Friday, April 3, 2015

5 Tips for Teaching Difficult Grammar

Difficult Grammar Teaching
Reader Question: Teaching Difficult Units

This question comes from a friend of mine, Daniel who I did the CELTA with back in the day. He's leading a seminar on "Teaching Difficult Units" and was wondering if I had any tips. He's a stellar teacher (better than me?!) and I'll sure he'll do fabulous without my help, but I'll do my best to answer his question.

My Experience Teaching Difficult English Grammar

My background in the area is that I teach English major students at a top-level university in Busan, South Korea so by the time the students get to their third or fourth year, the stuff I'm teaching is pretty intense. Like modal passive verbs, causative get + have, past modals, passive for present continuous and present perfect, etc. For the most part, my students have not been exposed to this kind of stuff before, except very briefly in passing so I have to be solid on it and can't rely on their background knowledge. In addition, it's usually stuff I've never taught before which makes it even more difficult.

Top 5 Tips to Teach Difficult Stuff (in no particular order)

Context  (topic). You should always have a context for anything that you teach, something by which your students can hang their grammar hats on. Teaching isolated grammar or vocabulary without giving your students a situation in which they can use it is a huge disservice and is actually a waste of time. 

Research. I've found that you don't need to know all the intricate details of a specific grammar concept before teaching it, but you should be extremely proficient. I do three things to research: use the textbook and make sure I know that section inside and out. Then, I'll look online for what other teachers have said or written, either for other teachers, or usually more helpfully, students. The British Council puts out lots of good stuff for difficult grammar concepts. I'll also check YouTube and see if there are any helpful videos of other teachers explaining the concept. Don't copy them, but see what works and what doesn't and take the best stuff for your own lesson. Very occasionally, I'll run across a video that is amazing, and I'll show it in class (but it's rare!).

Simple is Best.  I'm a huge believer in simple always being best, basically in everything in my life. This especially applies to teaching difficult concepts and in my experience, it is best to present only the basics and then let the students figure out the rest on their own, with a bit of help from you. Presenting all the ins and outs of every single point at the start is often too overwhelming.

Student-Centered is Ideal.  Related to point #3 is the idea of making your lesson student-centered. Can you do a self-discovery style of grammar teaching? Can you do a very short presentation of less than 5 minutes? Can you get the students comparing answers together instead of with you?  It will be more difficult for the students (and for you to set-up), but once they get it, they'll get it and will retain it for a whole lot longer.

Review. Whenever I introduce something that is quite difficult, there are always students who don't really "get it." That's okay and part of teaching. I try my best to help them in that class, but in the next class, I will ALWAYS review the concept. I'll briefly explain things, one more time in a slightly different way and will usually pair it with a different context. Then, I'll have the students work together with a different partner than the previous class on some sort of activity.

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