Monday, August 10, 2015

Going “Retro” in Grammar Class

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist

Every few years, it seems, somebody comes up with a new approach to language teaching, a new methodology with certain strategies that will save the language-teaching world and make teaching and learning a language a total joy without anything laborious required to accomplish the goal. Well, during my 35 years plus of language teaching, I saw my fair share of these approaches and methodologies. None of them was perfect, of course. They all contained good strategies, but they had bad or impractical strategies as well. It didn’t take me too many years to realize that the best approach for me, at any rate, was to pick and choose, borrow and adapt strategies from all sorts of ways to teach and learn a language – in other words, to go eclectic. At the same time, when thinking about techniques I’d often used that got the job done, I always kept in mind that old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So just because something was supposedly new, that didn’t mean I had to forego something tried and true and replace it with what was now in vogue. Unfortunately, I think that was what many teachers actually did.

There are two things I think worth discussing from the ELT “days of yore” that I hope many of you will keep in mind and use in your teaching approaches if you’re comfortable with them. For the most part, they’re oral/listening comprehension activities.


This approach was developed by Christina Bratt Paulston and Mary Newton, two early leaders in the field of ELT. It’s basically a weaning process for our students, using exercises labeled mechanical, meaningful, and communicative. MMC concerns developing exercises that will turn over the responsibility for generating language from the teacher to the students.

A mechanical exercise is just that, mechanical. The teacher has complete control over responses and knows exactly what the correct responses from the students should be. Students have no choices to make in this kind of exercise; they just have to complete the change that the instructions tell them to make. Are we having fun yet? No, but that’ll come shortly. These exercises do serve a purpose, though. They start getting students to feel more comfortable in the listening skills and in the oral use of their L2 and it helps get them to speed up their “reflexes,” if you will, in making linguistic transitions right away.

Examples:  Please change these sentences to the simple past tense. (T = teacher / S = student)

T:    He needs some help.
S1:  He needed some help.

T:    They’re buying a house.
S2:  They bought a house.

     Please change these sentences to the negative.

T:    He needs help..
S3:   He doesn’t need help.

T:    They’re buying a house.
S4:  They’re not/They aren’t buying a house.

In a meaningful exercise, students do have some choice, but the choices are limited and the teacher knows what they can be. The teacher is still in control, but now in a limited way. What’s different between a mechanical and a meaningful exercise is that the students have some personal input and meaning can vary, as you’ll see by the choices they have to complete the following sentence.

Example:  The teacher writes on the board Fill in the blank.

Climate change ________________ alter our lives in the future.

Now the teacher calls on individual students to give their input out loud. Of course they don’t have to be in the order I’m presenting here as an example.  And in this kind of exercise, I count contractions as separate answers from the non contracted forms just to give students more leeway.

S1:  is going to               S9:   might

S2:  is not going to        S10:  might not

S3:  isn’t going to           S11:  could

S4:  will                          S12:  could not

S5:  will not                    S13:  couldn’t

S6:  won’t                        S14:  should

S7:  may                          S15:  should not

S8:  may not                   S16:  shouldn’t

What’s so nice about this transition from a mechanical to a meaningful exercise is that now the students accept some responsibility for the ideas they produce, and for some students, that can be a big step. They also enjoy the challenge of figuring out what can and can’t work in the blank.

A communicative exercise gives students complete control over their responses, and the teacher can’t anticipate what those responses will be. Students can begin feeling more and more secure in using their L2 by the time they get to participate in communicative exercises. Here’s what I mean:

T:   Isn’t it terrible that bad weather has caused so much destruction recently?

S1:  Yes, it’s just awful!

S2:  I think it’s because of climate change.

S3I’m worried about the future. It may get worse.

S4:  These things always happen. It’s nothing new.

T:   I had such a nice summer vacation! How about you guys?

S1:   Most of it was okay, but we hate flying these days!

S2:   We decided to drive around the state and stop at lots of places. It was a lot of fun.

You may think that mechanical exercises should be reserved for a lower level, meaningful for an intermediate level, and communicative exercises for an advanced level, but that’s not the case at all. You just need to tailor the vocabulary and grammar to fit the level of your students and then use all three kinds of exercises with them. If you haven’t consciously approached grammar exercises like these with your students, give them a try.


Yes, I know; it became the “in” thing to poo-poo drills. Well, I couldn’t disagree more. Slot substitutions contribute in many ways to help students learn an L2. First, they get students sensitized to English word order since they have to know the only acceptable place or places to stick in a certain kind of word or phrase. They’re also great for practicing listening comprehension. And finally, they get students to think quickly and change other parts of a sentence depending on what information is included in the substitution.

            Single Slot Substitution    (T = teacher / Ss = whole class / S = individual student called on)

T:   Please repeat, class: I’m staying home this evening.

Ss:  I’m staying home this evening.

T:   going to see a friend

S1:  I’m going to see a friend this evening.

T:   get to bed early

S2:  I’m going to get to bed early this evening.

T:   write some e-mails

S3: I’m going to write some e-mails this evening.

Double Slot Substitution

T:   Please repeat, class: He bought a bike last week.

Ss:  He bought a bike last week.

T:   you / jacket

S1:  You bought a jacket last week.

T:   I / new suit

S2: I bought a new suit last week.

T:   My parents / some furniture

S3: My parents bought some furniture last week.

Moving Slot Substitutions

T:   Please repeat, class: He lives in New York City.

Ss:  He lives in New York City.

T:   They

S1: They live in New York City.

T:   last year

S2:  They lived in New York City last year.

T:   Cairo

S3:  They lived in Cairo last year.

T:   work

S4:  They worked in Cairo last year.

T:   since 2005

S5:  They have/They’ve worked in Cairo since 2005.

T:   She

S6:  She has/She’s worked in Cairo since 2005.

T:   anymore

S7:  She doesn’t work in Cairo anymore.

And the beat goes on! I know for a fact that your students will become much more sensitized to English, improve their listening comprehension and attention spans, and enjoy participating in these kinds of exercises. Grammar can be fun, after all!


Comment from Leila
June 18, 2017 at 12:38 am

Hello Sir
Thank you for sharing it. It is really helpful.

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