The ‘What about …’ webinars Q&A: Dr Catherine Walter

In the last ‘What about …’ webinars Q&A post of the year, Dr Catherine Walter follows up on some of the questions that participants asked during her recent webinar, What about writing grammar activities? You can watch a recording of her webinar here and you can download Dr Walter’s handout for participants here. This handout is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-CommercialShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Look out for the next webinar in the series on 12 January 2019: What about writing Teachers’ Guides? with Dr Elaine Hodgson.

Does the evidence in favour of explicit grammar teaching also apply to young learners?

Yes, from about 7 years of age. See Nunes, Bryant and Olsson (2009) and Fontich and Camps (2013) for work with learners aged 7 and over for the sort of work that has been done in this area.

These days we seem to be obsessed with the CEFR and Cambridge, Trinity (and other) exams so the grammar taught (and included in course books) is usually based on these. Then the whole cycle starts again. Is this a good way of choosing grammar?

Probably not. For a start, it doesn’t take account of aspects of context such as L1 and linguistic environment.

Many students can do grammar exercises correctly but then have trouble using the same grammar in productive language. If students require a LOT of mechanical practice to really ‘get’ the grammar, how can we make it fun and motivating, (especially for Young Learners) and avoid the ‘we’ve already done this’ attitude?

The trick is to avoid its being ‘mechanical’: to devise exercises that are meaningful, but that require repeated production and/or reception of the form. There are all sorts of game-like activities that can do this. See Nation (2009) and Nation and Newton (2008) – two terrific little books full of interesting ideas well supported by evidence.

Do you think it’s OK (in a context where all students share the same L1) to use a reference to their L1 to explain a grammar point in English?

Absolutely! It would be silly not to! Why waste the rich resources of the classroom?

What is the Goldilocks principle?

Like Goldilocks and the three bears: not too little, not too much, just enough, whether it’s porridge or examples of a grammar rule.

What strategies would you suggest to teach grammar to YLs who are illiterate in their L1?

I’ve suggested you write to me with a bit more background: Age? Context?

Some people would say we shouldn’t show learners incorrect examples or bad rules – is there evidence that this doesn’t confuse them?

They will produce their own bad examples and hear bad examples produced by their classmates; they will conclude or encounter bad rules. There is evidence that giving negative evidence – showing people what doesn’t happen – is effective: see for example McDonough (2005). The question for me is how easy discovery activities should be for students. I try to make the questions very easily answerable, but I wonder if there should be a greater amount of mental effort on their part to understand and remember the rule.

This is an important point. Of course you need to steer a middle path between boredom and frustration for the students: give them a challenge, but an achievable challenge. Part of the trick here is probably establishing an atmosphere in the classroom where learners are not afraid to make mistakes, and where you don’t give them the right answer too quickly. See the way that John Field (2009) in the context of listening activities.

How about the order in which the grammar ‘should be’ taught?

SO dependent on context that I am afraid I can’t answer this question!

Dr Catherine Walter has been writing evidence-based English language teaching materials since the early 1980s. With Michael Swan, she is the co-author of, among others, the award-winning Oxford English Grammar Course. Catherine is also the Series Adviser for Navigate, a multi-level course for adults which incorporates the approaches that are explored in this webinar. She is an Emeritus Fellow in Applied Linguistics of Linacre College, University of Oxford, and continues to pursue research in instructed second language acquisition. Catherine has a strong interest in inclusivity in language learning and teaching.

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