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Teenagers and grammar
Here are some ideas for making grammar teaching more teen-friendly.
Break down negativity
If your students are very resistant to grammar, show them why it’s necessary. Record someone (yourself or a teen) using correct vocabulary but confusing grammar and ask them what the problem is. You could also give them written messages without any grammar words and ask them to make sense of them.
Sometimes students are put off by metalanguage, such as the names of tenses, or the G–word itself, so avoid it! Talk about language for –ing instead, e.g. ‘Today we’re going to look at language for telling stories’.
Present grammar in the context of a reading or listening text, an authentic video extract or a song. This way it’s easier to see how the language is used and work out the meaning from the context. Often the key to motivating a class is an interesting topic, so choose a text which will engage your learners. Many grammar areas can also be reinforced through extensive reading or listening. Graded readers are very useful for teenagers. If your students use public transport, encourage them to read on their e-books or look at magazines etc. on their mobiles or listen to podcasts while travelling.
Give rules which are true
Beware of over-generalisations about grammar which are not true. In the long term you won’t be doing your students any favours if you teach them, for example, that we only use some in positive statements and any in questions and negatives (‘Would you like some more?’ 'You can have any of the books.’) Sometimes course books give unclear grammar rules, or omit useful language. Back up your course book with reliable grammar books based on corpus research. If you’re looking at a tricky area, it’s always best to consult a few different books. Don’t trust all the rules you find on the internet - they aren’t necessarily correct.
Involve the students
Avoid lecturing on grammar – nothing is more boring – but continually question the students, either in a whole class situation, or by giving questions about the language to groups/pairs/individuals. Experiment with getting the students to teach each other grammar areas. You could get them to research new areas or revisit areas that you have looked at but which are still problematic. You’ll need to provide or recommend ways of researching the items. Remember the saying: if you want to learn something, teach it to somebody else!
The importance of noticing
Get students to ‘notice’ how the language is used, what it means, what the form of the language is. One way of doing this is by using the dictogloss technique, or a variation of it. Read a paragraph at natural speed, then repeat and allow students to take notes. Get students to try and reconstruct the text in twos or threes, then have them compare what they have written with the original text. As they compare, they will notice the elements of grammar which they have got right or wrong. Hopefully if students are used to noticing in class, they will continue to do it outside the classroom.
Grammar practice can be fun
Whenever possible find engaging ways to practise grammar such as online games and videos. Have a look at the Grammar section on LearnEnglish Teens. Grammar is presented in an animated video and explained in a conversation-style text. There are also online practice exercises.
It’s good to have a few games up your sleeve which can be used with different grammar areas. For example, have some laminated snakes and ladders boards and dice which can be used with correct/incorrect sentences. When the students have a turn they pick up a card with a sentence on and have to say whether it is correct or incorrect (and correct the incorrect sentences), otherwise they move back to where they started before they rolled the dice. The others in the group decide whether the student is right or not, and they can check with the teacher if necessary. You can write the sentences or get the students to do it for other groups. Other flexible games based on correct/incorrect sentences are blockbusters or grammar auction.
The right level of challenge
Often teenagers get bored if tasks are too easy, or switch off if they are too difficult. Getting the level of challenge right is essential. In a mixed-ability class this might mean having different tasks prepared for stronger and weaker students, which means a bit more extra preparation time on the teacher’s part, but the pay-off is usually well worth it. Also consider the level of vocabulary in texts for presenting grammar or practice activities. Keep it below the level of the grammar you are focusing on – you don’t want to be looking at new vocabulary at the same time as new grammar.
Be careful how you treat mistakes while playing grammar games or doing practice activities. The only way we can learn a language is by playing with it and taking risks with it, and in so doing mistakes are inevitable. Learners who don’t make mistakes are those who are afraid of risks and will often be slower learners. Obviously the final aim is accuracy, but mistakes are part of achieving that aim.
Your course may be strictly tied in to a syllabus, if not you have some leeway to incorporate student needs into your course. If you hear the learners trying to use a certain structure and failing, because they haven’t met it yet, you could change your syllabus and look at the area sooner than you had planned. You can also think about real life future needs, as opposed to exam needs. Teenagers who listen to songs, i.e. nearly all teenagers, could benefit from an awareness of common non-standard grammar, e.g. double negatives. It might be useful for teenagers going to the US / UK to look at the like / go forms of reported speech, which most course books don’t touch (e.g. I was like ‘What do you mean?’ and he goes ‘You know…’ ). Make sure that your students know when to use (and not to use!) this very informal language.
When you introduce or revise a language area, think about any relevant pronunciation areas, e.g. how to pronounce the final –ed of regular past endings, the /l/ sound in I’ll, He’ll etc. If you don’t look at the phonology there is a danger that the students will form erroneous ideas about the phonology which will be hard to unlearn.
Different learning styles
Ask students how they prefer to learn, or give them a questionnaire to find out. Do they prefer to study on their own or work with other people? Do they like 'listen and repeat’ drills or working with background music on? Do they like walking around while thinking / studying? Do they respond to visual stimuli? As far as you can, cater for the students’ learning styles within the class, e.g. use grammar chants for aural learners. Also, get your teens to plan how they can best learn outside the classroom.
Using memory effectively
Talk to your students about how memory works. If they are to do grammar practice on one area, it is better to spread it out over a period of time, e.g. one exercise on the same day as the lesson, one two days later, one a week later. Recycling language is very important; without looking at an area a few times, over a period of time, it is impossible for most people to retain it. Build reviews and recycling into your course, but also encourage students to recycle language on their own.
Personalising a grammar area is also effective, e.g. inventing a story about something familiar, such as a friend or relative, incorporating the target language area. Conversely, something strange, funny or surreal can also be a memory aid. Students can write stories, e.g. on an electronic pad, or record them to listen again.
Encourage reflection and responsibility
Find ways of encouraging your teenagers to take responsibility for their own learning, e.g. by getting them to reflect on what they have learnt and to test themselves. Explain that language development does not always follow an upward learning curve. Learners sometimes feel they are not making progress, but what matters is the bigger picture: experiencing a sense of gradual progress over time.
Working on grammar with teenagers can be challenging, but with a bit of preparation it can be very rewarding, for them and for you!