Top Strategies for Effective Teaching of Grammar
Type in "teaching grammar effectively" into Google and the reader will be confronted with pages and pages of advice/frameworks/theories on how to effectively teach grammar.
Most of the content does acknowledge that there is no "golden rule" for effective grammar teaching before imparting their particular key rules or areas that should be incorporated into teaching grammar.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Joe S. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
8 Do's and Dont's for Effective Grammar Instruction
- Use authentic writing situations every day.
- Make learning visible with anchor charts and student work around grammar concepts.
- Provide students with multiple exposures to a variety of grammatical situations.
- Have students create nonlinguistic representations of grammatical situations (for example, images, gestures, picture stories).
- Use engaging and relevant writing situations to engage students in grammatical exercises.
- Encourage students to read a variety of nonfiction, informational, and fiction texts to expose them to multiple texts and a variety of writing situations.
- Harness the power of digital tools for practice and review.
- Directly teach and model each grammar concept; use your writing and think-aloud to model grammar instruction.
8 things to avoid
- Let time constraints be a reason to avoid grammar instruction; instead, find short periods during the day to ask grammar questions or oral “grammar quizzes” while waiting in line.
- Assess every single grammatical choice a student makes; instead, use a variety of assessment measures to support student learning.
- Have students complete only grammar worksheets without purpose for practice.
- Teach too many skills at one time; instead, go deep with a few skills and concepts.
- Learn skills and abandon them; instead, continue to reinforce skills and concepts throughout the year.
- Arbitrarily assign sets of grammatical skills to learn; instead, attach each concept to a purpose for writing.
- Forget the power of a print-rich environment. Instead, remember that classroom libraries, books, read-aloud, and discussion allow students a variety of contexts in which to hear different sentence constructions.
- Become overwhelmed by the number of grammar skills students need to know; instead, use the Common Core State Standards to guide what students need to know at each grade level.
There's a lot of theory around, much of it contradictory. It can be valuable, but I sometimes feel, to quote Mark Twain, that "the researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it". My rather unhelpful view is that it all depends. Learners vary greatly in their response to grammar teaching: some get a lot out of it, some very little. Learning contexts and purposes also vary greatly. And 'grammar' means so many different things that it's extremely difficult to generalize about how to teach it.
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In general, I have little sympathy for people who are hostile to giving students rules. Explanations of how things work are often useful. They do need to be clear and simple, though: the whole truth can be counterproductive, in language as in life. I get uneasy if an explanation in a book for learners takes up more than two or three lines of text. They should be in the mother tongue if possible. Some points can be usefully learned through an inductive 'discovery' approach, others probably not.
Good realistic examples are vital, but they don't replace explanations – an example on its own never tells you exactly what it's an example of. Suitably chosen authentic material – advertisements, cartoons, songs, poems, etc – can make examples memorable and fix them in students' minds. I've often found it helpful to learn examples by heart – they act as a sort of template for generating similar phrases or sentences – and I think this is true for many learners.
Variety is the key. There's nothing wrong with mechanical exercises – gap-filling, sentence transformation and so forth. These can help learners to grasp the form of a complex structure at the outset without having to think too much about the meaning. But it's important to move on to activities where the structure is used in more interesting and realistic ways. I like structure-oriented problem-solving activities and quizzes, games, picture-based work, text-based work, role-play, exercises that get students using the structure to talk about themselves and their ideas, exercises that combine grammar practice with vocabulary learning, and internet-exploration activities, to name just a few approaches.
Supplementing the coursebook
The coursebook (if there is one) generally won't provide enough work on key points. More practice will be needed in class, using group work and pairwork. Out-of-class work (corrected or self-access) using good grammar practice materials can also help a lot.
The real problem, of course, is getting learners to carry over their grammar learning from controlled practice to spontaneous real-life use. They get their tenses all right in the grammar exercises on Tuesday morning and all wrong in the discussion on Friday afternoon. Up to a point, we have to live with disappointment: foreign-language learners don't get everything right. We certainly need to keep coming back to key grammar points, revising them, practicing them in semi-controlled speaking and writing activities, and correcting mistakes by whatever approach we find most useful, but we won't get anything like complete accuracy. (My basic view of grammar teaching is that if we teach some grammatical structures to some students, some of them will get better at using some of those structures some of the time. Definitely.) I think we also need to respect students' decisions. If they have learned when to use third-person -s, have had plenty of practice, have had their mistakes corrected, and still go on dropping it – well, that is their choice, and we shouldn't waste any more time on the point, or beat ourselves up because we haven't got the students to do what we want. Life is too short.
7 tips for effective grammar instruction
The first letter in grammar, g, stands to forgive, as in giving students ample time to process what is being taught. Due to time restrictions, teachers may find themselves rushing through a lesson simply because it has to be covered. Students, particularly those learning a second language, need to be allotted enough time for their brains to process new information. And when checking for understanding, allow some wait time for students to contemplate the question and answer.
The second letter, r, stands for review. Not all students spend time outside of the classroom studying what has been taught. Doing a review of grammar concepts formerly taught helps their minds recall and even retain what has been learned. Begin class with a review by spending at least 5 to 7 minutes going over what has been taught the day before. For example, if pronouns were previously discussed, then either go over this concept briefly or have students provide examples of sentences with pronouns to ensure that they do understand.
The next letter in the word grammar, a, stands for accommodate. Every student comes with his or her learning style and needs. It is important to adapt your methods of instruction to accommodate your students’ needs. For instance, there are times when direct instruction or pair work is essential. Then there are times when individualized instruction is needed to assist a student who is struggling in class. Accommodating also means using varied methods of instruction to cater to the various learning styles that are present in your classrooms.
The fourth letter, m, stands for motivating. Students, especially those with low self-confidence, need constant motivation. They need to be encouraged to ask questions and to voice out any difficulty they may be experiencing about comprehending the lesson at hand. Not all students are confident enough to ask questions for fear that they may be perceived as “dumb.” These insecure students fear being ridiculed especially when they are surrounded by others who they perceive to be smarter. Make it a point to encourage students to ask questions when they don’t understand, and always provide positive feedback when they can answer questions correctly.
The second m stands for make as in make grammar fun. As mentioned before learning grammar can be a tedious and monotonous task which is why it is important to make your lessons interesting. Students are more participative when they enjoy the class. On the other hand, students lose interest when they feel the class is boring. Incorporate games and fun activities along with varied forms of instruction to help keep students engaged and interested. Even try including a fun music video to go along with your lesson.
The sixth letter, a, stands for assessment. Assessment is a vital part of ESL instruction for it provides much-needed information-specifically, information on whether the lesson has been grasped by the students or not. It dictates whether a lesson should be retaught perhaps in a different way or if the students are ready to proceed to the next one. Constantly assess students to ensure that comprehension is indeed taking place.
The final letter in the word grammar, r, stands for relevant. Making the lesson relevant to the students allows for comprehension to take place. When students feel what they are learning is relevant to their lives, then interest in the subject matter automatically follows. Before conducting instruction, explain the relevance of the lesson you are about to teach and how knowledge gained from it can be useful to their daily lives.
These 7 tips, if considered and followed, can help you teach grammar, or any other subject for that matter, successfully. Remembering these tips when planning lessons will help you come up with activities that will be both engaging and interesting for the students.
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In conclusion, then, theories on how best to teach grammar can vary significantly. However, I believe most teachers would agree that whatever approach is chosen, theory and practice need to be given to help with grammar. The practice should be with well-considered exercises that are also fun and relevant. The theory, which can be heavy going at times, should be broken down into small parts (e.g. covering present, past, future tenses in a logical order) to make the theory of grammar more digestible for students
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