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Content Type3
TitleGrammar Is More Than Inflections

By Lindsay Marean, InterCom Editor

When language teachers see grammar as a topic in a pedagogy article, we usually expect to hear sides in a debate over whether or not to explicitly teach grammar. During the past month, we’ve explored aspects of grammar and language teaching that you may not have thought about before. Julie Sykes explains how grammatical structures are critical to successful navigation of intercultural pragmatics. She and Stephanie Knight both emphasize the importance of limiting explicit instruction to what is needed for the communicative context and the task at hand. Misaki Kato and Keli Yerian both stretch our understanding of grammar beyond our usual focus on word order and correct prefixes or suffixes; Kato summarizes research that tells us that explicitly teaching about sound systems is important, and Yerian introduces us to research about gesture, both to facilitate learning and as a part of the linguistic systems we use to communicate with each other. Two points emerge from this month’s InterCom series: (1) grammatical structures encompass more than we are accustomed to thinking about; and (2) explicit teaching of grammar has value, but it must be linked to communicative needs.

As a language teacher, I must admit that I find this news to be intimidating. Having formally learned Spanish verb conjugations as a student, and supported by textbooks that teach these endings sequentially, I feel comfortable making verbal inflection a major part of my curriculum. However, discourse markers (such as you know in English or o sea in Spanish), while important for connecting ideas and indicating commitment to what one is saying, are challenging for me to teach. Must I read and digest academic articles about discourse markers in order to teach them? With less commonly taught languages, especially indigenous languages with little documentation (also, older documentation tends to neglect discourse-pragmatic structures), a teacher might feel even more at a loss. Fortunately, we already share a set of principles for good practice in language teaching and learning that can help us to address this challenge.

Specifically, three guiding principles from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages are relevant to ensuring that learners can become proficient across a wide range of language patterns:

Use of the Target Language: Although we address explicit teaching of grammar in this month’s series, there is no doubt that implicit learning also occurs. When you and your students use the target language, they acquire patterns, often unconsciously, that they may never have been taught. They and you also notice gaps in their communicative ability that can be addressed through quick lessons on key structures that may not be in your textbook.

Use of Authentic Texts: “Teacher talk” and learners’ interlanguage may by quite different from authentic language use. For example, teachers often leave out “extra” words such as discourse markers, and learners may restrict themselves to only the present tense where a different tense would be more appropriate. Target language use to expose students to the full array of grammatical patterns in a language is most impactful when it comes from authentic sources, which are generally linguistically richer than classroom-generated language, and which are always context-embedded.

Teach Grammar as Concepts in Meaningful Contexts: One approach to teaching grammar is to notice when a particular structure comes up in class interactions, give a brief explanation of the underlying concept behind this particular instance, and move on with communication. For example, we may come across this sentence in Spanish:

  •             Lo aprendí de una persona muy sabia, o sea, de mi madre.
  •             ‘I learned it from a very wise person, that is, from my mother.’

I can point out briefly that one use of o sea is to connect two ideas, with the second one being a reformulation or explanation of the first one. In this case, my students may notice, o sea is connecting “my mother” with “a very wise person.” Then, we move on with the communicative task at hand.

We learn guiding principles and core practices because they are simultaneously beneficial in several ways. One benefit that these three principles share is that they help our students to become proficient in much more than inflections; they must also become proficient in gesture, pronunciation, discourse marking, and intercultural pragmatics, along with many other areas that together comprise a language.

SourceCASLS Topic of the Week
Inputdate2018-10-05 09:55:43
Lastmodifieddate2018-10-29 03:49:54
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Publishdate2018-10-29 02:15:01
Displaydate2018-10-29 00:00:00