form-structure

When teaching form and structure, we are ‘going meta’ in the sense that we are teaching ABOUT the language and not necessarily immersing ourselves in the interactions that make up the language practice. Pragmatics rightly stresses the practical use of the forms we teach over theoretical or linguistic knowledge about those forms, though we as ELT sure do love that linguistic information. However, our students may not be so inclined and, frankly, the minutiae of grammar is likely not that helpful for them. We at S-TESL have always sought to have students acquire grammatical forms in line with SLA theory and practice and therefor lean towards in-context grammar practice that is implicit and therefore more palatable and, frankly, easier to remember and apply. In other words, through mostly implicit grammar instruction our students acquire how to use the grammar rather than what the grammar is in terms of formulas.

Here then are 10 ‘rules’ I live by on what to do and not do when helping students understand and use grammar in an implicit manner:

1. Use questions, not statements

DO: Ask questions all the time.

DON’T make statements, i.e. lecture.

Example for simple past tense: You write on the board: I WATCHED A MOVIE. ASK students: What did you do last night? Write their answers. If they reply with something like, ‘I eat dinner.’ ASK: What is something you did you do not do every night?

Through judicious questions, you can lead the students down the ‘garden path’ and to the point of the grammar without them even realizing it without ever making a statement. Try it. Once real Past Tense sentences are on the board, then ASK: What do you see that is similar? What is different? What is THIS? (verb) How do you know it is past tense? Which ones are regular? Which are irregular?

DON’T: Ok class, here are five past tense sentences. Notice that each sentence has a subject verb and object. This is the subject, right? And this is the verb, right? And notice the ending….zzzzzz.

2. Use authentic contexts and information

DO: Always use authentic information that directly comes from you and especially from your students. Ex: Teacher begins gerunds/infinitives class: “I love summer summer! I enjoy Swimming and sailing. I like to picnic and I love to hike” Teacher writes sentences on the board, gerund sentences on one side, infinitives on the other. Then: “Tell me some of the things you enjoy doing and love to do?” The Teacher then writes full sentences students say on the board. Sentences without gerunds or infinitives are acknowledged but not written. As wrap-up, the teacher then asks: “Which are gerunds? Which are infinitives? Who can tell me what they are? How do you know? Can I say I enjoy to sail? Why not? At least one student will know, soon all will follow along. They are bright and will get it and all are motivated because it is about THEM!

DON’T: Teacher: ‘Ok class, look in the book. These are gerunds here. A gerund is blah blah blah. An infinitive is blah blah blah. Now, Choose one: Mary is late. She needs to run / running?’ Which is right?”

Here is the question on every student’s mind: WHO IS MARY?? Does anyone care about this imaginary person? Not caring equals not focusing on the real communication or missing the point. Your students and you have a lot of authentic and applicable grammar examples in your lives to work with, why not use them? Hint: Even if you use the grammar book, why not change the names of the subjects to your students’ names? It will be more interesting for them.

3. Forget the grammar book (mostly)

DO: Begin the class with a fun opener that introduces the grammar point, WITHOUT opening the grammar book! Maybe an info gap game, a’ find someone who’ with that grammar point in it or a memory game. Something that is fun and gets the students to swim a bit in the grammar point before having explicit form shoved at them. In fact, mostly avoid the grammar book or use it for wrap-up, reinforcement, reference or homework. YOU know the grammar, yes?

DON’T make the focus of grammar class a book! Grammar is not a book. In fact, avoid using the book as much as possible. It is not real, it is a source book. This is not particularly hard IF you the teacher KNOW THE GRAMMAR POINT and know it well. I start present continuous with charades myself. Why not? Ex; “Class, what am I doing?” Students: “You are standing. Talking, teaching …(etc.)” I get three of four sentences on the board and then have them do it. Then we together pull the form out. Then I have them talk about what WE are doing or HE or SHE is doing (to make sure I get all the ‘to be’ forms, am/is/are). I only have them look at the book to confirm forms and to reference spelling rules for –ing words or for homework.

4. Let students discover the grammar – no spoilers!

DO: Present grammar points as puzzles that need to be solved with logic and common sense!

Ask leading questions and get them to produce that form then puzzle out the form. Write scrambled authentic sentences showing the four forms of that tense about your life and make them unscramble and discuss them. Give them conversational choices and ask them why they chose a gerund or past tense. Give them wrong sentences and have them correct them and explain why. Have them search for adjective clauses in a celebrity biography and talk about what those odd pronouns are.. In other words, create a mini-grammar mystery that they have to work to figure out and then have them pull out the form and work with it. Not only will they be practicing grammar and cognitive skills, but they will truly acquire the grammar because they will understand it in their own way.

DON’T lecture or present a teacher-centered exposition on the grammar point that delivers all the information about that whole grammar point in a big neat package. These are intelligent people who want to work things out. Don’t do grammar ‘data dumps.’ In fact, if you are talking ABOUT the grammar point, then you are taking time from the students who want to DISCOVER and figure out the meaning of the grammar point and how to use it. Let them explore and discuss and figure it out; raise the bar and keep quiet but be there to facilitate and ask leading questions. Then, when you get THEM to wrap it up, the students will own it.

5. Keep it simple and focused

DO work with one aspect of the grammar at a time. If introducing modals like CAN for example, work with statements first. Ex; Class, who can touch their toes? Try to do it and tell me! What are some other things you can do? Write these on the board. Elicit form from the students. Then move naturally to negative statements. Ex: “OK, who can’t touch their toes? Tell me? What are some things you can’t do? Write these on the board. Elicit form from students. Next, focus on yes/no questions about the students. You get the idea:

DON’T model all the forms at once (as the book does) and review all these DIFFERENT patterns at once. Too much, too confusing, no context. Three big no-nos.

Contextualization is everything when it comes to acquiring grammar patterns. For example, don’t talk about statement forms and yes/no question forms in the same sentence without letting them work out each form through real, authentic practice and application. They will be overloaded, confused and not able to really acquire each pattern independently and will make lots of transfer errors that are avoidable. One. Step. At. A. Time.

Read Part II »

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M.A. History (Cross-Cultural Studies), Western Washington University; TESOL Certificate, The School of Teaching ESL. Denny is a teacher educator at S-TESL and delivers most of the 4-Week Intensives each year. Denny has taught ESL at ELS Language Center in Seattle and in Japan at Sundai Junior College. He worked at American Cultural Exchange in Seattle as Center Director and as Director of Marketing.