16 tips for effective grammar teaching in the foreign language classroom

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Dylan Viñales of Garden International School.

  1. Do not use the target language for challenging grammar points– Using the target language when explaining a complex grammar point can cause cognitive deficit which may hinder understanding of the target structure you are attempting to teach. Hence, when introducing a new grammar structure it is advisable to use the students’ L1. Your decision as to whether to use the L1 rather than the L2 will also be dictated by time and resources constraints.
  2. Identify the cognitive steps that the application of the target rule involves and teach one step at the time – Many complex grammar structures require the learner to apply a number of cognitive steps. Some steps will be more difficult to execute than others as they involve cognitive operations that the students are not used to performing in their native language. In many lessons I have observed these were taken for granted and not modelled and practised sufficiently. For a complex structure to become automatized, every cognitive operation its application involves must be routinized. Notice that here ‘routinized’ does not merely means ‘knowing’ how to perform each operation, but performing automatically, bypassing conscious attention. Think about the Perfect Tense in French; it is not enough for the students to know each person of the verb ‘to have’ and how to form the past participle of verbs in –er, -re and –ir. The students will have to have automatized each of those operations if we want them to perform Perfect Tense formation accurately under real operating conditions.
  3. Teach irregular forms before you teach the regular ones – as I wrote in a previous post, in my experience it is more effective to teach the dominant rule governing a grammar structure after one is sure that the students have automatized the less dominant rule. Why? Think about irregular verb forms. You first tell the students that the conjugation of French verbs in the present tense follows a given pattern; then, after a few lessons – often before the students have even automatized those forms – you tell them that there are verbs that do not follow those patterns and you ask them to restructure the system that they have worked hard on creating. This will lead (a) to a lot of overgeneralization errors (where the learners will apply the regular verb formation rules to irregular forms); (b) disorientation. By teaching irregular forms first, on the other hand, without focusing on rules, but as lexical items, there will be no need for any cognitive restructuring later. Teachers must ensure, however, that the irregular forms are automatized before moving on.
  4. Tolerate overgeneralizations and don’t correct them – If you choose not to follow the previous principle, do ensure that you do not correct any overgeneralizations (e.g. j’ai prendu* or j’ai veni*). In fact, do encourage them; after all, it is a rule you are teaching and you want to ensure that rule is incorporated in the brain’s operating system. To correct an overgeneralization slows down the rule acquisition process as it sends negative feedback to the brain, which will inhibit acquisition of the target rule.
  5. Do not present the target grammar structure in linguistically challenging contexts – when illustrating and practising a new grammar rule you must ensure that the brain’s finite cognitive resources are properly channelled. Hence the load on working memory must be kept to the minimum to free up cognitive space. Minimizing the linguistic and conceptual challenge posed by any text used to model the target rule application is thus imperative. Avoid long and complex sentences; avoid examples containing unfamiliar language; provide the L1 translation next to each L2 example.
  6. Provide plenty of receptive practice before you ask the students to go productive – Before asking your students to apply the grammar rule in oral or written L2 production provide plenty of opportunities to notice, analyze and evaluate its deployment in the context of listening and/or reading texts. This will enhance the acquisition process by lessening the cognitive load (recognition is usually less challenging in cognitive/motor-sensorial terms than production) and will support successful production by providing correct models in context often pre-empting potential L1 transfer performance errors. For example: take the third person of the present (indicative) tense of French verbs (e.g. ils regardent); by focusing students through lots of modelling on the pronunciation of the ending ‘-ent’ you will avoid the very common mispronunciation of that ending that many students perform and often fossilize. Receptive practice may include texts containing occurrences of he target structure and asking students to perform some sort of structural analysis on them (e.g. What form of the verb is this? Why is this adjective placed before the verb? Is ‘normalement’ a verb ? ). Grammaticality-judgment multiple choice quizzes are very useful in this respect, too.
  7. Involve students in plenty of controlled practice within non-challenging contexts to start with – Steve Smith’s latest blog on controlled practice at www.frenchteacher.net illustrates very clearly how such practice can be implemented effectively through a number of tasks ranging from very easy gap-fills, mechanical audiolingual-style manipulation drills and more challenging written and oral translations. This phase is usually overlooked and not practised extensively enough, yet it is as important as practising extensive rallying in tennis before learning to play a proper match.
  8. Aim at cognitive control in unplanned speech as the end-goal of grammar teaching – The teaching of every single grammar structure should aim at the learners’ ability to perform the application of a grammar rule under Real Operating Conditions. A teacher cannot claim that a grammar structure is acquired until a learner can perform it fast, accurately and spontaneously (in unplanned speech) under Real Operating Conditions. This refers back to my advocacy of frequent involvement of students in masses of interactional writing and oral communicative activities (peer coaching of the kind envisaged in point 14, below, can be used here to enhance learner focus on target structure performance). A large amount of structured drills and less structured communicative activities will be needed for students to automatise the target grammar rule(s).
  9. Plan every grammar lessons with L1 positive and negative transfer in mind – Always plan for ways to control for the ‘threats’ to L2 grammar learning posed by the L1 grammar. Also, do seek ways to capitalize on the similarities between the L1 and L2.
  10. Consciously recycle grammar structures frequently – funny how everyone that comes across this concept says ‘of course!’ but very few teachers actually do it. Yet this is so important and is the reason why it is crucial that a teacher carries on teaching the same class for as long as possible over the years. A good tip is to keep a tally of the structures you teach. I do this on a google document which looks like a grid which lists the key target grammar structures (horizontally) and my classes (vertically); every time I go over a structure I tick it. This gives me an overview of how often I have recycled each structure during a given segment of the academic year.
  11. Use scaffolds and mnemonics with complex structures – When dealing with a complex structure (e.g. one involving multiple cognitive operations) scaffolds can help a great deal. Scaffolds can consist of a number of reminders such as, for adjectives, questions like the following:

    a. Does this adjective have a regular or irregular ending?

    b. Is it one of those adjectives that goes before or after the noun?

    c. Is the adjective plural or singular? Make sure you use the appropriate ending.

Every time the students go through each adjective whilst writing a piece, they will have to log their answers and show it to the teacher as evidence.

  1. Remember that for a grammar structure to be fully acquired it must be practised across all four skills – This is self-explanatory. A grammar structure must be acquired across all four skills; this calls for masses of listening, reading, speaking and writing practice.
  2. Flipped learning of the target structure prior to lesson – Student-led inquiry on how certain grammar rules work prior to classroom instruction is a great way to enhance student learning – provided the target structures are relatively simple and within the developmental grasp of the learners. This can be done through inductive learning whereby the students are given examples of the target structure and are asked questions to answer by doing some autonomous research.
  3. Peer/teacher coaching with narrow focus – during oral pair-work activities (controlled and/or unstructured) students may be asked to peer-coach with an eye to only evaluate the use of the target structure.
  4. Metacognitive enhancement in the feedback process – Get the students, on getting your feedback on their errors to engage in deep processing of your corrections. You may do this in a structured way like I do by using ‘correction sheets’ which require the students to select five or six serious mistakes (which they are developmentally ready to deal with) they want to target; reflect on the causes of them (with your help, if needed); do some research on them (if they result from lack of knowledge); work out a scaffold and/or remedial strategy; produce own examples of the application of the broken rule. I have used this approach often and it can be very effective, especially with highly motivated students. In my PhD study, I obtained amazing results with this technique.
  5. Conscious use of formulaic language containing complex grammar structures usually associated with a higher developmental level in order to pave the way for future learning – Example, my colleague Dylan Vinales teaches his students as early as year 7 or 8 the following phrases containing complex grammar structures as unanalyzed chunks: Si tuviera mucho tiempo me gustaria… / Ojala fuera más… / Si me hubieras preguntado hace 5 años habría dicho que + imperfect. By memorizing these and other phrases containing the same structures the students will be better prepared for explicit instruction on those structures later on in their learning when the teacher will ‘connect the dots’ so to speak by making references to all the unanalysed chunks he will have taught them by then. This approach is most effective if the introduction and recycling of the unanalyzed chunks is planned carefully.

In conclusion, for grammar teaching to be effective we need to convert the students’ declarative (intellectual) knowledge of a grammar rule into procedural knowledge (automatization). Teachers must recognize that this is a very lengthy process which starts from a very slow application of all the cognitive steps subsumed in the application of the rule to fast deployment of the rule which bypasses consciousness.

For this to happen students must be involved in a lot of structured and unstructured practice. Often, in my experience, many teachers do not do enough of either kind, yet they express frustration when their students keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Grammar is not acquired by only doing lots of gap-filling exercises or written translations. The only way to automatize grammar rules is by practising their application under time constraints with lots of support to start with and by slowly fading out any scaffolding until routinization has occurred. Hence, oral communicative activities have a major role to play in promoting L2 grammar acquisition.

Never say ‘my students have learnt structure ‘X’ effectively unless you have evidence that they can perform it accurately under Real Operating Conditions.

You can find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com

3 thoughts on “16 tips for effective grammar teaching in the foreign language classroom

  1. I think these tips are great, but, I noticed (unless I missed it) you do not include anything about meaningful or communicative practice.

    I’m sure it is not your intention, but these tips seem as though the best way to teach grammar is to practice grammar decontextualized and without communicative purpose.

    From what I have read about skill acquisition theory, practice must be meaningful and moving to automaticity requires communicative practice through meaningful and communicative drilling. I wrote about it here (http://www.anthonyteacher.com/blog/researchbites/research-bites-skill-acquisition-theory-and-language-learning).

    What do you think?

    • I did not raise the point you have just made in this blog because I had laboured it to death in my previous ones, I totally agree. If you read my blogs on cognitive control and spontaneous talk you will find lots of reference to it. I am a very strong supporter of communicative drilling. With hindsight I should have made it clearer that I was talking about the pre-communicative stage of grammar instruction here.

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