Learning grammar (and teaching it) consists of two main stages: learning the meaning and form of each new structure, and putting it into practice.
In ETpedia Grammar, a variety of techniques are used for both stages. Here are 10 of the most common and useful ones which feature in the book.
1. Boardwork presentations
For a quick and easy presentation of new language, the board is the obvious resource to exploit. Start by building a context. For example, a traveller’s suitcase covered in stickers of places she’s been provides an easy-to-establish context for the present perfect for experiences. Make sure you include on your board: the affirmative, eg a sticker saying ‘Mexico’ elicits She’s been to Mexico; the negative, eg She hasn’t been to China; and question forms and short answers, eg Has she been to Malaysia? Yes, she has / No she hasn’t. Underline or use a different colour to highlight the structure, ie has been, contractions I’ve / she’s / etc., and aspects of pronunciation, eg been = /bɪn/. See Unit 18.1 and Unit 29.7 for examples of boardwork presentations of the present continuous and present perfect continuous.
2. Using the students and you, the teacher
A direct context for language can often be found in the lives and experiences of the people in the room. Personal contexts immediately show how applicable the grammar is, and can also be more memorable than stories of people from outside the students’ worlds. Throughout the book we suggest activities where students talk about themselves, their experiences, their lives, their opinions. We also suggest ways that you can use stories from your own life to present grammar, for example in Unit 24.1 we suggest that the teacher use photos of themselves when they were younger to introduce was/were. Student photos can also be a great resource. Most students will have photos on their mobile phones that they can share with each other to support any number of practice activities.
3. Using realia
Bringing objects into the classroom or using the objects you find in the classroom can help bring a grammar point to life and create a physical memory hook. Realia can be used to create a context for the target language. In Unit 7.1, for example, we suggest using such things as a bag of rice, a glass of water, a balloon and a tea bag to introduce the concept of countable and uncountable nouns. It can also provide further practice. In Unit 4.6, for example, objects that the students have brought to class provide a talking point to present and practise possessive structures.
4. Dialogue building
This collaborative technique involves setting a scene and, with the students’ help, writing a dialogue on the board including the language you want to focus on. In Unit 10.6, the teacher provides a framework for a dialogue between waiters and customers in a restaurant. This is a familiar situation in which the indefinite pronouns something, anything and nothing occur naturally. Students then either practise the dialogue in pairs as it is or with variations (eg different choices of food and drink, a different type of restaurant). A great way to push students towards memorising the language is to gradually erase the text, word by word, until the students are repeating the dialogue from memory.
With grammar points where the written form is already familiar to the students, but where meaning needs to be explored in more depth, a quick and effective means of introducing the language is to dictate model sentences to the class. Dictation immediately gets students working with the language and tests listening skills and spelling, as well as grammatical knowledge. It also promotes conversation management skills, such as asking to clarify and repeat: Sorry, could you say that again, please? In Unit 9.4 the teacher dictates sentences containing verbs used with and without reflexive pronouns to start exploring the differences in meaning and use. Unit 33.3 involves another basic dictation to teach the meaning of reporting verbs.
In a dictogloss, the teacher has a text prepared to dictate to the class, but instead of dictating it slowly to ensure students write a faithful copy, they read it at a more natural speed two or more times. Prepare a text of no more than 100 words (fewer for lower-level students). Read it out first for content, and check comprehension. Then tell students to write down keywords, such as nouns and verbs, as you read it out again. Explain that even though they will not be able to write every word, they should keep writing as much as possible. Using their notes, students in pairs or small groups reconstruct the text in complete sentences. The idea is not to reproduce the text verbatim, but to focus in on certain aspects of the language used. For example, Unit 30.6 is a dictogloss activity focusing on the use of would to talk about past habits. Others can be found in Units 14.3, 34.2 and 42.7.
To help students pronounce new language correctly, get them to say it repeatedly so you can check for accuracy. By experiencing the movement of the mouth as they say it, students reinforce their learning in a different way from when they write it down and see it. Simple drilling can be either choral, ie all students repeat the structure at the same time, or individual. A suggested order is to let students practise chorally first, but to insist on individual repetition so that you can check everyone is pronouncing it correctly. There are ways to vary drilling so that it doesn’t get repetitive. Substitution drilling involves the teacher prompting students to substitute words for other words in a drilled sentence, for example:
T: He’s been working at the office. S1: He’s been working at the office.
T: they S2: They’ve been working at the office.
T: at home S3: They’ve been working at home.
T: watch TV S4: They’ve been watching TV at home.
See a simple substitution being used in Unit 9.1. Drilling can be disguised as a game, as in the circular drill in Unit 48.2, where students inadvertently ‘drill’ each other. And although the board game in Unit 43.4 is not recognisably drilling, students need to repeat the second conditional over and over in order to win the game.
Another popular way of encouraging students to repeat structures as well as to make them memorable is through songs, eg If I had a million dollars by the Barenaked Ladies (see Unit 43.6). Choose songs that contain the target language multiple times and which contain a natural stress pattern for it, too, eg If I had a million dollars, I’d buy you a fur coat. Songs can be used to present the target language through listening tasks such as gap-fills or reordering the lines or words in the lyrics. They also offer repeated exposure to the language and, if your students enjoy singing, can also offer a chance to practise pronunciation.
9. Exploiting feedback stages
Feedback on activities is not just about seeing how many questions students got right; it is an opportunity to achieve several teaching objectives: to check understanding, correct persistent errors, share interesting information, revise rules and to draw conclusions. Other ways of exploiting this crucial stage at the end of activities include:
• reformulation: in Unit 25.2, students use questions to find out when their partners last did certain things, eg, When did you last go to the cinema? However, during feedback they must use affirmative sentences: Lorena last went to the cinema on Friday night.
• critical thinking: as well as asking students what they answered, we can also ask Why? In Unit 40.3, they are asked why they voted for their favourite slogans, for example.
• remembering/summarising: one way of carrying out feedback is to get students to work in pairs or groups to remember everybody else’s answers, effectively drilling the target language.
10. Error correction
Students want and expect correction from their teacher. Choosing which mistakes to correct, when to do so and how, are complex questions. It’s important, however, to remember that students who need the most correction may not be those that make the most or biggest mistakes. Lower-level or quiet, shy students may benefit from less correction so that they are not discouraged from using English, however imperfectly. We correct students in the hope that they won’t keep making those mistakes. To encourage them to think about their errors, let them try out new language, listening out for errors of use. Then point out the errors and show them the corrections. Finally, let them do the activity again, this time with those common errors fresh in their minds. In a shopping roleplay in Unit 5.3, for example, students can perform the roleplay first, you correct any errors, then they swap roles and try again.
ETpedia Grammar by Daniel Barber and Ceri Jones is out now. Find out more.