Grammar. Teaching, Practising and Testing

Scientific Essay 2007 32 Pages

Didactics - English - Pedagogy, Literature Studies


Table of contents:

1. Introduction: Definition and legitimation of grammar

2. Teaching grammar
2.1. Traditional method
2.2. Alternative ways of consciousness raising

3. Practicing grammar
3.1. Types of practicing grammar
3.2. Communicative approach

4. Testing grammar
4.1. Ways and criteria of testing
4.2. New emphasis on oral testing

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Appendix

1. Introduction: Definition and legitimation of grammar

Grammar can be defined in two ways: Generally speaking, it means the whole of all linguistic phenomena, which are structured by certain rules. In a more narrow definition, grammar describes morpho-syntactic relationships, meaning syntactic structures in sentences and word formations. School grammars are based on such a narrow definition of grammar and mainly focus on the big and difficult part of syntax. However, the importance of grammar in modern foreign language teaching has decreased. While translating played an important role in former grammar teaching ± very similar to Latin lessons ± it has lost its significance. Instead, the aim of communicative competence has become the most important goal in modern foreign language teaching. Today, therefore, grammar is not the center of the curriculum anymore, but one part of language and foreign language learning.1

Nevertheless, grammar cannot be neglected completely, but needs to be seen as a relevant part of the postulated communicative competence. It is grammar which makes appropriate communications possible and this is what the foreign language learners have to be aware of. They can be convinced of that with the help of three dialogs (appendix, material 1). All three of them take place at the breakfast table, but the situation is a different one in each of them. The first dialog is situated in a very informal and familiar surrounding, whereas in the second dialog the familiarity is no longer given. The third dialog takes place in a very formal context and shows a lot of redundancy. Of course, the three dialogs therefore also show stylistic differences. The learners are instructed to read through three dialogs with a partner. Afterwards they have to mark grammatical structures and explain their functions. Finally, they are expected to think about the contexts in which each of the dialogs could occur. The aim of this exercise is to show the students the connection between form and meaning and the resulting basis for successful communication.2

In the following, ways of teaching, practicing and testing grammar are presented, also with regard to an alternative approach to grammar lessons in contrast to traditional methods.

2. Teaching grammar

2.1 Traditional method

The traditional method of teaching grammar is based on three stages, the first of which is called presentation, the second practice and the last one production. In the presentation phase, the pupils are confronted with new grammatical contents. This is mainly done with the aid of rather unauthentic material, i.e. texts with an unnatural occurrence of the new grammar item. Kieweg criticizes such texts as typical schoolbook texts and argues that they lead to a lack of motivation.

But especially the quality of the situation in which grammar is presented is extremely important for the learners’ success and their later ability to memorize a certain grammatical phenomenon, he thinks.3 After presenting the new material, the pupils are made aware of the grammatical problem, which means that consciousness raising takes place. This is usually done in an inductive way, in which the pupils themselves have to recognize a certain regularity and understand the concept of it. Or it can be done in a deductive way (usually with more complex structures), where the teacher explains the regularity and the concept behind it. An important factor in the practicing stage is the reliance on signal words, which are said to be helpful for automatizing the use of the grammatical phenomenon. In this way, pupils are forced to stick to already existing rules, which is very controversial nowadays because it is known that language production is based on rules as well as on feelings and that signal words can never replace a lack of linguistic concepts that a learner needs to develop. The last stage is the production, in which pupils have the chance to practice the new grammar items. The exercises can be divided into three sections: form based, pre-communicative and communicative tasks. In form-based exercises, pupils are usually required to fill in gaps (appendix, material 2a). Here, they only have to produce the new grammatical form. Pre- communicative tasks can consist of working in pairs or groups, for example. The pupils are instructed to use the new grammar item, but can fill parts of the exercise with their own experiences (appendix, material 2b). An exercise, in which the pupils can apply already familiar grammar items together with the newly learned one and can use them in a free discourse in a more natural way, can be called communicative. Materials for such exercises are for example photos, post cards or brochures (appendix, material 2c). Unfortunately, this last stage is often neglected at school because the time for a certain school book unit is usually quite limited. Generally speaking, the division into these three stages is sensible and has so far proved to be a good method for teaching grammar. But Kieweg thinks that only using this one method leads to a very rigid teaching style. Therefore he suggests an alternative concept of teaching grammar, which goes beyond the traditional input- output-mechanism.4 It is presented in the following chapter.

2.2 Alternative ways of consciousness raising

First of all, it must be remarked that here the use of alternative is defined as explaining grammatical matters not with the help of language, but with pictures or games, for instance.5

To begin with the topic of consciousness raising, the teacher has to consider whether consciousness raising is actually necessary. Especially when there is a clear parallel between the mother tongue and the target language, it is sensible to avoid consciousness raising concepts. But when there are significant differences between both languages, it is important to make students aware of these differences. Has the teacher made the decision that raising consciousness is necessary, he/she tarts to make students aware of the elements the grammatical form consists of. This method is called form-orientated consciousness raising. Let us take the example of the present perfect to illustrate this concept: It is very useful to write the relevant elements of the present perfect in different colors or to draw boxes around each element, so that the student is aware of the form of this tense:

illustration not visible in this excerpt6

Furthermore, it is helpful for the students to be provided with a table in which the different types of sentences are listed in the new tense form. This means that a prototypical example for a statement, a negative statement, a yes/no question and a question with an interrogative is given.7

The formal consciousness raising method should also be completed by a functional raising of consciousness. With regard to this, a selection of concepts is given in the following. Sticking to the example of the present perfect, it is very helpful to create posters with the pupils, in which the various functions of the present perfect are written down, like “recency”, “resultative usage”, etc. Afterwards the posters are pinned onto a wall in the classroom, so that the pupils can always have a look at them and make sure they know when to use the present perfect. Another possibility are grammar pictures, which can express a difficult matter like the distinction between simple past and present perfect in just two different pictures (appendix, material 3). Pupils can also create so called flipcharts, which help them to recognize a certain grammatical pattern (appendix, material 4). Besides, it is a creative task for the pupils. In order to not only appeal to the visual learner, there is also the possibility to use a method which focuses on mans senses at a time, for example when pupils have to draw a Beach Buggy, which they invent themselves and for which they afterwards have to explain the functions with the use if if-sentences, like: “If you press this button, a sunshade opens automatically.”8 The teacher can also apply playful ways of teaching grammar, for instance by playing a Memory game (appendix, material 5), where he/she shows a slide with several colorful pictures for a few minutes. Then he/she hides them and asks the pupils to name as many things as possible which they remember from the slide. The function here is to make the pupils use the form “There was/were ...” for enumerating things. Last but not least, consciousness raising can be supported by interactive methods, for instance by an error spotting task. The students are given a text, which contains several mistakes concerning one or more grammar issues. The learners are required to identify the error and give the reason for its occurrence by telling what grammatical rule the author of the text did not know.9

There are many more examples of functional consciousness raising methods (see Kieweg 1996: 7-11) and it is obvious that such methods appeal to far more learner types than the traditional approach does.

The chosen examples for an alternative approach to teaching grammar can of course also be applied as exercises of the practicing stage; not only for explaining a grammatical item. Furthermore, some of them may be applied for testing too, but this will be dealt with in the relevant chapters that follow.

3.1 Types of practicing grammar

Exercises are structured in a way that they serve a certain aim. Their concept is to get the learners repeat a grammatical phenomenon in order to automatize its usage.10 There are different ways of practicing activities and Ur suggests seven types of exercises in her book “A Course in Language Teaching”11 that should lead from accuracy to fluency step by step. The first step is called awareness and requires the learners to focus their attention on a certain grammatical structure. As a task, learners can be given a newspaper extract and are asked to find out all past tense forms they can find in the text. The next step would be the controlled drills, where the students produce examples of the new structure themselves, but still they are strongly determined in their freedom to produce such sentences, for example as in the following exercise: John drinks tea but he doesn’t drink coffee.

illustration not visible in this excerpt[12]

Next, it would be useful to go over the so called meaningful drills, which again limit the students in their free production of sentences, but give them the opportunity to form more authentic statements by choosing someone they know and using their name in the given exercise:

illustration not visible in this excerpt[13]

But in the steps afterwards, the guided, meaningful practice, the students form statements following a set pattern, but can use their own chosen vocabulary. An example would be a given sentence like “If I was a millionaire, I would ...”, which the pupils have to complete in written or oral form by filling in what they would do if they had that amount of money. One step further, Ur suggests the (structure-based) free sentence composition. The learners are given a visual or situational stimulus and are required to compose their own sentences by using the structure, for example a picture with lots of people doing different activities, which the learners have to describe using the appropriate tense. The (structure-based) discourse composition as a following step means that the students are for instance provided with a dilemma situation, like “You have seen a good friend cheating in an important test”14, and have to discuss or write about it. They are directed to use a few sentences with the structure, in the above example this would be the structure with modals, like might, should, must, can, etc. The last type is the free discourse, in which the learners are not instructed anymore to use the structure, but the task is set up in a way that making use of the structure is likely to happen, for example the previous task but without the final instruction. These seven steps from a very controlled task to more and more free exercise types are quite sensible to use in the classroom, however, they need not be followed rigidly.15 It depends on the learners what step the teacher needs to select and how much time he/she wants to invest in these suggested types of grammar practice. It has been mentioned earlier in the chapter about traditional teaching of grammar that there are three stages in the production phase, firstly form-based exercises, secondly pre-communicative ones and thirdly communicative ones. This model can be seen roughly similar to Ur’s seven types of grammar practice, with the difference that Ur makes far more subtle distinctions between the exercises, whereas only the three types of exercises are far more compressed. However, it is not recommended for teachers to just stick to one model of exercises, but to be selective and choose different approaches. In this way, different types of learners are more likely to be addressed to.

Thornbury offers English teachers three different exercise types in the chapter “Classroom activities” of this book “Uncovering Grammar”16. The first type is called grammaring tasks. They ask students to “add grammar”17 by expanding newspaper headlines as one example (appendix, material 6). This approach is similar to the three dialogs Kieweg suggests in order to draw the learners’ attention to the importance of grammar for a successful communication. By expanding the newspaper headlines (see Kieweg 2006b). By expanding the newspaper headlines they learn “how to deploy grammatical forms in order to bridge the context and/or concept and/or social gaps”18.

The other type comprises consciousness-raising tasks, which require students to notice certain grammatical structures and differences. An example Thornbury gives is a task in which students have to use modal verbs for obligations, prohibitions and so on correctly (appendix, material 7). Last but not least, there are grammar emergence tasks, which are based on input, output and feedback and the notion that students learn in cycles of those three19 and not in a linear way. Input can be any text the teacher chooses and which is appropriate regarding the level of the class. Output means that the students are asked to reconstruct a text, whereas the feedback is provided when the comparison of reconstructed text with the original tales place (appendix, material 8).

3.2 Communicative approach

Kieweg offers an alternative approach to practicing grammar. This one may of course overlap with certain examples that have already been mentioned in the previous chapter.

To begin with, Kieweg explains what characteristics communicative exercises have in contrast to traditional ones. One of them is the use of authentic material as opposed to constructed examples in the traditional method. Besides, he argues for complex texts and not as usual for words and sentences without a broader context. One of the most important features is obviously the emphasis on communication and not only on the linguistic form. At the heart of it all lies the notion of an integral concept that focuses also on the emotional, non-verbal side of learning.20

In the following paragraph, three examples of communicative grammar exercises are presented from Kieweg’s collection of 25 communicative exercises for class 5-7 (see Kieweg 2006c: 9-23).

First of all, each exercise consists of the following information: the grammatical structure that is to be practiced with the exercise, the function of the exercise, the idea and course of the task, the instruction the teacher has to give and the expected answers of the pupils, the material, the duration and the social frame of the exercise. There is also the indication of the level of the tasks, which varies from easy (one dot) to more difficult exercises (two or three dots). Let us start with a game called The Magic Box: The pupils have to grab into a box or bag with different things of which they already know the English names. Without seeing the objects, the pupils only touch them and try to identify them by saying: “I think it’sa..., Maybe it’s a«,It could bea Inthis way, they practice auxiliaries and express possibility and existence21 (appendix, material 9). Another communicative game is the Mime Game, where the pupils get different cards with different activities on them. One pupil at a time comes out in front of the class and mimes the activity written on his/her card. The others have to guess what he/she is doing: “You’re playing basketball. You’re eating an apple. «”. Ina very natural way, the pupils are forced to use the present progressive form22 (appendix, material 10). Finally, the teacher can choose a more advanced game called Throw the dice: The teacher has to make several dices (see instructions in the game collection23 ) with the fields who?, where?, why?, when?, what? And how? on them. The teacher or the pupils choose a context, in which the questions will be based on, for example the context “holiday”. The pupils can


1 Cf. Heuer, Helmut/Klippel, Friederike (1998). Englischmethodik. Problemfelder, Unterrichtswirklichkeit und Handlungsempfehlungen. Berlin: Cornelsen, 41-42

2 Cf. Kieweg, Werner (2006b). “Coffee?mmh.Milk,too? Die kommunikative Relevanz der Grammatik reflektieren“. In: Unterricht Englisch 82, 31-34 Cf. Kieweg, Werner (1996).

3 “Alternative Konzepte zur Vermittlung der Grammatik“. In: Der fremdsprachige Unterricht 4, 4

4 Cf. ibid., 4-5

5 Cf. ibid., 11

6 Ibid., 7

7 Cf. ibid., 7

8 Ibid., 9

9 Cf. ibid., 6-11

10 Cf. Timm, Johannes-Peter (ed.) (1998). Englisch lernen und lehren. Didaktik des Englischunterrichts. Berlin: Cornelsen, 315

11 Cf. Ur, Penny (1996). A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: CUP

12 Cf. ibid., 84

13 Cf. ibid., 84

14 Ibid., 84

15 Cf. ibid., 83-84

16 Cf. Thornbury, Scott (2005). Uncovering Grammar. Oxford: Macmillan

17 Ibid., 81

18 Ibid., 81

19 Cf. ibid., 109

20 Cf. Kieweg, Werner (2006a). “Kommunikative Grammatikübungen. Sprechaktkompetenz als Lernziel“. In: Unterricht Englisch 82, 2-3

21 Cf. Kieweg, Werner (2006c). “Spielekartei. 25 kommunikative Grammatikübungen“. In: Unterricht Englisch 82,

22 Cf. ibid., 13

23 Cf. ibid., 18


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Title: Grammar. Teaching, Practising and Testing