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…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…

Five great advanced level French listening sites

If your A-level students would like opportunities to practise listening there are plenty of sources you can recommend for accessible, largely comprehensible and interesting material. Here are some I have come across while searching for resources over recent years.

Daily Geek Show

I love this site. It's fresh, youthful and full of really interesting material. They have an archive of videos, both short and long, from various sources, grouped under a range of themes: insolite (weird news items), science, discovery, technology, ecology and lifestyle. There should be something there to interest all your students while adding to their broader education. Here is one I enjoyed (I shall seriously think about buying tomatoes in winter now):




France Bienvenue

This site has been around for years and is the work of a university team in Marseilles. You get a mixture of audio and video material complete with transcripts and explanations.This is much more about the personal lives of the students …

Responsive teaching

Dylan Wiliam, the academic most associated with Assessment for Learning (AfL), aka formative assessment, has stated that these labels have not been the most helpful to teachers. He believes that they have been partly responsible for poor implementation of AfL and the fact that AfL has not led to the improved outcomes originally intended.

Wiliam wrote on Twitter in 2013:

“Example of really big mistake: calling formative assessment formative assessment rather than something like "responsive teaching".”

For the record he subsequently added:

“The point I was making—years ago now—is that it would have been much easier if we had called formative assessment "responsive teaching". However, I now realize that this wouldn't have helped since it would have given many people the idea that it was all about the teacher's role.”

I suspect he’s right about the appellation and its consequences. As a teacher I found it hard to get my head around the terms AfL and formative assess…

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…