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

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


English 

_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Preparing for GCSE speaking: building a repertoire

As your Y11 classes start their final year of GCSE, one potential danger of moving from Controlled Assessment to terminal assessment of speaking is to believe that in this new regime there will be little place for the rote learning or memorisation of language. While it is true that the amount of learning by heart is likely to go down and that greater use of unrehearsed (spontaneous) should be encouraged, there are undoubtedly some good techniques to help your pupils perform well on the day.

I clearly recall, when I marked speaking tests for AQA 15-20 years ago, that schools whose candidates performed the best were often those who had prepared their students with ready-made short paragraphs of language. Candidates who didn't sound particularly like "natural linguists" (e.g. displaying poor accents) nevertheless got high marks. As far as an examiner is concerned is doesn't matter if every single candidate says that last weekend they went to the cinema, saw a James Bond…

Worried about the new GCSEs?

Twitter and MFL Facebook groups are replete with posts expressing concerns about the new GCSEs and, in particular, the difficulty of the exam, grades and tiers. I can only comment from a distance since I am no longer in the classroom, but I have been through a number of sea changes in assessment over the years so may have something useful to say.

Firstly, as far as general difficulty of papers is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that the new assessment is harder (not necessarily in terms of grades though). This is particularly evident in the writing tasks and speaking test. Although it will still be possible to work in some memorised material in these parts of the exam, there is no doubt that weaker candidates will have more problems coping with the greater requirement for unrehearsed language. Past experience working with average to very able students tells me some, even those with reasonable attainment, will flounder on the written questions in the heat of the moment. Others will…