This paper first discusses why the sentence-level drills still being used extensively in the teaching of grammar to second language learners have not been successful. What follows is a presentation of an innovative approach; namely, using context and discourse to present and practice grammar in more authentic and effective ways.
At the 2007 TESOL Convention in Seattle, Washington, I was surprised to see how many of the ESL/EFL textbooks being displayed and sold in the book exhibits still use decontextualized sentence-level exercises for most of each grammar lesson or unit. In such grammar exercises, learners are typically asked to do something resembling one of the rather mechanical drill types below:
For example: I ____________ to school every day. (a. drives b. drive c. driven)
For example: John _______ to the store yesterday. (walk)
For example:a. John is a teacher. → Is John a teacher?
b. John is a teacher. → John is not (isn't) a teacher.
For example: (my, Mr., teacher, is, Johnson) → My teacher is Mr. Johnson.
For example: I go to see horror movies. (never) → I never go to see horror movies.
For example: Where were you born? → I was born in Chicago.
I could continue listing such drills, but I think I've made my point: Drills like these are neither meaningful nor authentic. Some readers might feel that the exercise shown in (6) above begins to resemble communication. However, I would argue that such an exercise lacks authenticity and does not model typical communication.
First, a question like "Where were you born?" is not asked out of the blue. It is often part of an ongoing conversation with a biographical focus, where interlocutors are getting acquainted. Alternatively, such a question can be prompted by the speaker's accent, which the listener perceives as different from his and which is not readily identifiable. The question could also be part of a structured interview, where the interviewer has a list of information items to elicit from the interviewee, for example, date of birth, place of birth, current occupation, etc.
Secondly, such a question is very rarely answered with a full statement. I asked five English speakers this question and got these responses:
No one answered with a complete sentence. The person with the longest response elaborated because she knew her response (i.e., Japan) was an unusual one, and she thus tried to provide additional clarification.
Very few English grammar rules are strictly sentence-internal decisions that English speakers need to make. The following is a fairly exhaustive list of such mechanical sentence-level rules:
Even though these rules are sentence-internal, learners need to be able to apply them in the course of producing spoken or written English discourse, and we know that this is not always easy for them to do quickly and accurately.
In contrast, most of the grammatical choices English users make depend on an array of contextual factors:
There is no way that sentence-level drills can give learners sufficient context to learn when and why to use the passive voice, the definite article, the present perfect tense, a relative clause, or any other grammar objective not on the short four-item sentence-level list itemized above. Only learning activities that are richly situated and fully meaningful and contextualized will begin to be able to achieve this.
Furthermore, we need to recognize that individual sentences presented in isolation are typically ambiguous in terms of their situational meaning and function. For example, the sentence "I'm hungry" means not only "speaker claims to feel hunger pangs," but it will also have different interpretations depending on the context:
1. Spoken to his mother by a youngster coming home at noon, it is a request for lunch.
2. Spoken to a passerby by a beggar with an outstretched hand, it is a request for money.
3. Spoken by a child who has just finished a meal, it is a request for more food.
From Celce-Murcia & Olshtain, 2000, p. 20)
What are some of the characteristics of grammar exercises that would better serve the needs of English language learners?
A: I just found out that Juan is from Panama.
B: He's not from Panama. He's from Colombia.
A: What's up?
B: I'm looking for my (purse/car keys), and I can't find (it/them). Have you seen (it/them)?
A: No, I haven't.
Notice that such short dialogs also contextualize practice of several tenses (simple present, present progressive, present perfect and the two negative forms can't and haven't).
For example: Use an e-mail message to present the fact that future scenarios are often initiated with the "be going to" future and subsequently elaborated with "will/'ll". After discussion and analysis of the future forms, the learners can write their own future scenarios and e-mail it to classmates with a copy to the instructor. Here is a sample for analysis and discussion:
(See Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999, chapter 9 for further data)
How are you? I hope you're fine. Guess what? I'm going to sing in the mixed chorus this year. I'll have practice sessions on Wednesday evenings, and we'll prepare pieces for several concerts and events during the year. We'll even travel to Washington for a choral competition. It'll be fun. What's new with you?
Survey question: What is your favorite movie/book/city/, etc.
Example report: Ten Americans were asked, "What is your favorite city?"
Three cities in the U.S.—New York, San Francisco, and Boston—were mentioned twice, while Seattle was cited once. London, Paris, and Rome were each selected by one survey participant.
On a related note, for teachers who say that they have tried to do grammar correction using sentences from students' essays, but that it didn't seem to help much, the following strategy is proposed in lieu of doing sentence-level correction. For example, to practice correcting verb forms that have been covered in class, present an exercise such as the following so that learners get accustomed to correcting errors in coherent text (not just in sentences), which in turn better prepares them to edit their own work.
Directions: Work with a partner to correct all the verb form errors in this passage. There are six.(With some learners, it is not necessary to give the number and type of error. The teacher should adjust the level of difficulty to the class.)
Passage: Personal Digital Assistants are become very popular now. They not have a keyboard or a mouse. Most PDAs doesn't have word processors, spread sheets, or databases. But PDAs has a datebook, a clock, a calculator, and a notebook. You can even go on the Internet with some PDAs. People sends and receives e-mails with these PDAs.
(text from O'Sullivan, 2007: 219)
I conclude by emphasizing that grammar instruction is much more effective when it is situated in a meaningful context, embedded in authentic (or semi-authentic) discourse, and motivated by getting learners to achieve a goal or complete an interesting task. Hopefully, at future TESOL conferences, we will see more materials for grammar instruction that satisfy these criteria with a concomitant decrease in the quantity of materials consisting primarily of manipulative sentence-level grammar drills.
Marianne Celce-Murcia is Professor Emerita of Applied Linguistics at UCLA and Dean of English Programs at the American University of Armenia, Yerevan. Her long-standing interest in English grammar and grammar pedagogy have resulted in (among other publications) her co-authoring The Grammar Book (2nd ed. 1999) with Diane Larsen-Freeman and co-editing The Grammar Connection (2007, a grammar textbook series) with Maggie Sokolik (both publications with Thomson Heinle).
Celce-Murcia, M. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The grammar book: An ESL/EFL teachers course. 2nd edition. Boston: Thomson Heinle.
Celce-Murcia, M. & Olshtain, E. (2000). Discourse and context in language teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.
O'Sullivan, J.K. (2007). Grammar connection: Structure through context, Book 1 (series eds., M. Celce-Murcia & M.E. Sokolik). Boston: Thomson Heinle.
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