Our students may regard grammar as a necessary evil: a focus on forms and rules that is not all that interesting, and seems more important than meaning, and of course, there are all those tests! This can mean that the importance of grammatical awareness to developing language competence is a bit lost on our students. If we can make grammar more meaningful and useful, we may get better motivation and results.
Part of the problem is ours as the assumption that we can learn more grammar through lots of repetition and by being regularly tested is hard to put aside. Sometimes we forget that the reason for grammar is to make meaning clear, and that should be our concern: what effect does the grammar have on meaning?
We also know that one of our big outcomes in studying grammar is to make the recognition and use of correct grammar automatic. This can’t happen if we spend too much time studying it, and not enough time using it. It is not study that makes perfect, it is practice. We must have a balance between study and use, and we should do our best to make that study interesting and meaningful.
Below are some useful techniques for making grammar a bit more interesting with a resulting improvement in awareness and accuracy. The key to these is to use real examples and to get the students to discuss and come up with the grammar rule.
Countable and uncountable nouns
Take a pen and cup of water. Pour some of the water on the floor and ask ‘Is this water?’ (Yes); pour some more onto your hand and ask ‘Is this water’ (Yes). Then take a pen and pull it apart. Take the spring out of the pen, and ask ‘Is this a pen’ (No); take out the refill cartridge and ask ‘Is this a pen?’ (No). Tell the class that water is an uncountable noun; the pen is countable. Ask them in groups to describe the difference in the meaning and grammar. (Uncountable nouns can often be divided with no change in the identity (meaning) of the word; countable nouns often change their identity and meaning when you divide them).
Present perfect and past simple
Show your students a cup of hot tea and write on the board ‘I have poured some tea’. Make sure they all know it is hot (if you have a spare cup, you can get them to put their fingers in it). At the end of the lesson, write on the board ‘I poured some tea’. Make sure they all know it is cold. Ask the class in groups to discuss why the grammar is different, and what the difference in meaning is. (The present perfect is, though about the past, often very connected to now – it is still a ‘hot’ idea. The past simple is often about a finished past: it is cold).
Translation and re-translation
In this simple-to-use task, give the students a paragraph in English to translate into Chinese (onto a separate piece of paper). Collect their answers and keep them for a week. Then return them in class and have the students translate their Chinese back to English. Ask the students to work in pairs or small groups and compare their translations and the original and explain to each other what grammar errors they have made, and which come from Chinese influence. This will create an awareness of how Chinese and English express meaning and grammar differently.
Don’t help, but respond to meaning
Try not to show understanding when your students say something grammatically incorrect, but look like you are thinking about what they mean. Pause and wait for the student or students to realize they need to try the communication again, and when they do (or get closer), respond to the meaning as you would in a normal conversation. Don’t comment on the quality of the grammar (‘Very good’, ‘Well done’, ‘Good work’ etc.), but do give them a natural and meaningful conversational response, such as ‘I see’, or ‘I get it’ and make a follow up comment. From this students will learn that good grammar has communicative outcomes, and they may be happy to have normal communication modelled by their teacher.
If we have our students discuss and respond to meaning and grammar, we may help them realize how useful and interesting grammar can be, and how effective communication is driven by good grammar.