Grammar: teaching children grammar
An article discussing a communicative approach to teaching children grammar.
First of all, well done on what sounds like a great success! It sounds like your classes have been very useful and successful in getting the students to communicate in English. I know if I were one of the parents of those eleven year-old students I’d be quite happy.
Your focus on communication skills reminds me of something the author Jayne Moon talks about in her book Children Learning English (Macmillan, 2000). She explains how children 'go for meaning' in communication. Basically this means that they work out the meaning first using their knowledge of everyday life and clues provided by the situation. It’s worth quoting her a little more:
This ability to go for meaning is a very useful one in language learning as it allows children to work out what is happening in a situation, e.g. a story, a video, a conversation, and this then helps them to attach meaning to the words used. The use of communication games, drama, project, story telling and practical activities in teaching, all allow children to make use of this ability to go for meaning.
For many, explicit teaching of grammar would be a no-no with children. This is because until a certain age children do not pay attention primarily to the form of the language. Therefore any explicit focus on the form is, at best, a waste of time.
Additionally, there are those who wonder if we can 'teach grammar' at all. For an interesting article and debate on this, you might want to take a look at the editorial from January’s onestopenglish forum, entitled Is it possible to teach grammar? The author argues that the piece-by-piece accumulation of individual items of grammar (as presented in coursebooks for example) does not automatically lead to students learning it, no matter how well it’s taught. Learning just isn’t linear like that.
So up until now, I’d say that you’re doing pretty much the right thing. But you have a doubt. Do you tell them what it’s all about? I think that you’re right to ask yourself that, and it will depend on different factors, including your teaching context. Here are three reasons to tell them what they’ve been learning explicitly:
1. That 'certain age' referred to above (the point up to which children primarily go for meaning) is said to be around nine or ten years old. Eleven-year olds are, well, older. They may be able to understand a grammar rule, phrased simply enough.
2. If you are working within a system that will expect these children to 'know' grammar rules and grammatical terms (for school, final exams) then it’s only responsible for you to go over it with them.
3. If you are getting pressure from outside the classroom (through parents, other teachers, school administration) to teach more grammar then you might have to compromise and include some explicit focus
But don’t do it for the following reason: it will help them learn more or better. Because it probably won’t.
Finally, you ask whether or not to continue like you have been doing with the present continuous. I’d say YES. Not only because it seems to be working, but also because the present continuous (for actions happening 'now') lends itself so well to all kinds of communication games and activities that I’m sure you and your students will enjoy. Good luck with it.
Jayne Moon, Children Learning English, Macmillan, (2005)