Pondering Grammar with Students and Scott Thornbury
– Ann Loseva
As I was preparing to write this post I did more “research” than I ever have done. I was looking for lines that I could read and nod in agreement, as well as lines that would make me stop right there and reconsider something. The reason for this acute need for digging in the topic is obvious – I don’t know how to manage grammar in my classes, either in those with a pre-set syllabus to follow or with an emergent one, which describes the majority of classes I give at the moment. The latter being my own voluntary choice, I struggle to make it work. It teaches me lessons I wouldn’t have a chance to learn otherwise, so I strongly recommend taking up the challenge.
I’d like to warn the reader that no well-tried grammar activities or successful methods to teach grammar will be shared in the text below, as much as I would love to see myself doing it. I’ve been buying grammar books for many years, every time sure this one will shed light, these exercises will be exciting, this approach will fit the logics of my class. At the moment, after almost nine years of teaching, I still don’t have my favourite grammar activity that works with all groups of students, and I’m beginning to think it’s hardly possible to have it.
I wanted to write this post in order to make an attempt at figuring out my confusion about teaching grammar. In doing that, I’d like to offer three lines of perspectives on grammar in English teaching and learning: one I gathered from my students, another one coming from myself, and finally, some ideas I’ve picked up from Scott Thornbury’s writing. It’s interesting to see how these will correlate, if at all.
Students on grammar
Grammar is a big word and every new student I get to teach, no matter what their level is, knows the big Grammar word. Interestingly, around a half of these students might not know the longer word – Vocabulary. The Grammar word is forever imprinted, and so are the fears, expectations and preconceived beliefs of its unquestionable superior status.
Students know something about grammar and that’s what I’ve heard them say:
“Don’t worry, my groupmates want more grammar exercises because that’s what they got used to at school, that’s what they know about English.”
“I can’t make myself do any page in this grammar book. I am prejudiced against it.” (A teacher’s side note – as, in fact, against any other type of course book.)
“I like learning about Passive Voice in the process, when I have the need to use it in my sentence and you tell me about it.”
“Let’s revise tenses next time.”
I’m equally puzzled with both kinds of reactions, whether my learners express a wish to do more grammar explicitly or to avoid exercises at all, because looking at a page filled up with gaps to complete makes them sick and remember wasted time of school English. At this point I start wondering just how much their expressed wishes correspond to their needs and abilities that I, as a teacher, should be addressing in the first place. Shouldn’t I know better and stand on the firm ground? As I’m moving on from term to term I’m examining attitudes of students, which are changing as generations of learners change. Attitudes of teachers I know remain the same. Isn’t this stability something I should learn from them?
My recent discoveries
Two months ago I started learning Japanese. It’s especially interesting to look at this experience now as it seems to be the first language I’m learning with sharp awareness of how and why I’m doing it and what the more effective ways to do it could be. There is no coursebook or grammar guide on my desk. It may seem sort of shocking for a teacher, but I’ve decided to try a different approach for now. I’m getting chunks and sentences which are quite beyond my level and then work by myself on figuring them out. From translation I get understanding, then notice patterns. I get them wrong, ask questions, get my answers, and then start all over again. These tiny pieces of Japanese grammar make their first, shy and teasing, appearance and then vanish. I need to point this out – they most often vanish. I can safely say that I only remember now how to say “This/that is …”, “Is this/that …?” or form an of-phrase. I’ve found myself in a new place where I’m learning how language works from chains of discoveries. I’m learning very slowly and with an outstanding irregularity and to this moment have made two major observations from this process:
- These linguistic discoveries need to go through cycles of repetition, to be re-discovered many times before I might hope for them to sink in.
- The more I learn, the more confirmed I become in that we desperately need vocabulary if we want to actually produce sentences. It’s the first thing to escape memory, too.
Insights from Scott Thornbury
In chapter 19 ”Do rules help you learn a language?” of his Big Questions in ELT a lot of what is said resonates with how I feel in my contradictions. One of the life examples that Scott makes is constantly present in my teaching. Many learners spend years of studying English going through Present Simple and Present Continuous again and again, from year to year. As university students join my class, they keep making fun of this fact, get sarcastic… and yet many appear to have a “conspicuous lack of success” with these basic forms. What nature do the reasons for that have? I heard some teachers say such learners are “grammatically challenged”, or plain slow. I ignore such voices and keep searching for the real reasons behind the problems.
One of the questions at the end of chapter 19 is this: Are rules that learners have worked out themselves better than rules that they have been given and why?
This makes me turn to Japanese again. I’ve mentioned that I’ve been trying to deduce some patterns in this language. It’s not easy, actually quite painful, and not at all memorable as in rules afterwards. I wonder how quick at grasping these same patterns I’d be if I had them handed over to me, like we as teachers so often do in our own classrooms. I’m left with an uneasy doubt that it makes no big difference in terms of future language use. I can just say that working out a rule by yourself looks more engaging and fun, if you aim for that.
Here are some more of my many puzzles and subsequent struggles within the topic, which some of you could probably connect with:
1) Grammar continuum in a coursebook-less class. I’m learning to organize what we’re learning at every lesson into a kind of a developing syllabus. Grammar is one of the bothersome stumbling blocks.
2) The discrepancy between lexis I teach and forms I want to put this lexis in. I’m questioning dividing grammar and vocabulary instruction as I see it done in my context. While I have to teach within these rules, filling this gap without damaging the general flow is my ongoing mission. I see teaching grammar as coming from emergent needs and so I face difficulties in keeping up with the syllabus.
3) The Careless Teacher puzzle. How sloppy will you allow a student’s speech to be, both in written and spoken production? I fear that I’ve recently been forming for myself a distinction between little grammar and serious grammar. I’ve already tried to give it a thought in my post here. My main point of concern is how my lax approach impacts students and their decisions to choose this or that form, to remember or forget a rule.
Having said all this, I’m no less confused and probably have confused you a bit, too. I’m thinking of this former student of mine. His/her eagerness to communicate a message in English no matter what is impressive, even though grammar is inaccurate. This attitude can be seen as a good sign. However, I wish I could say that this apparent lack of norms in his/her short sentences doesn’t impede the message he/she wants to get across…but it often does. And this is how I keep pondering grammar.
These are just three of several inspiring posts I’ve marked as favourites while sifting through blogs looking for something that spoke along with my tune.
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22 thoughts on “Grammar Issue – Ann”
It seems to me that ‘teaching’ grammar is the wrong way to look at it. Flipped learning works well…students research a grammar point for homework, preferably in groups. In the following lesson I provide a range of resources…grammar/course books, access to internet etc. The groups put all ideas together then create a workable set of rules and examples. I give each group exercises on their point so they check they understand. Groups mix up and they teach each other…teachers simply monitor and support. Virtually paperless, entirely student centred and evetyone becomes a class expert on something. I have used for future forms, conditionals, articles etc….then students come and ask if they can lead on other grammar points in other lessons….I virtually make myself redundant!
Thank you very much for this comment and sharing what works for your students. I can visualize your classes very well! I’ve tried this kind of approach, too, and still sometimes do, depending on what I “need” to cover (that is, what the syllabus tells me to cover right now). While I may say there are quite a few appealing things in this approach and I do not ultimately feel prejudiced against it…or am against it in any way at all.. I just feel it does not spare me of the confusions I mention in my post)) Such as, DOING a grammar point. As an example…
Anyway, I thank you for reminding me of what can be done to feel less like ‘teaching’ grammar. This is an important piece of this huge puzzle. 🙂
I chose this particular article-Grammar issue- because of so many reasons.To start with, A huge number of teachers find a lot of difficulties when it comes to teaching grammar.We teach rules, structures and how to form this and how to form that, the past, the past participle….but the moment the learners got out of the class everything is gone with the wind.The process of internalizing grammar rules seems to be long and pretty complicated that’s why many teachers feel down.Some scholars even suggest zero grammar teaching approach because they feel that our efforts are in vain.Others support communivative approaches and using games in the classroom to get students more involved in the learning process.So ,up till that moment we really still struggle with it on a daily basis and we are not very sure what path,procedure to follow to make the right progress or at least to see the learners using for example the third singular person without dropping the “S” as usual!!
Grammar is my permanent headache as an aspect of teaching to bear in mind. I hate to be thinking of it separately from everything else that teaching English involves, and yet I can’t help but watch myself do it over and over again.
“The process of internalizing grammar rules seems to be long and pretty complicated that’s why many teachers feel down.” – this ilne of yours really speaks for the issue and my feelings about it. I’m now thinking, in regards to your great and thoughtful comment, about two more things:
1) Maybe the “feeling” part about teaching should be reduced? It seems so hard to overcome the “how I feel about it” in my teaching, for example, and make decisions based on facts and professional knowledge. I’m unsure. This is not an easy choice for me.
2) I can’t help but feel repulsive to base my class on what the scholars say. I know it must sound terribly haughty. It seems to be just one step to take, learning what approaches scholars find “working”, on the way of many steps which, to my mind, should be made with more understanding than that given my a paragraph of an approach description.
Personally, I still shiver a bit when I hear the third person singular dropped, but that happens less now.=))
Thank you so much for your comment! It gave me such a great chance to look into my thoughts on the issue again.
I agree with katelomas. I’ ve tried the flipped classroom with some kind of fear, but I discovered that my students get much more engaged by doing this kind of activities in class while they investigate, watch videos or recorded explanations at home.
Even though grammar is my favourite I never forget that in general it isn’t so for students.
I believe that change is permanent so I always look for new ways of teaching grammar to my students being themselves the center of the activities.
Andrea, I’ve tried a certain variation of the flipped classroom the past term with my students. The majority of grammar-rule related work was assigned for HW, but the difference is that my students are university students and are supposed to have basic grammar knowledge from school years. This system did work well with them and was recieved well, too!
Thank you very much for your comment. Thinking about grammar is never a relaxing thing to do for me, but with the comments from other teachers, like yours, it’s definitely more insightful.
I have been an English teacher for almost 15 years and so far I have used various approaches, methods, techniques when ‘teaching’ grammar and noticed that much better results come when students, on their own – individually, in pairs, in groups – discover how something works (when they study examples, make conclusions, try to form rules, apply them…) than when I offer them explanations, examples, etc. They simply dive deeper into it this way, they ‘use their brain’ more, they analyse, discuss, compare…and the teacher is there to help them to check their discoveries, conclusions; to encourage them…
And if we add some games to our grammar activities, classes, it becomes more interesting and memorable.
Rada, great points there. Thank you! I believe it is indeed a very effective way – to ensure students are grasping the grammar patterns while working on them in teams or pairs. Definitely the more actively minds are engaged, the better information is processed!
I’m now self-studying Japanese, and I’m doing well without explicit grammar explanation so far, mostly looking at patterns, noticing how language works, consulting grammar guidebook or speakers of Japanese when I have questions or to make sure I get the points right. somehow this experience also proves to me the point you made.
I believe that a good approach to teaching grammar is to use a situation like pictures, a story or a dialogue which contains the target language and learners use the situation to understand the meaning. Then some examples should be given by the teacher and the students as well and a table containing all the different forms. Repetition would be very helpful because learners practice pronunciation, rhythm and intonation.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Maria. Working on language from context certainly looks the way to go for me.And rehearsing, practicing, repeating also sounds necessary, especially with students beginning their language studies.
I agree with Maria, as that’s how I teach grammar to my students. The idea of teaching the grammar to the students is for them to be able to use it in the real world. So we have to bring the real situation or context in explaining the grammar, and making them understand the meaning of the grammar and know when to use it.
Sure, Grace, that is exactly the point, to my view.=)
Thanks for stopping by.
Teaching grammar is a question of knowing what will work with each person. As is said here it is influence by the mother tongue and kids are always given grammar in a deductive way at school so I think that it all depends on what the constitution of the person.
That’s interesting, seew. This perspective is close to my view of it. I’ve seen it in my teaching practice how differently students seem to acquire understanding of grammaticakl structure of the language, let alone internalize it.
Thanks for your comment.
Teaching grammar in an ideal way is something every teacher seeks! The fact that we often go over the same grammar points again and again and students keep making mistakes shows that we need to make use of a different approach. I agree that when the student discovers the underlying rules himself, they are more likely to become memorable.What I try to do is show my students why this grammar point is worth studying. For example, the Past Simple Tense allows us to talk to our foreign friend about what we did during our holidays last year. Unfortunately, the perfect recipe for teaching grammar hasn’t been found yet!
Anastasia, your words really resonated here with me. Looks like I’ll always be in search of that different approach, trying out more and other and new. Your point about giving them the reason for a certain grammar form/structure to be studied hits the marks again.
I appreciate it that you took the time to read and share your view here with us all!
Reading lots of grammar books values our appreciation of your great efforts to help students to understand better and make themselves understood.Approaches are various just for serving the same concern as yours.Why don’t students succeed in relation to any grammar point they have been taught and have practised over and over again throughout the years? It is a question that many a teacher must have asked including you, Anna Loseva, particularly.If some try solutions in using games for example, they think that rules would be practically clarified in a relaxed atmosphere, so that research witnesses that even adults enjoy learning seriously with games.Whatever strategy that works would be appreciated. You consider appreciating students working out their own rules if this prizes
their idea generation. The saying that students better assimilate what they find by themselves might proove useful.
Dear Cheikh Omar Tidiane Thiam,
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. The line that I couldn’t agree more with: “Whatever strategy that works would be appreciated.” Exactly, well at least for me. and then again, it means that I need to have knowledge of and experience in trying out many different ways to teach this dreadful Past Simple/Present Perfect, as an example.
Immersion is a great way to acquire a language. However, I believe that it requires the learner to forsake the first language. I went to Mexico with the University several years back. I found that when I was forced to speak that I would but I was shy/embarrassed. Here I was…an educated woman, speaking like a baby…not even a toddler:) What I gained from this experience…….I cannot be afraid to take risks.
In regards to your experience with Japanese, I believe that you have to have at the very least a base education of the language. Simple words such as bathroom, excuse me, please, thank you, food, transportation, etc. I admire you for your efforts and wish you much success.
Thanks for sharing your post.
I hear you, Charisse, when you’re telling about your feelings when out there speaking a foreign language like a baby. I think you must have done a good job and if you learnt to not be afraid to take risks – that’s very inspiring. I’m not sure I’ll be equally as brave when in a company of Japanese speakers.. I think immersion is a frightening thing and I admire my low-level students who venture to go to England on immmersion courses.
It’s interesting, I have no idea how to say the room in Japanese still. As well as many, many other basic things. thanks for reminding me of that! And thank you for your kind and thoughful comment, and your personal story.