Skip to main content

On giving grammar notes to students

I was not a huge fan of spending lesson time on writing up or displaying grammar notes for students to read and copy, but I did it nevertheless. Why?

If you've read my blog before, you'll know that I am a fan of target language teaching, a structured direct method approach. You might even call it an adapted comprehensible input approach. In the school context I worked in, with the type of pupils I taught (generally quite able), I preferred a syllabus based essentially on a grammatical framework taught through the medium of large amounts of oral, aural, reading and writing practice.

I much preferred actually using and practising the language than talking about it. My feeling was that students would gradually internalise the rules of morphology and syntax through structured, controlled and less structured practice and that formal instruction in grammar was just an added extra which allowed students to have a conscious grasp of the rules. In Stephen Krashen's terms, this conscious knowledge is the "monitor". It helps learners edit their language, fine-tune it for accuracy, if you wish. he argues it does not contribute to acquisition, but we cannot be sure about that.

So why even teach rules at all? Why give notes?

Around 1980 there was an influential movement called "graded objectives", led by Brian Page, which aimed to provide students with discrete, attainable goals, thus giving them a greater sense of achievement. It was the result of dissatisfaction with O-level and part of the inspiration for GCSE. It would later be taken up again with the "languages ladder" (Asset Languages) - now sadly defunct. Page and others realised how important it was to give students a sense of achievement along the way.

There are various ways of doing this. You can adopt a situational or functional approach. This may work in some contexts, but in school it ends up neglecting grammar and failing to provide the more rounded, long term syntactic mastery some students need. You could do a purely grammatical syllabus, with a focus on grammatical and written accuracy. This was the grammar-translation approach. But this ends up producing accurate pupils whose oral and aural skills are limited.

What we have now should be a reasonable combination of functions, ideas and situations imposed upon an essentially grammatical framework. But to make the framework function, students benefit, I believe, from a conscious grasp of the rules.

I think pupils do like to understand how the patterns work. In mastering the rules they have a sense of immediate achievement, even if this is not the key aspect of long term acquisition. Without that sense of mastering a point students may lose their way, may be dispirited by only being focused on a very vague long term goal - becoming proficient in a new language. In maths and science you learn a concept, practise it, master it and move on. In language learning there are no neat steps in progress (one reason national curriculum levels are hard to concoct). So we try to impose a sense of order by talking about the, explaining it, rather than just using it.

In the end, I think my main objection to explaining grammar, displaying notes and having them copied, was that it was dull. It was time spent which could have been used for more enjoyable target language practice. You can explain grammar without note-taking, but I think you can make the case that in note-taking or copying it gives students time to think through the rules. In addition, they have their own record to revise from later. If the text book has clear and easy explanations, that may be enough, as long as you go through them. But giving notes is an easy activity to justify and teachers should have no qualms about doing it, as long as it is not a major focus.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…

Using sentence builder frames for GCSE speaking and writing preparation

Some teachers have cottoned on to the fact that sentence builders (aka substitution tables) are a very useful tool for helping students prepare for their GCSE speaking and writing tests. My own hunch is that would help for students of all levels of proficiency, but may be particularly helpful for those likely to get lower grades, say between 3-6. Much depends, of course, on how complex you make the table.

To remind you, here is a typical sentence builder, as found on the frenchteacher site. The topic is talking about where you live. A word of warning - formatting blogs in Blogger is a nightmare when you start with Word documents, so apologies for any issues. It might have taken me another 30 minutes just to sort out the html code underlying the original document.


"Ask and move" task

This is a lesson plan using an idea from our book Breaking the Sound Barrier (Conti and Smith, 2019). It's a task-based lesson adapted from an idea from Paul Nation and Jonathan Newton. It is aimed at Y10-11 pupils aiming at Higher Tier GCSE, but is easily adaptable to other levels and languages, including A-level. This has been posted as a resource on frenchteacher.net.

This type of lesson plan excites me more than many, because if it runs well, you get a classroom of busy communication when you can step back, monitor and occasionally intervene as students get on with listening, speaking and writing.

Filling the gaps

All teachers at some time make use of gap-fill activities. There are very good reasons for doing so, whether the focus is on careful listening with a transcript, grammatical awareness, vocabulary retrieval or general comprehension. I particularly liked them for scaffolding listening with classes, combining comprehension with phonics and grammar. A gap-fill really gets students listening intensively and supports the process of listening. If you are keen on the idea of Listening as Modelling (as described in our listening book) you may prefer this type of task to general comprehension exercises which can end up promoting guesswork.

You can use gap-full in all kinds of ways and with different aims in mind. As a little exercise I thought I’d make a list if all the types of gap-fill I could think of.  These are all with LISTENING in mind, more than reading. These could help you focus on the precise aim of the gap-fill or just provide you with some variations to make it more interesting for…