I’ve taught groups of students obsessed by grammar. They pore over their reference books, ask impossible questions in class and are decidedly peeved if a lesson isn’t directly dealing with integral grammatical nuance. I like these students. They’re sparring partners for my own anorak obsession with grammar. But, it has to be said, they are nearly always the worst communicators and not much fun on a night out. Funny that.
Then there are the groups of students; yes, you know who you are, who couldn’t give a hooting howl about grammatical convention. They sit in class nattering on, nineteen to the dozen, in a torrent of inaccuracy and error. This is the group to go out with – you’ll talk all night and not have a clue what anyone is saying.
When these two groups come together and form a single class the results are pretty predictable. Half the class incessantly talks nonsense while students of the other half will utter a single sentence in the entire hour and it floors you in its perfection.
Balance is the key. Students need to know a language and be able to use that language. It’s the distinction between having the technical knowledge and the practical ability – the fine line between accuracy and fluency. It’s an old debate in teaching circles but it still rattles on; do you focus on accuracy or on fluency?
Grammar enjoys an exalted position in language teaching. In many countries of the world grammar is king. It’s difficult and mysterious. It’s the hidden mechanics of a language and how it actually works. Know the grammar then you’ll know the language. They who know the grammar are superior beings; usually the teacher. None of this seems quite right to me.
Ultimately, we must want our students to be successful language users; able to communicate in any situation; with full comprehension; confident and effective in their adopted language. This requires that they are both fluent in their communication and accurate in their language choice. It’s not an either or situation; it’s both.
Striking the fluency / accuracy balance in our lessons is important. We need to devote classroom time to activities which promote both. Not, of course, necessarily at the same time.
At a complete beginner level I focus the language learning on accuracy. The students don’t yet have enough language to engage in lengthy ‘conversational’ style exercises, but fluency activities come in pretty quick once the language basics are in place. Equipping elementary students with just a smidgen of fluency ability does wonders for their confidence and gives meaning to the learning process they’re engaged in.
Elementary level – the present perfect. This is a perfect fluency opportunity. For students to be studying the present perfect they must have previously studied the past simple; indeed the presentation of the present perfect needs to include a contrast with the past simple. So, give the presentation, allow lots of controlled practice, then go for a fluency activity.
Students interview 2 other classmates to find 3 foreign countries they have visited and 4 things about each country and what they did there. Set a 5 minute time restriction.
There – a perfect fluency activity promoting the speedy use of language targeting restricted grammatical structures, where the students need to make independent language choices to accomplish the task.
At the intermediate levels students are reasonably independent language users and lessons are a mix of accuracy and fluency, with the focus shifting to fluency as students progress. This is when more interesting and challenging classroom activities provide opportunities for fluency work; debate and discussion, role plays and simulations. New grammatical structures might be introduced with conventional presentation and practice techniques, but a lot more language work will be remedial – responding to mistakes (wonderful things) noted during fluency activities and addressed in an error correction session.
Advanced learners usually have a good level of language fluency and so classroom activities shift back to grammatical accuracy; particularly accuracy of the written form and all those integral nuances. This can be frustrating for advanced level learners. Having spent years learning a language they now find that their production is riddled with inaccuracy and mistakes. Unfortunately for them, this is always going to be the case. Lessons need to be challenging so that learners can fulfill their primary role – to learn, if lessons aren’t a challenge, and by necessity therefore difficult, no learning will take place.