Making grammar accessible to ELLs
Techniques in grammar
Historically, grammar has been considered to
be (Hinkel & Fotos 2002):
The advent of other approaches:
-Direct approaches (audio-lingualism)
The Audiolingual Method
-The audiolingual method focuses on the
comprehension of language at a largely mechanical
level (Davidson, 1978).
-Examples of mechanically structured activities might
include repetition or substitution. The teacher is in
control of the lesson, and students can often
successfully participate without any understanding of
meaning (Davidson, 1978).
-These are usually based on situational language needs
(Hinkel & Fotos, 2002).
- According to Skehan, these activities often follow a
“presentation, practice, and production” protocol
(cited in Hinkel & Fotos, 2002).
-These methods mimic a natural acquisition of
language, for example, how a child acquires L1
(Hinkel & Fotos, 2002).
-Language is acquired using meaningful input, with no
formal grammatical instruction. It is assumed that
ELLs will naturally acquire the forms of language
when this approach is used (Hinkel & Fotos, 2002).
Myth: Grammar structures are meaningless
forms (Larsen-Freeman, 1995)
- Learning a structure in grammar, is not complete
unless its function is explored at the same time
- There are 3 dimensions to grammar instruction:
form, meaning and function/use (Larsen-Freeman,
- Grammar instruction should include the answers to
when and why to use any given structure (Larsen-
Myth: Grammar acquisition consists of
arbitrary rules (Larsen-Freeman, 1995)
-Interlanguages (ILs) appear to follow rules, and are
systematic (Larsen-Freeman, 1995).
This does not mean that an ELL would be using a
grammatical structure as a NS would from first
exposure, but that they are still moving toward its
proper use while forming rules in his/her IL.
-Though systematic, this development through an IL
may not be linear (Larsen-Freeman, 1995).
Myth: Grammar structures are learned one
at a time (Larsen-Freeman, 1995)
-The acquisition of some structures may depend on the
acquisition of others. A simple accumulation of
structures, one at time, can lead to a phenomenon
known as backsliding. When backsliding occurs, it is
because certain elements become omitted in order to
make room for new elements (Larsen-Freeman,
Myth: Grammar is acquired naturally, and
doesn’t have to be taught (Larsen-Freeman,
- In French immersion programs, where the focus is on
meaning alone, students have demonstrated a less
than expected understanding of grammar in the
language (Harley & Swain, 1984).
- Students may develop the ability to convey meaning,
without developing proper grammar. Selective form-
focused instruction may therefore be necessary to
ensure that as language develops, so does grammar
Lightbrown and Spada (1990)research
(cited in Larsen-Freeman, 1995):
-This study looked at 4 (primarily communicative) French
immersion classes, each of which incorporated a varying
level of form-based instruction in grammar.
-Their results demonstrated that the class that never
focused on grammatical form performed the worst
according to the assessment used.
- Part of the reason for this, according to Larsen-Freeman
(1995), is that focusing student attention may facilitate
Myth: Error correction and negative evidence
might be unnecessary when instructing
grammar (Larsen-Freeman, 1995)
-If errors are not corrected, then overgeneralizations
in language tend to occur (Larsen-Freeman, 1995).
-Negative evidence might be part of the input that
ELLs need, though they may not have needed it to
the same extent for their L1 (Larsen-Freeman,
Myth: All grammatical structures are learned
in the same way (Larsen-Freeman, 1995)
“Any claim to the effect that all acquisition is the
product of habit formation or of rule formation, or
today, of setting/resetting parameters or the
strengthening of connections in complex neural
networks, is an obvious oversimplification of a
complex process” (Larsen-Freeman, 1995, p. 141).
3 options in language teaching:
Focus on Forms
Focus on meaning
Focus on form
Focus on Forms:
“Parts of the language are taught separately and step
by step so that the acquisition is a process of gradual
accumulation of parts until the whole structure of
language has been built up…At any one time the
learner is being exposed to a deliberate limited
sample of language” (Wilkins, 1976, p. 2).
Focus on Meaning:
The essential claim is that people of all ages learn
language best, inside or outside the classroom, not
by treating the languages as the object of study, but
by experiencing them as a medium of
communication… “language is organized in terms of
the purpose for which people are learning language
and the kinds of language performance that are
necessary to meet those purposes” (Wilkins, 1976, p.
Focus on Form:
“Overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic
elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose
overriding focus is on meaning or communication”
(Long, 1991, pp. 45-46).
“Often consists of an occasional shift of attention to
linguistic code features– by the teacher and/or one
or more of the students– triggered by perceived
problems with comprehension or production”
(Long & Robinson, 1999, p. 23).
Advantage of Focus on Form:
“The learner’s attention is drawn precisely to a
linguistic feature as necessitated by a communicative
demand” (Doughty & Williams, 1999, p. 3).
Arguments against Grammar Instruction:
The study of grammar promotes knowledge about
language not how to use the language (Krashen,
1983, p. 10).
We acquire our first language without any explicit
knowledge of grammar (Krashen, 1983, p. 10).
The natural order (Krashen, 1983, pp. 12-36) in
which languages are learned precludes the influence
If communicative competence is the goal, then
classroom time is better spent engaging in language
use (Krashen, 1983, p. 37).
Arguments for Grammar Instruction:
Without explicit instruction learners’ interlanguage often
Grammar instruction may act as an advanced organizer
helping learners to notice features of language when they
Learning finite rules can help to simplify an otherwise
daunting and complex task by organizing it into neat
Older students’ expectation about language learning often
includes grammar instruction.
Learning grammar structures allows for more creative
applications of language.
(Lightbown & Spada, 1990, pp. 429-448)
Teachers need to consider how to present grammar
to their students (approach), what options for
dealing with the grammar should be used, and which
area they will focus on during practice (accuracy,
fluency, or restructuring).
Deductive– teaching through rules (the rule is
provided followed by the provision of examples in
which the rule is applied).
Inductive– teaching through examples (students are
provided with several examples from which a rule is
Sources of inductive instruction:
Realia / Actions
Worksheets (can often be structured to
inductively lead students to a grammar rule)
Authentic texts (after listening to a dialogue or
reading a text, students can answer questions to
highlight certain grammatical structures– these
may then be used to derive rules)
Teaching through practice:
Drills: activities that are structured to allow only
one correct answer
Exercises: Open-ended grammar activities
Practice leads to the creation of a continuum ranging
from text manipulation activities to text creation
Text manipulation activities: Provide students with
sentences that they will be required to operate on in
some limited manner such as: fill-in-the blank, make
a choice from items provided, substitute another
item, or transform into another pattern.
Text creation activities: Require learners to produce
language creatively using the target structure (these
activities are not truly communicative because the
students are aware that the purpose of the activity is
to practice a specific structure).
Communicative grammar tasks:
Provide students with genuine opportunities to
communicate using language that is known.
These tasks differ from text creation activities in that
the students are not restricted in the language that is
As a result, because students are not focused on the
use of a particular structure, tasks must be designed
to ensure that the desired structure is utilized.
Refer to Penny Ur’s Grammar Practice Activities,
(Lightbown & Spada, 1993)
Integrative Grammar Teaching
Combines a form-based with a meaning-based focus.
“form focused instruction and corrective feedback
provided within the context of communicative
interaction can contribute positively to a second
language development in both the short and long
term” (Lightbown & Spada, 1993, p. 205).
Students should be able to learn explicit grammar
rules as well as have a chance to practice them in
communication in the authentic or simulated tasks
Presentation / Practice/ Production
based on the Grammar-Translation Method in which
grammar explanations are followed by exercises.
follows the premise that knowledge becomes skill
through successive practice and that language is
learned in small chunks leading to the whole.
views accuracy as a precursor to fluency.
PPP- Stage 1
In the first stage of the sequence the teacher
introduces the language and forms to be studied.
PPP- Stage 2
In the second stage students practice using the
language and grammar introduced by the teacher.
This stage is often characterized by decontextualized
The focus of this stage is the accurate use of
PPP- Stage 3
After students have demonstrated that they can
accurately use the language and forms introduced,
fluency is developed by providing opportunities for
students to use what they have learned in a less
Criticism of PPP:
SLA research demonstrates that practice does not
lead to perfection (Lightbown, 1985).
Language learning does not occur in a linear fashion
influenced directly by the instruction that takes place
(Ellis 1993; Skehan, 1996).
Relies heavily on the use of decontextualized and
meaningless drills (Wong & Van Pattten, 2003).
Task Based Language Teaching
Accuracy and fluency are addressed in TBLT with a
linguistic focus supporting the task or emerging out
of difficulties experienced during the task.
This maintains the focus on communication rather
than learning particular forms and promotes the
relevancy of grammatical instruction.
Willis’ (1996) Model
Pre-Task: lexicon is introduced and learners are
engaged in brief activities to activate their schemata
about a particular topic or to equip them to
participate in the main task.
Task: learners are actively engaged in completing a
Language Focus: learners’ errors are highlighted and
specific activities are utilized to allow them to
practice using the correct language forms.
Accuracy Addressed Through Focused Tasks
Focused tasks are tasks that are likely to require the
use of a particular form.
For example, writing a recipe will require the use of
the imperative and decorating a room will require
the use of prepositions.
Willis’ TBLT Framework
Willis (1996) advocated addressing accuracy through
the structure of lessons:
c) Post-task (language focus)
In this phase the teacher will:
1) Introduce and define the topic
2) Use activities to help students recall or learn
vocabulary and phrases
3) Provide examples of how the task may be
4) Provide instructions for completing the task
During this stage the students complete the central
task of the cycle individually (in pairs or groups).
While the students work, the teacher ensures
students understand the task and are being
The teacher monitors time closely and observes how
groups are functioning. This information may be
relayed to students to promote effective group
functioning or may be used in formulating future
Language focus phase
In this phase students move from a focus on
meaning to a focus on form.
The purpose of this phase is to develop accuracy by
directing students’ attention to particular language
forms and usage.
Tasks to Promote Negotiation
Negotiation contributes to language acquisition by
making input more comprehensible (Long, 1985)
and by providing opportunities to attend to form
Types of Tasks – Willis (1996)
1) Listing – brainstorming, fact-finding
2) Ordering and Sorting – sequencing, ranking,
3) Comparing – matching, finding differences and
4) Problem Solving
5) Sharing Personal Experiences
6) Creative Tasks
Types of Tasks – Pica, Kanagy, Falodun (1993)
1) Jigsaw – learners combine different pieces of
information to create a whole
2) Information-Gap – learners have different information.
They negotiate to find the other individual’s information
3) Problem-Solving – students must find a solution for a
problem (typically there is one resolution)
4) Decision-Making – students solve an open-ended
problem by discussing multiple options and choosing the
5) Opinion Exchange – learners exchange ideas without
needing to come to a consensus
Some benefits of TBLT
Current educational research outlines that learners
engage in the learning process using a variety of
styles and intelligences.
TBLT provides an inductive approach to instruction
and addresses different learning styles than PPP.
TBLT encourages more meaningful learning
experiences that are relevant to students.
Some benefits of TBLT (Willis, 1996)
PPP is a form of the “banking model” of education
whereas TBLT is a student-centered approach that
provides a voice to students (content and language
Principles of democracy are more reflective of a
Views students as
Learning content not
Students are valuable
Students are given a
TBLT empowers learners by giving them agency and
recognizing the value of their language (non-
standard forms of English).
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