Although English only has two ‘official’ tenses ‘past’ and ‘present’, grammar can be tricky for the best of us. In particular it poses difficulties for young learners as they are still developing the ability to comprehend abstract ideas and may not to grasp such concepts as ‘time’ or ‘real vs unreal’ in the same way as an adult.
However, there is the expectation in the ELT industry, from everybody from course book writers to teachers, that learning a language involves an element of studying grammar; not to mention the pressure from parents for children to study grammar. If you teach children, you undoubtedly will have met parents who worriedly lament that their children’s grammatical accuracy is not as they had hoped.
This post will explore the issue of whether to teach grammar at all to young learners, and if we do need to teach it, how we should teach it. When exploring the issue of children and learning anything, the most important factor to take into consideration is their abilities according to their cognitive development. A science teacher will know that they cannot go into a class of 7 year olds and start talking about the principles of astrophysics, so why as English teachers do we think it is acceptable to walk in and start talking about auxiliary verbs and participles? It might be a rather crude simplification, but we can divide our young learners into three (broad) categories:
• Early years (0-5)
• Primary (6-11)
• Teens (12-18).
Children in each of these groups will respond to language in very different ways and will respond to quite different language presentation and practice techniques. Below, we will look at each group in more detail.
Children under 5 are still learning their mother tongue, and teachers need to manage their expectations about what the learners can do. If learners are not able to use past verb forms correctly in the first language, they are unlikely to do it in the second language. Children in general are meaning focused, and always prioritize the message of what they are trying to communicate over form. An entertaining cartoon which illustrates this can be seen in the Lightbown and Spada book, ‘How Languages are Learned’ on page 13, where a boy is talking to his mother. The boy says ‘I putted the plates on the table!’ and mum tries to correct with ‘You mean, I put the plates on the table’ and the boy responds ‘No, I putted them on all by myself!’. The boy misinterprets his mother’s words because he does not recognize that he is being corrected; and focuses first on the meaning of what his mother has said.
The implications of the preference of form over meaning, and the inability for learners of this age to conceptualize complex abstract ideas means that new language for children in this age group is better taught in chunks, rather than structurally. Imagine you want 5 year old learners to be able to use the present continuous for actions happening now; rather than going into explanations about ‘actions that are happening now’ and breaking up the tense according to form, it would be much more productive to create an authentic context in which learners can hear the language being used, such as showing them a short video of a cartoon, and pausing at different points and saying what different characters are doing, i.e. ‘He’s reading a book’.
Learners of this age also learn best when they are playing. Instead of forcing them to take part in mundane drilling activities using flashcards, consider letting the learners engage in imaginary play. A game like ‘mums and dads’, provides ample opportunities for you to ask ‘What are you doing?’, which will elicit a more meaningful example of the target language.
These learners tend to demonstrate a much higher level of cognitive awareness when it comes to language than toddlers; post-6, children start to become more independent in terms of literacy skills, and at school, little by little they will become more familiar with abstract concepts, such as multiplication and division in mathematics. It may be tempting to think we can start to treat them more like adults, but this is not always the case. When it comes to grammar, primary learners may understand that when we talk about things in the past, we have to use –ed, but understanding the use of the past perfect is something that would be out of the grasp of most primary learners.
When we teach adults and teens, we often accompany grammar with concept checking questions (CCQs), for example ‘A storm has hit Hong Kong’ might be accompanied by ‘Is the storm still happening now’ to check that learners understand the concept of a present result. These CCQs are likely to be ineffective with primary learners, as they misinterpret the question as a genuine meaning-based one. Case in point, during a lesson on ancient Egypt with my 11 year olds, I was teaching the passive. I had the sentence ‘The Great Pyramid was built in Giza’ on the board. I asked the learners the standard CCQ that we ask with the passive ‘Is it important who built the pyramids?’, expecting the ‘no’ that would signify that learners understood that we often use the passive when the agent is less important than the action itself. The answer to the question came from my brightest student who said ‘Yes, of course it’s important. The Egyptians built the pyramids like we learned last lesson.’ Moral of the story, when the CCQs related to some abstract aspect of the language they are just going to confuse learners further.
My advice for primary teachers is to reflect carefully on the target language for the lesson and to implement a ‘soft’ focus on form stage for language points that are not too abstract. Something like the plural –s is quite easy to teach, given that it’s not beyond learners’ abilities to understand that when there is more than one, we need to add an –s to whatever we are talking about, whereas something like unreal conditionals are something that we can present learners with through a story, but are probably best not taught through talking about ‘the hypothetical’ and use of the past simple verb form to describe it. In terms of practicing grammar, we can set up speaking tasks where learners would naturally use a certain tense or aspect, give clear models and then let them try out the language for themselves.
In schools, teenagers more often than not, tend to be taught grammar in a similar way to adults. However this has its disadvantages, especially in cultures where grammar is taught through lengthy grammar explanations with little focus on using the language. Indeed, Michael Swan (2008) suggests that teaching grammar isn’t necessarily learning a language but rather a predictable task. He justifies this by saying, “Students generally learn grammatical rules and vocabulary to pass an exam, but are unable to sustain a conversation”. It is easy to think that teens are no more than miniature adults, but actually the human brain is still developing into the 20s. The amygdala is our reptile brain, the part that is responsible for the fight or flight stimulus and how we respond to rewards. This part of the brain is hyperactive in teens and is what causes teens to sometimes behave in what we would consider an irrational manner. Angry outbursts and ditching school to play football in the park are tempting impulses that we have to control, but the pre-frontal cortex does not fully develop until the mid-twenties, which accounts for what we often perceive as disruptive behavior in teens. Because of this, it is crucial that teens find the learning experience engaging, and when we think of engaging experiences, grammar is not necessarily the first thing that jumps to mind.
Just like when we teach adults, contextualizing grammar is crucial, as it gives us more ‘meat’ to work with in terms of interesting conversations and helps them to see the real world usage of what they are learning. When I worked at the British Council, all of our teen classes were based around a topic-led scheme of work and a graded reader. Rather than teaching the first conditional and struggling to find a practical context, teachers would find a natural grammatical focus based on the topic learners were discussing. The first conditional arises naturally from conversations such as ‘If the polar ice caps melt, the polar bear cubs might die’, and connects to themes that they might be talking about at school in science or geography anyway. When teaching teens, a good rule of thumb is to reduce ‘explanations’ to a minimum, keep it communicative and avoid dedicating large portions of the class to grammar gap-fills.
To teach, or not to teach?
Above all else, when deciding whether or not to teach grammar, teach to your learners and don’t just teach something because it’s in the coursebook or on your syllabus. Next time you’re going to teach some grammar, think about whether it’s going to be a useful learning experience for your learners and if it isn’t, think about how it can be adapted to make it engaging and meaningful.
Lightbown, P & Spada, N; (2006) How Languages are learned, 3rd edition. Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers.
Blakemore, S J; (2012) The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain. A conference speech at TED.com
English for Asia will be holding a grammar workshop for teachers in Hong Kong on October 4. Sign up now as places are limited.
Eve Conway is our TYLEC and CertTESOL trainer. She has worked in Spain, Vietnam and Mexico as both a teacher and TYLEC trainer as well as having worked on shorter projects in the UK, Italy, Azerbaijan and Peru. She worked for over 6 years for the British Council, where she discovered a love for working with children, particularly Early Years learners. Eve holds a bachelor’s degree in English language as well as an MA in Applied Linguistics and a Trinity DipTESOL. Having always loved languages, she is a fluent Spanish speaker and is keen to learn more languages. Eve is a keen conference speaker and occasional writer for ELT magazines and publications.