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Ten ways to exploit a grammar drill worksheet

A worksheet either printed off for students or displayed from the board may seem a dull prospect for a lesson, but if we accept the old adage that "practice makes perfect" they are usually a necessary part of a modern language teacher's armoury. In my experience course books and other resources are often short of examples and do not allow enough opportunities for repetitiver practice. How can we exploit worksheets to the best effect? Here are some approaches, from the blindingly obvious to the more imaginative.

This sort of thing is the "nitty-gritty" of language teaching and is definitely worth thinking through.

1.  Teacher-led approach: teacher reads out prompt, gets an individual to answer, then gets other individuals to repeat, then the whole class to repeat. can be done with hands-up or no hands-up. Former approach allows teacher to pick quicker students as a good role models before weaker ones have a go. Strengths: this approach is very "old-school" but highly effective for attentive classes, supplies lots of target language and allows the teacher to pick out specific students he or she wants to. Good for differentiation. Good for listening. It is easy to maintain class control and the students hear good models i.e. yours. Weaknesses? Demands great attention from weaker classes and only one student speaks at a time, except for group repetition. You need to keep up a brisk pace or attention will quickly wane. many individuals find answering in class embarrassing; does this kind of pressure aid language learning?

2. Pair-work approach. After some whole class practice as above, quickly move to pair work where one partner acts as teacher and the other acts as pupil. Or they can alternate roles. Strengths: students get to say a lot and listen a lot in the target language. They can help each other. there is little embarrassment factor; pressure is off. Weaknesses: class control needs to be good so that students do not speak too much English or waste time. You may insist on a "no English" rule. Students may hear wrong answers and poor models of pronunciation, so do not get optimum comprehensible input.

3. "Rally coach" - from Bob McKay's blog:  rather than having students complete practise exercises in the traditional way, working through a worksheet, the worksheet is split in half and students complete the activities in pairs. As they do, they explain what they are doing to their partner who watches and listens, and, if they need to, questions and critiques. This process reinforces the method in both students’ minds. This lends itself particularly well to differentiation because you can pair stronger students with weaker ones for coaching purposes. Strengths: helps build cooperative spirit. Focuses on analysis and explanation. Good "assessment for learning" technique. Weaknesses: may end up with too much English spoken. Students not getting best oral models. Again, control needs to be effective.

4. Student takes the lead and acts as teacher. After a brief demonstration ask a volunteer, preferably an able one, to step up and run the class. Strengths: similar to (1), though models may be less good. Class will listen extra hard and find the process amusing. The volunteer will learn teaching/leadership skills. Weaknesses: as (1) in as far as each pupil may not end up saying that much. Focus is more on listening. Bad thing?

5. Using mini whiteboards. You can adapt approach one to involve more students actively by giving each student a mini whiteboard or coloured marker. As an answer is given all student must hold up their board with true/false or a marker indicating whether they think the response is correct or wrong. Strengths: as (1) plus more involvement from all the class. Weaknesses: largely as (1).

6. Combine skills: use approach (1) but as attention wanes quickly go to oral prompts with written answers. Then the class could simply work quietly or in pairs doing written responses to the written prompts. Strengths: all students are actively engaged with listening to good models, reading and writing. Good for class control. Insist on silence. Weaknesses: hard to check that all students are keeping up and writing accurate answers. Poor differentiation if teacher controls the pace. When students are working alone there is more chance for going at their own pace and asking questions.

7. Give answers, students choose prompt. This is a simple variation which helps vary the lesson and provide a fresh angle for pupils. Let's say you have a sheet with 15 prompts (sentences, questions etc). Don't read the prompt, but give an answer and pupils have to supply the correct prompt from the sheet. This can be done in pairs. Strengths: this may be an easy way in to a worksheet. Students do not have have to create an utterance, just read one already supplied. Focus on comprehension rather than production. adds variety. Weaknesses: often easier therefore less challenging. No need to show syntactic skill.

8. Supply alternative answers, students choose best one. Again, this has the merit of making a worksheet more approachable for less able students. A student could read aloud a prompt, then the teacher supplies two answers (a) and (b). Students then vote for (a) or (b). Strengths: good for listening comprehension. No pressure. All involved. Weaknesses: little production needed; watch out for peer pressure effect if there is voting.

9. Introduce competitive element. Students working in pairs can award points for correct answers. Strengths: students often like competitions, especially boys? Weaknesses: may lead to arguments and too much use of English.

10. Get students to make up their own examples. Once a group seems to have mastered a point allow them to make up their own examples or even write their own worksheet. Strengths: allows students to be creative, show off their use of their new point, be amusing. provides an excellent homework assignment. Allows students to compare work in the next lesson, try out their worksheet on a partner or the teacher, reinforce the language acquired in the previous lesson. Weaknesses: nothing to speak of, but be sure that all students have mastered the point or it could be a disastrous homework.

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