Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Going Beyond the Grammar Textbook: Connecting Grammar to Real Life

Jenny FettersJenny Fetters is an ESL instructor at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland.

I often help register students for classes at my language school, and when I ask prospective students, “So why do you want to take English classes?”, the answer I receive 99% of the time is, “Because I need to learn English!”. Once I get under the question and tease out the real reason, those answers become, “I need a job”, “I need a better job”, or “I want to go to college.” It becomes abundantly clear to me that one important factor that drives students’ need for English is economic. So why don’t our textbooks do a better job of speaking to that need?

Open up any intermediate or advanced grammar textbook and you’ll find a wide variety of themes around which grammar lessons are organized:  Style and Fashion, Natural Wonders, Controversial Issues, or Inventions, to name a few. Don’t get me wrong:  discussing cutting-edge technology, the environment, or even the latest fashion trends is fun. These topics lend themselves to very lively conversation in the classroom and integrate nicely with many grammatical functions.

In our students’ world, how realistic is it that they will ever use English grammatical functions to discuss fashion, or any other topic I just mentioned? Sure, it’s highly likely that at some point they probably discuss technology, or in an election year, controversial issues, but whether they use English for these discussions instead of their native language when they’re outside of a classroom setting is questionable. Think about your students’ lives. Where are they using English? More important, where do they need to use English? In other words, where does English impact them the most?

If someone has paid the money to learn English, one of the main reasons they’re in your class is probably based on economic necessity. They either need a job, need to get a better job, want to get a degree, or need to function more effectively in the community to obtain services for themselves or on behalf of their family.  It’s our job as language teachers to make our lessons as relevant to their lives as possible by anchoring grammar lessons to relevant situations. Very often, each grammatical form that is presented in a textbook is tied to one or two speech acts. How can teachers help students connect this grammar to a wider range of functions in their lives – namely, functions related to their career, such as interviewing for a job or asking for a promotion?

Not long ago I taught a conversation course for upper-intermediate students. Like any good textbook, the one from which I was to teach included grammar. The topics were wide-ranging in scope, from making small talk and talking about health situations to recommending a book and discussing controversial issues politely. One chapter’s focus was “Life Plans”. It merged explaining a change in life plans (past continuous) with expressing regrets (perfect modals should/shouldn’t have, ought to have).  The scenarios and sample dialogues presented in the chapter only included casual conversation between friends, coworkers, or between a mentor and her mentee (a student talking to her professor). While I was preparing my lessons on this chapter, I realized that its communication goals should be extended much further. I extended the lesson to include mock job interviews which integrated both grammar points with vocabulary they were learning concerning job skills and qualifications.

What does this look like?

Instead of this dialogue to explain a change in life plans,

Andy:   So, what are you doing these days?

Bob:     Well, I’m in dental school.

Andy:   No kidding! I thought you had other plans.

Bob:     I was going to be/thought I would become an artist, but I changed my mind.

                                                                                                                                                                                 Top Notch 3, 2nd Ed.

the students could have this dialogue:

Interviewer:    Why did you change jobs? / Why are you changing careers?

Interviewee:    I thought I would continue at ABC company, but I decided to go back to school to get my degree.


Instead of this dialogue to express a regret,

Paula:  I should have married Steven.

Mary:  Why do you think that?

Paula: Well, I might have had children by now.

Mary:  Could be. But you never know. You might not have been happy.

Top Notch 3, 2nd Ed.

the students could have this dialogue:

Interviewer:    Tell me about a time you made a mistake./ Tell me how you handled a difficult situation.

Interviewee:    I was working as a manager of ABC store when…..I realized I should have done X….That situation taught me valuable leadership skills…

Source for interview questions: http://www.glassdoor.com/blog/common-interview-questions/

In general, textbooks provide teachers a good template for building a class curriculum, but we should always be on the lookout for opportunities to extend or modify communication goals to match the actual needs of our students. In this classroom example, being able to answer job interview questions that go beyond “tell me about your experience” are valuable language tools we can give our students. The more they have in their toolkit, the more prepared they are for world outside your classroom.


Comment from Natalia Fernandez
July 28, 2017 at 10:53 pm

Wow, this is such a helpful post… thank you for providing examples. I will definately include this in my planning from now on

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