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Teaching Grammar in an ESL / EFL Setting

Overview

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Multi-ethnic students in class
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Teaching grammar plays a central role in every ESL / EFL teacher's classroom. The important question that needs to be answered is: how do I teach grammar? In other words, how do I help students learn the grammar they need. This question is deceptively easy. At first look, you might think that teaching grammar is just a matter of explaining grammar rules to students. However, teaching grammar effectively is a much more complicated matter. There are a number of questions that first need to be addressed for each class:

  • What are the objectives of this class?

    Is the class preparing for an examination? Is the class improving their English for business purposes? Is the class preparing for summer holidays? etc.

    The answer to this question is important as it will help you decide on how much grammar really needs to be taught. If students are preparing for a Cambridge Exam then grammar will play a large role in your lesson plans. On the other hand, if you are teaching a business class, linguistic formulas may play a larger role as you provide the learners with standard phrases for written documents, participating in meetings, etc.

  • What type of learning background do the learners have?

    Are the students at school? Have they not studied for a number of years? Are they familiar with grammar terminology?

    Adults who have not been attending school for a number of years are likely to find grammar explanations confusing while as students who are currently studying will probably be much more adept at understanding grammar charts, expressions, etc.

  • What learning materials and resources are available?

    Do you have the latest student workbooks? Do you have no workbooks at all? Is there a computer in the classroom?

    The more learning resources you have the easier it will be for you to employ different strategies when teaching your students grammar. For example, a group of students who like using computers could use the computer to study a certain grammar task while another group who prefers spoken explanations might prefer to have you explain the point with a number of examples. Obviously, the more varieties of learning opportunities the better your chances are that each student will be able to learn the grammar point well.

  • What kind of learning style does each student have?

    Is the learner comfortable with standard right brain learning techniques (logical charts, study sheets, etc.)? Does the learner work better with listening and repeating exercises?

    This is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching - especially teaching grammar. If you have a class of learners with similar learning styles, you can afford to use a similar approach. However, if you have a class of mixed learning styles then you need to try to provide instruction using as many different methods as possible.

Once you have answered these questions you can more expertly approach the question of how you are going to provide the class with the grammar they need. In other words, each class is going to have different grammar needs and goals and it is up to the teacher to determine these goals and provide the means with which to meet them.

Inductive and Deductive

First a quick definition: Inductive is known as a 'bottom up' approach. In other words, students discovering grammar rules while working through exercises.

For example:

A reading comprehension which includes a number of sentences describing what a person has done up to that period in time.

After doing the reading comprehension, the teacher could begin to ask questions such as: How long has he done this or that? Has he ever been to Paris? etc. and then follow with When did he go to Paris?

To help the students inductively understand the difference between the simple past and the present perfect, these questions could be followed with which questions spoke about a definite time in the past? Which questions asked about the person's general experience? etc.

Deductive is known as a 'top down' approach. This is the standard teaching approach that has a teacher explaining rules to the students.

For example:

The present perfect is made up of the auxiliary verb 'have' plus the past participle. It is used to express an action which has begun in the past and continues into the present moment... etc.

Grammar Lesson Outline

I personally feel that a teacher needs in the first place to facilitate learning. That is why I prefer to provide students with inductive learning exercises. However, there are certainly moments when the teacher needs to explain grammar concepts to the class.

Generally, I recommend the following class structure when teaching grammar skills:

  • Begin with an exercise, game, listening, etc. that introduces the grammar concept.
  • Ask students questions that will help them identify the grammar concept to be discussed.
  • Follow with another exercise that more specifically focuses on the grammar concept, but takes an inductive approach. This could be a reading exercise with questions and responses in the structure that is being taught.
  • Check responses, ask students to explain the grammar concept that has been introduced.
  • At this point introduce teaching explanations as a way of clearing up misunderstandings.
  • Provide an exercise which focuses on the correct construction of the grammar point. This could be an exercise such as a fill the gap, cloze or tense conjugation activity.
  • Ask students to once again explain the concept.

As you can see, the teacher is facilitating students to do their own learning rather than using the 'top down' approach of dictating rules to the class.

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