Grammar Is … – Alexandra Chistyakova
Grammar is boring. No one enjoys grammar: neither learners, nor teachers. Fluency is more important than accuracy. Why is I need to study grammar if everyone can understands me good?
These and many other assumptions about grammar can be heard every time and then. Grammar seems to be an ugly duckling of the foreign language teaching and learning.
However, it has never been so for me, especially, since the time I started learning English consciously and then teaching it. Actually, I could never relate to the notorious dispute on what is more important: accuracy or fluency. I have always been convinced that accuracy and fluency are equally important.
Moreover, throughout my teaching practice I’ve had numerous examples of both schoolchildren and adults expressing the wish to study English grammar more thoroughly. Thanks to these examples, I can say with certainty that there is a really high demand among learners for the good grammar instruction.
Grammar Is Important
Fortunately, there are a lot of learners who never question the importance of grammar. Unfortunately, there are those who doubt it. If the latter is the case, I like to give my students the following situation to consider. I say to them:
“Just imagine this: a brilliant idea comes to your mind and you immediately want to share it with your English friends. There is no time to consult a dictionary or a textbook: you are dying of how much you want to share your idea right now! And here you go! You put your idea into words; you quickly select some phrases, words, structures – you are wrapping your idea, like a gift, with the language – and then send it off to your friends. You are anticipating their joy and surprise at your idea!
But if you weren’t careful with the wrapping, the gift your friends receive could be surprising indeed. But will it be joyful? It could rightfully be rather puzzling: instead of a beautifully wrapped gift that can easily be opened by simply pulling a colourful ribbon, they might receive an ugly trunk with an unfriendly-looking heavy lock in front. And now, if your friends really wish to unlock your message and discover your brilliant idea, they have to strain their every nerve and struggle to find the appropriate key to your “trunk”.
What a laborious and tedious task! Do you expect your friends to enjoy the process of unlocking your idea? Do you think they will be looking forward to communicating with you more in the future? Was it possible to avoid this awkward situation and make communication pleasant and smooth?
Surely, this could have been done: Grammar is the key! Correct grammar unlocks messages easily.”
Usually, this story is enough to persuade my students to study grammar better. Only stubborn or naughty students continue denying the necessity of grammar for them. How to persuade such students or if at all there is the need to persuade such students is a different story which has nothing to do with the grammar itself.
Grammar Is Fun
But is grammar really that tedious? Or perhaps, it’s the way it is taught that is boring? In fact, grammar itself presents no limits to imagination, creativity and fun. To quote from Shakespeare: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. So why not to make grammar engaging and meaningful to our students?! Even grammar drills can be turned into a fun and interesting activity.
For example, one of my favourite activities on extensive practice of interrogative forms, past and present tenses is the “With your back to the class” activity which I borrowed from Mario Rinvolucri’s Grammar Games (Cambridge,2006). This activity is suitable for students of elementary to intermediate levels.
In the activity, the teacher has a short story with an unusual ending. The teacher writes two or three key words from the story on the board for the students to restore the story by asking Yes/No questions to the teacher. However, all communication between students and the teacher goes on silently: the questions are written on the board and the teacher puts his/her answers on the board too. But the teacher gives answers only to the questions which are grammatically correct. If a question is grammatically incorrect, the teacher draws a question mark on the board, and students need to work together to find the mistake and correct the question.
At first, all this writing and the close focus on grammar forms might seem boring and off-putting, but as soon as students get the idea and receive the first answers they get engaged and enthusiastic about solving the mystery. Moreover, they become eager to find what is wrong with the question and spot the mistake. So while being highly grammar-focused, this activity is both meaningful and fun.
Grammar Is Useful
Teaching grammar can bring students to a better understanding of how the language works. Thanks to studying the grammatical framework of a language, students can see the language as a single whole. They can see how many different linguistic features are intertwined and interdependent. Through teaching grammar, teachers can raise students’ linguistic consciousness and understanding of how grammatical errors can influence a message and a communicative act in general. For this purpose, teachers can exploit learners’ mother tongue, for instance. Teachers can imitate a similar grammar error in the learners’ language to vividly illustrate how absurd, funny or even inappropriate a sentence might sound to native speakers. So, grammar can change students’ attitude to their language studies and to the language itself.
All in all, teaching grammar is important, fun and useful. But to make it so is the teacher’s task, which sometimes requires creative and even artistic efforts from the teacher. Teaching is an art. Teaching grammar is rightfully so, too.
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