Motivating students to study grammar

Koki Shimazu

Following his previous article on the enduring value of a grammar reference book, Koki Shimazu continues his series by sharing his experiences in motivating Japanese students to study grammar.

It will not come as a surprise to anyone that English grammar is boring. Studying grammar, in my view, is comparable to studying law. Each country has its own specific laws and rules, and it is exactly the same when it comes to languages. Rules and regulations are the bread and butter of any lawyer and it is assumed that this knowledge, amassed over a lifetime of study, will be utilised in the future. It is a useless exercise to simply memorise all the laws of a jurisdiction without actually making use of them in a real situation. Similarly, English grammar is a necessary evil in the journey to becoming a good communicator. For a language teacher, the most important thing is, nevertheless, to provide students with the opportunity to use the target language.

It’s a matter of fact that chances to use the target language are entirely insufficient. Transplanting a student who has never had the experience of conversing with someone in the target language, into a foreign environment, does not help anyone. Students need to feel a sense of satisfaction through their use of the language from the very beginning. Returning to the lawyer analogy there is, at the very basic level, motivation to win the case in court. In the case of language, you can achieve this by making yourself understood through meaningful communication. A student’s sense of achievement, at the crux of it, is based on being understood in the language which they are learning.

But how can you engineer the appropriate scenario in which to use the language? Open any textbook or grammar book, and there is always a contextual exercise where the language that’s being demonstrated is being used in a practical situation. However, in many cases, these situations are not connected to your students’ lives.  Giving directions to strangers on the street, or going through customs at the airport, are not daily occurrences. Offering a variety of authentic situations, that they might actually encounter in their own lives, is therefore imperative.

After plenty of practice and chances to communicate, your job is to make your students aware of the language they use and remove their self-consciousness in the target language. I always elicit my students’ L1 to draw connections with their own culture and personal history. Comparing their second language to their first language is also effective.

Another important job as a teacher is the skill of questioning. This is a fundamental part of language pedagogy, which will potentially help learners become more aware of their language use. Rather than repeatedly teaching grammar rules in class, try to ask questions where students need to use the grammar they’ve learned. Once students use the target form, the phrase or sentence should be announced to the whole class.

Afterwards, grammatically appropriate language use should be emphasized, raising awareness of the grammar they are learning. Eventually, your students will have a solid understanding of the grammar… and they might even come to love English grammar!

If you missed Koki’s first article and want to read all about the value of a good grammar reference book, make sure to read his first blog post!

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