How can we boost learner motivation when introducing a new grammar structure to our EFL students?
Here are 7 tips on successfully planning our grammar lessons in order to promote language acquisition
- Choosing the appropriate lesson framework
Depending on our lesson’s specific aims it is helpful to keep a framework in mind for our grammar focus during our planning stage. Will we design our grammar lesson based on the TBL model (Task Based Learning) or will we follow the Presentation Practice Production (PPP) formula? When focusing on a specific grammar point we could also choose to adapt our lesson to the ‘descriptive model’ known as ARC. Its three basic components (1. ‘Clarification and focus’, 2. ‘Restricted use activities’, 3. ‘Authentic use’) can be used in the effective design of a lesson that focuses on a specific language structure. It will help our students to firstly absorb all the new grammatical information, to focus on the rules that underlie the newly introduced grammar form, to begin to use these new patterns in their linguistic output first in a restricted way and then more freely in order to communicate in the TL.
2. The importance of ‘noticing’ in grammar teaching
Noticing mainly has to do with our learners being able to understand and grasp the meaning from the input they receive in terms of a newly introduced structure or grammar point. Successful learning will take place when they notice this ‘gap’ between the target language and their interlanguage and will actively try to incorporate the new structures in their TL output. The key is not just to make our students notice linguistic patterns in the TL. Something that has ‘grasped’ our attention could easily be forgotten after a while. Our goal as teachers is to create the appropriate circumstances in order to raise our learners’ consciousness, to help them successfully acquire this new knowledge and to begin to actively use it by turning input into intake and then into successful TL output.
When it comes to introducing a new grammatical pattern in the target language, noticing can be achieved in many ways. Scrivener (1994:134) has described this as a continuum (A-D) in which we can either give explicitly formulated information to the learners or simply guide them towards discovery:
A. Explicitly giving out the rules that underlie the structure
B. Focusing on the form of the structure and showing to our learners how it is made up
C. Guiding the learners with hints – helping them to find out how the grammatical point is structured
D. Letting the learners discover the rules and structure formation by themselves
Noticing by discovery:
Moving from explicit grammar teaching to implicit learning can prove to be very beneficial to our learners. Teachers do not give out the rules, they make no attempt to highlight the TL forms, but simply guide their learners towards the discovery of certain patterns. This makes our students more actively involved in the learning process and fosters language acquisition.
3. The role of concept questions
Sometimes our learners’ L1 background may affect our decisions when it comes to grammar teaching. They may get the exercises correct but they may not fully understand the underlying meaning of the structures and the 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 and usage of these patterns. 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.
4. Focus on authentic use
Using the structures for real communicative purposes
For Johnson (1994: 126) grammar practice often fails to lead to acquisition because of the ‘remoteness of the practice conditions to the real skill’, to the ‘production of real life’. And although explicit grammar teaching and focus on the accurate production of the ‘form’ of the structures can be very beneficial to learning, many researchers argue that it should be accompanied by meaningful grammar practice by shifting the focus to the actual ‘message’ which it conveys. Johnson proposes the use of language activities that prepare students for real life communication, activities which require grammar but in a way that turn our learners’ attention away from the ‘form’ and make them focus more on the meaning, on the message that they want to convey.
In many cases our EFL learners have limited exposure to the TL outside the classroom and therefore not many opportunities to practise the language. In order to foster their language development we must create the appropriate environment to help them do this during the lesson. We must help them develop communicative skills that will eventually promote language acquisition. By encouraging interaction among the students, STT (student talking time) is increased and our learners gradually begin to develop language fluency.
We must give them the freedom to interact in the TL, to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately), to get their message across without the fear of errors. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active.
5. Learner involvement
Discovering the formation and usage of the new structure
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 students and have them produce it without explicit explanation. This makes students ‘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.
Different levels of motivation mean different performance levels. Our students have to be intrinsically motivated in order to be willing to participate more actively during the lesson. Active involvement is key to a successful learning environment. Learning is then more meaningful to them as it is connected to their everyday lives, their preferences and interests. Through this inclusiveness our learners become more engaged in the language tasks.
It is important to remember that our learners will not pick up the new grammar structures unless they feel motivated to do so. They must see a reason behind the use of the structure so that they can incorporate it in their writing and speech.
6. ‘Input enrichment’ and task authenticity
Our main aim is not for our students to merely notice a grammatical point. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to expose them to linguistic input but to also provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking.
By loading the input we give to our learners with the target forms we want them to notice, we facilitate the learning process and give them the necessary clues they need in order to process and eventually absorb the new knowledge. Variety and authenticity in tasks is also important here as learners have the opportunity to reproduce the grammatical patterns in many different scenarios and for different communicative purposes.
In order for our learners to become more actively involved in the learning process, we must focus on stimulating their creativity through authentic, meaningful tasks. These can be part of the guided practice or interactive follow up activities. For Penny Ur (2012:83) one of our main jobs as teachers is to help our students ‘make the leap’ from ‘form-focused accuracy work’ to ‘ fluent, but acceptable production’ by providing what she calls a ‘bridge’ i.e. a variety in tasks that familiarize students with the structures in context and give practice ‘both in form and communicative meaning’. A slight degree of unpredictability in tasks (even in the controlled practice section) will kill boredom and will boost learner alertness and motivation.
7. Meaningful context
Grammar practice in particular 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 students. New grammatical structures should be introduced in a ‘meaningful context’, using authentic 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).
Comprehensibility in the tasks is equally important to meaningfulness. We must make sure that we encourage their creativity through authentic and interesting activities but also that our learners have received clear and explicit instructions. To keep them on task we must also regularly check for understanding and encourage clarifying questions from the part of the students.
Last but not least, let us always remember that our students 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 practice should not be undermined.
Dekeyser, R. M. (2001). Automaticity and automatization. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and Second Language Instruction (pp. 125-151). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Ellis, R. (1991). The role of practice in classroom learning. In R. Ellis (Ed.), Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Pedagogy. (pp. 101-120). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters
Johnson, K. (1994). Teaching declarative and procedural knowledge. In M. Bygate, A. Tonkyn & E. Williams (Eds.), Grammar and the Language Teacher (pp. 121-131). London: Prentice Hall.
Nitta, R. & Gardner, S. (2005). Consciousness-raising and practice in Elt coursebooks. ELT Journal, 59(1), 3-13.
Thornbury, S. (1999). How to Teach Grammar. Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman. Chapter 6.
Ur, P. (1988). Grammar Practice Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
VanPatten, B. (1993). Grammar teaching for the acquisition-rich classroom. Foreign Language Annals, 26(4), 435-450.