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Gruesome grammar? Maybe not?


1. Introduction

As part of the Modern Foreign Language Teaching and Learning curricular reform in the 1980s, grammar teaching was often replaced by the communicative approach, in an attempt to ‘get pupils talking’ (Grenfell, 2000: 4). As a result of this policy, accuracy was not a priority and errors were tolerated. However, more recent debates have led to the recognition of the need to focus on grammar. Grammar is important and learners seem to focus best on grammar when it relates to their communicative needs and experiences (Savignon, 2001: 125). This article will deal with different methods and approaches to teaching grammar based on my personal experience of teaching Italian as second language across all levels of proficiency.  This part will be introduced by a short review of main approaches to teach second language (L2) grammar.

2. Review of main approaches to grammar teaching

Grammar is described in terms of morphology and syntax. Morphology affects the word structure, whereas syntax includes: phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs. For the purpose of this article, grammar is: “The system by which the words and the morphemes of a language are organized into larger units, particularly into sentences […]” (Trask, 2013: 121-2).

Grammar is an enabling skill as its acquisition enables learners to process and produce correct sentences, in both the spoken and written form. However, grammar is not always the part of language that tutors want to teach or students want to learn.  Teaching a set of rules and forms successfully depends on how tutors put that information across in the best way to suit learners and facilitate cooperation. Grammar can be taught in two main ways: deductively or inductively. A deductive approach means that learners receive information on language rules, which they subsequently apply to specific language examples and reinforce through practice exercises. In an inductive approach, learners have a more active role in discovering the grammar rules. They are usually provided with a text that includes the target grammar and, by exploring that text, they try to obtain the grammar rules (Ellis, 2006: 83-107).

The distinction between ‘focus on ‘Form’ and focus on ‘Forms’ is also useful to understand the different ways in which grammar can be approached in the classroom. Sheen (2002: 303) draws attention to Long’s definition of focus on ‘Form’ and focus on ‘Forms’. While the former refers to drawing ‘… students attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication’, the latter refers to the traditional teaching of discrete points of grammar in separate lessons (Long, 1991: 45-46, in Sheen, 2002: 303).

The learning of grammatical structures can also happen through corrective feedback on erroneous linguistic forms (Ellis, 2016: 413). This method has a great potential to enhance student understanding of grammar structures and the importance of L2 learners’ understanding of feedback is receiving a great deal of attention in the discussions amongst language tutors and practitioners.

3. Practical ways to teach grammar

Higher Education needs to prepare students to perform academic-type tasks based on language accuracy as well as to develop communicative competence. Grammatical and communicative competence can be treated separately in some teaching and learning situations. However, grammatical competence is a very useful skill in communicative contexts:

Grammar exists to enable us to ‘mean’, and without grammar it is impossible to communicate beyond a very rudimentary level (Nunan, 1995: 153).

More recent studies support the view that ‘for the development of communicative ability, research findings overwhelmingly support the integration of form-focused exercises with meaning focused-experience’ (Savignon, 2001: 125). In the following sections, I will focus on different techniques to teach grammar based on my own experience as a language tutor. My own practice shows that these strategies can be helpful as they offer solutions to the quandary of choosing between a ‘deductive approach’ and an ‘inductive approach’. A combination of both approaches is not only possible but also desirable to enhance student understanding of grammatical structures.

3.1 Explore similarities and differences between L1 and L2

Extensive research has been done in the area of mother tongue interference on the target language. Oral and written productions of second language learners show plenty of evidence of errors that can be traced back to the mother tongue (Khansir 2012, Richards and Schmidt 2002, Corder 1976). However, the mother tongue can support a learner of L2. The more aware learners are of the similarities and differences between their mother tongue and the target language, the easier they will find it to adopt effective learning and production strategies. Informed teaching can help students to become more attentive to important categories in the second language which have no mother-tongue counterpart.

The following table, aimed at exploring the equivalent moods to the Italian passato prossimo and imperfetto in English, is from the grammar slides developed to teach Italian grammar at intermediate level at Leeds University. From the table, it can be seen that a deductive approach is used to explain the equivalence. Learners are taught rules and given specific information about the language. Through this ‘traditional’ and explicit instruction, learners are able to notice the difference between the structures of their first language and those of the target language.

Table 1 Equivalent past tenses in Italian and English

The value of this type of table is that it supplies explicit technical explanation on a structure that would be quite challenging to grasp though inductive learning — and extremely time-consuming!

However, this deductive activity on its own would not be enough to ensure that students have a full understanding of this grammatical point. More inductive tasks are required to achieve this objective. Therefore, in my language seminars, I have included students’ blogs as a follow-up activity after the introduction of a new grammatical point. As part of the preparation for written seminars, students are asked to find their own material on a specific grammatical point and post it on the Virtual Learning Environment. Posts are analysed and discussed during the following written seminar. Students are encouraged to explore similarities and difference between their mother tongue and the target language through this activity. They do this by identifying constructions that do not have the exact equivalent in the target language as well as by recognizing when the mother tongue and the target language operate in the same way.  Students are given this kind of instructions to prepare the task:

  • Find a 50 words passage in Italian showing the use of remoto vs imperfetto, passato prossimo vs passato remoto. You could choose a passage from a novel or from the reading list of one of your content modules.
  • Find a 50 words passage in Italian with examples of ‘congiuntivo trapassato’ and its use in secondary clauses. You could choose a passage from a novel or one of your content modules.

The following screenshots illustrate some examples of students’ posts:

Figure 1 Screenshot of students’ blogs


Figure 2 Screenshot of students’ blogs

This exercise is very well-received, with a high number of students contributing and very positive feedback from them. The following comments are from the informal feedback on the module given by students enrolled in 2016-17:

The things I enjoy:

  • Gaining deeper knowledge of Italian grammar
  • Getting further in the grammar and learning more vocabulary
  • The use of the blog on the VLE
  • Blog research
  • Really enjoyable oral and grammar classes, engaging with teachers and other students

The comments show that students enjoy learning grammar and that they regard the blog activity as a valuable exercise to consolidate their knowledge of a grammatical point. From a pedagogical point of view, this task allows learners to reformulate their understanding of structures over time, to locate structures in a meaningful context and to work independently.

3.2 Translation tasks to enhance grammar awareness

Translating is another activity that allows tutors to use both deductive and inductive approaches in grammar teaching activities. This exercise is particularly productive when carried out with advanced learners who are dealing with complex grammatical constructions.  The first component of the final-year written language exam of the Italian degree at Leeds University consists of a translation paper of two literary or journalistic texts: one from English into Italian and one from Italian into English. Written language seminars, therefore, aim to consolidate language skills, through the translation of literary and non-literary texts.

Through translation, learners have the opportunity to learn grammatical structures by noticing specific characteristics of the TL as well as the correspondence between TL features and their MT equivalents. Studies on translation (George 1972, Cooke 2010) demonstrate how this task can be an effective way of reflecting on morpho-syntactical features. The reflection on morpho-syntactical features thorough translation tasks, however, does not have to happen under the constant guide of the tutor. A deductive approach could be used as a first step, where learners are initially given information on language rules and subsequently asked to translate texts targeting those specific grammatical structures. This more traditional approach, however, can be combined with one that promotes student engagement and encourages learners to notice certain structures.

My own practice of using translation in the teaching of Italian as L2 allows me to highlight the following activities as a way of engaging student active participation and reflection on morpho-syntactical features:

  • Comparing in groups individual attempts to translate the same text: this activity gives the opportunity to discuss challenging grammatical points and possible ways of tackling them.
  • Using peer discussion as a way of improving the first attempt to translate a passage: this activity is useful not only to consolidate acquisition of language structures but also to understand that the learning process can happen independently. Learners are able to appreciate that they do not need constant guide and attention from their language tutor to make progress.
  • Listing mistakes by grammatical categories by comparing individual attempts against good model translations.

Indeed, these peer feedback activities encourage students to participate actively in the process of acquiring and consolidating specific grammatical structures (Sambell, McDowell and Montgomery 2012; Smith, Cooper and Lancaster 2002). Tutors do not need to assume a scholarly role and can evaluate best options and solutions in a collegial way in the class. They can encourage students to reflect on new possibilities, by selecting the best version and giving reasons for a particular choice.

The students’ general feedback on the language module allowed us to understand how they engaged with the translation activities:

The things I enjoy:

  • Translation passages
  • Translation classes: correcting the translations in class
  • Good discussion on grammar points that come up in translation passages, student led
  • Translation seminars: awesome format: practical, real life experience. Flexibility and creativity encouraged

These comments show that the students regard this exercise as very useful for the enhancement of their grammar skills and that translation offers an opportunity to tackle grammar issues in an enjoyable and constructive way.

3.3 Writing tasks to enhance grammar awareness

This section is about how writing tasks can be used to enhance grammar awareness. As for the tasks discussed in the previous sections, a combination of more traditional approaches, where the teacher gives specific instructions and more creative ones, where learners are given the opportunity to notice and resolve problems independently, has proved to be an effective strategy in language seminars.

The second component of the final-year Italian written language exam consists of two-hour essay paper. The essay titles are based on general topics as well as on more academic subjects found in the content modules available in the final year. The reason for giving students the choice to write on a more academic subject is twofold: ‘to encourage them to work on language at a more sophisticated level and to motivate them to make more use of the bibliographical sources in Italian which are provided, but often neglected, for content modules’ (Santovetti: 2017: 8). This point is backed up by a student comment on the strategies she used to improve her writing skills. She advised less experienced students to: ‘read Italian academic material and try and notice trends and phrases that demonstrate how native Italians write’.

Zamel’s article, widely quoted, though written long ago, has studied the effect of writing on L2 learners and has concluded that it is an excellent way of bridging the gap between theory and practice (Zamel, 1987). Writing provides tutors with the opportunity to support learners in the development of grammatical skills in several ways. Here I present possible strategies to consolidate morpho-syntactical structures through student written language production. Although these strategies are teacher-led, they also enable learners to apply their knowledge and think critically in order to enhance their understanding of a grammatical issue.

Tutors can target specific grammatical structures by giving learners instructions to include them in their writing, with the purpose of consolidating them and putting them into practice. These grammar structures need to be selected according to the grammar topics included in the course outline and also covered in seminars or lectures dedicated to the explicit teaching of grammar. My experience shows that this activity can be a very beneficial exercise for advanced learners, who need to demonstrate a clear appreciation of the nuances of vocabulary, syntax and grammar in their writing. Recently, a student commented on the usefulness of this task as follows: ‘It has helped me to create a few stock phrases that are grammatically correct and adaptable to different subject areas to be used in practice essays’.

Engaging students with examples of good writing in the target language is another important strategy. Students will have to notice the good structures and evaluate them. Examples of good writing will also serve as a linguistic support for the student and provide models for good constructions to be used in the target language. A similar activity is to expose them to examples of ‘less good’ writing in the target language and suggest that they identify problematic constructions as well as to improve them.

Editing and revising written production helps students to identify and correct problematic constructions. This revision can be successfully carried out after being exposed to explicit grammar instruction aimed to rectify specific problems. For example, if frequent errors of the same grammatical nature are present in the written production of several learners, a mini-lesson can be presented on the topic, using examples of student writing. The following list is a collection of students’ phrases in essay writing, containing preposition mistakes:

Table 2 Collection of students’ phrases

Students are asked to edit their own writing after group discussion on this particular problem. The following comments indicate how this activity has also helped students to develop autonomous language learning strategies outside the classroom:

  • Write short essays, get them checked by an Italian tutor, and rewrite them with corrections.
  • Before the essay exam, look at all of your previous essays and make a note of every single mistake that you have made and attempt to understand the corrections.

Other studies support the view that combining grammar instruction with the revision of writing tasks makes grammar more meaningful and helps learners to put grammar in context:

Integrating grammar instruction into the revising and editing process helps students make immediate applications, thus allowing them to see the relevance of grammar to their own writing (Chin, 2000:1)

3.4 Formative feedback to enhance awareness of grammar structures

Ellis (2006: 84) argues that grammar teaching can be conducted by means of corrective feedback on learner errors when these arise in the context of performing some communicative tasks. Formative feedback provides students with the opportunity to analyse and be critical of their own production. However, for feedback to have a positive effect on learners, it is also important to highlight those moments when they have performed well in a specific task. Feedback starts being meaningful if, through it, learners get a better understanding of the gaps in their knowledge and can take subsequent, specific actions to improve their performance. Therefore, feedback cannot be reduced to a passive task where students are presented a prescriptive list of errors and then asked to rectify them. Students need to engage actively with the process of receiving feedback (Elwood and Kenowski 2002, Falchikov 2005). Student participation can be facilitated if students’ work is marked against clear assessment criteria and if students can relate their grade to those marking criteria. Another issue in understanding feedback can derive from a lack of understanding of the specialized terminology used in the marking criteria.

Encouraging learners to engage with the criteria and the terminology used to describe different levels of performance increases understanding of feedback and, hopefully, retention of target structures. Certain activities and exercises can be undertaken in class to facilitate this process. Peer assessment and self-assessment help students develop understanding of the criteria and the terminology commonly used by tutors. Peer-marking is useful as students do not work in isolation and have the opportunity to work in pairs when commenting and analysing their written production against the marking criteria. Self-assessment, i.e. analysing individual work against the marking criteria, also provides learners with an opportunity to reflect on their own production and to take conscious decisions throughout their learning process. Reiss (1983, in Ellis, 1995: 550) found that students achieving high standards in second language productions were able to describe their approach to a specific task since they had developed a metalanguage for doing so: “try to practise the new tense while speaking”. Weaker students’ accounts were more vague and inaccurate: “keep going over it” or “study it until I understand”.

An extract from a peer-marking activity follows. The purpose of this activity was to encourage students to engage with the marking criteria used to assess their own written language production. The extract shows the written comments from one group of students to a peer and includes students’ corrections as well as their comments on how to improve the syntax and the vocabulary. The table demonstrates how learners have organized the peer-marking feedback according to three categories: grammar, discourse and lexicon. This categorization is based on the criteria used in the language module to evaluate formative and summative written language work. Furthermore, the comments reveal students’ conceptualization of ‘grammar’, ‘discourse’ and ‘lexicon’.

Table 3 Peer-marking feedback

The activities discussed in this section encourage students to reflect on their own performance and to improve it. A subsequent task that could be introduced is to ask learners to look at their own writing tasks performed over a period of time and identify recurrent problematic constructions. The next stage would be to rewrite an improved version of the same tasks. In this way, understanding of feedback would lead to an improvement in written language production.

4. Conclusion

This article recognizes that teaching and learning L2 morpho-syntactical structures can be a challenging activity. However, mastering them is necessary to achieve near-native competence. Poor grammar skills impede linguistic creativity and hamper communication.

This article has presented several techniques to enhance grammar skills in learners of a second language. Also, it has argued that tutors do not have mutually exclusive choices, such as deductive approach versus inductive approach. A combination of more and less traditional strategies is an effective way of triggering grammatical awareness in learners of a second language. Students are more likely to be successful learners if the explicit teaching of specific linguistic forms is combined with activities that encourage them to notice these forms. Formative feedback activities can also elicit active student participation.

An awareness of these issues will help language tutors to incorporate a methodology that takes into account student learning needs and leads to improved student progress and pleasure in ‘gruesome grammar’.

Address for correspondence:


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