As I've written before, the various subskills of grammar, listening, reading, writing and cultural awareness all work together in the language-acquisition process. Grammar is especially important to ensure communication, but the material presented should be meaningful and relevant to the learners' daily lives.

By the process of using language to solve problems, the learners obtain comprehensible input from the teacher as well as from each other and the materials they are using. A topical, hands-on approach involving realistic communication is more efficient than just practicing drills.

Erick Herrmann provides a good definition of communication: "Communication, essentially, is the transmission of information, including feelings, thoughts, perceptions, expectations, commands, attitudes, knowledge and more."

Good communication is essential for learners whether they are preparing for college or business and industry. Herrmann continues: "Communication skills in the 21st century include active listening, use of academic or formal language, nonverbal communication, effective writing, speech delivery (including rate, volume and enunciation), argumentation, citation of effective reasoning and evidence, and more."

Grammar should be introduced in a communication-based mode that replicates situations where students use the forms to meet real needs. The teacher's exact approach will vary from class to class depending upon the situation and the learning styles of the students. Grammar should not be just memorization and repetition. Note the ACTFL National Standards:

"Formerly, most teaching in foreign language classrooms concentrated on the how (grammar) to say what (vocabulary).While these components of language are indeed crucial, the current organizing principle for foreign language study is communication, which also highlights the why, the whom, and the when. So, while grammar and vocabulary are essential tools for communication, it is the acquisition of the ability to communicate in meaningful and appropriate ways with users of other languages that is the ultimate goal of today’s foreign language classroom."

Learning strategies

Students vary in their language-acquisition ability, and research shows that the better learners or "experts" use more systematic problem-solving and comprehension strategies, according to Rebecca Oxford. The instructor needs to be aware of some of these techniques and encourage their conscious use by second-language learners. Learners assimilate the new material into their "data bank" as it were, and they should become active participants in the process.

"These findings show that all learning-especially language learning-requires learners to actively assimilate new information into their own existing mental structures, thus creating increasingly rich and complex structures," Oxford notes.

Successful learners take notes writing down keywords. They also are willing to record classes for later playback or do extra listening in the lab. They gain further "comprehensible input" by engaging the teacher in additional conversation whenever possible and by trying to read books and magazines outside of class and attend events where they must use English.

YouTube can also be used to provide authentic language. For example, in one ESL class I taught, Japanese students watched a video in English about making traditional Japanese food. The students then proceeded to teach English native speakers how to prepare the dish using the newly acquired vocabulary and structures, and they learned how to explain a process.

Grammar has an important role, and grammar lessons need to be part of a larger lesson plan that actively involves the learners in a realistic situation where English is a tool for transmitting a message or solving a problem. Activities should allow a natural exchange of information.

Pictures, audio files or dialogues can also serve as introductions for a new structure. They create a situation for the learner to acquire new vocabulary and forms without resorting to translation or repetition since the learners can listen and give short answers at first.

Sample exercises

Objectives: Past forms of regular and irregular verbs, questions and negations.

Outcomes: Students will internalize the past forms and use them where appropriate as well as generate original written discourse.

1: Dialogue completion: Answers will vary.

Karl went to the University and met Dr. Claude, professor of history. He spoke with the professor and then left the campus and returned home.

"Did you ask him about the test?"

"Yes, and he gave me some hints."

"Have you done the reading assignment?"

"Not yet. I'll read it tonight."

  1. Karl met Dr. Claude
  2. Dr. Claude is ___________
  3. Dr. Claude teaches at ____________
  4. Karl then ____________________
  5. Karl did not ________________
  6. But tonight he _______________
  7. Yesterday in class we _______________
  8. This morning I __________

2: Complete the conversation.

Karl: Nancy, How did you do on the test?

Nancy: OK, I hope. The questions weren't very hard. How about you?

Karl: Not bad; but I didn't get number 4.

Nancy: What did you put down for it?

Karl: I don't know. I quite forgot.

  1. How _______________ on the history test?
  2. OK, I _______________ and you?
  3. I didn't _______________ number 6.
  4. Why not?
  5. I didn't _______________ the assignment.
  6. Did you miss it?
  7. No, I just _______________ I was too busy.

3: Write your own conversation with a partner; present your conversation to the class.

Grammar is the underlying principle of these activities even if it is "covert" rather than overt. As Marije C. Michel writes: "In the past two decades, SLA has shown growing interest in the task-based approach, an approach that advocates language learning and teaching by means of meaning-oriented tasks that allow L2 learners to use the target language in authentic situations while, at the same time, task performance provides them with opportunities to focus their attention on the language form."

These are just a few examples of some task-based activities that go beyond verb conjugation and rote drill. It is important to introduce new structures in contexts that are meaningful and relevant to the learners so they will assimilate the new material to existing knowledge as they make progress in acquiring the new language.