In a recent interview, ESL expert Scott Thornbury, explained that teaching (and learning) grammar ideally happens through speaking activities that require students to produce specific structures of the language. The ‘invisible’ design of these opportunities, would be a natural way for learners to produce an output that aids in learning and solidifying grammar.
Does that mean that approaching grammar explicitly is counterproductive? Not necessarily. There are multiple factors that should be taken into account when deciding how and when to teach grammar.
According to psychological theory, ‘active learning’ is an essential component in the process of learning. When students are active participants in the construction of knowledge, we place them in a position of proactiveness. Discussion, for example, is a suitable way for generating new information and knowledge.
Consequently, when learners come across new grammatical concepts, it is more beneficial to discuss this new information than to just read it in the book or hear it from the teacher. In a flipped classroom setting, students would read the theory at home, and later they would re-construct this knowledge through classroom discussion and generation of examples.
Let me give an example pertaining to Arabic: When introducing the concept of Nominal Sentence (الجملة الاسمية) and Verbal Sentence (الجملة الفعلية), students typically read the explanation and examples in the book, or it’s the teacher who explains it on the board and provides the examples. Neither of these methods involve, in principle, ‘active learning’. One can claim, of course, that it’s in consequent activities that students ‘actively’ produce these structures. But wouldn’t it be better if students got involved actively in the learning process, from the outset? And how can we do this?
The answer might come from a Vygotskian approach to learning, where the co-construction of (grammatical) knowledge happens collaboratively and in partnership among learners.
So when introducing الجملة الاسمية and الجملة الفعلية , this is what I do:
STEP 1: Assign the reading before coming to class
My Arabic classes follow a flipped classroom design for two main reasons: 1) it allows students to study and reflect on the content at their own pace, and 2) it transforms the classroom into a more productive space, as you’ll see.
STEP 2: Have students re-construct the concepts & generate examples
My classes are also student centered. This means that students become the focus of the class when producing and sharing knowledge, whereas the teacher is a mere coach. As you can see in the picture below, the teacher is displaced from being the unique source of knowledge. In fact, students take charge of their own learning by reflecting out loud, negotiating meanings, and collaborating, to ultimately arrive at a shared understanding of الجملة الاسمية والجملة الفعلية. In student centered classes, the teacher remains the expert in the room, but space is made for different voices and opinions to be heard.
By using the whiteboard, I also encourage students visualize their ideas. Writing and drawing schemes often times help students clarifying concepts, in ways that verbal explanations may not do. See what students produced:
Last but not least, by asking students to work on the board, I break the daily routine and I use body movement as a way to keep students alert for longer periods of time.
STEP 3: Discuss outcomes under teacher’s guidance
Once students finish their group work, the teacher can answer questions, summarize, and maybe provide some direct instruction, as a way to clarify unclear concepts.
At the end of class, students spontaneously took a picture of the board for their own record. On the following day, we continued working on الجملة الاسمية والجملة الفعلية (through a guided activity) and I saw some students pulling out their phones to look at the picture they had taken the day before. For them, this was more relevant than resourcing back to the textbook, because they were the ‘authors’ of knowledge. The following scene captures a student using her own production:
Teaching grammar doesn’t have to consist of a boring reading or explanation. On the contrary, we can transform the classroom into a productive space where we empower students to become independent learners. Collaborative learning is an effective way to do so, and it motivates students enormously.
I’d like to invite you to experiment with the technique that I just outlined, in case you haven’t tried it before. And if there’s something else that works in your classroom, please share!