When we plan to teach a piece of grammar or vocabulary, it is important that we plan for students to be able to understand it and use it correctly. In order to achieve this aim, it is important to consider three factors: meaning (or concept), pronunciation and form (or structure). If we deal with these three aspects in turn, our students are more likely to retain what we teach and be able to use it when they need to.
There are many ways of knowing a word, phrase or grammar structure. Most school curricula assume that students ‘know’ something if they can reproduce it in a written test after having learnt it. However, remembering the meaning of a word and using it to fill a gap in a sentence is not the same type of ‘knowing’ that is required in a conversation, or when listening to a podcast, or when trying to explain a complex idea using that language.
Meaning: More than just ‘knowing’ a word
Deeper understanding of a word, phrase or grammar item starts with its concept. Concepts are non-linguistic - they are the stored meanings in the brain, which are used to make sense of the world. Words themselves are a tool for organising those concepts, and communicating them to the outside world. So, it follows that before being presented with a new, unfamiliar word, we should make sure that the concept behind that word is clear. This means presenting non-linguistic cues to meaning, which ready the learners’ brains to receive the word itself.
A non-linguistic cue can be a picture, sound or video clip which show the concept of the word you will present, but without the learner seeing or hearing the word itself. For more abstract words and phrases, or to teach a grammar structure, you may not be able to show the concept visually, so a quick story or situation can do the same job. Tell the class about a friend of yours who did something, or who has a certain characteristic. Don’t say the word you are teaching or use the grammar you are presenting, but ask the students to fill in the meaningful gap with the word or sentence structure if they know it.
As we can see, presenting concepts can be tricky, and it can take some thought about how to give the students the idea of the word you are teaching without directly saying or showing the word itself. See our other article for more on why meaning should be separated from form when presenting new language.
Pronunciation first - presenting new language orally
The English spelling system is a very confusing thing. There are very few standardised sound-letter relationships, especially with vowels (and all words have vowels). With this in mind, it is best to deal with pronunciation before looking at the written form of a word. Any word or grammatical structure is pronounced in the same way, no matter how many irregular or silent spellings it contains. This means that the spoken form of a word is more accessible than the written form, despite not involving any kind of visual support.
Focusing on pronunciation before written form has many benefits: firstly, hearing an authentic, connected version of a phrase fixes its real form in the learners’ minds first, so they will recognise it when you come to say it again (which you will, many times, if that is the target language that you are teaching). Familiarising learners with spoken forms also helps them to produce it, firstly through controlled drills, then perhaps in response to practice tasks, and finally (hopefully), independently in their own speaking. The sooner they have access to an authentic pronunciation of what they are learning, the better.
We often think of drilling as a way of introducing and fixing the sound of individual words, but pronunciation is equally important for grammar teaching. Most grammatical structures consist of several words spoken together, so as above, the sooner learners can process these structures as chunks of language, the more easily they will retain the whole structure, rather than as individual words.
Drilling verb phrases for tense work also gives an opportunity to work with the features of connected speech, to help learners produce a more natural sound in the grammar that they are studying. After all, we don’t only use grammar to read and write - we need it to process speech through listening and produce meaningful spoken language, both of which skills are often underdeveloped in second language learners coming out of high school English classes.
Substitution drilling is a good technique for generating different patterns of speech out of grammar items. Drilling chunks of language and substituting one part of the structure you are teaching each time you drill it can show learners which parts of the grammar are adaptable for different meanings - by time, number, person or verb (the features of a sentence which commonly change to show different ideas. For example, a substitution drill for the present perfect simple tense might go as follows:
She’s been to Italy
He’s been to Italy
He’s been to France
He’s visited France
They’ve visited France
They’ve come back from France
They’ve come back from the airport
By substituting different pronouns, verbs, objects, etc., we can build student confidence with simple forms and extend sentences using slightly more complex structures, changing one word or phrase at a time.
The written form - the final piece in the puzzle
Finally, once all students have understood the concept of the item you are teaching, heard it spoken and had the chance to try out its pronunciation, learners are ready to work with the written form of the word or structure.
Don’t be too quick to display the written form of a word - remember, the written form can distract from its sound, and there is a lot of work that can be achieved with concept and pronunciation without learners seeing the word itself.
However, dealing with form in a visual way, through sentence examples, tasks and form equations, is a good final step to consolidate the understanding that you have enabled up to now.
For grammar teaching, a display of the form is more complex than simply writing a sentence on the whiteboard. Form equations show the patterns of grammar rather than a specific meaning in the form of a sentence. Form equations are designed to be applied to any example of the grammar being used. For example, a form equation for the present perfect simple, which could be applied to any of the examples from the substitution drill above, would look like:
Subject + have/has + Verb (past participle) + Object
Or, to save time and whiteboard space, it’s a good idea to get students working with the annotated forms of the grammar terms above, for example:
S + aux. (have/has) + V(pp) + O
Once students know their form equations, they can quickly check the grammar that they use against these, and confirm whether they are structuring their sentences accurately.
As you can see, these three aspects of language: meaning, pronunciation, form, are quite rightly grouped in that order. This is the essence of the ‘MPF’ principle of language teaching. This is also known as ‘meaning before form’ or ‘COW’ (Concept-Oral-Written), all of which aim for the same process outlined here. When you plan to teach vocabulary or grammar next, make sire you plan for work in these three important areas, to give your learners the most effective experience of the language they are learning.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.