Alice Savage

How do we move grammar into meaning?

Cambridge University Press is hosting a panel for grammar week in March 2021, and we’ve been asked to come up with questions to explore with colleagues. I know exactly which question I want to ask. How do I move grammar practice into students’ meaningful use?

After decades of teaching, I have noticed that students switch from a focus on grammar to a focus on communication in which grammar flies out the window. Perhaps this is due to the majority of my learners having communicative competence but not the confidence that comes with accuracy. That’s why they are in my class.

As a result, I have come to value oral practice through open drills, especially when it comes to the present simple, arguably the most frequent and difficult pattern for A1 learners. One of my favorite activities for target practice is both social and kinesthetic. I ask students to stand in a circle (six feet apart now) and share something they like, for example, I like chocolate. Student A starts then gestures to someone across the room, B, who repeats A’s sentence (using third person s) and extends it by saying, “She likes chocolate, and I like computer games.” B gestures to C who repeats B’s information and continues.

I love this activity because it’s social, it’s focused, and it shows the challenges involved in producing a pattern off book. Whether these challenges reflect the physical demands of pronunciation or cognitive demands is hard to say. However, by repeating this activity in different ways with different verbs across the semester, students start exercising whichever muscle it is that helps them reach their goals.

“I need this,” said Elisa yesterday. “My son says my English is wrong.” Elisa is an immigrant who has been in the U.S. for many years, and she wants to feel more confident. As her teacher, it is my job to give her a path that goes beyond getting the verb tense right on a test.

But it’s hard.

In the real world of Elisa’s conversations with her son’s teacher, at her job, and around town, she’s got to say sentences in which dozens of grammar rules are in play. With this thought in. mind, I try to use at least part of our classroom time building a bridge between the practice of a single rule, which course books do very well, and interactions that involve patterns of English interacting with other patterns of English, which get less attention in published materials.

I’m not sure I can answer the question of how to move grammar into life, but here are a few things I’m experimenting with.

1. Extensions. I can’t spend the entire semester on the present simple, but I can add to it. For example, infinitives are frequent in English, so I add the infinitive to subsequent rounds, I like to bake cookies, becomes, she likes to bake cookies, and I like to listen to music. I can also add adverbs of frequency or prepositional phrases on other days.

2. Improv. As a fan of kinesthetic grammar and drama activities, I also include scripted dialogs and role plays. Students take on characters, show emotions, and otherwise set the language through an experience that has a narrative context. A dialog that practices functions can be a starting point. Students can then improvise by creating and performing a similar situation.

In the dialog below, partner A wants to stay, and partner B wants to go home. Since they have different goals, the conversation has more back and forth. (Notice the present simple and progressive, questions, and other elements.) It can be rehearsed to establish the language, and then it can be performed with feeling and gesture, which can enhance memory. Students can continue the conversation by adding their own language until the situation is resolved.

A. Well, it’s getting late.

B: Is it? It’s only 10 o’clock!

A: Exactly! It’s 10 o’clock.

B: I’m having fun. I don’t want to go home!

A: Well I do. I have to get up early.

B: Are you sure?

3. Content processing. Have students read a short accessible piece of fiction that showcases the grammar you are working on. Provide some comprehension questions; then have students prepare and discuss their answers to the questions. For example, I am using an A1 novel written in the present tense. The novel provides abundant exposure to various patterns through sentences and dialog. Students read a chapter and then get in groups to answer questions about the characters and events using the same structures but in new ways. They tend to work hard, pausing to formulate their answers, but those answers have a communicative function. Also, the narrative offsets the fatigue of working the same grammar point.

Here are some examples.

  1. Who is Dolores? What do you learn about her? Dolores is a neighbor. She lives next door to Brita.
  2. What does Teddy bring? He brings a soccer ball.
  3. What happens to the ball? Kyle kicks it over the fence.
  4. What does Joe want? Joe wants to say hello, but he doesn’t want to make Teddy nervous. (This was a hard one!)
  5. Is Dolores a good parent? What does she do? She is a good mother. She doesn’t get angry when Teddy gets dirty.
  6. Is Joe a good father? Yes, he tries, but he worries about his son.

These questions can be followed up with personalization prompts. Many students in my class are parents with young children, so they often have much to say!

The class time devoted to these activities is revealing. In the role of observer, I can see learners multi-tasking as their brain switches from meaning making to grammar and back. They are making an effort not just to answer questions and share ideas. They are also working to incorporate structures that require changing the way they’ve gotten used to explaining things. The sheltered environment of the classroom makes this possible, and partners help each other.

In the modern classroom, which is the focus of Cambridge University Press’s grammar week, we have an opportunity to let technology play its role in explaining and drilling. However, the classroom is still the optimal place for moving that grammar into meaningful use. It’s exciting to think that teachers can spend more time on the social piece of language when we are together with students, but we have to keep figuring out how.

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