Effectively Teaching Grammar in Context

Get in the zone--the Zone of Proximal Development that is! Much like Krashen’s i+1, Vygotsky’s ZPD reminds us to aim for the happy place between what a student has acquired and what they are capable of acquiring at that time. While i+1 focuses more specifically on Second Language Acquisition, the ZPD can be used in nearly any setting where learning takes place. Either way the warning is the same: reach too far, and you’ll likely spend a frustrating class trying to explain something  above the student’s head that cannot yet be taken in as input. Why is this important?

The ultimate goals of teaching within your student’s “Zone” are:

       1) Students acquire language and don’t just learn to memorize.

        2) Students’ affective filters (emotions) are appropriately & adequately acknowledged.

        3) Students move from other-regulation to self-regulation. 

        4) Students tap into their built-in syllabus of language learning.


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FAQ About Teaching Grammar:

1. How do I teach grammar?

There are many answers to this questions. However, to simplify it a bit, you can divide teaching grammar into 2 main approaches: deductive and inductive. Deductive teaching of grammar means that you start by giving the explicit rule, followed by several examples to practice the rule. Inductive teaching, on the other hand, means that you provide several examples and other input in order for the student to notice the grammar and arrive at the rule themselves--or the guided hand of a great Dynamic teacher.

So which is better?

Dynamic methodology strongly favors inductive grammar teaching as this tends to be more natural and interactive in nature. However, there is a time and place for deductive grammar teaching. Some students won’t comprehend any input if they are stuck thinking about the rule--they just gotta know! Also, if you feel confident explaining the rule and it is rather succinct, go ahead and use the deductive approach.

Regardless of the method, FREQUENCY AND QUALITY OF INPUT is everything! Students need to see and practice using a structure a minimum of 10 times---no not 10 exercises, but in 10 different contexts to be able to use the structure. This could even be as many as 30 times or more--it depends on the student and other variable factors.

**Pro Tip: When you aren’t sure of the grammar rule yourself, use the inductive approach right alongside your student and “discover” the rule together!**

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2. How do I make grammar more exciting and interactive?

Grammar can easily be broken down into form (often seen like a formula: s+ verb + ing = present continuous) and function (Why/how do we use it?--to talk about things happening right now). The ultimate goal is to teach both of these within a real world, meaningful context.

For example, you could get a real-world context from one of these conversation starters here. You can teach the form & function deductively or inductively (see previous question), but either way, you need to teach it in a context that is related to the student’s real life interests & experiences.

Once in a while, you can add in a quick game as brain break or to test automaticity. Then, practice, practice, practice! Practice makes permanent.

Do: Assign grammar exercises as homework and use that grammar to interact in class. Give real world examples of how and when grammar is used. Answer student questions to the best of your ability.

Don’t: Spend more than 5-10  minutes doing book work/exercises in class unless the student specifically requests this--and even then, try to encourage interaction. Ignore student questions.

3. Is there a specific order in which students acquire language structures?

There is something called a built-in syllabus. First language acquisition (i.e. native speakers) follows this in terms of developmental milestones, but guess what--this exists for second language learners too! It isn’t always as clear cut because it can vary depending on a number of factors, but examples of the “syllabus” can be found in the Dynamic Teacher Resource Drive here.

4. What factors affect the progression of second language acquisition?

  • L1 (1st language) influence

    • Too similar: Get stuck in a stage

    • Too different: Avoid the stage altogether

  • Linguistic complexity

    • Is its structure easy to understand?

    • Are there clear rules?

  • Semantic transparency

    • Its function is clear

    • It has a real-world connection

  • Salience

    • Do students notice it?

    • Are they ready to notice it?

  • Frequency of input

    • How often have students seen the structure?

    • How often have student used the structure?

  • Affective filter

    • Student’s emotional state

    • Prior experiences

5. Should I teach slang or other informal language?

Yes and no. First, what are the student’s goals for learning English? What is their base level? It is definitely okay to teach slang and informal language because that is how people actually talk; this is known as descriptive grammar. However, just like with anything else, one must know the rules before they are able to break them. Therefore we also need to be sure that we teach prescriptive grammar--that is to say the by-the-book rules.

How often have we tried to participate in a conversation in Spanish--or whatever your second language is---and we thought we knew all of the vocabulary and grammar needed, but then we got thrown a chilenismo or people didn’t pronounce the words like we were taught, but now we’re totally lost. The benefit of a Dynamic English course is that we have flexibility to go off the grid a bit and get into the nitty gritty of how people actually talk so that your students are prepared to take a formal test OR have a conversation in a random bar or sporting event with native speakers who have never encountered non-native speakers. The opportunities are endless!

**Be sure to identify these contexts with students. For example, say “this is only for an informal context..or among friends, while this one you can use with a potential client or your higher ups.” **

6. How do I teach grammar to beginners?

Teach a structure in multiple contexts with a sentence frame. For example s + to be + complement. You can teach this with a variety of vocabulary categories such as: emotions, physical descriptions, personality descriptions. Be sure to teach 10-20 new vocabulary words a class/ a week, and use them multiple times.

Then switch to another verb s+ verb + complement. Be sure to teach the affirmative statement, the negative statement (at least the short form), and the question form of each sentence frame/structure. Get students speaking and using these sentence structures in every class. Assign repetitive grammar exercises for homework. Don’t teach isolated words or grammar points---always contextualize them!

7. How do I teach grammar to advanced learners?

Think about the different branches of linguistics, or the study of languages. We often focus just on morphology (vocabulary), semantics (vocabulary meaning) and syntax (word order and grammar). However understanding pragmatics is essential for truly mastering a language. While it is important at any level, it is especially important for advanced learners. They already know the forms, the rules, and the functions---or do they?

What if the context, the speaker, the tone, the country, the gender, the degree of power, etc.changes? Can these learners still hold their own or do they stumble into faux pas after faux pas? Do they know when it is appropriate to use slang or shortened forms of speech? When they need to use the traditional, prescriptive form? When to be direct and when to beat around the bush? Do they know what all of these idioms mean in various contexts? There is always more to learn--even if you’re a native speaker!

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8. What grammar resources are available?

English textbooks: Essential English, English Results, Advanced Grammar