March 4th in the United States was National Grammar Day! To be honest, I would not have known it was was National Grammar Day had Facebook not reminded me. But still, the armchair grammarians of the world apparently celebrated; thus, this post is in honor of grammar and all who (mis)understand it.
Grammar is one of the most taught, most judged, and least understood concepts of language. Over hundreds of years, language teachers and textbook authors have attempted to reduce grammar to a digestible set of rules for students to remember and practice, only to realize that 1) the rules didn’t apply to every instance of use, and 2) the students didn’t really remember them anyway. Teachers can also be wary of grammar instruction, feeling less confident about teaching it than other aspects of language that seem more consistent and stable, such as vocabulary.
Thoughts on grammar practice for second language learners vary from explicit, deductive approaches with clearly presented rules and structured practice to inductive, discovery-based approaches where students are given examples of the language and must derive the rule or pattern on their own. As a professor of pedagogical grammar myself, I tend to favor a balance of the two, with a larger understanding of language and the way its pieces work together—rather than in isolation—at the heart of grammar teaching. Below, I’ve put together some web-based resources that represent both implicit and explicit approaches to grammar teaching that might help you reflect upon your grammar teaching practices.
Using Corpora to Teach Grammar
The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is a fantastic resource to help students see grammatical structures in authentic contexts. Teachers can also use it to generate examples of a rule or structure. Biber and Conrad (2006) listed five reasons to use corpora for grammar teaching:
- Corpora provide a detailed account of how language is actually used in different genres, such as fiction, news, nonfiction, academic publications, etc.
- Corpora can show learners how frequently a certain structure is used (e.g., the present progressive vs. the simple future).
- Corpora show associations between grammatical structures and words, rather than presenting them in isolation.
- Corpora can allow learners to compare registers for the type of grammar structures and vocabulary items that are most common to a particular register or genre.
- Corpora can help students put together frequency, the way that words and grammar structures interact together, and the lexical items that populate different registers of language.
Group Stories for Verb Tenses
The March 2016 edition of TESOL Connections featured an engaging strategy that enables learners to focus on one grammatical structure—verb tenses—in their output as they collaborate to write a group story.
Interactive Grammar Notebooks
Foldables and manipulatives make for spatial and kinesthetic ways for students to make sense of abstract grammar concepts. Bright colors and patterns can help with retention of information and awareness of the “puzzle pieces” that make up English phrases and sentences.
Online Grammar Quizzes
Hundreds of grammar quizzes exist online, and can be ways for students to check their understanding or practice at home. They can be arbitrary, though, and not always connected to larger texts, so use these more for independent practice with a very narrow focus, rather than as a substitute for instruction.
One example of the many grammar blogs out there is grammarly.com, which is dedicated to all things grammar. It’s one of my favorites to follow, and often posts articles related to English grammar and grammar teaching. Their list of the 10 Best Grammar Resources for English Language Learners is comprehensive and a good place to start for intermediate to advanced proficiency levels.
Grammar and the Common Core State Standards
For L1 speakers of English in the United States, the focus on grammar is increasing, thanks to the Common Core State Standards. Education Week published a blog this week about how the CCSS separate grammar from reading and writing in language arts, and present benchmarks at each grade level that will lead students to “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage.” With this focus for all students on grammar, it is important that ELLs are getting not only instruction in English, but about English andEnglish grammar, in U.S. public schools.