Number one for English language teachers

Presenting grammar in a way that accommodates different learning styles

Type: Article, General lesson plan

Claire Treleaven's article and lesson plan is aimed at using alternative ways to present grammar to students with varied learning styles.

What should I do with a very ambitious learner who, although at pre-intermediate level, wants to be presented with as many structures as possible but who doesn’t like actually ‘learning’ grammar?

It is important to note from the start that, being in a one-to-one environment, this student has the luxury of being able to ‘request’ subject matter or content while the next cycle of classes is being negotiated. It is also worth noting that this student is not being difficult, it’s his particular learning style that means he switches off when presented with certain types of material.

This has been a recurring theme for me during one-to-one Business-English courses; lower-level students feeling that they can cope with much ‘meatier’ material and gaining a great deal of satisfaction from seeing some more complex aspects of grammar in context. In other words, using a CLiL-style methodology, with lots of on-the-spot explanations and examples, carefully considered, thorough preparation and knowledge of the student’s level and capability, rather than a Present, Practice, Produce or Test, Teach, Test approach.

As professional English is becoming an increasingly one-to-one environment, the issue of producing lessons and adapting materials to use within different industries, whilst still ensuring it’s relevant to our students, is an ongoing challenge. Add to this the need to keep presenting our students with meaningful and engaging input and comprehensive practice, a full-time Business-English trainer has to cater to a lot of different needs. For example, in one day, a trainer may work with an Area Manager for an international clothing brand, a Financial Director in a real estate company and finish with three consecutive hours with a fruit exporter. Needless to say, the variety of industries is matched by a full range of levels and learner styles.


The anti-grammar attitude referred to in the title question comes from a predominantly interpersonal learner who thrives on oral, role-play-style classes. The problem is finding a way to provide him with concrete practice and get him to focus (occasionally) on a text without him whizzing through it and assuring me that he understands everything.

As we see in Uncovering Grammar (Thornbury 2001:1), my student’s attitude to grammar would appear to be quite logical:

 “Grammar seems to be more like a process, whereby shades of meaning are mapped on to basic ideas. It is a process for which we need a verb – something like grammering.”


So how to plan material?

The original idea for this lesson was taken from the Independent newspaper. On September 5th I was flying back from my holidays, thinking about course planning, when I happened to read the section, ‘The five-minute interview’ by Alice-Azania Jarvis. It caught my attention because the interviewee was from an indie band and the student in question is very into indie music.

I gave him the text to read as a pre-course homework/warmer and he enjoyed the snappy, question/answer format as well as the content. When it came to the first class, and we started to dissect the text in terms of grammatical content, he was amazed at the range of structures he had been exposed to and so we held another interview and he had some freer practice after completing (orally) a basic worksheet on the structure and use of types 1, 2 and 3 conditionals.

Reflecting on the class, I realised I had missed out on some valuable listening practice in terms of note-taking (the student taking notes on my answers and/or the answers given by the musician in order to match these to the questions or report back to me) and so invented my own interview to be useful to a range of students and to be fitted in to a ‘World of work’ theme which we were studying.

The interview format lends itself wonderfully to one-to-one classes but obviously adapts to pair work within a larger class. What I found the students liked most about the ‘finished’ lesson was the change of focus it gives them – they loved being nosey and felt like they were in control of the situation, which added to their independence and confidence in general. When it was time for them to produce their answers, they had had plenty of time to work with the concepts and so had lots to say. I chose to keep the newspaper style columns as a way to vary the presentation of texts and also as, psychologically, I think my interpersonal student saw it as a less formal exercise and so absorbed the bite-sized chunks better.

The material lends itself equally well to the range of learners from pre-intermediate to intermediate. With pre-intermediate learners, it can be used as an introduction to 2nd and 3rd conditionals and can also be exploited for the other structures featured: good/bad at + verb+ing, superlatives and present simple. With intermediate learners, it is a way of contextualising and consolidating past language work as well as providing some intensive listening practice in the form of matching question to answer or note-taking.



Further exploitation of the text/idea

The ideas suggested come from my (limited) imagination and are by no means revolutionary. There will always be more we can do with the material we have. Apart from the other structures featured, there are expressions and chunks of everyday speech (a dry joke, in a nutshell etc.) which can be extracted and worked with as the trainer desires. I avoided packing the text with examples of the conditional as I wanted it to read as naturally as possible. Too often reading texts are laden with target language and become more like a worksheet, losing  the value of presenting ‘real’ English.

I avoided gap-fills and comprehension questions, not only to vary activity styles but also because I didn’t feel they were particularly appropriate exercises for this text; it being relatively concise and informal. To have gapped the very short answers would have made it incredibly difficult for the student to make an educated guess as to the answer and so could have had a negative effect in terms of motivation.


Conclusion

Trainers will always have the issues associated with appealing to different learner types when planning, but at least with one-to-one students we have the freedom to mould activities and material to our target audience.

To keep material relevant we must remember that the student needs a reason to be reading, writing or listening. The reason may be topical interest, completion of information gaps or to check for errors among the myriad types of activities we give our learners.

The lesson presented can be used as a consciousness-raising exercise or as a revision class, depending on the learner’s level. In either case we should bear in mind the overall aim; to present and practise a variety of conditional structures in a meaningful and natural context whilst extending vocabulary and overall fluency.

For students who claim to have no interest in grammar we must not only occasionally disguise the structures but also help them to see the importance of ‘actively’ learning how English works, in order to be truly independent users of the language. We have to find a way which works for their unique mixture of learner types.

The quote below describes the process of designing language teaching tasks (Johnson 2003:127) but also has a relevance for our learners in terms of the degree of information we are aiming to impart to them. In order for them to be confident users of the target language and make it their own, they must be encouraged to interact with target structures in a variety of ways, thus appealing to at least one of the learner types they have.

“[experts]…can also transfer into their domain knowledge what they learn by doing the specific task. What they know beforehand helps what they do, but what they do becomes part of what they know also. The traffic is two-way.” 

It is an excellent point to bear in mind throughout the process of producing new material and reminds us that we are teaching adults who are, to a greater or lesser extent, able to take responsibility for their learning and attitudes.

In the same way, we are responsible for providing classes which are structured and focused and which may also involve research on our part too, leading to an extension of our knowledge on the subject matter. In this case the traffic really can be viewed as “two-way”.



References

Thornbury, Scott. 2001. Uncovering Grammar. Macmillan Publishers Limited

Johnson, Keith. 2003. Designing Language Teaching Tasks. Palgrave Macmillan


 


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