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Grammar? Who needs it?

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Not many peole in my classes really like grammar. They may think they need it, and they get a lot of satisfaction in ploughing through exercises, because we all know that when you get the answers right you feel good, and you can go home happy, can’t you?

A few years ago I taught a translation class, because my students had to do a translation exam. A the end of the course they could all do simple translations quite well and I was quite happy with them until one day someone told me that tourists had stopped them in the street asking for help and they didn’t know how to give simple directions!!

The anti grammar backlash

This, of course, is the type of realisation that caused the backlash towards the grammar translation approach in the first place, resulting in functional teaching and the Strategies Coursebooks. They may seem a bit dated nowadays, but I can safely say that “Building Strategies”, when it was first introduced was like a breath of fesh air to me. For the first time ever there were listening exèrcises in a book with sensible questions and quizzes for learners to do. These are things that we take for granted nowadays but things have changed quite a lot. The functional approach, however, was criticised too, and quite rightly, in fact, because it went too far the other way, so that much of what learners were taught was relatively “empty” language, and not always natural at that. So things began to swing back the other way again in favour of grammar, vocabulary, skills and the multistrand syllabus…

Where are we now?
Now there are those who are still using grammar and translation, others who swear by their exercises and oleplays and then there are those who reject grammar all together.
You don’t need grammar to learn how to speak, they proclaim, even going so far in some cases as to say that studying grammar interferes with learning how to speak.

Ok, I would agree that you need a lot more than simply grammar to learn how to use a language effectively whether you are speaking, writing, listening or reading. Each skill requires a whole array of sub-skills. Having said that, when I learn a new language I have to start with the grammar. Quite simply, if I don’t know how to make comparative forms, for instance, I can’t compare. I might pick it up if given enough exposure, but most adult/ young adult learners are not in that situation. How can I describe the past if I don’t know the past forms of the verbs?

This seems to me to be so fundamental that is hard to see how anyone could dispute it.

Grammar alone is not enough

What I would say, however, to come back to my original anecdote of the tourists eanting directions, is that grammar alone is not enough. It is a starting point and the only way for learners to imporve their language skills, whatever they may be, is to experiment with the language and learn from their mistakes.

The tasks learners are given are essential, and if those tasks are simply mechanical controlled practice of grammar, then of course it is not enough but a logical progression might be something like this, although the order of various steps may change. If, for instance you are focusing on emergent language the clarificatioin may grow out of a need you have seen during a previous phase. But a rough guideline might be:

1. Clarify the target language (whatever it may be, and in whatever eay you think is most appropriate to your learners;
2. Provide contexts for them to experiment with this language, play with it, shape it and make it their own;
3. Provide motivating, realistic follow up tasks so that they can begin to integrate this “new language” into their overall competence.

It isn’t a recipe and it isn’t cut and dried, because those who become expert language users need a lot of exposure to the language in various ways, of course, and not only the productive skills.

Motivation and tasks are key

The tasks we set our learners, then, are really important, but the learners themsleves have to be motivated too. You can juggle and entertain to your heart’s content in a classroom but if your learners are not motivated or have other more pressing matters on their minds, it will be to little avail, I’m afraid. You, as a teachèr, can only do your best and help your learners as well as you can. The rest, is actually up to them.