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Making Grammar meaningful

 

I’m into grammar, especially English grammar, but I’m not a fan of the way it is traditionally approached. So, I’ve been making materials to help learners see what English grammar is really about.

 

I’d like to share my thoughts and hear what other teachers think about how grammar is typically taught and how we can improve the way grammar is presented to make it less technical and more meaningful for learners to help them develop their communication skills.

My basic thoughts

To put it simply, grammar is the way we put words together:

  • we can change the order of the words

  • change the words by adding bits (such as -ed for regular past tense)

  • we can add more words

Rather than bogging learners down with complex terminology, formulas, rules and exceptions to memorize, I prefer to go back to basics:

  • look at the parts of a sentence where they go and what they mean.

This addresses the main questions I have as a learner: “What does this part mean?” and “Why is this part being used in this sentence?”

 

We learn our first languages fine as children without terminology, so I don’t see why language learners are typically forced to focus on it. A language learner doesn’t need to be able to categorize parts of speech, they need to be able to use it.

 

The way we approach language as children is very different: we try to decode and make sense of what we hear around us.

 

The way I see it, one of the big problems with the current approach to grammar is that learners aren’t encouraged to decode what they read and hear, they’re encouraged to memorize structures and focus on correctness rather than clarity of expression. Learners are presented with certain forms that they should learn and are then given examples of these forms being used, often out of context. Correct syntax seems to be the goal.

 

Much of traditional grammar in ELT seems to be a collection of rules for seemingly random, disconnected grammar points. I’d prefer to think of the language as a system of communication and learners should better understand how this system works; how words are chosen to communicate ideas.

 

Thankfully nowadays developing communication skills is seen as more important than focusing too heavily on the study of grammatical structures. More focus on input and output skills definitely helps, but many aspects of language are left as mysterious as learners attempt to decode the new language, often using the framework of their first language.

 

Learners need to learn how to put their words together in a new way, and grammar study is a good way to raise their awareness of how this is done. As they become more aware of features of the language they are studying, they understand what the features mean on a deeper level. Rather than just drilling to make learners familiar with the structure, when learners study a grammatical feature, they can explore the range of uses to discover its meaning.

 

Understanding the meanings behind the grammar gives learners the tools they need to communicate more effectively. With these tools they can better decode the language they hear and read, and construct their own sentences to express themselves better.

About me

After teaching in Japan for six years I decided that things needed to change. The whole idea of grammar rules and exceptions to these rules seemed to be missing the point. I thought a lot of this didn’t relate to the language that people use in the real world. 

 

So, I quit my job, moved back to Australia with my wife and baby, set up office in my parents’ basement and sat down to write my own grammar book based on the following idea:

 

When we communicate in a language there are no exceptions. We choose words to express ourselves and there is a reason behind every choice.

 

We never concern ourselves with exceptions. And in terms of grammar usage, I find it hard to believe that exceptions actually exist. A grammar rule is really just someone’s hypothesis. If it doesn’t agree with the data (i.e. there are exceptions) we should look for a new hypothesis.

 

I researched and wrote for a couple of years to come up with a book with explanations that matched the grammar in my head, exception free and used for clear communication.

 

The main conclusion I came to is that words typically have one core meaning. And this meaning can be combined with other words in a range of contexts to express a wide range of ideas.

 

I trialled the book with ESL students in Australia form a variety of Asian backgrounds (Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese). They found understanding the few often-used grammatical words and their core meanings to be a real eye-opener. They started coming up with their own examples, explaining why one phrasing made more sense and was therefore more natural than another, and even being able to understand and explain nuance.

 

We’re back in Japan again now and I am enjoying being back into teaching.

Going online

I have recently updated my website (www.realgrammar.com) to include some information on tenses etc. and practice activities. We all know that there is often more than one way of saying things, so it is useful for learners to look at the options they have and why they work. The practice activities on the site encourage learners to think about the meaning of the parts being used and make their own grammatical choices.

 

I plan to add more sections. The next section will be on prepositions and exploring their uses to develop a better sense of what they mean.

 

It is a new site, so I’d appreciate feedback from teachers and learners to refine the site and shape the direction it takes as the site grows.

 

My goal is to have a resource that helps learners become more familiar with key parts of English, so they can use English to express themselves with more clarity and confidence.

 

So, check out the site. I hope you find it interesting and would like to hear your thoughts on how we can make English grammar more meaningful for learners.

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