Teaching grammar: research, theory and practice Penny Ur ETAI miniconference Rehovot, February 2010
Some questions: grammar within a communicative methodology • Is learner mastery of correct grammar a major aim in (communicative) language teaching? • If it is, then how should it be taught?
What do you think? • Would you agree or disagree with the following statement? It’s not important for students to use correct grammar when they are talking, as long as they are getting their message across. It’s not important for students to use correct grammar when they are writing, as long as they are getting their message across.
Accuracy is important because… • …From the point of view of the hearer/reader, inaccuracy, even if it doesn’t affect meaning, is • distracting, ‘jarring’ • ‘discourteous’ • may lower respect for the speaker/writer
And because… • … from the point of view of the speaker/writer, inaccuracy may • lower self-confidence • lower self-respect as a language user
And because… • …from the point of view of the teacher, professionalism means teaching the language as best we can.
Research and theory • implicit and explicit teaching • ‘noticing’ • the teachability hypothesis • ‘exemplar-based’ learning
Implicit and explicit teaching • The goal is implicit knowledge of correct grammar (i.e. getting it right without thinking about it) • BUT • Does this imply ‘implicit’ teaching (no explanations)?
Implicit teaching • Krashen (1981): ‘input hypothesis’ • You learn by getting lots of comprehensible input • The Natural Approach • The Interaction Hypothesis (Long, 1985) • You learn by interacting • Task-based learning
Explicit teaching • BUT: • Explicit grammar teaching appears to be helpful • Spada (1997) • Norris and Ortega (2001) • But: only explicit teaching doesn’t produce people who can communicate…
The relationship between explicit and implicit knowledge • The non-interface position • The weak interface position • The strong interface position
‘Noticing’ • Schmidt: • There is no such thing as unconscious acquisition of a second language • Noticing is necessary for learning • Intake is that part of the input which has been noticed • Incidental learning is possible, provided that noticing takes place
The teachability hypothesis • There is a natural developmental sequence of acquisition of morpho-syntactical structures, impervious to teaching. • Teaching of a grammatical feature will be effective only if the learner is developmentally read to acquire it. • Teaching of a feature when a learner is not ready may have a detrimental effect. • (Pienemann, 1984)
‘Exemplar-based’ learning • You learn grammar by accumulating lots of memorized ‘exemplars’ • Through extensive exposure + ‘noticing’ • Importance of learning grammatical ‘chunks’ • Ellis (N.) (2002): frequency • Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992), Wray (2000): formulaic sequences
You need: • communication + some explicit teaching of grammar • you need to ‘notice’ • you may not learn new grammar because you’re not ‘ready’ for it • you need lots of exposure to grammatical chunks (‘exemplars’)
Some practical models • Task-based + Focus on form • Task-based + Consciousness-raising • Practice-based instruction
Task-based + focus on form • A communicative task, with incidental focus on form ‘... focus on form... overtly draws students' attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication’ (Long, 1991: 45-46)
May be based on: • error correction • noticing of salient forms in texts • teacher- or student-initiated attention to a lanaguage feature • Originally: unplanned, brief (Long, 1991) • But later: largely planned, extended (Ellis, 2001, Shak & Gardner, 2008)
Task based + consciousness-raising • Practice is not helpful (some research, experience, the teachability hypothesis). • But awareness of grammatical rules, forms and meanings may facilitate later acquisition • So: • Occasional lessons where learners’ attention is drawn to forms, often in the shape of an explicit rule • Discussion of examples, and some intellectual effort
Practice-based teaching • The transformation of declarative into procedural knowledge by a process of automatization through practice (Dekeyser, 2007) • Underpinning in cognitive psychology: skill theory • Research evidence that it helps (Van Patten and Cadierno, 1993; Muranoi, 2007)
PPP The communicative approach Input-based Task-based Focus on form Consciousness-raising Skill-theory, practice-based
Implications for classroom teaching • Problems with implementing research-based theory in practice: • Varied, sometimes incompatible, conclusions • Insufficient attention paid to purely pedagogical factors
Ultimately: the teacher decides • Teaching is informed, but not determined, by research-based theory (Widdowson). • Methodological decisions are taken by the teacher within particular situations, determined by pedagogical constraints + professional judgement.
A suggestion: five basic components of grammar teaching • Task-based + focus on form • Presentation- and practice-based • Communication only • Focus on form only • Exemplar-based teaching
Task-based + focus on form • The basis of the lesson is a communicative task. • We may teach bits of grammar / vocabulary / spelling before, during or after: but the focus is always on the communicative task. • Example: an ‘agree/disagree’ discussion:
A communicative task • Discuss how far you agree with the following statements • The teacher should correct me when I make a mistake. Agree …………………………………………….Disagree • The teacher should ask other students to correct me when I make a mistake. Agree …………………………………………….Disagree • The teacher should get me to correct myself. Agree …………………………………………….Disagree • The teacher should make me rewrite essays after she’s corrected them. Agree …………………………………………….Disagree • The teacher should not only correct me, but also explain why what I said was wrong. Agree …………………………………………….Disagree
Meaning-focused: • Pair/group work • Full-class summary and discussion • Form-focused: • modal should • object / reflexive pronouns (correct me/myself)
2. Presentation + practice • A grammatical rule, presented inductively or deductively • Then: practice activities, progressing from mainly form to mainly meaning focus.
Example:The Present Perfect • Conventional form-focus • Nina is looking everywhere but she can’t find her keys. She ………………… (lose them) • Peter weighs only 50 kilos. Last month, he weighed 60. He …………… (be on a diet)
Example:The Present Perfect • 1. Focus on meaning, but controlled form • Find someone who... • ...has slept in a cave.____________ ____________ • ... has eaten caviar ____________ _____________ • ... has visited India ___________ ____________ • ... has been in a car accident ________ _________
2. Focus on meaning, semi-controlled form (sentence completion): • Since this time last year, I have …. • 3. Focus on meaning, free sentence-making • Think of a situation (using the present perfect) that would produce the reaction… • 1. Oh dear! 2. Wonderful! 3. What a surprise! • 4. Congratulations! 5. Help! 6. What a relief! • 7. What a pity 8. Thank you! 9. What a pity! • 10. I’m sorry! 11. Oh no! 12. (sigh)
4.Focus on meaning, full paragraph writing: Today is picture B. What has happened since yesterday (picture A)?
5. Focus on communication • Group discussion: • You are a committee of experts who have to interview candidates for a specific course or profession. • Your candidate is requesting: • to become a marriage counsellor • to become a kindergarten teacher • to join the police force • to work on a summer camp for teenagers • to become an ambulance driver
3. Communication only • Receptive: • listening to recorded or improvised speech • extensive reading • watching movies, TV … • Productive: • talking, communication games • exchanging information, • creative or transactional writing…
4. Form-focus only • Examples: • ‘Tip of the day’ – isolated language points • Grammar rule explanations • Analysis of formulaic sequences • Comparison with L1
5. Exemplar-based • Familiarization or learning by heart of: • Chants • Poems • Proverbs • Dialogues • Songs • Performances: sketches or plays
Variable selection and emphasis:Two examples • Grammar teaching procedures in the following situations: • ‘ELF’ at elementary level in a state school • A university EAP course
A. ‘ELF’ at elementary level in a state school • Predominantly: • Presentation and practice • Exemplar-based learning • Focus on communication • Occasionally: • Form-focus only • Task-based group work
B. Young adults in a university EAP course • Predominantly: • Task-based + reactive form-focus • Form-focus only • Communication only • Occasionally: • Presentation + practice • Very occasionally: • Exemplar-based
In conclusion • Research and theory have not produced a consensus on the best way to teach grammar. • They have produced many interesting and suggestive insights. • The practical five-component model proposed here is one possible basis for decisions about the treatment of grammar in materials for specific contexts.
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