Sticky Grammar! #2: What makes it sticky?

This series of posts is intended as a reminder for those who attended my seminars at ALL Cornwall Regional Branch in July, at The Schools Network Languages Conference in Warwick or the Language Show Live in London in October, and as an explanation for those who were not there but are interested in an approach to teaching grammar inductively through the target language.  As a rule I work on the principle that if someone who wasn’t at the session can understand everything about it just from the powerpoint that was used, it was a pretty poor session.  Have you sat through seminars like that, too, where they just read to you what you could read for yourself?!

The session at the Language Show Live, at Olympia in London, was filmed and will be available soon to watch at www.LanguageShowConnect.co.uk.  It was also filmed when it was presented at University of Warwick earlier in October and will be available next summer as part of a 5-hour DVD course on target language teaching together with a full set of teaching materials and resources to help you extract the principles and techniques and apply them to other situations, contexts and language items.  But more on that next year!

Part of the thinking behind “Sticky Grammar” is that grammar teaching is no good at all if its effectiveness only lasts for a couple of weeks.  We’ve all had the experience where we’ve taught our little hearts out, working really hard on making something as clear as possible, only to find that as soon as we move on to another topic or situation which is quite different from the one in which pupils first learned the grammatical item, they either can’t use it, can’t transfer it, or they can’t remember even having done it in the first place!  Or am I the only one?  The other part of my thinking on this is that the syllabus or scheme of work changes more often than I change a light bulb, but the language itself does not.  If all of my planning goes in to the transient scheme of work but not into how I teach what a verb is, or when the subjunctive is used, or how to connect sentences, I create a lot more work for myself and I may never realise how pupils spot pattern.  The danger then, of course, is that I might end up teaching grammar in a decontextualized approach, and there is very little sticky about that.

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that the problem about grammar teaching’s all-too-common lack of stickiness is not clarity but rather intensity, relevance and accessibility.  I think most of us with a couple of years’ teaching behind us can make a pretty good stab at explaining a grammatical item clearly.  Doing that through the medium of the target language raises the challenge both for us and for the class, but with careful planning and a learning environment in which the foreign language is used as the normal means of communication all of the time, clarity doesn’t have to suffer.  Indeed, I think comparing the foreign language and the native language can make explaining a grammatical item much less clear, particularly at an early stage of learning.  Several times I’ve heard the same thing from people not connected with each other about trying to explain what an infinitive is.  Not at all straightforward for learners who are English native speakers.  The second most common one I’ve heard is the messiness of explaining that avoir means to have and être means to be, but in their first half term the poor souls have to get their heads round the fact that avoir  and not être is used to state age (J’ai 11 ans) and soon after that être and not avoir  is used to express “I have” in expressions such as “I have gone” (Je suis allé).  In any case, what I don’t want to do is start with a crystal clear explanation of the grammar with my classes – that’s the end point for me – I’d rather start with a clear experience of the grammar.  The two are not the same thing.  If I start with a clear explanation, and to be honest it sounds like a common sense approach, I encourage my pupils to think in terms of grammatical rules when they speak.  Many pupils just can’t cope with that without their fluency suffering severely.  It’s the opposite of how we learned to speak our own language and, I’ve found, it’s just not necessary.  Grammatical rules are much more securely learned when they are discovered, when they describe what pupils already know and can use based on what has gone before in lessons and where pupils have been led to spot patterns.

Accessibility can best be increased by incorporating visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles in everything we do.  To make this really work without making lesson preparation ridiculously time-consuming or the teaching of the lesson exhausting for the teacher, it’s a good idea to get some specialist training – now that would be a good use of a training budget and an INSET day…!  However, failing that, there are some pointers we can bear in mind as we plan our teaching.  For example, is it really a good use of our time to spend hours on preparing an amazingly beautiful powerpoint?  Incidentally, I don’t agree with the view that if something takes longer to prepare than to teach, we’re not using our time well.  I would agree with that if the resource/activity that we were preparing could only ever be used once, but if we are thinking through an important building block of language or a foundational grammatical item and how it can be developed over time, I think it can be a very good use of time.  Some of the teaching I’ve done on the perfect tense in French, for example, which I have used for years I couldn’t possibly have done if I hadn’t put the thinking time in all those years ago.  True, some of the resources and contexts have changed, but thinking it all through in the beginning has made life so much easier since then.

My point is rather that if I put an extraordinary amount of time into fiddling about with animations, transitions, pictures and text, I may not have the time to think through how I am going to make my predominantly visual activity truly multi-sensory.  So just as in the olden days before IWBs when at least some (many?) teachers did a lot of talking but there wasn’t much to see (so the auditory learners did well, but the visual learners didn’t get a look in, as it were), now the visual learners have got more of a chance (and lessons are probably more consistently planned in advance rather than being winged because a powerpoint is de rigueur).  But what is still common to both the before and the after of all this is that kinaesthetic learners are frequently left out.  And as their opportunities for accessing and retaining what is presented are denied them, an artificial gap arises in their performance and attainment compared with their classmates.  Ever wondered why there are so many fidget-bums (technical term) in the lower sets but many will sit pretty in the upper ones?

Relevance and intensity can be addressed through the use of classroom routines.  Some of them can really raise the roof (if you want!).  My particular favourites in that category are a lateness routine and a forfeit routine, whereas others are much more calm.  At the end of the day we have to be ourselves and do what suits our personality – there is no reason why we have to be extroverts if we are not, and it isn’t necessarily better.  I’ve seen some lessons where the pupils were having an absolute whale of a time as they engaged in a routine, but were then so over-excited that control was lost or learning didn’t take place afterwards.  Light and shade (or stirrers and settlers) help here.  The point here is that where language is used meaningfully and communicatively in the classroom, language is more acquired than learned.  If we plan those routines in such a way that the language is deliberately developed and taken to a more advanced stage, and where pupils’ awareness is raised to notice the salient features of the language they are using, the grammatical rules end up explaining something they already know, rather than being a starting point for making sentences.  There are so many situations we can exploit for linguistic purposes, from taking the register or setting & reviewing homework, to asking for equipment, announcing room changes/exam arrangements and classroom management.  This is the type of communication which allows us to use much more advanced structures at an earlier stage than any amount of teaching grammatical rules or teaching topics does.

But we also have to teach topics (or whatever your scheme of work requires).  These posts will look at some strategies for going about teaching grammar within them, all the time trying to address the issues of accessibility, relevance and intensity, and of course clarity, through the medium of the target language.

In the next post on this subject later this week, we’ll start looking at a unit of work, the one I used in my seminar, for Year 10, how the vocabulary was introduced and repeated and a song that helps drive it all home.

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