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Teaching Grammar

Strategies for Learning Grammar

Language teachers and language learners are often frustrated by the disconnect between knowing the rules of grammar and being able to apply those rules automatically in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. This disconnect reflects a separation between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge.

  • Declarative knowledge is knowledge about something. Declarative knowledge enables a student to describe a rule of grammar and apply it in pattern practice drills.

  • Procedural knowledge is knowledge of how to do something. Procedural knowledge enables a student to apply a rule of grammar in communication.

For example, declarative knowledge is what you have when you read and understand the instructions for programming the DVD player. Procedural knowledge is what you demonstrate when you program the DVD player.

Procedural knowledge does not translate automatically into declarative knowledge; many native speakers can use their language clearly and correctly without being able to state the rules of its grammar. Likewise, declarative knowledge does not translate automatically into procedural knowledge; students may be able to state a grammar rule, but consistently fail to apply the rule when speaking or writing.

To address the declarative knowledge/procedural knowledge dichotomy, teachers and students can apply several strategies.

1. Relate knowledge needs to learning goals.

Identify the relationship of declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge to student goals for learning the language. Students who plan to use the language exclusively for reading journal articles need to focus more on the declarative knowledge of grammar and discourse structures that will help them understand those texts. Students who plan to live in-country need to focus more on the procedural knowledge that will help them manage day to day oral and written interactions.

2. Apply higher order thinking skills.

Recognize that development of declarative knowledge can accelerate development of procedural knowledge. Teaching students how the language works and giving them opportunities to compare it with other languages they know allows them to draw on critical thinking and analytical skills. These processes can support the development of the innate understanding that characterizes procedural knowledge.

3. Provide plentiful, appropriate language input.

Understand that students develop both procedural and declarative knowledge on the basis of the input they receive. This input includes both finely tuned input that requires students to pay attention to the relationships among form, meaning, and use for a specific grammar rule, and roughly tuned input that allows students to encounter the grammar rule in a variety of contexts. (For more on input, see Teaching Goals and Methods.)

4. Use predicting skills.

Discourse analyst Douglas Biber has demonstrated that different communication types can be characterized by the clusters of linguistic features that are common to those types. Verb tense and aspect, sentence length and structure, and larger discourse patterns all may contribute to the distinctive profile of a given communication type. For example, a history textbook and a newspaper article in English both use past tense verbs almost exclusively. However, the newspaper article will use short sentences and a discourse pattern that alternates between subjects or perspectives. The history textbook will use complex sentences and will follow a timeline in its discourse structure. Awareness of these features allows students to anticipate the forms and structures they will encounter in a given communication task.

5. Limit expectations for drills.

  • Mechanical drills in which students substitute pronouns for nouns or alternate the person, number, or tense of verbs can help students memorize irregular forms and challenging structures. However, students do not develop the ability to use grammar correctly in oral and written interactions by doing mechanical drills, because these drills separate form from meaning and use. The content of the prompt and the response is set in advance; the student only has to supply the correct grammatical form, and can do that without really needing to understand or communicate anything. The main lesson that students learn from doing these drills is: Grammar is boring.

  • Communicative drills encourage students to connect form, meaning, and use because multiple correct responses are possible. In communicative drills, students respond to a prompt using the grammar point under consideration, but providing their own content. For example, to practice questions and answers in the past tense in English, teacher and students can ask and answer questions about activities the previous evening. The drill is communicative because none of the content is set in advance:

    Teacher: Did you go to the library last night?
    Student 1: No, I didn’t. I went to the movies. (to Student 2): Did you read chapter 3?
    Student 2: Yes, I read chapter 3, but I didn’t understand it. (to Student 3): Did you understand chapter 3?
    Student 3: I didn’t read chapter 3. I went to the movies with Student 1.

 

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BACK TO GOALS AND TECHNIQUES FOR TEACHING GRAMMAR

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