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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.

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