One of the Parts which used to make up the POPPIES Foundation Course dealt with sentence structure (i.e. grammar), functions and lexis. In the current version of Poppies Foundation + Course, we have included phonetic competence too. To do so we are focusing on how we approach those issues in our syllabi and classes.
It is with great concern that I approach the issue of teaching grammar. This is not because I think grammar is unimportant when learning a second or third language. It is rather because in Spanish schools the teaching of grammar still seems to be the main and, often, almost sole issue taught. And this, despite the fact that most teachers claim to use a communicative approach.
Let us never forget that grammar is the structure or framework of the language, not the language itself. And our students need to be able to understand what they read and what they listen to. They need to be able to interact with native speakers or, very often, with other non-native speakers.
Do we really want our students to be able to understand and use English for communication? to communicate in writing? to speak to other people who do not speak Spanish? Then, they need to be exposed to the language, in different situations and different contexts.
Telling them once and again how very complex structures are organised in English will be of no help whatsoever. Unless they are given ample opportunities to practise those structures.
I teach all varieties of levels. I have often come across young people who have been attending English classes in Primary and Secondary education. That is 12 years of their lives! Yet, they cannot answer simple questions. Questions such as “What’s your name?” “Where do you live?” “Where are you from?”. Nor can they answer basic questions from a written text.
And why can’t they do that? Because they have not been exposed to the language, they have not been given opportunities to practise it and, although they have been made to translate and to study complex structures, they have not managed to remember them long term.
As we know the same sentence (locution) can have many different meanings, depending on the context or situation in which it is uttered (illocution). Likewise, in order to get the desired effect on somebody (perlocution) the speaker or writer may make use of a variety of “structures” or “grammatical forms”. To do so effectively we need to take into account the rules governing the politeness principle in the language we are teaching.
That is why when we teach English we need to focus not only on form but on the function and usage of the form taught.
A variety of techniques involving the students’ multiple intelligences and their sensory, cognitive and reasoning skills can help them discover how the language works in terms of lexis.
In an article published in The Guardian in 2013, four different people were talking about their experiences with learning other languages. The teachers of one of them thought she was not particularly “gifted for languages”. Another had considered himself as: “not having the knack for languages”. Yet, both of them, at a later stage and when they needed it, were able to speak 6 other languages and Spanish, respectively.
So motivation is essential. But with the Internet, video games, social media, music, films, computers, etc. surely there are ways to arouse, however mildly, the interest of the most adamant of our students? Is there something they like doing where most of the information or something special comes in English? Then, they can feel the need to learn.
Cristobal Cobos & John Moravec argue that while in the industrial society of the 19th & 20th century what you knew was important, in the 21st century’s Knowmad society it is more important how you learn than what you learn (see The Knowmad society and El Aprendizaje Invisible).
A good way of helping our students to learn how to learn is by teaching them how to use dictionaries. This way they become autonomous learners. The use of the dictionary itself involves a number of learning strategies. These strategies range from basic reference skills to advanced reading skills. It is particularly useful for the student to develop their semantic competence. Also, to develop the whole set of Linguistic Competences.
Just as essential it is to show them how to draft effective glossaries. In the Foundation + Course, we analyse a good method of doing this, developed by Vernon Nash I encourage you to use it with your students and yourself when preparing for the competitive exam.