Saturday, 27 May 2017

Using context to introduce and practise grammar

 Teaching is liberating if you keep an open mind and allow yourself some space to pore over your approach, your students and the results of your choices as we make hundreds of choices as we go along – from the books we will adopt to whether a student needs some special treatment on a particular occasion.

Surprisingly, experience leads us to what appears to be  very simple ideas but needed so much time to crystallize as they have. A simple example is related to presenting and practising new grammatical or lexical items.

It has taken me quite a long time to decide that there is a very basic pattern in presenting and practising grammatical phenomena and/or lexical items, and it is the following:

The point is that both the texts we select for presentation and the ones for practice must be the right level for the students and, if possible, correspond to their interests, which means that our exercises must be mostly customised. Of course one can create ad hoc examples to suit one’s needs.

Let us assume that we want to present or more probably revise modal verbs of deduction or possibility or ways of speculating in general. We can use extracts from books which would fire our students’ imagination. I quote a short extract from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon and following that another extract from The Stranger by Camilla Lackberg:

But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decide that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident.

“It’s not so much what I see but what I smell.” Hanna took a couple of deep sniffs. “She stinks of booze. She must have been dead drunk when she took off the road.”

Of course this is only a sample of material that one can use and it is meant for students who are revising rather than being introduced to those functions for the first time. At this level, as the students are more mature, they need to be coaxed into using the patterns by providing a meaningful context.

So let us assume that we have provided enough examples both from sources and of our own making, have clarified any unclear points and have answered the students’ questions. It is now time to invite our students to produce relevant structures again in a meaningful context. For the sake of convenience I will consider a news item published on BBC. Here is the photo that accompanied the news story and for those interested I provide the link further down.

We could show the photo to the students and ask questions that will elicit the structures taught with a little bit of help or nudging from the teacher. I am of the opinion that when teaching takes place in a controlled environment, there is no harm in the teacher mediating to assist learning and assimilation. The questions we could ask are:
Ø How was the distress signal formed?
Ø Who could have written it?
Ø How might they have found themselves in the middle of the desert?

I got a few responses on showing the picture. The situation proved to be intriguing enough to stimulate the students’ interest—not least because it was so current.

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