Some people are definitely grammar nerds, and can sit and listen to a lecture on verb tenses for hours on end. I, for one, am not one of those people. If you're in the same boat as I am, I'm sure (like me) you find it difficult to engage and comprehend grammar articles or presentations, let alone stay awake!
If you aren't confident in teaching grammar, planning out a 20 minute long lecture on the 8 different rules for the use of the definite article, 'the,' can be overwhelming. Imagine how it feels for your students who are listening in their second language!
As I was thinking about this subject, I started to wonder why we need to teach grammar and how we can do so in a more engaging and exciting way.
Why do we teach grammar? Well, without grammar, communication would be incredibly difficult. Grammar is a defined set of rules on how to speak (or write) about a subject. Without a set of rules on how to talk about the past tense, language would be all over the place and it would be entirely subjective! One day I may say ‘spoke’ and the next I may say ‘speaked.’ Communication would become confusing.
If the main goal of grammar is to allow for more effective communication, why do grammar presentations include so little communication? In my opinion, your goal, as a language teacher, should always be to move language from the mind to the mouth from the very beginning of class through to the end. You can’t teach communication without communication, and language is nothing without the sharing of information.
This brings me to my next question in this little journey of grammar-discovery, how can I teach grammar in a communicative way? I can’t simply expect my students to use grammar points they’ve never been taught.
This is where situational presentations come in. A situational grammar presentation provides a context or a story, elicits language (without the grammar point) from students, and then introduces the grammar to support the language that was already being produced. In short, it creates a situation where the students will need grammar. It gives a purpose to grammar.
Draw Some Pictures, Construct a Context, and Tell a Story!
The key to teaching grammar through situational presentations is to construct a situation. Draw some pictures on the board even if you aren’t a great artist! Something is better than nothing - as long as you aren’t obstructing understanding and communication! :) If you absolutely cannot draw pictures on the board, bring in a few pictures to use.
You don’t want just any pictures, your pictures should tell a story, which means they’ll have to be carefully chosen. Your pictures will provide the basis for a story that your students can tell.
NOTE: There is an example of a situational presentation towards the end of this article, so if you aren’t quite catching onto the flow of things, don’t worry! To put it simply, your goal at this point is to give your students a context with which they will be learning and using the grammar. Instead of abstract and unrelated sentences, which are typical of grammar lessons, you are going to provide them with a situation where they will need the grammar.
Elicit Language, Ask Questions, and Draw Your Students In
After the initial stages of constructing a context, you’re going to want to elicit language from your learners. Ask them to explain things to you. Who is the person in the picture? What are they doing? What does this part mean? Once they’ve communicated the basic framework, add some more elements to the picture.
You can definitely add in some comments of your own if the picture isn’t totally clear. Let them know what the situation is and continue to ask questions. Let them struggle to communicate an idea without the grammar that is necessary.
If your grammar point is plurals, first include a vase with a single flower, and ask your students what’s in the vase. Then, include a few flowers in a vase and ask them what is in that vase. They may say ‘7 flower’ or they may just say ‘flower.’ Try to have them compare one to the other. Depending on their proficiency level, they may not know how to say the plural of a noun, and that’s okay for now. It creates a need for the grammar.
This is the point where you should begin to discuss the meaning of your grammar point, without actually talking about your grammar point. Let me explain. If I'm going to teach on the concept of 'used to,' I'll begin to talk about a story where a man rode a bike in the past, but doesn't any more. After my students understand the meaning of 'used to,' I can move to the next stage, where the concept is actually introduced.
Give the Students What They're Looking For: Introduce the Grammar
Now that your students need the grammar to communicate and understand the meaning of the grammar point, you’ll want to formally introduce it. You can do this explicitly by saying something along the lines of, ‘the way that we say this is…’ or you can try to prompt your students.
Continuing with the 'used to' example above, try to prompt your students to give you a sentence to describe the situation. If they say something like, 'He rode a bike once, but not now,' find a way to work with that sentence and guide them towards the correct grammar usage.
Once you have fully introduced your grammar point (He used to ride a bike) continue to elicit that structure for other parts of the context. Maybe you draw a bottle of soda and elicit ‘he used to drink soda’ and so on. Make sure every student understands the use. This is not too difficult because you’ve already discussed the meaning of the grammar before you even introduced it.
You’re in the homestretch and want to make sure your students are prepared for the rest of the lesson where they will be practicing your grammar point through different activities. Check their pronunciation, word order, and word choice. Give them time to copy down a few sentences, then you’re all set for the rest of the activities you have planned!
How to Teach Grammar Communicatively
Let me give you a quick example of a typical situational presentation. This grammar lesson is on the negative simple past tense (I/You/He/She/They did not...).
- The teacher draws a stick figure child on the board and asks the students about the individual. They are simply looking for some engagement in the story and to get the students to begin producing sentences. The teacher then adds more to the picture, including a spilled drink, clothes on the floor, and a broken vase on the ground. They continue to elicit sentences to increase student engagement and production.
- In order to begin telling a story, the teacher draws an angry stick figure mom talking to the child. They continue eliciting language to describe the illustration. They may need to clarify that the mother is asking the child about the broken vase, though they could include a speech or thought bubble to communicate this.
- The teacher now draws a thought bubble over the child, with a picture of a cat knocking over the vase. The teacher asks what happened (the cat broke the vase) and continues to ask more questions.
- This is the stage where the teacher is discussing the meaning of the grammar, without touching on the grammar. They may ask if the child broke the vase and if the cat broke the vase.
- The teacher asks the students to say the sentence that the child is saying to the mother, in an effort to produce the grammar or attempt to. The students may produce sentences like, 'I no break vase' or 'the cat broke the vase, not me,' among other things. If the sentence is reasonable, they work with it, but otherwise they model the correct grammar (I did not break the vase).
- Now, the teacher has the students practice saying the sentence, taking note of mistakes and pronunciation errors. They continue adding more drawings to the story and generating more sentences that use the negative simple past tense (I didn't spill the milk, I didn't draw on the wall).
- After the grammar point has been practiced, the teacher writes down some of the generated sentences on the board and allows the students to copy them down. Then, the lesson moves on to other types of practice activities related to the grammar point.
I've found situational presentations to be really useful for teaching grammar in a more simple and understandable way. Not everyone is language-oriented. Grammar gets confusing really quickly, but it's still necessary for ESL students to learn.
I encourage you to try out this method in your own class and then ask your students what they thought. Their input is important, but also be sure to do your own analysis on whether your students are more engaged and confident when you use this method.
Grammar is one subject that I want to make sure my students understand and remember! Honestly, I don't want to have to teach it more than is necessary. Situational presentations are a great tool for ensuring that your students understand what you're teaching them, but if they're struggling to remember concepts, check out this article on improving memory!
I Want to Hear From You!
Do you find grammar lessons difficult to prepare and present?
What are your go-to methods for teaching grammar?