Grammar: discovering what to teach and how to teach it

Niall Curry

In the first of a series of Grammar blog posts, our Senior ELT Research Manager, Niall Curry, lets us in on what goes on behind the scenes to find out the latest ways to teach grammar.

Discovering grammar

Learning how to effectively use grammatical structures is a shared-goal by language learners world-wide. To this end, much of our work at Cambridge University Press involves analysing learner language. We do this using our Cambridge Learner Corpus; a 55-million-word corpus of students’ written responses to Cambridge English exams.

The value of this corpus is manifold. It gives us an insight into how learners use language. We can see their creative use of language, their critical use of language and how this changes over time. However, for this context, one of the most valuable features of the corpus is its ability to yield information on how learners struggle with grammatical items.

By focussing on errors within the data, we gain a valuable insight into the areas of language in which learners tend to perform well. It also helps us identify where they tend to make mistakes.

This information is used to inform ELT materials, to make learners aware of common errors, so they can avoid making the same mistakes and focus on areas that require more attention.

Given the scale of the Corpus, with over 173 languages represented and levels ranging from A1 to C2, we can hone-in on errors relative to learners of different levels and language backgrounds.

For example, we can tell that Japanese learners tend to leave out determiners like ‘the’ in written English:

National Art Gallery and river trip to Greenwich would please them.
The National Art Gallery and the river trip to Greenwich would please them.

Among German speakers there are tense issues in conditional sentences such as:

It would be perfect if there are were sockets for our notebooks
If I have had more experience, I would like to take on more responsibility

How to teach it

With this knowledge, we can strive to help learners address problems they are likely to inherit from their own language learning background.

While all these data are valuable and give a great insight into how language is used, the question that arises is of how we can use this knowledge to help learners learn. This brings us to the pedagogy.

Following Scott Thornbury’s forthcoming publication 101 Grammar Questions, we can see that with this information in hand, we are faced with many questions.

Is there an optimal order in which to teach grammatical structures? Is there any value in teaching grammar explicitly? What teacher interventions support the learning of grammar? How should grammar be integrated into the curriculum?

Of course, it is beyond the scope of this short post to address these questions comprehensively. Keep an eye out for our upcoming Cambridge Paper in ELT on teaching grammar. It should put some of these questions to rest!

Over to you!

Now, let’s focus on teachers. What can you do? Well, we know that while focussing on form only can prove quite ineffective, disregarding it from an instructed second language acquisition perspective, can be equally ineffective.

What we see is the need for a balanced approach. Research shows what clear corrective feedback, recasting, and intervening in – but not interrupting – fluency tasks can help raise learners’ awareness of grammatical forms.

However, how we achieve this depends on how explicit we make these types of feedback. So as not to distract from the real cognitive challenge of the task at hand, explicit instruction can be more effective in situations where learners are communicating. The explicitness can help learners remember and truly acquire language.

Elicitation has also proven to be key. Getting learners to work through the complex concepts of grammar using examples and translation can help learners acquire grammar forms.

Like modelling and drilling, which are also effective in the teaching and learning of grammar, this is by no means new. However, each of these approaches necessitates a succinctness, a multimodality, a clarity. Each adds a real-world context to get learners to access grammar at higher levels of engagement–levels, which we know can lead to acquisition.

Here at Cambridge, we have been working on not only better understanding grammar, but also how it is learned. So, keep an eye out for upcoming posts on grammar where we explore it from different angles.

Looking for a useful way to get your learners thinking about irregular verbs? To celebrate the launch of Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use Fifth Edition, we’re sharing our handy classroom poster!

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