Grammar needn't be an uphill struggle - who knew?

March 02, 2016

Language learning contains four main elements: speaking, listening, reading and writing, and grammar crosses over all of them. Just as you cannot drive safely (or legally) until you have studied and learnt the Highway Code, nor can you truly say you have mastered a foreign language without studying and learning its grammar – a language’s Rule Book, if you will.

My Dad, a French teacher for 35 years and now retired, once had the unenviable task of teaching French to a motley crew of uninterested, mischievous 13 year olds. Having planned a lesson of grammar, his approach was inspiring. As the children settled into their seats, he announced,

“Right. Today we will be learning some grammar.”
A muffled, grumbling discontent hovered over the class. Undeterred, he continued.
“Before we start, I’m going to give you 30 seconds to moan, shout, shriek as loud as you want, say how awful you think grammar is, how much you hate it, and any other such emotions you feel it necessary to express freely. Then, you’ll be quiet for the rest of the lesson and we’ll learn some grammar. Agreed?”
The students perked up and agreed. He held his wrist aloft and staring at his watch said,

“Ohhh, noooooo!!” “Arrrgghhhh, not grammar!!!” “*raaaasp*” “Urggghhhhh, Sir, I HAAATE grammar!” “*blurgh* French is horrible!!!”

And then, “STOP! Right. Open your books at page 53.” The lesson continued productively. ‘Strict, but fair’ is how past students fondly remember him. I would like to think ‘fun’ too.

Grammar is never anyone’s favourite (unless you’re me, in which case you are like a cat rolling in catnip in front of verb tables), but with a bit of imagination it can be made more bearable. The Internet has thrown up a wonderful plethora of websites dedicated to mastering the necessary evil that is grammar, with interactive exercises and repetitive games that enable score-keeping, score beating, and other such competitive aspects. ‘Beat your tutor’s time-score’ is always a winner. What did tutors, and also teachers for that matter, do before the Internet?

“Repeat, repeat, repeat” was one of my Dad’s favourite phrases. Some aspects of learning a language will require learning words ’parrot-fashion’, repeated over and over again as if learning a poem. This is as true for grammar as it is for vocabulary. I still remember a poem-like chant I learned nearly 30 years ago on how to remember the order of French pronouns, and use it in my own lessons today.

I sometimes ask students to imagine the room is filled with helium balloons covering the ceiling, each with a long, curly string hanging down. A grammar rule is written on each balloon. I then write a simple sentence and we discuss how many different balloons (representing grammar rules) we will need to reach up and grab hold of in order to have all the necessary information to complete the sentence correctly. Occasionally, I turn the pupil-teacher tables around and ask my charges to mark their own work. So, Sir, what are you looking for? Where are the mistakes most likely to be? When looking at a particular phrase, how many balloons/grammar rules are we going to need? The most common basic grammatical mistakes are: conjugating verbs; the different tenses, and agreements. For each mistake the ‘teacher’ finds (with a little assistance from the ‘pupil’), we put a mark by whichever grammar rule they got wrong, then tot up the marks at the end. The student then sees where the majority of his mistakes are, so knows what to watch out for next time. He also gets used to thinking ahead and recognising where grammar rules come into play and how to apply them correctly. Of course, there is much celebration, punching of the air, and dancing around the room when a grammar rule is mastered fully. The student tends to be quite chuffed too.

Strict but fair, and definitely fun. That’s what I aim to be.

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