Teaching grammar: pause for thought

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Do you agree? Read on …

Like teachers, students have different levels of grammar awareness. Some students will have spent years learning the grammar of their mother tongue and will expect British people to be equally used to discussing or understanding theirs. Others will have picked up English more informally and may not be at all familiar with terminology such as ‘present perfect’, just like most British people.

Is grammar necessary?

Well, for English to be used effectively learners need to be able to make questions, complicated sentences and indicate whether they are referring to the past, present or future. This involves using grammar. How and when to teach grammar, however, is another question!

Many course books are structured around grammar points. This is probably because it is a straightforward way of organising units rather than the best way to help someone learn!

Is teaching grammar important in short home tuition courses?

The answer is yes and no

Yes, when

  • Grammar mistakes are getting in the way of communication
  • The learner asks about grammar
  • The learner needs to be very accurate such as when they are taking some kinds of exam

But no, when

  • The learner has already had a lot of grammar input and wants to focus on fluency and confidence
  • The learner learns better from immersion than rational explanation (see Jim Scrivener reference below)
  • The learner dislikes grammar

If you decide that some grammar input is necessary, you will need to think about how to help the learner best. Exercises in a book or involved explanations will help some but not all students!

You will have to decide on the best strategy for your student taking into account:

  • Their learning history and knowledge of grammar
  • Their personality/learning style e.g. are they logical thinkers or more artistic?
  • Your strengths as a teacher
  • How long they are staying with you
  • What you know about similarities or differences between English and their mother tongue

General tips when teaching grammar:

  1. Keep your explanations short and clear
  2. Use as little abstract terminology as possible
  3. Example sentences and dialogues can be much more effective than dry explanation
  4. Put yourself in the student’s place. Would you understand yourself?
  5. Make sure that the language you use to explain the grammar is not more complicated than what you are trying to teach. This often happens!!
  6. Written exercises can be done as ‘homework’ rather than in lesson time. Give exercises from Murphy (see below) and/or shortish writing tasks that practice the structure (50-200 words max)
  7. Do not use published explanations or exercises unless they are good. Many course books include woeful grammar sections.

Tenses: often an area of confusion for teacher and student

Michael Swan defines tense as ‘a verb form which shows the time of an action or event’ (Practical English Usage 2rd ed p xxix). So, following this, English only has 2 tenses: the present and past

e.g ‘I walk’ and ‘I walked’.

This means that the present continuous and present perfect continuous etc are not true tenses but involve what grammarians call ‘aspect’. Aspect covers notions such as repetition, being in progress and completion.

Students, most lower-level course books and teachers usually refer to all the above as tenses. However it is good to bear in mind the strict definition as this can help, especially when talking about the future and when delving into the detail of English grammar.

A common difficulty:

In the list below, which is the future tense?

Mr Green will never become Prime Minister
I may go if I’m free
I’m leaving tomorrow
I plan to be there
I’ll do it!
Only when he wants to
It could well happen
He’s going to be very upset
I leave at 9pm
I expect to see her

The answer is that we have many ways to refer to the future: some grammatical and some lexical (i.e. through the meaning of the verb, not its grammar). However, English, unlike French, has no future tense as ‘I will walk’ is not a verb form of the verb ‘walk’.

Will

Perhaps the biggest mistake students make is to overuse ‘will’, thinking it is the one and only way to refer to the future and to underuse other ways of referring to the future, both grammatical and lexical.  You will need to guide your students as to how people refer to the future in other ways and what meanings attach to these ways.

Simplify

Feel free to refer to the verb forms in a different way. In the table below the first two rows show how verb forms are traditionally categorised. This can be confusing for some students so why not refer to them as forms 1,2,3,4. It saves time and is less academic.

drink drank drunk drinking
(infinitive/present) (simple past) (past participle) (present participle)
1 2 3 4

Time lines

Use time lines to show when something happens or its duration e.g. ________X……..X_______

 

References/recommendations

Michael Swan, Practical English Usage, OUP

Raymond Murphy, English Grammar in Use, CUP

Rodney Huddlestone, English Grammar: an Outline, CUP (detailed, academic book)

Jim Scrivener, ‘Is it possible to teach English?’ at http://www.onestopenglish.com/support/methodology/debates/is-it-possible-to-teach-grammar/ (highly recommended)

Michael Lewis, The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning, Language Teaching Publications (thought provoking

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