Number one for English language teachers

Grammar and vocabulary: seven ways to help students enjoy grammar

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

Seven suggestions of ways to help students enjoy grammar.


Introduction

Students’ reactions to grammar-focused lessons seem to be typically one of three kinds. Some students find grammar very appealing, some find it intrinsically boring, and some find it useful but really hard work.

There might be a number of reasons for these reactions. For example, some students’ brain chemistry might be more (or less) pre-programmed for learning grammar. If this is the case, the teacher has limited power to promote the enjoyment of grammar. But it’s also possible that students have had a negative learning experience with grammar – they might be used to listening to long lectures about grammar (yes, even today) and doing long, esoteric exercises on one particular area of target language.

In order to make grammar more interesting for students, I’d recommend a more inductive approach, i.e. students should be allowed to work out the meaning and the rules of the grammar for themselves. I also think that the teachers’ ‘metalanguage’ (i.e. the language used to talk about the target language) should be kept to an absolute minimum. Furthermore, it’s crucial to get learners to use the target language in an authentic way about their own lives. And, in addition to such communicative work, I think that students can be encouraged to do some analytical work, particularly where communicative outcomes are affected.

Let’s now study, in more detail, what I mean by the above. Below are the seven ways, together with sample teacher language for each part of the lesson.

The seven ways

1. Provide a context
In order to elicit the target language, get the students really interested in, for example, a character, a situation (this process will vary according to the profile of each class). Use language that is easy for the students to understand. Make the situation clear enough for the students to hazard a guess about the target language. And do make it clear that you want the students to come up with the target language! Finally, be sure to spend enough time on the ‘tease’ – don’t jump in too early with providing the target language yourself.

Sample teacher language:

I don’t earn very much money in my job. At the moment I’m renting a flat. I’d really like to buy a flat, but I don’t have enough money to do that. I know that I’m not going to buy my own flat, but I like to dream about it anyway…so, what could I say about buying a flat, anyone?

2. Help students to say the target language
Make a point of actually asking the students to say something (rather than just listen to you)! Make it clear what the target language is (it can be confused with instructional language). Give the students enough time to ‘get their tongues round’ the target language. And make sure that you get each individual student to say the target language – in a ‘comprehensible’ way.

Sample teacher language:

So can you all repeat this after me, please? ‘Have you had your hair cut?’…Good…Now say it as many times to yourself as you like…and then tell me when you’re happy…OK? Now, Tania, let me hear you say it, please.

3. Provide a written record
Make a point of putting up (on the board) the written record directly after initial oral work. Make sure that the students write the written record down (and in a particular section of their notebooks). Write legibly and big enough for all the students to see. Write as concisely as you can, and be sure to include both the target language itself, the stressed syllables (including the tonic one) and a mini ‘concept statement’.

Sample teacher language:

Ok, now, I’d like you to copy this down in your special ‘grammar’ sections of your notebooks…(the teacher then writes ‘The article was published last year = A journal published the article, but we don’t know, or don’t care, which journal it was.’)

4. Personalize the target language
Always ask the students to apply the target language to their own lives.

Sample teacher language:

So it’s nearly the end of December now. It’s nearly the New Year. Does anyone here want to make changes to their life next year?…yes, Yuko?…What are you going to do next year?

5. Help students to guess the grammar rules of the target language
Encourage the students to manipulate the new grammar (e.g. by asking them how to construct more difficult sentences using questions, negatives, or question tags). If they are struggling to guess, provide them with assistance by referring to other (known) patterns.

Sample teacher language:

OK, so we’ve practised ‘I’d like…’, and we know it means ‘I want’…but can anyone ask me a question with ‘would like’?…can anyone ask me if I’d like a cup of coffee?…No? Well, how do we ask a question with ‘will’?…Good!…’Would’ works in the same way…

6. Help students to understand the communicative importance of grammar
Ask students to choose between two different communicative outcomes for one piece of language. This can be done by getting students to follow certain instructions in class. Treats can be used as a tangible reward for linking grammar to a communicative effect.

Sample teacher language:

Carlos, please take these chocolates…Ok, now go to Lucia and Mohamed…now give him a chocolate…no, give him a chocolate…Good!…Now go to Anna and Markus, and give her a chocolate…Good!…And now go to Patrizia and Yuko, and give them the last chocolate…well done, Carlos!…And now here's a chocolate for you, Carlos!

7. Help students to understand the importance of grammatical accuracy
Discuss with your students the importance of making a good impression with some formal correspondence, e.g. a job application. Encourage them to edit 'roughly-tuned’ texts.

Sample teacher language:

…so you know that, sometimes, it’s important to write very accurately (for example, like you said, if you’re applying for a job here in Britain)…I want you now to look at this text…You can understand what the writer means, but there are some mistakes which will leave a bad impression on the reader…see if you can find the mistakes.

Conclusion

Is the above rocket science? No. But it’s surprising how well-intentioned teachers can make learning grammar a miserable experience for their students. After a poorly taught grammar-focus lesson, students will come away feeling blinded by science, cheated, and disempowered. After a well taught grammar-focus lesson, students will come away feeling not only both proud and confident, but they will also know that they have learned some new item of language that they can genuinely use for their own purposes.

Paul Bress can be contacted at paulbress@tinyonline.co.uk. His website is at www.bemycoach.co.uk

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Hi Maria,

    Thanks for your feedback. The majority of the resources we provide are for literate students and the lower level grammar materials are for elementary and pre-intermediate students. You can find some elementary grammar lessons here:

    http://www.onestopenglish.com/grammar/fun-with-grammar/

    Thanks for highlighting the typo - that has now been amended.

    Best wishes,

    The onestopenglish team

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  • I wish I could find more information for students at a much lower level, specially preliterate, ,which is more my reality.
    By the way there's a typo on the number 4 sample teacher language: I suppose you meant to say "here"?

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