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Old 08-06-2008, 04:54 PM
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Question Teaching Grammar in Context- or not?

I was watching the video of Betty Azar, Michael Swan and Keith Folse at the TESOL conference in New York http://azargrammar.com/authorsCorner...nel_Intro.html . At one point they addressed a question about teaching grammar in context. Just to clarify, and I hope I am not misrepresenting any of the panelists, this refers to teaching grammar within a dialog, a reading, or some kind of authentic or authentic-like discourse, vs. teaching grammar using disconnected sentences.

Keith brought up that there is no evidence that teaching grammar in context results in better learning than teaching grammar without a context. Michael mentioned that there are certain grammar structures that are more difficult to form than others (he mentioned passive) and that sentence level instruction might be preferred for those.

What do our forum members think about teaching grammar in context? Is this something you usually do, and if so how? If you use a grammar text that doesn't provide much context, what do you do? Or, have you found that your students do quite well without a context- and how does that inform you teaching?
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Old 08-06-2008, 10:41 PM
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Default It depends on things like class size.

Dear Maria,

Beginning with a cliché, grammar without a context (which I assume means focusing on form) and grammar within a dialog, a reading, or some kind of authentic or authentic-like discourse (which I assume means focusing on meaning) are two sides of the same coin. In other words, grammar is one of the main tools that communicates meaning, and meaning cannot be communicated — either at all or, at least, efficiently — without grammar. When I teach in a classroom, I usually use some variation on PPP (Presentation, Practice, Production). I won’t talk very much about what I think are obvious factors in a PPP lesson plan — that is, you try to introduce the new material in some context in the presentation portion, you often use exercises that are disconnected from context in the practice portion, and you try to use some kind of dialog, reading, authentic or authentic-like discourse in the production portion. However, I will say that my focus in a large classroom is, unfortunately, on form (disconnected sentences). I say unfortunately because, while I have no evidence to back it up, I think that it’s better to focus on grammar in context. When I teach private classes or small groups, I put the focus on meaning (authentic or authentic-like discourse). I still teach / discuss a lot of grammar (form) when I teach private classes or small groups — probably as much as I do when I teach in a classroom, but that is not where my focus is.

If this sounds confusing, let me try to explain it another way. When I teach large classes at a school, I usually have to cover the material that’s in the book, and it’s often difficult to give everyone the personal attention that they need. So while I may have to scrap my lesson, I walk in with a definite grammatical structure in mind, and, if all goes as planned (and it sometimes does), that’s the cornerstone of my lesson. When I teach private classes or small groups, I often do not have to cover specific information, and I usually do have the time to give the students the attention that they need, so I can teach the way that I prefer: I start communicating with the students, and we deal with the grammatical problems as they arise. In dealing with their difficulties, we may use disconnected sentences or we may use authentic or authentic-like discourse. I don’t care; I just use whatever comes to mind most quickly.

I like teaching this way because I think that it replicates the way that I gained the little skill that I have in Japanese. I’d studied Japanese in college for one year (using some variation on the audio-lingual method), but I couldn’t understand even the most basic questions — for example, “What time is it?” “Where do you live?” “What do you do?” However, I did have some basic understanding of Japanese grammar, and when I started teaching ESL privately to Japanese housewives and businessmen, I needed to start using Japanese — for example, “Please read this.” “Please repeat that.” “Please write this.” There are some people who seem to be able to acquire a second language effortlessly, and I really hate them. However, I thought then (and I still think) that, for most people, acquiring a second language is best accomplished by having an “abstract” (“textbook,” “unused” — whatever you want to call it) knowledge of the language and being forced to use it. Also, based upon my experience as teacher and my conversations with many students, while there seem to be many problems with EFL instruction in East Asia (for example, China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan), I think that one of their biggest problems is ignoring authentic or authentic-like discourse. (I don't know if this is true in other parts of the world.)

I have seen some ESL/EFL textbooks that try to present the grammar in a dialog, a reading, or some kind of authentic or authentic-like discourse, and while some of them do it well, I usually find them — or, at least, that section — annoying. And I think that that’s because it’s hard to write something that works well for all students, regardless of their needs and their background. I prefer teaching grammar in context, and I think that using discovery techniques to teach grammar is, also, often helpful, but I think that these methods usually work best with small, personalized classes in which the teacher and the students create the loci together. In my experience, these methods are hard to use in large classes, and they usually don’t work well in mass-marketed textbooks — especially when they are used in large classes.

Sincerely,
Sam Simian

Last edited by Sam Simian; 08-09-2008 at 06:56 PM.
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Old 08-11-2008, 07:47 PM
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Default I like context

I teach grammar both in and out of context. I like context because I think there is often a perceived disconnect between the grammar our students learn in a grammar class, and their ability to use, or even their awareness of that same grammar as it should be applied in their writing class or in their ability to comprehend in their reading classes. I think a context, whether up front or eventually, is essential for students to make this real world grammar connection.

For me, using the context of an audio or written dialog or a reading, or even "manipulating" students into a role play that will set a situation for the grammar I want to use shows students the application of the grammar alongside or even in advance of focus on form.

Of course, as Michael Swan pointed out, there are some difficult grammar structures that require several steps to form- passive voice and 2nd and 3rd conditionals come to mind- and for these, isolating the structure out of context (so students don't really have to deal with comprehending a bigger picture) would seem to me a good way to go. Besides, I strongly believe there is a time and a place for automatic substitution drills and choral repetition. If one part of the form/meaning pairing becomes automatic, doesn't that mean there is less for the student to think about when "searching" for the right grammar to use?

If students are learning both form and meaning at the same moment, maybe it will be more confusing than learning one largely before the other?
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Old 08-12-2008, 11:36 PM
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Default There’s Context and then There’s Context

Dear Maria,

I agree that “a context, whether up front or eventually, is essential for students to make [a] real world grammar connection.” My students in my large Level 2 class (40+ students at the beginning of the session) can usually understand a single grammatical structure in context, whether it was taught in context or not. However, it’s usually much more difficult (and, I believe, much more important) for them to decide which of, say, two grammatical structures they need to use in a given context. For example, my students need to decide between the simple present and the present progressive, the simple past and the past progressive, or a countable noun and an uncountable noun (and how these nouns are related to things like determiners and number).

Even though it’s more time consuming (because it’s a large, de facto multilevel class), I try to start off with a semi-Socratic, discovery technique-ish teaching method that focuses on meaning and grammar in context. I get mixed results. At best, little light bulbs go off over their heads, and there’s an “Aha!” moment. At worst, students look at one another and, I assume by their faces, mutter some version of, “What in the @#*% is he talking about?!” in their native tongue. Usually, they sort of get it and sort of don’t, and I have to fall back, regroup, and try a different strategy. It would, probably, be easier and less time consuming if I just focused on grammar out of context and forgot about grammar in context, but I have some vague version of Merrill Swain’s output hypothesis in mind when I teach:
http://www.celea.org.cn/2007/keynote...ll%20Swain.pdf.
so I think that students need to both hear grammar in some meaningful context and produce grammar in some meaningful context. But if I were to be completely honest, I focus on grammar out of context with a large class more than I do with a small class, or a private class. (It’s simply a matter of classroom management, so to speak.)

All of this is a long preface to some questions:

1.) While I think that we both agree that teaching grammar in context should play an important role in grammar teaching, as a practical matter, isn’t it a lot more time consuming — especially if you teach a large class? And if you agree, do you think that the time that’s spent teaching grammar in context is offset by some other factor — for example, seeing grammar as intrinsic to communication?

2.) The web is full of examples of grammar in isolation and grammar that is supposedly in some authentic or authentic-like context, but I often have a hard time finding (or making up my own) examples of truly authentic-like and/or usable grammar in context. How do you go about finding or making up your own?

3.) I teach noncredit adult ESL, and I think that the majority of what teachers do (or do not do) is dictated by what’s in the textbooks. And the flavor of the month is still the so-called communicative method. Nevertheless the texts seem to be structured according to their grammar — that is, the higher the level, the harder the grammar and, ironically, the less useful the grammar is in most communication. Also, the portions of the text that discuss grammar are often a real hodgepodge — grammar that is in context and grammar that is out of context, grammar that seems to fit the unit and grammar that seems “tacked on,” and grammar that's taught using explicit instruction and grammar that's taught using discovery techniques; there seldom seems to be any guiding principle.

Based upon what I’ve seen in coming editions of many textbooks, I don’t think that this is going to change soon. I believe that you teach college, or pre-college level ESL, don’t you? What does the future look like for ESL in “your world”?

Sincerely,
Sam Simian

Last edited by Sam Simian; 08-12-2008 at 11:57 PM.
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Old 08-14-2008, 11:44 PM
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Default Grammar in Print Context

I'm always on the prowl for good examples of grammar in context. One source is, of course, songs. http://www.azargrammar.com/materials...ngLessons.html (That's the link again to the song lessons on azargrammar.com. More song lessons are coming soon!)

Another frequent source of material for me is magazines. I look for magazines that do not use a very high level of writing, and articles that do not require a lot of background knowledge to appreciate. Magazines like O, Reader's Digest, Hallmark, and lifestyle magazines whose names escape me (I find a lot at doctor and dentists' offices and usually slip the entire magazine in my purse.) It makes less noise than ripping out a page! Reader's Digest is very good for intermediate level. Many articles use a chronological narrative form and are great for verb tenses, articles, subject-verb agreement, object pronouns and adjectives, articles, phrasal verbs, etc. I have found that articles focusing on a person- a bio, a noted author/artist, interesting accomplishments, etc. are good for adjective clauses. Newspaper articles are perfect for passive voice, past tense and past perfect.

Sometimes an ad is a good source of context although I prefer to have two or three examples of a context so I would use an ad in addition to other things.


A couple of times a semester, I ask students to bring in magazine articles that interest them and (this is important!) that they think might interest others. It's a fast and easy way to get 20 articles from magazines that your students can at least understand part of- or else why would they have access to them? Then you can scan through the articles noting the structures and think about what they can be used for. Think of using an article more than once, maybe in week 2 for some grammar and again in week 5 for other structures. I usually make 2 or 3 "master" copies of the article, one for each grammar point I'm going to use it for, and then prepare it for use. This means I may number the lines, or underline certain parts, or superscript some numbers next to some sentences. This will just make it easier in the future to talk about and teach with.
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