The goal of grammar instruction is to enable students to carry out their communication purposes. This goal has three implications:
- Students need overt instruction that connects grammar points with larger communication contexts.
- Students do not need to master every aspect of each grammar point, only those that are relevant to the immediate communication task.
- Error correction is not always the instructor’s first responsibility.
Overt Grammar Instruction
Adult students appreciate and benefit from direct instruction that allows them to apply critical thinking skills to language learning. Instructors can take advantage of this by providing explanations that give students a descriptive understanding (declarative knowledge) of each point of grammar.
- Teach the grammar point in the target language or the students’ first language or both. The goal is to facilitate understanding.
- Limit the time you devote to grammar explanations to 10 minutes, especially for lower level students whose ability to sustain attention can be limited.
- Present grammar points in written and oral ways to address the needs of students with different learning styles.
An important part of grammar instruction is providing examples. Teachers need to plan their examples carefully around two basic principles:
- Be sure the examples are accurate and appropriate. They must present the language appropriately, be culturally appropriate for the setting in which they are used, and be to the point of the lesson.
- Use the examples as teaching tools. Focus examples on a particular theme or topic so that students have more contact with specific information and vocabulary.
Relevance of Grammar Instruction
In the communicative competence model, the purpose of learning grammar is to learn the language of which the grammar is a part. Instructors therefore teach grammar forms and structures in relation to meaning and use for the specific communication tasks that students need to complete.
Compare the traditional model and the communicative competence model for teaching the English past tense:
Traditional: grammar for grammar’s sake
- Teach the regular -ed form with its two pronunciation variants
- Teach the doubling rule for verbs that end in d (for example, wed-wedded)
- Hand out a list of irregular verbs that students must memorize
- Do pattern practice drills for -ed
- Do substitution drills for irregular verbs
Communicative competence: grammar for communication’s sake
- Distribute two short narratives about recent experiences or events, each one to half of the class
- Teach the regular -ed form, using verbs that occur in the texts as examples. Teach the pronunciation and doubling rules if those forms occur in the texts.
- Teach the irregular verbs that occur in the texts.
- Students read the narratives, ask questions about points they don’t understand.
- Students work in pairs in which one member has read Story A and the other Story B. Students interview one another; using the information from the interview, they then write up or orally repeat the story they have not read.
At all proficiency levels, learners produce language that is not exactly the language used by native speakers. Some of the differences are grammatical, while others involve vocabulary selection and mistakes in the selection of language appropriate for different contexts.
In responding to student communication, teachers need to be careful not to focus on error correction to the detriment of communication and confidence building. Teachers need to let students know when they are making errors so that they can work on improving. Teachers also need to build students’ confidence in their ability to use the language by focusing on the content of their communication rather than the grammatical form.
Teachers can use error correction to support language acquisition, and avoid using it in ways that undermine students’ desire to communicate in the language, by taking cues from context.
- When students are doing structured output activities that focus on development of new language skills, use error correction to guide them.
Student (in class): I buy a new car yesterday
Teacher: You bought a new car yesterday. Remember, the past tense of buy
- When students are engaged in communicative activities, correct errors only if they interfere with comprehensibility. Respond using correct forms, but without stressing them.
Student (greeting teacher): I buy a new car yesterday!
Teacher: You bought a new car? That’s exciting! What kind?