Grammar is central to the teaching and learning of languages. It is also one of the more difficult aspects of language to teach well.
Many people, including language teachers, hear the word “grammar” and think of a fixed set of word forms and rules of usage. They associate “good” grammar with the prestige forms of the language, such as those used in writing and in formal oral presentations, and “bad” or “no” grammar with the language used in everyday conversation or used by speakers of nonprestige forms.
Goals and Techniques for Teaching Grammar
The goal of grammar instruction is to enable students to carry out their communication purposes. This goal has three implications:
- Students need overt instruction that connects grammar points with larger communication contexts.
- Students do not need to master every aspect of each grammar point, only those that are relevant to the immediate communication task.
- Error correction is not always the instructor’s first responsibility.
Overt Grammar Instruction
Adult students appreciate and benefit from direct instruction that allows them to apply critical thinking skills to language learning. Instructors can take advantage of this by providing explanations that give students a descriptive understanding (declarative knowledge) of each point of grammar.
- Teach the grammar point in the target language or the students’ first language or both. The goal is to facilitate understanding.
- Present grammar points in written and oral ways to address the needs of students with different learning styles.
- An important part of grammar instruction is providing examples. Teachers need to plan their examples carefully around two basic principles:
- Be sure the examples are accurate and appropriate. They must present the language appropriately, be culturally appropriate for the setting in which they are used, and be to the point of the lesson.
- Use the examples as teaching tools. Focus examples on a particular theme or topic so that students have more contact with specific information and vocabulary.
Assessing Grammar Proficiency
To develop authentic assessment activities, begin with the types of tasks that students will actually need to do using the language. Assessment can then take the form of communicative drills and communicative activities like those used in the teaching process.
For example, the activity based on audiotapes of public address announcements (Developing Grammar Activities) can be converted into an assessment by having students respond orally or in writing to questions about a similar tape. In this type of assessment, the instructor uses a checklist or rubric to evaluate the student understands and/or use of grammar in context.
Mechanical tests do serve one purpose: They motivate students to memorize. They can therefore serve as prompts to encourage memorization of irregular forms and vocabulary items. Because they test only memory capacity, not language ability, they are best used as quizzes and given relatively little weight in evaluating student performance and progress.
Using Textbook Grammar Activities
Textbooks usually provide one or more of the following three types of grammar exercises.
Mechanical drills: Each prompt has only one correct response, and students can complete the exercise without attending to meaning. For example: George waited for the bus this morning. He will wait for the bus tomorrow morning, too.
Meaningful drills: Each prompt has only one correct response, and students must attend to meaning to complete the exercise. For example: Where are George’s papers? They are in his notebook.
(Students must understand the meaning of the question in order to answer, but only one correct answer is possible because they all know where George’s papers are.)
Mechanical drills are the least useful because they bear little resemblance to real communication. They do not require students to learn anything; they only require parroting of a pattern or rule.
Meaningful drills can help students develop understanding of the workings of rules of grammar because they require students to make form-meaning correlations. Their resemblance to real communication is limited by the fact that they have only one correct answer.