Acquisition vs. Learning
Most researchers acknowledge a distinction between language acquisition and language learning. A simple, rudimentary explanation of the difference is that acquisition involves being able to easily use the language to communicate, while language learning might place more emphasis on filling out grammar worksheets correctly. This does not mean, however, that the two are mutually exclusive.
This distinction has led to much debate over the place of explicit grammar study in language development. Some linguists have argued a more communicative approach, where the focus is on the message versus the form, fosters language acquisition, while others believe students need direct instruction in grammatical forms of the target language.
Recent research has proposed a more balanced approach—that second language instruction can provide a combination of both explicit teaching focused on features of the second language such as grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation and implicit learning stemming from meaningful communication in the second language. I believe that the best language instruction uses meaningful input and contexts to help students develop their English skills, but also feel that teaching language features, in context, is necessary for students to develop proficiency.
In The Classroom
Dialogue Journals have often been used in ESL classes and substantial research supports their use. Typically, students write a journal entry and then a teacher writes a response -- not pointing out errors in grammar or spelling but, instead, correctly reflecting back what the student wrote. For example, the student might write "I go to the piknik yesterday and have fun" and the teacher might respond, "That's great that you went to the picnic yesterday and had fun." ESL teachers can choose to let their students know in advance about these "recasts" or leave it to them to figure it out on their own.
Realistically, however, it may not very practical for teachers to write these responses -- there is just not enough time in the day for teachers with multiple classes to take on this responsibility. However, it can still be done -- and I believe it can be done more effectively -- by developing a sister class relationship with proficient speakers either in the same school or another school. Students generally will feel more engaged with their peers than with their teacher, and other English teachers may welcome the opportunity to have their students become grammar and spelling tutors. Of course, such a relationship does not have to be limited to a journal -- I have had sister classes come in and teach lessons in small groups to our English Language Learners (and our ELL's have taught a lesson about their culture to them), as well as having joint celebrations. This kind of "social engagement" has been found to be critical to language learning
Concept Attainment is a concept I've discussed in detail in a previous post. In the context of grammar instruction, the teacher would identify examples (and create ones) -- both correct and incorrect -- from student writing that appear to focus on a common problem. For example, a sheet like this one might be placed on the overhead with everything covered up except for the first two lines in the "Yes" and "No" columns:
The teacher then asks students to think for a minute about why one is a Yes and the other is a No and ask if anyone knows why. Ideally, everyone in the class has a small whiteboard and students can be directed to write their answer on the board and show it to the teacher. Typically, it takes showing a few examples for students to figure it out, and then they are asked to make the "No" examples correct and share with a partner.
Numerous studies have shown that concept attainment has a positive effect on student achievement, including with second language learners (Shamnad, 2005, Section 3.2).
Jazz Chants are another popular way to reinforce vocabulary and grammar lessons in a fun way. I discuss it in detail at an upcoming post in my monthly New York Times column on teaching English Language Learners. In the meantime, you can learn more about them at The Best Sites (& Videos) For Learning About Jazz Chants.
Interactive exercises on the Web are another popular way students actually seem to enjoy learning grammar. I've compiled a collection of what I think are the best free ones at The Best Sites For Grammar Practice (along with links to other useful articles about teaching grammar to English Language Learners). There are, however, three sites in particular that I would like to highlight. These three let teachers create virtual classrooms for free so that the work students do on the sites can be tracked. They are No Red Ink, Quill (my favorite), and Virtual Grammar Lab.
What are your favorite strategies for teaching grammar?
Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He has written six books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. He writes a monthly post for the New York Times on teaching English Language Learners.
Portions of this post were adapted from the book, The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide, co-written by Katie Hull Sypnieski and Larry.