Sunday, September 27, 2009
Putting Grammar into Context: A Response to Program Director’s Dilemma
By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
Okay, you’ve shown your students how to form the present perfect aspect. You’ve explained to them how since and for are used with this form. You’ve had them practice affirmative forms in statements, negative forms in statements, interrogative forms in questions. You’ve gone over long answers and short answers. You’ve had them use verbs in parentheses to change them into the present perfect and fill in the blanks of sentences.
You’re bored. You’re eyes are getting heavy. Your students are bored and feeling a bit numbed by it all. Congratulations! You’ve succeeded in treating that grammar point like it’s a fish out of water. You’ve made that grammar point into something like a formula in a chemistry class. But this isn’t chemistry. It’s language! It’s got vitality! It’s a living thing, for Pete’s sake! So let’s treat it like that!
Any grammar element you want to deal with will only be meaningful if it’s put into context, into something real and relevant and motivating to you and your students. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching fourth graders or college students. What matters is that they get to see how a point of grammar works in context, not just in disconnected sentences. The students need to claim it as their own and run with it. And the best way to accomplish this is by figuring out which context will be optimum for dealing with that specific grammar point.
Since the example cited here is the present perfect, let’s stick with that. Our objective today is to get the students to understand basic uses of this form, that it means something began in the past and continues up into the present or that something happened in the past and may happen again in the future. Now what kind of context will lend itself to using lots of verbs in the present perfect?
If you’ve got those fourth graders, how about introducing a discussion on how they have or haven’t helped their mothers at home from some point in the past that you decide on till now? “Clarita, how many times have you made your bed since the beginning of the week? Have you made your bed every day? What about you, Pepito? Have you taken out the garbage for your mom? You haven’t? Why not?”
If you’ve got college students, how about a discussion on movies? “Does anybody know how long movies have entertained the public? Do you know which Hollywood movie studio has made the most pictures? How many movies have you seen this month? Has your country produced lots of movies?”
Any and all of the questions above can get a good discussion going amongst your fourth graders or your college students. And backup material can be at the ready: teacher-made reading passages based on the topic at hand; written exercises full of context; hands-on activities for your students to do in class or out of class, such as conducting short interviews on the topic and reporting back to the class, or writing a short, personal narrative on the topic and reading it to classmates.
As long as your students keep using the present perfect appropriately in the discussions and in the activities you’ve devised for them to do, you’re doing your job and doing it well. You’re using the grammar point as a tool to accomplish clear communication with the focus on that overall use of language rather than just that element of grammar. And there’s a bonus to this way of elegantly working a specific grammar point into context. Your students will be forced to use other grammar points they’ve learned as well and build on their previous knowledge of grammar. It doesn’t get much better than that.
So make it real, make it meaningful, and make it live! Lift that grammar point out of isolation and put it into context. You’ll see how dynamic your grammar classes will become!