WHY TEACHING GRAMMAR TO YOUNG LEARNERS IS A BAD IDEA 

At the CCT Languages Summer Symposium two weeks ago, I attended a session led by Dan MacPherson. It was called ‘Entdeckendes lernen: An Approach to Successful Grammar Teaching’. Below, I have summarised what I learned and also share some implications for practice.

It is important to highlight two things. First, I am paraphrasing the main points made by the speaker. Second, when I mention grammar I am referring to conjugations, but not exclusively.

‘Entdeckendes lernen’

‘Entdeckendes lernen (explorative or discovery learning) is a method of teaching grammar. It is comprised of five phases:

  1. Impulse phase: The teacher exposes pupils to examples of the language patterns they need to learn.
  2. Presentation stage: The teacher shows pupils the link between the language pattern introduced and what it means.
  3. Insurance phase: Here the teacher makes a scaffolded explanation of the language pattern. Pupils note down the key information for later reference and practice.
  4. Practice phase: Pupils practice the target language pattern under very controlled conditions. Verbs and examples are similar throughout to allow pupils to apply the rules.
  5. Transfer phase: Pupils have the chance to use the grammar rule independently.

Once you’ve completed all the phases, you can repeat phases 3,4 and 5 in a cyclical fashion if you feel this is necessary. To see the examples used, click here

Discussion 

Often, teachers use a similar approach to teach grammar. In doing so, they are likely to take into account:

(a) The breakdown of the rules into manageable chunks.

(b) A reduction in pace.

(c) A lot of practice.

Pupils are often able to show autonomy and competence during practice. However, they struggle to apply grammar.

Using this approach, or any other, to teach grammar places a significant demand on young pupil’s cognitive abilities. Doing so is counterproductive because young learners have a limited working memory. They also have a restricted experience of language learning, thus they lack the strong mental model to understand the complex workings of a grammar rule.

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Moreover, as teachers, we forget how difficult it is to grasp a grammar concept. Here is a list of elements your pupils must grapple with when dealing with conjugations:

  • Terminology
  • The concept of infinitive verbs
  • Pronouns
  • Infinitive verb endings
  • Adding or taking away the ending of the infinitive
  • Regular verbs vs irregular verbs (various types)

The more complex the grammar, the longer the list. No wonder many pupils find it too complicated.

The alternative 

Don’t teach grammar explicitly at KS3. Instead, give students a set of linguistic devices to be stored in long-term memory through repeated exposure and retrieval practice. This corpus of verbs and phrases will serve as a strong foundation on which pupils will build their understanding of grammar.

For example, before teaching the conditional tense in Spanish, it would be clearer for pupils to spot the patterns of the tense if they are already very familiar with phrases such as; me gustaría, sería, seríamos iría, etc.  Also, having 5 to 10 examples of how to use the verbs avoir and être, would make it easier to learn the perfect tense in French.  This will have a more positive impact on pupils’ confidence and ability to communicate using TL.

Conclusion

Teaching grammar has a small part to play at KS4. The aim of grammar should be to enable linguistic production. Introducing it too early runs the risk of disabling it by getting students stuck in the murky checklist of grammar rules.

The decision to introduce a grammar rule is in your hands. However, you need to consider its necessity, it’s relevance and its challenges. Giving pupils content which is beyond their ability to grasp is simply disadvantageous.

Implications for Practice

  1. Opportunity cost: To invest my precious time well, I will not be introducing any complex grammar rules or conjugations at KS3. Instead, I will give my pupils a set of commonly used phrases such as the ones here.
  2. Weekly low stake quizzes: I will set self-quizzing as homework and I will start my lessons with low stake quizzes. All this, to enable my pupils to build sets of key phrases into their long-term memory.
  3.  Organised approach: I will be teaching grammar at KS4. The approach outlined above seems fitting. Also, I will take into consideration the support, pace and practice needed. M.A.R.S from Gianfranco Conti is another good approach to teaching grammar and is well worth a try.

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