find a partner. The children then need to write on a whiteboard any word that can be used to complete the sentence. This can also be adapted with nouns and adjectives to reinforce adjectival agreement.
Noughts and crosses/ tic-tac-toe (idea from TEFL.org)
To play this game, draw a noughts and crosses grid on the board. Choose a grammatical focus for the game; for example, 2nd conditional sentences. In each square, write a verb (or two) in its infinitive form. Students would then work in teams. The first team picks a square and they would need to create a sentence correctly using the verbs in the second conditional. If they get it right, they can claim the square of the grid; if not they ‘lose’ the square. The game goes on until one team scores three in a row.
A variation of this game would be to have a verb in its infinitive form and then fill each of the squares with a different tense. This is a good way to revise a range of tenses.
How do you know how children are doing?
Assessment and feedback
As Pachler and Field (2001) suggest, the ability to use language grammatically correctly is a key component and an integral part of effective communication in the target language (p126).
Another important aspect to remember is that the learner’s ability to talk about or explain rules is not necessarily reflected in their ability to apply this correctly.
Whilst ultimately the aim of language learning is the ability to communicate (as Russell’s quotation reminds us) accurate use of language enables clarity of meaning. Consequently it is important to address errors and misconceptions before they are embedded in the learner’s repertoire. Constructive feedback, Pachler and Field (2001) suggests provides an effective way for the learner to move along in their language learning.
Macaro (2014) recommends encouraging pupils to carry out a piece of writing on a particular topic where there is an obligatory requirement to use the element. An example may be to tell a story from a series of pictures in the past tense, or describe an incident that happened recently.
However, as Macaro (2014) highlights, it is also important to understand how the language is structured in a learner’s head.
Grammar is a fundamental part of language learning and provides the ‘Lego bricks’ which holds language together. An understanding of grammar can enable pupils to effectively communicate to whom they were speaking, where they were, when they were there. In other words, grammar is essential for effective communication where meaning making is key.
As the debate rages on, it is not clear whether a purely inductive method (where pupils find patterns in language and create their own rules) or a deductive method (where rules are taught, then exemplified) or a combination of the approaches would be the most effective approach to language teaching. Regardless of which approach is taken, grammar should be taught as part of a holistic curriculum that engages children with meaningful language experiences. As learning is not a linear process, teaching should not be either and consequently opportunities for developing grammatical understanding should be planned into a spiral curriculum. Concepts should be regularly revisited, consolidated and built upon. Progression in grammar learning and teaching should be carefully thought through.