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Talking about grammar (effectively!)

This is the second post about grammar and language learning and teaching (the first can be found here), as the first caused quite a stir in some circles... It is true, in my first post I advocated for the use of grammar terms in classrooms, and the development of a metalanguage that allows our students (all of them, not only the language learners) to actively talk about language and how it works. That said, I did not advocate a particular "grammar teaching" method. Being able to talk about language is key to improving language use, but this doesn't mean doing stand-alone, context-free grammar lessons. "How language works" comes up in natural situations across the curriculum, and language awareness can be developed at any point, in any subject.

Metalinguistic awareness means "knowing about language", and it is this that can be developed in the classroom and help students learn language more effectively. A language aware teacher will consider all the elements of language involved in any activity or task, and consider how to develop the ability to use the necessary language through learning engagements. This is very different from the old-style "grammar teaching". A grammar-fronted method starts with grammar: what grammar point do I want to teach today? This generally leads into a series of practice activities (fill in the blanks, matching, etc.) and then possibly a "production" task in which students are directed to use the target forms in some kind of interactive activity. There is little evidence that this type of grammar-fronted teaching has long terms effects on students' language use, but the greater issue is that the grammar being taught is often divorced from the grammar that students need at any given point.

It is clear that using appropriate grammatical forms is a part of language learning, especially when the language being learnt is the language of instruction. However, paying attention to grammatical forms (focus on form) in the context of teaching and learning provides students with a more realistic framework on which to hang grammatical knowledge.

Take, for example, the teaching of comparative and superlative forms:

In Class A, a grammar-fronted class, the teacher is teaching comparative and superlative forms because it's that week in the textbook. The students complete all of the "practice" activities and then the "production" tasks. They then return to their regular curricular learning, where they are working on writing lab reports for a science experiment. The language needed to write these reports is the language of hypothesis and evaluation... not comparing! So the grammar that they learnt stays firmly in the language class, with no opportunities to continue to use it in their current learning.

In Class B, a language-integrated classroom, the students are working on a topic related to culture and festivities. In teams, they are describing a festivity from their own culture and then will be comparing elements of the festivity to others in the group. In order to facilitate accurate use of language, the teacher does a short "focus on form" lesson on the board, leaving examples of the comparative and superlative, which the students then refer to as they compete the task and give their presentations. The teacher then follows up with an activity in which the students write a text comparing two different festivities. In this example, the students' need for the form in the work they are doing gives multiple, context-embedded opportunities to practice and master the comparative and superlative forms.

From these examples we can see that grammar can be taught in a context-embedded, meaningful way in the classroom, rather than as a stand-alone subject. Grammar, after all, is a tool of language and not the essence of language.

More information about Language-integrated teaching can be found in this article: Planning for :anguage: Objectively.

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