When asked, most of my students tell me that grammar is their least favorite ESL subject.
It’s seen as dry and dull, disconnected from daily reality, oriented towards test-taking and university entrance exams, and full of capricious, confusing rules.
Worse still, a lot of education systems teach grammar with repetitious and highly controlled practice exercises. The grammar points seldom make the journey from the written to the spoken, or from the gap-fill to the genuine, spontaneous sentence. They are practiced in an artificial environment, impersonal and not particularly engaging, adding to the sense that this material just isn’t relevant or necessary. Except, of course, when it comes to testing time.
I teach a lot of grammar, and have become determined to dispel these perceptions and change my students’ attitudes to structures and forms. I’ve abandoned traditional testing – much to my students’ relief! – and instead, we use grammar in an individualized way to express something about our own lives. We move from the written to the spoken as quickly as possible, de-emphasizing textbook exercises in favor of freshly conceived verbal examples. We start production of the grammar immediately – during the presentation phase, even – so that, in as many ways and as many times as possible, the students have created the structure for themselves, integrated it with their life experience, and used it to articulate something real.
One of my students put it beautifully when practicing the past perfect: “Who cares about ‘Jane’ and ‘Bob’, and the fact that he arrived before she did?” Instead, he told me about his own evening, and the order in which things happened, using the past perfect to verbalize his own life experience. Once this becomes routine, the teacher hears so much more about the students’ own lives, how they spend their free time, their concerns and hobbies, their pasts and potential futures. Grammar practice no longer reduces the practicing of structure to a mechanistic exercise; it doesn’t close down our self-expression, but opens it up. The change in my students’ attitudes has been gratifying and extremely useful.
Try These 5 Methods for Going Beyond the Textbook
Keep Things Upbeat
I make fun of how boring grammar can be, break up the task into smaller pieces, and regularly remind the students that it’s easy, useful and will help their self-expression. An example:
Teacher: Check this out... As soon as we hear ‘had’, we know it’s going to be the past perfect. Students: Er... so? Teacher: Well, it’s really efficient. You quickly communicate lots of information just with this one, short structure. Students: But why do we use it? Teacher: It makes the whole thing really clear. I know exactly when things happened, what came first, and what came second. There’s no confusion. Isn’t that awesome? Students: OK, I see that. Teacher: Let’s give it a try... You’re going to find it really helpful. Also, it sounds smart! Students: Oh, really?!
The classic examples with ‘Jane’ and ‘Bob’ are not only artificial, they’re predictable and dull. What if Jane and Bob were exploring Mars, or skydiving, or involved in a shootout with police? What if Jane were really a superhero, or Bob could make himself invisible? I use anything I can think of to enliven the examples, and encourage similarly fun structures from the students. One of my favorites is the third conditional: “If Jerry had realized that Barbara was a KGB spy, he would never have let her visit the missile factory”, or, “Had Grace been told that the alien was coming to dinner, she would not have freaked out quite so much when it arrived”.
Try creating characters with unusual personalities, special abilities, odd pasts or weird traits, and revisit them as you proceed through the semester’s grammar points. They become familiar, zany fixtures in the students’ grammatical experience, breaking down barriers and alleviating the traditional dullness.
Almost every example we use could be about ourselves – our attitudes, past experiences, preferences, milestone events, etc. Use your students’ names when modeling a structure; it’s such a simple idea but the psychological change it creates, and the attention it brings from the students, can be priceless!
Talk About It
Perhaps most importantly, get out of the textbook as quickly as you can. Once the gap-fills and multiple-choice exercises are finished and checked, ask for free practice sentences with the same structures. Use error corrections on the whiteboard, or on a handout, to double-check that the students have grasped the structure. These changes in the context, from textbook to more open environment, and from written to spoken forms, re-contextualize the material, ensuring that the students have used all four skills while learning the structure. Here’s an example, from a recording in my classroom last year. We were checking the understanding and use of perfect forms:
Teacher: I’d had breakfast before I left the house today, so I’m not too hungry right now. Are you hungry, Juan? Juan: Yes, teacher. Teacher: Oh, that sucks! Had you eaten breakfast before you came to school? Juan: No. No breakfast. Teacher: What about you, Martina? Martina: Yes, breakfast. Teacher: You had had breakfast before you came to school? Martina: Yes, I had... had? Teacher: Isn’t that cool? The ‘had’ comes twice! It’s the helping verb, and the main verb. Martina: Had had? Teacher: I know, it’s crazy, isn’t it? Try that again? Martina: I had had breakfast before I come school. Teacher: (To whole class) What do you think, guys? Others: “I had had breakfast before I came to school.” Martina: Came to school. Yes. Teacher: Good job, everyone. Now, what about you, Jorge...?
Make Grammar Competitive
My students love Jeopardy-style quiz games, and we use them for grammar. I ask for sentences using specific tenses, or a couple of modal verbs, or including a relative clause, etc. More money is rewarded for more complex sentences. The students form these answers as a team, so there is a good deal of discussion.
Grammar need not be painful or academic.
In fact, when it isn’t, the students are far more likely to adopt it for themselves, and thereby increase their powers of self-expression. I hope your students come to regard English grammar as indispensable, helpful and possibly even fun.