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.