To what extent should we explicitly introduce new grammatical structures to our students?
How can our learners benefit from implicit teaching?
Here are 7 key points to consider when introducing a new grammatical structure in an EFL classroom
- Meaningful context
Grammar practice is most effective when it is meaningful and contextualized. Grammar should not be seen as a set of rules that always needs to be explicitly taught to the ss. New grammatical structures should be introduced in ‘meaningful context’, using authentinc input and in a way that somehow creates the ‘desire’ to our learners to want to find out more about their use (for example by giving them a text with a number of instances of reported speech instead of directly stating the rules). The type of context also greatly depends on our ss’ level and needs. For instance, in order to introduce the Simple Present tense to young ss, teachers can use fairytales or anything that is closer to their world and interests.
2. The learners’ active involvement
It is important to keep in mind that most of the times it is better for output to precede input. Learners should not be seen as mere recipients of new language input. Instead, they need to be actively involved in the learning process. Teachers at this point have to judge whether they can first ‘elicit’ the new language structure from their ss and have them produce it without explicit explanation. This makes ss ‘notice’ the new language patterns, discover themselves what the aim of the lesson is and try to produce and make sense out of the new structures.
3. Focus on form/meaning
One of the points teachers need to consider when focusing on grammar is the effectiveness of the examples used. They have to be clear, to the point and in a meaningful context. Visual materials can also greatly contribute to our students’ understanding. The language input our ss will receive needs to focus both on the meaning of the new grammatical structure as well as its form.
Ss should be given the opportunity to use and practise the new structure not only through writing (i.e. grammar activities), but also through speaking. After all they will be learning the new grammar to communicate in another language, so speaking practise should not be undermined.
4. Inductive vs deductive approach to grammar rules
The focus on explicitly giving out the rules depends to a large extent on what we want to achieve, i.e. if we merely want to introduce a grammar structure that our ss will encounter with more detail in the future or focus on a certain grammatical point that is crucial for our learners and will help them achieve their goals, i.e. pass the language exams.
Teachers therefore need to carefully consider the extent to which they will try to elicit the new structures from their ss or whether they will try to explain the rules that underlie them in a more direct way. I would like to point out here that nothing is to be rejected. Certain learner groups, depending on their age and learning style may benefit from the explicit teaching of terminology and rules. Some ss simply need to know the new structure by its grammar-book name. Experience has taught most of us that adult learners in particular are more likely to ask for the rules from the very first time they come across a new grammar structure. More analytically-minded learners also find the use of handouts with clear examples and bullet points on grammar rules very helpful.
5. Concept questions
Sometimes our learners’ L1 background may affect our decisions when it comes to grammar teaching. The use of the gerund in English, the 3rd type conditional as well as certain phrasal verbs are some examples of structures that Greek learners of English in particular usually find confusing. They may get the exercises correct but they may not fully understand the underlying meaning of the structures and they way they are used in context. This is where the ‘concept questions’ technique comes in hand. It can be used with the most difficult and perplexing structures in order to clarify certain points and help learners ‘grasp’ the meaning. It can also be used several times during the lesson to check understanding.
Here’s a very useful link on the use of concept questions in the EFL classroom.
6. The use of the mother tongue (L1)
Some ss may switch to their mother tongue when asking for explanations and clarifications on a confusing grammar point. My view is that this can be effective to some degree but should be carefully handled by the teacher and perhaps only be used in cases where there is a certain comparison in the language structure in both the L1 and the target language. In any case, accuracy and simplicity should be the two key concepts to consider when clarifying certain language points to the ss.
7. Error correction
It is important for teachers to identify their ss’ linguistic needs and to consider as to what extent they should correct errors on the new grammar points and on whether or not it ‘helps’ the ss being corrected. Do our ss need to ‘know’ grammar or do we need to focus more on their fluency? Generally speaking, attention to an error should be given when it hinders communication. However, in an exam-oriented classroom (especially when dealing with a recurring error that may affect our learners’ progress) repetition of certain exercises and extra practice on specific grammar point should be given to clarify all misunderstandings and make sure that our learners have grasped and mastered the ‘meaning’ behind the ‘form’.