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The English grammar

The English grammar

The English grammar

Unit one: What is grammar?

Question 1. Can you formulate a definition of ‘grammar’? Compare your definition with a dictionary’s.

Question 2. Think of two languages you know. Can you suggest an example of a structure that exists in one but not in the other? How difficult is the structure to learn for the speaker of the other language?

Question 3. Choose a structure in your own native language. How would you explain its meaning to learners? How would you get them to understand when this particular structure would be used rather than others with slightly different meanings?

Unit Two: The place o grammar teaching

Opinions about the teaching of grammar

Extract 1

The important point is that the study of grammar as such is neither necessary nor sufficient for learning to use a language.

(from L. Newmark, ‘How not to interfere with ‘language learning’ in Brumfit, C.J. and Johnson, K. (eds.) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Oxford University Press. 99, p. 65)

Extract 2

The student’s craving for explicit formulization of generalizations can usually be met better by textbooks and grammars that he reads outside class than by discussion in class. (ibid.)

Extract 3

The language teacher’s view of what constitutes knowledge of a language is a knowledge of the syntactic structure of sentences The assumption that the language teacher appears to make is that once this basis is provided, then the learner will have no difficulty in dealing with the actual use of language.

There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that this assumption is of very doubtful validity indeed.

(from H.G. Widdowson, ‘Directions in the teaching of discourse’ in Brimful, C. J. and Johnson, K. (eds.) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 49-0)

Extract 4

The evidence seems to show beyond doubt that though it is by communicative use in real ‘speech acts’ that the new language ‘sticks’ in the learner’s mind, insight into pattern is an equal partner with communicative use in what language teachers now see as the dual process of acquisition / learning. Grammar, approached as a voyage of discovery into the patterns of language rather than the learning o prescriptive rules, is no longer a bogey word.

(from Eric Hawkins, Awareness of Language: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 150-1)

Task Critical reading

Read the extracts and discuss your reactions.

Unit Three: Grammatical terms

Question Look at a text in a course book you know and try to find two or more examples of each of the sentence components listed below.

The sentence is a set o words standing on their own as a sense unit, its conclusion marked by a full stop or equivalent (question mark, exclamation mark). In many languages sentences begin with a capital letter, and include a verb.

The clause is a kind of mini-sentence: a set o words which make a sense unit, but may not be concluded by a full stop. A sentence may have two or more clauses (She left because it was late and she was tired.) or only one (She was tired.).

The phrase is a shorter unit within the clause, of one or more words, but fulfilling the same sort of function as a single word. A verb phrase, for example, functions the same way as a single-word verb, a noun phrase like a one –word noun or pronoun: was going, a long table.

The word is the minimum normally separable form: in writing, it appears as a stretch of letters with a space either side.

The morpheme is a bit of a word which can be perceived as a distinct component: within the word passed, for example, are the two morphemes pass, and –ed. A word may consist of a single morpheme (book).

Question Using a sentence from a course book you know, find at least one of each of these categories: subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial.

Parts of speech

The main parts of speech are:

-                     nouns (such as horse, Syria)

-                     verbs (such as swim, remain)

-                     adjectives (such as black, serious)

-                     adverbs (such as quickly, perhaps)

-                     pronouns (such as he, those)

-                     auxiliary verbs (such as is, do before a main verb)

-                     modal verbs (such as can, must)

-                     determiners (such as the, some)

-                     prepositions (such as in, before)

Question Open a newspaper. Can you find and underline examples of some or all of the categories?

Unit four: Presenting and explaining grammar

Task Classroom or peer-teaching

Stage 1: Presentation

Present and explain a grammatical structure to a class; the presentation should not take longer than five minutes.

The presentation should be recorded in some way; you might tape-record it or ask another participant to observe and take notes. If neither of these is possible, then write down as accurate an account as possible immediately after the lesson.

Stage 2 (optional)

If you did not do so before, look up a grammar book to check your explanation: was there anything important you omitted or misrepresented?

Stage 3: Feedback.

Ask another participant or student to tell you immediately afterwards how clear they thought your presentation was, and if they have any particular comments.

You may find it useful to use the questions in Box 2 as points of reference.

Stage 4

In the light of critical discussion of your presentation, write out for yourself a set of guidelines for presenting and explaining grammar.

Box 2. Questions on grammar presentations.

1.                 The structure itself. Was the structure presented in both speech and writing, both form and meaning?

2.                 Examples. Were enough examples provided of the structure in a meaningful context? Are you sure the students understood their meanings?

3.                 Terminology. Did you call the structure by its (grammar-book) name? If so, was this helpful? If not, would it have helped if you had? What other grammatical terminology was (would have been) useful?

4.                 Language. Was the structure explained in the students’ mother tongue, or in the target language, or in a combination of the two? Was this effective?

5.                 Explanation. Was the information given about the structure at the right level: reasonably accurate but not too detailed? Did you use comparison with the students’ mother tongue (if known)? Was this/would this have been useful?

6.                 Delivery. Were you speaking (and writing) clearly and at an appropriate speed?

7.                 Rules. Was an explicit rule given? Why / Why not? If so, did you explain it yourself or did you elicit it from the students? Was this the best way to do it?

Unit Five: Grammar practice activities

Application Look at the grammar exercises in a locally-used foreign language course book, and classify them roughly according to the types listed in Box 3. Many course books provide plenty of exercises that suit the descriptions of Types 2-3, but tend to neglect the others. Is this true of the book you are looking at?

Box 3. Types of grammar practice: from accuracy to fluency

Type 1: Awareness

After the learners have been introduced to the structure (see Unit four above)? They are given opportunities to encounter it within some kind of discourse, and do a task that focuses their attention on its form and/or meaning.

Example: Learners are given extracts from newspaper articles and asked to underline all the examples of the past tense that they can find.

Type 2: Controlled drills

Learners produce examples of the structure: these examples are, however, predetermined by the teacher or textbook, and have to conform to very clear, closed-ended cues.

Example: Write or say statements about John, modeled on the following example:

John drinks tea but he doesn’t drink coffee.

a) like: ice cream/cakeb) speak: English/Italianc) enjoy: playing football/playing chess

Type 3: Meaningful drills

Again the responses are very controlled, but the learner can make a limited choice.

Example: In order to practice forms of the present simple tense:

Choose someone you know very well, and write down their name. Now compose true statements about them according to the following model:

He/She likes ice cream; OR He/She doesn’t like ice cream.

a) enjoy: playing tennisb) drink: winec) speak: Polish

Type 4: Guided, meaningful practice

The learners form sentences of their own according to a set pattern; but exactly what vocabulary they use is up to them.

Example: Practising conditional clauses, learners are given the cue If I had a million dollars, and suggest, in speech or writing, what they would do.

Type 5: (Structure-based) free sentence composition

Learners are provided with a visual or situational clue, and invited to compose their own responses; they are directed to use the structure.

Example: A picture showing a number of people doing different things is shown to the class; they describe it using the appropriate tense.

Type 6: (Structured-based) discourse composition

Learners hold a discussion or write a passage according to a given task; they are directed to use at least some examples of the structure within the discourse.

Example: The class is given a dilemma situation (‘You have seen a good friend cheating in an important test’) and asked to recommend a solution. They are directed to include modals (might, should, must, can, could, etc.) in their speech/writing.

Type 7: Free discourse

As in Type 6, but the learners are given no specific direction to use the structure, however, the task situation is such that instances of it are likely to appear.

Example: As in Type 6, but without the final direction.

Unit Six: Grammatical mistakes

Inquiry Learner errors

Stage 1: Gathering samples

Gather a few samples of learners’ writing that does not consist of answers to grammar exercise: answers to comprehension questions, essays, letters, short paragraphs. Alternatively, record foreign learners speaking.

Stage 2: Classifying

Go through the samples you have collected, noting mistakes. Can you categorize them into types? What are the most common ones?

Stage 3: Ordering

Together with other participants, make a list of the most common mistakes, in rough order of frequency.

Stage 4: Reordering

There are, of course, all sorts of other factors, besides frequency, which may affect the level of importance you attach to an error. It may be, for example, less urgent to correct one which is very common but which does not actually affect comprehensibility than one that does. In English, learners commonly omit the third-person –s suffix in the present simple, and slightly less commonly substitute a present verb form when they mean the past; on the whole, the second mistake is more likely to lead to misunderstanding than the first and therefore is more important to correct. Another error may be considered less important because a lot of very proficient, or native, speakers often make it. And so on.

Rearrange your list of errors, if necessary, so that they are in order of importance of correction.

Chapter 6Presenting and practising language

1 Structures; grammar and functions126

2 Vocabulary142

3 Pronunciation153

One of the teacher’s main roles is to introduce, or ‘present’, and practice new language and to revise language that the students have met before. Presentation and practice techniques are particularly useful at lower level where much of the language that students come across is new. Of course some of this new language will be acquired naturally through exposure to native speaker discourse, but learners also need and want important areas of language to be highlighted by the teacher: to be explored or illustrated in terms of meaning and form (including spelling and pronunciation), and then practised. The relative amount and the type of presentation and practice depend on a number of factors which are explored in the rest of this chapter under the following headings: 1 Structures: grammar and functions, 2 Vocabulary, and 3 Pronunciation.

It is convenient to categorize language under these three headings, but it must be noted that the principles behind the presentation of language items (as opposed to the development of skills as discussed in Chapter 5) apply – whether we are dealing with structures, vocabulary or pronunciation. So there are many areas of commonality and overlap in the approaches and techniques described in these three sections.

Structures: grammar and functions

Although it is recognized that people learn languages in different ways, it seems that many people can learn a language more easily if they can perceive regularities or patterns. Many of the patterns that students learn are particular grammatical items: verb forms such as the past simple, modal verbs such as will or could, particular combinations such as the first conditional (for example: If she gets the job she’ll move to London). A list of grammatical items which are regularly focused on in language classes can be found in the contents list of any good learner’s grammar book such as An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage by Leech (Nelson), Practical English Usage by Swan (OUP) or The Heinemann English Grammar by Beaumont and Granger (Heinemann).

Language can not only be seen in terms of grammatical form; it can also be seen in terms of ‘what it does’ or its ‘function’ in communication. Often, one language item can be used to perform more than one function in communication: for example, Can for both requesting –Can you pass the salt? – and expressing ability -Can you swim? And one function can often be performed by using more than one grammatical structure: for example, Let’s … What about …? How about …? All perform the function of suggesting. (There is no definitive list of functions as there is for grammatical structures.)

Many coursebooks aim to have an integrated syllabus – one which combines certain grammatical structures with the functions thought most useful for students at a particular level. So at beginner level the present simple is introduced with the function of describing ‘facts’: My name’s Marta. I’m 18 and I live in Mexico City. I have three brothers. At intermediate level the same verb form can be introduced with a different use – timetabled events in the future: The plane leaves at 10.00 am. We arrive at Orly Airport at noon. From there we go straight to the hotel. Then at advanced level we may want to introduce the use of the present simple to tell stories and anecdotes about past events: So there I am, in the café, when up comes Jeff. He picks up my drink and he pours it all over my head.

Some books may be designed with particular groups of people in mind, and introduce structures with functions thought most useful for the students’ special needs and situation. For example, books targeted at business people usually focus on the language needed for making introductions, for arranging meetings, for negotiating, and other business-oriented functions.

What aspects of a structure should you consider?

When focusing on a structure, either for the first time or for revision, the following can be considered:

1                   The form

o        The parts of speech. For example, is it made up of a verb plus a preposition (to put off)?

o        Whether it is regular or irregular. For example, a regular simple past ends in –ed (listened), irregular verbs have different forms (heard, spoke, read, wrote);

o        The spelling;

o        the pronunciation. For example, does the structure contain contractions (I’m, haven’t, should’ve)?

o        the word order and whether the item follows or is followed by any particular words or structures. For example, does the verb usually have to be followed by a noun (I bought the car)?

You need also to decide how many aspects of the form you want to focus on at any one time: for example, when presenting a new verb form, you probably wouldn’t want to introduce the affirmative, the question forms, the negative, short answers and question tags all in the same lesson!

The meaning

The exact meaning(s) you are concentrating on. This is particularly important to consider if a structure can be used to perform more than one function. For example, the past simple tense can be used to talk about the past (Last year I was in China), to ask a question politely (What was it you wanted?), to report what someone has said (Mary said it was her birthday tomorrow).

2                   The use

How and when the language item is appropriately used: in what contexts, by which people, on which occasions? Is the structure widely used in a range of contexts and situations or does it have a more restricted use? For example, compare Would you like to come to the cinema on Saturday? (an invitation) and Would you come with me? (an instruction).

3                   Potential problems

o         Are there any special difficulties related to the structure’s form or meaning? An example of a difficult form is should not have had, as in I shouldn’t have had that third piece of cake – with its number of ‘parts’ and the double name. There may be difficulties of pronunciation, depending on the first language of your students. Structures which contain problematic sounds such as /ə/ or /θ/ will need special attention. An example of a difficulty of meaning is needn’t have + past participle, especially when confused with didn’t need to: or I used to do … and I was used to doing

o         Can the language structure be confused with any other item in English, or with an item in the students’ mother tongue?

How do you decide what approach to take?

Once you have decided what structure to teach, the way you aid the students’ understanding and practice the language can depend on a number of factors:

o          Whether the structure is completely new, is familiar to at least some of the students but has not been focused on before, or has been presented before and is now being revised. Generally, the less familiar the language item the more controlled practice you need;

o          the nature of the language: for example, whether it is the meaning and use or the form which is complex. The use of the present perfect is difficult to grasp for man students (I’ve been here since 3 o‘clock – where in many languages it would be I am here since 3 o’clock). On the other hand, it is the complexity of the form rather than the meaning of the third conditional, with its many ‘parts’, which generally causes difficulty (If my alarm clock hadn’t been broken I wouldn’t have been late for the lecture);

o          Whether the structure is more likely to be written or spoken. Some structures are mainly found in the written form and do not lend themselves to spoken practice activities – for example, this sentence from a formal letter: I enclose ((the invoice/brochure/estimate). On the other hand, the students need practice in saying such utterances as It’s a great (party/day/show), isn’t it?

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