Evaluating grammar materials

What are the main criteria for evaluating the grammar tasks we give out to our students?

What can we do to make the activities more effective?

Here are 7 points to consider when selecting grammar activities for the EFL classroom

  1. Does the activity serve the overall purpose of our lesson?

    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 Task Based Learning model 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. Is the situation/ context authentic or artificial? Do our learners use language for communicative purposes through grammar practice?

    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.     

        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 important here as learners have the opportunity to reproduce the grammatical patterns in many different scenarios and for different communicative purposes.

    For Harmer, ‘successful language teaching’ should be judged according to the ‘balance of the activities our students are involved in’. Since in most EFL classrooms learners have limited opportunities to practice the language outside the classroom, Harmer considers ‘genuine communicative tasks’ as an important part of the lesson. We therefore need to come up with activities that will increase student talking time (STT) and will give our learners the opportunity to utilize their knowledge and find ways to interact, express themselves in a creative way and get their message across in the target language.

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 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.

3. Controlled vs freer practice

To what extent do grammar activities encourage learners to think about form or meaning?

The effectiveness of grammar teaching depends on a wide range of interacting factors. As DeKeyser (1998:42) points out, some kind of focus on form is useful to some extent, “for some forms, for some students, at some point in the learning process”.

    From form focus to message focus:

    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.

Proceduralization and automatization:

    As Jonhson (1996) points out, since most communication outside the language classroom is based on ‘message focus’, our main priority in grammar practice should be to successfully prepare our learners for these real life situations and train them on how to use the newly acquired grammar structures correctly without thinking about it. Johnson (1996:143) defines this ‘automatization’ in language as the ‘ability to get the how (forms) right when full attention is focused on the what (messages)’. This proceduralization could be very beneficial for grammar practice as it shifts our students’ attention from the formation of the structures to their actual usage.

4. Explicit learning: to what extent are we making learners aware that they are practicing grammar?

Bialystok (1978: 69) describes “explicit linguistic knowledge” as all the “conscious facts the learner has about the language” and the “ability to articulate those facts”. “Implicit linguistic knowledge”, on the other hand, is “the intuitive information upon which the learner operates in order to produce responses in the target language”. This includes all the automatic and spontaneous TL use in the language classroom.

    A similar distinction can be made between teaching grammar explicitly and implicitly. Explicit learning doesn’t necessarily mean learning rules though. It means that learners are aware of the fact that they are learning grammar.

5. Deductive vs inductive teaching

“Inductive learning means that examples are encountered before rules are inferred; deductive learning means that rules are presented before examples are encountered”

(DeKeyser, 1995:380)

    Even though there is not much empirical support in favour of inductive grammar learning (as opposed to explicit teaching), many researchers (Dekeyser, 1995; Fotos, 1994; Fotos & Ellis, 1991; Thornbury, 1999) reiterate the positive impact it can have on foreign language learning. For Ellis (2002:164-165), discovery work does not only encourage students to form and test hypotheses about the grammar of the L2, but can also have a ‘learning-training function’ by helping learners to develop the skills they need to investigate language autonomously. This process of discovery helps in some way towards better understanding and memorization of the rules that underlie the grammar structures. This, according to Ellis (2002) can lead to ‘powerful insights about the grammar of a language’.

   Choosing whether to focus on inductive learning or on the explicit teaching of a rule will greatly depend on our lesson’s overall aim, on our learners’ level and on what we want to achieve. Combining both could also be extremely beneficial to some language classrooms as we can satisfy our students’ various linguistic needs and learning styles in multiple ways.

    Teachers therefore need to carefully consider the extent to which they will try to elicit the new structures from their students 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 students 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.

6. Is collaborative learning being promoted through grammar practice?

    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. By working in pairs or groups in order to complete a task, our students will combine their knowledge of L2 lexis and grammar and will learn from one another.

     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.  

     Giving a communicative purpose to grammar activities is important as it does not only promote language practice, but it also serves as a rehearsal for real life speaking in the TL. Our learners need to see a purpose behind each task and to be able to use the newly acquired grammar to achieve a particular goal, to get their message across, to exchange information with each other as they would do in real life situations. 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.

References

Bialystok, E. (1978). A theoretical model of second language learning. Language Learning, 28(1), 69-83

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.

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