Teaching English Grammar to EFL Students (Part 3 of 4)

This is the third in a series of articles focusing on ideas about teaching grammar to English learners. The previous two articles addressed issues relating to the presentation and practice of grammar. This one will concentrate on the third stage in the teaching process - production.

Assuming that the students have had the essentials of grammar presented to them in an imaginative and relevant way, and that they have been able to be engaged in creative, contextual practice, your students will be well-equipped to move on to producing language themselves. The point of the production stage of learning is that students move towards being able to put to appropriate use their learning and understanding of grammar in order to communicate meaningfully, appropriately and comprehensively.

What we're aiming for is this: a group of learners that have moved from waiting for questions generated by you to being able to generate them themselves; a group that no longer wait for your prompting but can come up with prompts of their own; a group that can, instead of following your suggestions for aspects of discussion, propose their own theme-related topics for discussion and consideration; and a group that can, independently and spontaneously, talk and write competently. If you manage to get your students to the stage where they are not only good test-takers but also have a real grasp of grammar and can apply it in the 'real world' then you will have successfully achieved what we as teachers are responsible for doing.

So, how do we empower our students in this way? How do we lead them along this broad and meandering path of learning towards the pre-determined goal of grammar competency?

Having equipped them with the tools, or rather the rules, of grammar, and having given them ample opportunities for practice, we must then, in the secure environment of the classroom, encourage them to branch out on their own, experiment a little, and produce their very own sentences, paragraphs and texts. To want to do this, our students will have to be motivated, and one way of ensuring this is to relate any discussions, writing assignments or other tasks as closely as possible to where they are coming from. Students who are repeatedly expected to produce work that has no meaning for them whatsoever, are quickly going to lose interest. Whenever possible, learning needs to have some direct relevance to those who are learning. Even the less interesting texts in course books can be brought within the students' realm; broader discussion will elicit points of contact. If the students' lead can be taken wherever possible in this respect, the subsequent work that's produced is undoubtedly going to be of a higher quality. For example, let's say there is a text about amazing geographical features throughout the world. This might not grab the imagination of your students. But if you can move on from this - perhaps, by asking them about either amazing sights generally, unusual phenomena they've seen or heard about, or countries they would like to visit - you'll be able to generate interest in a topic your students are more able to identify with. Then you're in a position to start encouraging them to produce their own language in connection with the topic they've shown interest in.

In terms of different modes of production, students need to be able to speak and write with competency. Because students learn better from the spoken word, and because it's a less formal way of producing language, speaking is often the best and easiest starting place for the initial (and often tentative) production of learned grammar. Non-threatening dialogues between student pairs is an obvious starting place. Simple topics - all about my family (practising the present simple), what I'm doing/not doing right now (to practise the present continuous), or what I did yesterday (to practise the past simple) - are fine to begin with. Later on, students can move on to talk about pictures (of famous actors/actresses, music personalities, sporting events, animals, places, etc) - initially saying what they see (also useful to reinforce the use of the present continuous when talking about pictures), and can then progress to hypothesising and projecting from what they actually see (using modals like 'might', 'could' and so forth). They could pretend they were somebody else and talk about their life; they could interview each other in pairs, one student being somebody famous.

You can use taped dialogues, interviews and discourses in a similar way, to promote language production on the part of the students. Again, instead of straightforward listening and then discussing, you can be a bit more imaginative. For example, play the beginning of a dialogue and then encourage students to say what they think the speaker might say next; continue the student version of the dialogue and then later listen to the actual tape to compare the two. Alternatively, play dialogues portraying specific tones or moods (anger, elation, jealousy) and then ask students to make up their own dialogues in a similar mode.

Gradually, your students can move on to writing personal texts (about themselves, their family, their hobbies and habits; then to more general texts, articles and letters, and to stories and imaginative writing, on each occasion producing the grammar they have learned.

In the early stages of production, one crucial point is for you to ensure that the classroom environment is safe and not threatening in any way for the students. Our students need permission to 'play around' with the language they've been practising. In the right setting they can feel safe enough to experiment with the new structures they've learned. Yes, they will make mistakes - and that's fine, providing they can be helped to understand the mistakes they made and why they made them, and to learn from them. Our students need continual and consistent exposure to language in a supportive and encouraging environment if they are going to reach their full potential when it comes to production of grammar, or, for that matter, any other aspect of the English language.

The fact that learners essentially know the rules of grammar does not, unfortunately, impart the ability to apply them appropriately. What we're doing is helping them to successfully make that transition from practice to production. When they can write letters, reports and stories of their own volition, using grammar correctly, they (and their teachers) can take a pride in their achievements.