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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Tried and tested routines for teaching grammar

Grammar is an integral part of language education, but is often seen as a boring necessity rather than a focus which can engage and stimulate learners. Grammar teaching often involves dry textbook examples that lack any relevance to learners’ real lives, and that work with structures at the expense of meaningful topics that learners can engage with in a personal way.

We have to remember that the purpose of the grammar structures that we teach is to enable learners to communicate their ideas in a more precise and specific way. The aim is not to increase their knowledge of how to form different kinds of sentences, but to get them actually applying structures to express the ideas that they want to communicate more accurately.

Example sentences about unfamiliar events and undefined situations, created by textbook writers at a different time and in a different place from where the students are in their lives will never be deeply applicable to learners’ experience, so will never be as effective as a well-constructed lesson which takes the learners, their lives and situations into account, and relates it to them.

Below are some ways of structuring grammar content with that goal in mind:

Context is everything

The main issue with most grammar teaching is that it presents structures and sentences out of context. If we want our learners to become precise and accurate users of the grammar that they learn, they need to understand when it is appropriate to use (and not use) certain forms, depending on their situation.

The first step to any effective grammar instruction is to build a clear context where that language is appropriate. For example, if you are preparing a lesson on the tricky form ‘used to’, it is important to consider situations when people really use that form to talk about the past. There are many ways of talking about the past, but we only use ‘used to’ in some of them, for example:

Remembering and reminiscing about when times were different

Talking about changes in the past

Talking about past habits

Think of a situation when someone might do any of the above, and that is likely to be an appropriate context to use when presenting ‘used to’, for example:

Going back to your hometown after a period away (and buildings / roads / shops have changed)

A school reunion (where people are meeting after a long time, and have changed)

Looking at a photo album (of pictures taken when things were different)

Talking about people’s lifestyles in the past

The common factor in all of these settings is the concept of change - we use used to to discuss things which were true in the past, but are not true now.

Taking 5 minutes to set up a context strongly will root the language you teach into that situation, being used for that purpose. This will make it more likely that students will relate to it more deeply, and be able to retain it as a result.

When setting concept in this way, it is important that you yourself do not use the target language ‘used to’ - the idea is to set up the context and let the language come out of that situation once the basic concept of ‘different in the past’ has been understood. Present a context where people find themselves in that situation, and ask students to imagine what they might say to each other. Give some details about how things were in the past (using past simple) and how things are at the time of speaking (using present tenses). Stay away from using ‘used to’ until the changes from past until now have been established.

Once students all understand the concept, they may even come out with the language themselves. If not, that is the time to give them the structure to apply to the situation.

Define a situation where a different piece of grammar is appropriate. How would you set up the context for that form?

Personalising grammar

The ‘situational presentation’ method outlined above works well for putting language into a context that you design for your own teaching purpose, but may not resonate with students on a personal level. Another option is to make a context out of the students’ own experiences, which is more likely to lead to more meaningful processing of language for them.

Staying with the ‘used to’ point, and focusing on the concept of ‘things being different in the past to now’, another first step towards the grammar would be to elicit some situations form the students’ experience (again, being careful not to use ‘used to’ in your questions), to set up some example situations to use when applying the grammar.

Break down the concept of the grammar you are teaching, and turn it into a set of simple questions:

“Think about your life five years ago. Did you do the same things as you do now?”

“Think about when you were 5 years old. What did you often do? Do you do those things now?”

These quite general questions will bring out sets of past situations, some of which are different from now, and some which are the same. Focus students on the situations and habits which have changed over time, and present the ‘used to’ form as a way of communicating that past change in a precise way:

“How can we describe that change in one sentence?”

This question leads to the structure “I used to ______, but now I _______”, which is the essence of the form being taught.

This personalised approach can be used with any grammar, if you break down the concept behind the form you are teaching and ask questions to build to the target language as a way of communicating that concept.

Try planning out a set of questions to personalise another piece of grammar, to focus on individual aspects of concept before asking students to put them together in one sentence using the form you are teaching.

Taking a structural-functional approach

Another way of introducing grammar forms, especially to contrast with structures that have a similar meaning, think about the functions of the grammar you are teaching (which is often similar to the concepts, as outlined above), and start with those. ‘Translate’ the functions into questions, to bring out examples of actions, situations and events that match these conceptual meanings for your students, for example, to contrast different past forms along with ‘used to’, you could as students to write down:

  1. Something that they did all the time as a child, and they sometimes do now

  2. Something that they always did as a child, but don’t do any more

  3. Something that they did regularly as a child, that was annoying to their friends / parents.

These three functional prompts are designed to match to the structures:

  1. would (always) + Vinf (for habitual past actions)

  2. used to + Vinf

  3. Was always + Ving

These three forms are quite similar in terms of their functions (all focus on past habits), but have important differences in meaning (past habits, past habits that no longer happen and annoying past habits). Once students have a set of ideas to apply to each of these functions, they can match the structures to the functions. To do this, I give my own examples using the three target language forms out of order, for students to work out more inductively which is my past, finished habit, which is my past annoying habit, and which is just a general past habit, for example:

  1. As a child, I was always shouting and screaming

  2. As a child, I used to climb trees all the time

  3. As a child, I would take my shoes off when I went into my house

By guessing which of my three statements match the three functions presented earlier, they have the target grammar to apply to their own sentences. Spend a few minutes going through the form of each sentence on the board or screen, and then ask students to write sentences which are true for them, using the same grammar.

The above techniques are effective ways of contextualising and personalising grammar, making it more relevant and engaging than textbook examples that may not connect to them at all. Other grammar areas where this technique works well are:

Try them out, and see how they work with the different language structures that you present in class!

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