Approaches to the teaching of grammar in the Modern Foreign Languages classroom

A CPD research project

Context

The importance of the study of grammar when it comes tolearning a language is an age old discussion. Is it necessary to study thegrammar of a language to become fluent? Is it better to learn language throughcommunication – reading, listening, speaking and writing and picking it up aswe go along? Indeed, traditional language learning would involve a conscious studyof grammar; repeating and memorizing grammar rules and copying out verb tablesover and over. Stephen Krashen’s second language acquisition theory developedin the 1980’s had a huge impact on the way that languages are taught inschools.

“Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill.”

(Krashen; 1982).

Language teaching therefore evolved into lessons focused on meaningful interactions in the target language and acquisition through natural communication. This approach to language learning certainly creates a classroom where motivation and enjoyment are more present. It could be said that these language classes are more relevant to pupils, more lively and interesting where communication trumps grammatical accuracy. But have we got lost in all the fun?Do we need to go back to the drawing board and reevaluate the importance of grammar in order to produce really effective language learners? With the demands of the 1-9 GCSE could a return to the grammar intensive model be useful?

As ever, it is down to the teacher to consider the classes in front of them and the demands of the curriculum and the exams when answering these questions. Inevitably it comes down to finding a balance.

At St Bernadette’s MFL classes in KS3 are divided into two sets, though the classes remain extremely mixed in terms of ability. A group of 30 or so students with a variety of needs, interests and capabilities provide many challenges for the teacher. The focus of this Action Research will be to determine whether through the explicit teaching of grammar we are able to provide opportunities for our more able students to develop into more independent learners and achieve more highly with a stronger bank of grammatical knowledge to fall back on.

Following discussions with the department we decided that it would be beneficial to include more grammar into KS3 lessons in order to better prepare pupils for GCSE, particularly in terms of knowing the rules for forming at least the three main verb tenses; past, present and future and ensuring that pupils had the necessary skills to produce the extended pieces in the Writing paper. We decided to introduce the following strategies regularly into our lessons.

  • Three and Five tense flip cards. We selected the most common regular and irregular verbs that we wanted the pupils to know and produced colour coded, laminated cards for use in pairs. The colours indicated level of difficulty and the first card to practise with is the ‘I’ form of regular verbs in 3 tenses present, past and future (5 for the Higher students who would also learn the imperfect past and the conditional tense).For example ‘I eat, I ate, I am going to eat’. The partner has the target language (TL) translations on the flip side of the card in order to check the first partner’s responses.
  • Teaching and drilling grammatical terms and rules. We want the students to be able to define and give examples of connectives, adjectives, time expressions, frequency expressions, intensifiers, cognates, infinitive verbs and infinitive phrases. This was implemented through explicit teaching of these terms, regular revisiting, activities and questioning.
  • Knowledgeof verb conjugation in the TL. Whilst we don’t want or need pupils to be copying out verb tables and able to name every tense and verb ending we feel it is essential for pupils to understand conjugation and the way verbs are used in French and Spanish as it is very different to English. We have introduced the full paradigm of the present tense and taught pupils how to recognise pronouns in English and the TL. These were reinforced through activity dice games and conjugation songs to aid memorisation.

Impact

The tense flip cards were introduced to pupils in years 8, 9 and 10. They have been very successful in motivating students with the element of competition. Students enjoy working in pairs and quizzing each other and they appreciate the colour coded progress scales. By constant repetition and learning the patterns students are able to progress by translating faster and faster and then moving onto the next level. Progress is tangible and students can observe their own progress from the beginning of the activity to the end,which they found really motivating. The idea is that in writing or other tasks , pupils can reflect back on the patterns they learnt with the cards and apply 3 different tenses from memory and it has certainly improved pupils’ knowledge of tenses. However because these words are isolated terms and not within the context of sentences or longer texts there appears to be more work needed in terms of applying the knowledge of tenses in longer writing compositions.

Pupils in years 7 and 8 have responded really well to the learning and drilling of grammatical terms through choral repetition. These grammar points are a list of prescriptive facts for which there are endless opportunities to refer to in every lesson and remain the same regardless of the topic being studied. As long as opportunities were exploited to constantly drill these terms pupils showed excellent knowledge by the end of the year. The pupils appreciated having this knowledge bank as it helped them feel secure as they moved through different topics. Classes were taught these terms explicitly then they were reinforced through displays; an adjective and connective wall for example, activities such as:

‘In the text highlight connectives in green, time expressions in yellow and adjectives in pink’.

Through questioning:

What is a verb/adjective? How many infinitive verbs are in this sentence? What type of word is this? Show me the connective in this sentence. What’s a cognate? Is this word a time expression or a frequency expression? Find the 3 adjectives in this text.

Through choral response/ finish my sentence

Infinitive verbs have… different endings.

They are…

An infinitive phrase is a phrase that is… etc.

Not only do these strategies reinforce literacy skills throughout the curriculum but they enable pupils to categorise language. Grade ladders and checklists using these grammatical terms were introduced to pupils to refer to when doing writing tasks. Students’ knowledge of these terms was particularly useful when it came to giving quick and effective feedback. This was particularly effective with our most able pupils. For example we could say:

‘You need to use more varied connectives’

‘Add another 3 time expressions’

‘Should this verb be in the infinitive form?’

‘Add intensifiers’

‘This is an infinitive phrase. What do you need to change?’ etc

Students in KS3 learn about verb conjugation in the target language firstly through being able to identify verbs and pronouns. Verb conjugations were taught and embedded through the use of songs and games, providing an element of fun and engagement to rote grammar learning. Set one classes in Year 7 learnt the full paradigm of the present tense. Then would revisit this each time a new key verb was introduced within a topic, providing opportunities for repetition and adaption of previous learning. Whilst it is not a requirement that they can remember all of the present tense conjugations, what is important is that the concept has been introduced. The most able pupils were in fact able to remember or at least recognise the full paradigm of the present tense and equally importantly are able to use this knowledge of verbs in the TL as a springboard for further learning and deeper understanding.

Findings

The introduction of these strategies to MFL lessons has brought a new area of learning to the classroom which I feel has been beneficial to many groups of students. The learning of grammar rules and terms has meant that some students who don’t feel confident speaking TL in front of the entire classroom now have the opportunity to participate by answering questions in English. It has also bought about many opportunities for students to compare Spanish grammar with English grammar and through discussing and observing these in class improving their all round literacy. More able students in particular have thrived on the explicit teaching of grammar and have seized opportunities to use their new knowledge to analyse, make links and spot patterns in the TL.  The true effects of this project will be measured when these students get to KS4. Ideally they will be equipped with a strong grounding in grammar that will not only leave them better equipped to deal with the demands of the new GCSE but hopefully also with a sense of success and dominance in the subject that leads them to opt for languages in KS4.

Bibliography

Krashen, S.D. (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.

Smith, S. and Conti, G. (2016). The language teacher toolkit. 1st ed. London: CreateSpace.

https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/new-post-16-tips-for-effective-grammar-teaching-in-the-foreign-language-classroom/

Featured image: ‘Blackboard’ by BiljaST in Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0

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