What were you doing 35 years ago, in 1984? There was a lot going on: Liverpool won the European Cup, Los Angeles hosted the Olympics, Apple brought out the first Macintosh computer, and Ghostbusters hit cinema screens. And in the midst of all this, Raymond Murphy was busy putting the finishing touches to what is probably the world’s best-selling grammar book: English Grammar in Use.
The concept of the book is brilliantly simple. Grammar structures are presented one at a time over two pages. The first page provides examples of the structure and an explanation of meaning and use, and the second page provides practice activities so that learners can check that they understand how the grammar works. But what does this mean for teachers? How can we exploit what Murphy created?
How should we teach grammar?
In very basic terms, there are two ways to learn the grammar of a new language. Either someone tells you about it, bit by bit (explicit grammar teaching), or you immerse yourself in the language and ‘work it out’ from what you read or hear, and from your interactions in that language (implicit grammar teaching). Of course, we learn our first language(s) implicitly, and if you travel abroad and find yourself thrown in at the deep end, you’ll have no choice but to learn the work-it-out way. But for learners of English, explicit instruction is usually the most realistic option, through grammar lessons in private classes or at school.
Which is better? Well, they serve different purposes. Explicit instruction may help you learn faster, and will probably serve you better if you need to take an exam, since many exams are based on discrete grammar structures. You may find that you’re better able to monitor your own speaking and writing, and perhaps correct yourself when mistakes slip out, so your accuracy may improve. And of course if the language is broken down into bitesize pieces for you, learning it can seem a less daunting task.
Implicit grammar instruction, on the other hand, mirrors ‘real life’ language learning and will help you work out how to use the forms you learn in order to communicate. This has benefits for fluency, helping you to speak without having to think too hard about the grammar you’re using.
As with so many areas of teaching and learning, the ideal scenario involves a bit of both: learners can benefit from explicit grammar teaching, but they also need opportunities to practice and learn in a more natural way, through freer communicative activities.
Flipping the grammar classroom
What Raymond Murphy understood was that the most efficient study option for students would be explicit grammar teaching at home, and implicit teaching in the classroom, where there are other learners to practise with, and where the teacher can provide useful feedback. So English Grammar in Use offers exactly that, with explicit teaching of form, meaning, and (with the ebook) pronunciation, preparing students to come to class and focus on using what they’ve learned.
That leaves the question of what teachers should do in class, and one possible answer comes from the domain of task-based learning. Take a look at the three tasks below and answer the questions before reading on.
Tasks like this are usually done by students working in groups, and can be a great way of providing the communicative practice that learners need after they have worked on grammar at home. They all:
- Give learners the freedom to use their grammatical abilities as fully as possible: there’s no instruction to use a particular structure.
- Focus on meaning, rather than form. Every task involves a real-life situation.
- Make students think – there’s an element of challenge to each one.
- Have a clear outcome, so students will know what they need to do and when they have finished.
All these elements mean that these tasks encourage students to use their language skills to achieve things, which is motivating, but also creates the kind of environment where implicit grammar learning can take place.
However, that doesn’t mean that teachers can’t target certain structures. It’s not too difficult to predict that students doing the tasks above would use future forms, present simple and used to, respectively. So if tasks are well chosen, having studied the pages of English Grammar in Use students can come to class and practise what they’ve learned explicitly – it just won’t feel like practice!
The final, crucial, piece in the puzzle is what the teacher does during these tasks. It’s essential that teachers monitor effectively and then provide feedback on task performance. Many models of task-based learning suggest that students then repeat the task, or one very similar to it.