Involving Students in Grammar Work: Not Too Little, Not Too MuchMichael SwanStudents learn best if they are involved -- if they can participate in the choice of learning activities, express their attitudes to their lessons, and use their personal knowledge, feelings and imagination in their work. As everybody knows, this is not easy to achieve. We have all seen classes -- and perhaps taught them -- where the students never escape from the two-dimensional cardboard world of the teaching materials. Whether because of the teacher's fear of losing control, the general educational ethos, or simple lack of know-how, nothing personally interesting or involving ever happens. Twenty-five or thirty rich and varied internal worlds remain silent, while everybody does and says the same kind of thing. Attempts to change things can go too far. Early approaches to 'learner autonomy' sometimes came close to a point where students decided for themselves what to learn, chose how to learn it, selected and worked through appropriate materials, and tested themselves, with the teacher simply acting as a consultant. The results were generally disappointing. More recent attempts to avoid 'imposing' pre-planned structural or lexical syllabuses have also sometimes delivered less than they promised. (Whatever the attractions of a task-based syllabus, for example, it is not a very efficient way of ensuring that students learn all the high-priority grammar and vocabulary they need.) How can we get maximum student involvement in grammar lessons without losing efficiency? It is worth looking at the different stages of grammar work separately, asking how we can bring in the learner at each point.Preliminary Work: Learner TrainingBeginners may have little idea of how languages and language learning work. In the first lesson, talk these things through with them. Students' own ideas about grammar, however naive, make an excellent starting point. If you listen carefully to what learners have to say, they will listen to you in return when you help them to see things more realistically. The Mother TongueSometimes we need to use the mother tongue in the classroom (for instance in grammar explanations), and sometimes we need not to (for instance, in most grammar practice). Listen to what students think about this. If necessary, encourage them to question their attitudes. Syllabus ChoiceBeginners can't choose what points of grammar they are going to work on -- they don't know enough about the language. But even at this level it is worth explaining why the syllabus is as it is, rather than just getting the class to do the grammar because it is there in the book. At higher levels, it is quite reasonable to get students' views on grammar priorities and (up to a point) to take these into account. If you pay attention to their reasons for wanting, say, to do less on tenses, more on articles, or no work on grammar at all, they are more likely to take your own priorities
seriously.Rule-learningGrammar rules can be learnt explicitly, acquired implicitly through practice, or (with greater learner involvement) discovered by analyzing examples. Not all rules are necessarily best learnt in the same way, and not all learners respond equally well to the same approach. Try to find time to discuss these issues in class.Who Explains the Rule?Once or twice, get your more advanced students to teach a point of grammar to lower-level learners under your supervision. Preparing to explain something to somebody is an excellent way to get it clear in your own mind. Where Do the Examples Come From?Examples of grammatical structures can come from
learners as well as from teaching materials. Once they have got hold of a structure, students can (under your guidance) produce their own examples for the others to learn from. These can be personal (expressing learners' own ideas and experience) in ways that book-examples can never be.What Kind of Practice?Good teaching materials incorporate a wide range of practice activities, from basic mechanical exercises through pair and group work to more elaborate grammar-based tasks. Try discussing the different exercise types, explaining the rationale behind them and getting learners' reactions.Communicative WorkIt's at the practice stage that there is most opportunity for student involvement and creativity. Traditionally, however, most 'communicative' work has tended to take place in the context of fluency practice. Remember that grammar practice, too, can give students the chance to exchange information, give their opinions, use their imaginations and be creative.Who Makes the Exercises?You don't always have to stick to the teaching materials. If you are working on, say, a gap-fill exercise, get students to try making up additional items for each other.Tests Involving Students in Grammar Work: Not Too Little, Not Too MuchHelp students to feel that they are testing themselves -- checking their own progress -- rather than just being tested. Let them talk about what is an acceptable test result. Here, too, they can sometimes be involved creatively -- helping (under supervision) to create test items for each other. ConclusionThere are no miracle solutions to language teaching problems. Whatever we do, languages remain difficult and time remains short. Getting students more personally involved in their grammar learning will not magically make them fluent bilinguals. But it will certainly help them to learn more English, more effectively, and more enjoyably. And that is a good deal better than nothing.