Thanks to my amazing genius EL teacher as a child, I have always seen Grammar as a sort of framework, a skeleton on which all the muscle, the whole body of a language is gradually built. It never was a separate part, an aspect to be learned, just a set of rules to memorize for a test. No, it has been and still is an integral part of any sentence, any paragraph, text, speech etc. This is my own approach to teaching this oft-disliked topic to students of any age and level. Whenever I got a new class of youngsters or adults who happened to have a different teacher previously, they would moan and cringe or even protest loudly, “Please, not Grammar!” Yet after a couple lessons the same children would yell enthusiastically, “Let’s have a Grammar lesson again today!” Isn’t it a miracle we all hope to see one day!
I confess when I first began working at an English-speaking school teaching beginners age 7-8, I studied all the traditional posters hanging on the walls, with their mysterious abbreviations V1-V2, AuxV+PP2, Aux1+PPAux2+PrCont, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Naturally young kids had no trouble memorizing and copying those posters with the relative examples, but they were all isolated from any context. Writing a test, sure; applying the rules to real speech, not so much. For me, it showed the one glaring obstacle to really mastering English Grammar: it was taught as a thing unto itself. So I began to compose my own grammar exercises using ICT, gradually progressing to lively colorful PPT presentations. And I also searched for a good textbook to use at my lessons with young learners.
The ARTICLE is traditionally one of the first or the first theme when we introduce grammar into our course. It is important to explain its very existence, especially to those learners in whose mother tongue, as in my own, there is no such thing. My British colleague who has been working in Japan for many years mentioned the same problem, and we have been helping each other out repeatedly. An exercise which worked well for me is very simple. Once I explained the idea, the concept, I would bring in a short text into the classroom and suggest that young learners would find A, AN, THE in it, underline or highlight it, count the number of articles used. Each time I would repeat that this very short word preceded only the NOUNS. I would also tell them that A, AN meant “one” or “any”, while “the” was a “pointer” which indicated something definite or already mentioned.
I used the same principle for any and every subsequent grammar topic, with good results. I would write down e.g. “Present Perfect Continuous” on the board, list a few examples to refer to, and then suggest the class browse through a text with just one aim, to find and highlight or tick or underline every instance of this particular tense form they could find. It is enough to have just one example in a text as long as they are able to identify it. Once this type of work was firmly accepted as part of our lesson, I would introduce a consolidation exercise. You found an example in this text; now compose two of your own. Why two? It is a good opportunity to subtly drill in, again and again, the ever-present problem of I, YOU, WE, THEY HAVE, while HE, SHE, IT HAS.
I have been using “A Basic English Grammar with Exercises and Key” by John Eastwood and Ronald Mackin (OUP) for my own purposes for many years. It is a very good solid basic book which an EL teacher may keep at hand. However it is too serious, too professional to use as a textbook for young learners. In spite of having accumulated quite a library, I kept searching for a grammar book which was specifically orientated towards children. “Grammar Four” by Jennifer Seidl first published by Oxford University Press back in 1997 and reprinted many times since seemed to be an answer. Once I shared it with my primary school pupils I contacted the Parents’ Association and suggested we buy it en bulk for the whole school. • When the children first began working with Grammar Four, they began to practically beg me to abandon their regular “boring” textbook and do more and more Grammar. I think the main reasons are simple. It is very coherent, very well-structured; grammar topics are incorporated into reading, writing, listening and speaking. It is a very colorful book. The exercises become progressively more and more varied and complicated, thus eliminating the dreaded “boring” component. The parents told me that their kids would curl up in bed before sleep leafing through the book! Somewhat to my surprise, senior students began to ask me about Grammar Four; many of them bought it for their use.
I worked at composing my own e-Grammar, primarily for use with the primary school. But when my final-year students happened to come into the classroom and see the colorful display on the e-board, they asked me to help them refresh their own grammar prior to the final examinations with the help of my e-grammar. All of them enjoyed creating their own short presentations on various topics. I gave them free choice and was glad to get back very good PPTs on all the examination topics. • Last but not least, I have never had a “bad” grammar lesson simply because of my own professional credo: if you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. And if you don’t try, you do not succeed. To illustrate, after I had explained the Passive Voice to my fifth graders, had them repeat the rules back at me, then gave them a short test, this is what I got back for the usual “Turn Active into Passive”:
(A) Many People speak English.
(B) Many people are spoken by English.
I managed to refrain from laughing out loud, we read the relevant Grammar Four unit again, I wrote various examples on the board, made funny pictures showing “many people” as tiny stick figures running back and forth, and the one big word English moving from the end to the beginning of the sentence, gaining a huge weight in the process. It worked.