Traditionally, teaching language is associated with learning grammar rules. And why not? Without structure you have nothing to build communication on. Communicating would be nothing more than hit or miss if we didn’t know how to arrange the words.
Learning English in school is often about the rules and mastering them. Instead of developing your ability to use English in meaningful ways, the emphasis may have been on passing tests.
But teaching English is instead about giving your students opportunities to use the language. It is about creating an environment where perfect grammar is not the only acceptable display of language proficiency.
The following points will help you see that shooting for perfect grammar may not be the way to go.
Humour is known to decrease learning anxiety. So, you can inject a little into your classes. Check out these two videos for poking fun at imperfect grammar:
Now ask your class if they could understand the messages despite the poor grammar. They should be able to. Of course, we don’t want students speaking like this coming from our class, but the point is that imperfect grammar doesn’t always block meaning.
So, it’s okay once in a while to slip up. Interestingly, the tied-up professor in the Torture video reminds me of an ESL teacher I once knew. How about you?
Talking That Matters
You can also engage learners in conversations that matter. Ask your students how they’re doing, what they did last night, or their plans for the weekend. In doing so, you’re giving them opportunities to talk about daily life. This means you are giving them feedback that incorporates not only grammar, but also other points that might help them communicate more competently.
A variation is involving them in meaningful discussions. By discussing issues that matter to your class, you’re inviting them to be active participants. As they do, take note of recurring weak grammar points and review them after the discussion. Ideally, the feedback won’t mention names. Rather than teaching grammar, you are addressing areas in grammar that can improve communication.
Having Perfect Grammar Makes Students Sound Less Natural
President John F. Kennedy was a skilled orator. Civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke with excellent form. Sir Winston Churchill is another famous example of a skilled speaker. But one thing they had in common is that they gave speeches.
Listen to them here:
Ask your class what they thought of the speeches. Were they moved by the speeches, engaged or bored? Did it sound like something they’ve heard in TV shows or strange? You can discuss this with the class by analyzing, not the words, but the delivery.
Here’s another video that’s closer to home:
You can ask your class to give their thoughts on what they observed. Did it look, sound, and feel natural to them? Or was it overly proper?
As ESL teachers, we’re not usually teaching students how to express themselves for oration, but how to use English for daily life. Such as, for conversations, for asking directions, ordering at a restaurant, talking to a doctor, going to school, and so on.
We can help our students by de-emphasizing perfect grammar. Instead, help them to recognize when he/she makes his/her point. Then go back and give feedback how it can be done better.
The fact is, that native speakers make a lot of grammar mistakes. Watch this video for details:
In reality, if your students want to sound like native speakers, they actually need a little imperfect grammar.
Make Your Classes Enjoyable
So, you may be wondering how to maintain structure while helping them learn to use English.
One of the best ways to facilitate grammar in ESL classes is not to focus on it. Make your classes so enjoyable that students don’t even realize they’re learning.
When you know you’re going to be learning something, you prepare yourself for the academics. This can get formal, boring, and stiff. You condition yourself to remember or memorize what is being presented to you instead of acquiring it.
But when you enjoy an interesting topic, activity, or game you don’t realize you’re learning anything. It just sticks with you. The next day, you find that you know what you’re talking about.
Well, it’s the same for ESL learners. If they can learn without knowing they’re learning, they can acquire the language points.
An activity I like to use is called My Timeline. Each student creates a timeline on paper from birth to present. They plot 5–10 significant events in their lives on the timeline and talk about them with the class. Classmates ask questions and others answer. In so doing, they talk about the past and the present. They are challenged to use words and phrases that everyone can learn because the activity covers the same territory for all class members.
As they talk, you take notes of any grammar or other issues. After the activity, you can share helpful points that will help them improve communication in this context (i.e. talking about their past and present lives, as well as important events).
Okay, so we’ve identified that focusing on grammar can be boring and even counterproductive to language acquisition. We’ve given you some reasons why perfect grammar doesn’t need to be the goal of an ESL class. And we’ve provided a few examples of how you can make your classes less grammar-focused but grammar-productive.
What will you do with it?
Share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences with us in the comments below.