Grammar is a key piece of any language, and students of second languages spend much of their time learning grammatical rules and forms.
At times, though, a student can focus on grammar too much. Throughout my years of teaching ESL, I have had many students who spend the majority of their language learning energy on grammar, writing and reading. Sometimes these students overly pursue written language and don’t spend any time on the spoken language. When this happens, the speaking teacher may not know where the fine line between grammar and speaking is, or if there even is a line dividing the two. The following are suggestions on how to include grammar in the speaking classroom without letting it overwhelm your speaking class.
Try Balancing Grammar and Speaking in the Following Ways
Keep It Communicative
Communicative classrooms are stressed more these day than they were in the past. ESL teachers want to encourage their students to speak and communicate rather than memorize or follow scripted conversations. Grammar is necessary for good communication, but a communicative classroom entails more than that. When you encourage your students to communicate creatively with the language they know, there are sure to be grammar errors. On the other hand, encouraging this creativity with language more closely approaches how language is used in the real world. In first and second languages, creative communication means getting your message across with whatever tools you have at your disposal. When the grammar isn’t right, as long as the message gets across the communication is a success. So in your next speaking class, don’t force prescribed grammar into your students’ speaking. Let them use what they know to get their points across and let the grammar be what it will be.
When Push Comes to Shove
Even with creative language use, though, there are times when the correct grammar is essential to getting the message across. Think of the conditional structure in English, for example. The difference in verb tense can mean the difference between something that happened and something that didn’t. “I would have called you” and “I called you” have very different meanings. For situations such as these, it is important to explain the correct grammar to your students and require them to use it appropriately. Teaching grammar this way doesn’t mean you aren’t maintaining a communicative classroom. On the contrary, without this stress on grammar your students will not be able to communicate accurately. So take a few minutes to give grammatical instruction, and then move on to using what your students have learned. Offer corrections if students are miscommunicating because of grammatical errors.
Everything in Its Place
Most conversation classes that I have taught have been topical in nature. Whether in a restaurant, at a sporting event, or the business world, instruction and activities are focused on one subject area or one topic. These situational contexts can be the perfect venue for introducing grammatical concepts to your class. When the grammar comes naturally as part of the topic at hand, it enhances the lesson rather than retracting from it. For example, I have found that units on sporting events are a great opportunity to talk about interjections. Though not all that common in every day speech, expressions such as yay, go, shoot, and score are peppered throughout the speech at any major sporting event. So before I role-play such a scenario with my students, I take a few minutes to discuss interjections and their function in spoken language. Then, I encourage my students to use interjections as we put ourselves at an imaginary professional sporting event and they use the language they are learning.
If you find yourself teaching a speaking class and are wondering where grammar fits into the picture, here is what I have learned based on my own experience. Let grammar into the picture when it comes naturally or is necessary for correct meaning. But if your students can get their meaning across through creative language use, let them. Eventually they will learn the correct grammar for every situation (if they continue their studies), but they may not develop the courage and creativity to communicate if they are not given the chance in speaking class.