Great Idea: Focusing on Grammar Patterns

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What is focusing on grammar patterns?

Focusing on grammar patterns is about drawing learners’ attention to different aspects of grammar – such as tenses, forming negative sentences and questions, and sentence word order – and making grammar explicit while teaching the subject content of lessons. Learners using English as an Additional Language (EAL) need to speak and write coherently in English and the understanding of English grammatical structures will support their ability to do this across the curriculum. It will also aid their understanding of what they are required to listen to and read/view. This strategy can be applied to all the skills: listening, speaking, reading and viewing, and writing. It is useful for learning a new language for learners at any stage of English language proficiency. 

Focusing on grammar patterns includes strategies such as: 

  • Transferring grammar knowledge and skills from first language to English; 
  • Using speaking and writing frames and sentence starters; 
  • Speaking and/or writing using specific grammatical patterns; 
  • Distinguishing grammatical patterns in pieces of text. 

Examples of activities

1. Speaking and writing frames

Provide learners with frames that will help them start sentences and structure sentences, focusing on particular aspects of grammar. For instance: 

  • We are _______ [verb+ing] to pour a solution into the beaker. We are _______ [verb+ing] to determine the pH level. (This frame focuses on going to grammatical structures.) 
  • Henry _______ [past simple verb] the Catholic church. She _______ [past simple verb] 12 days later. (This frame focuses on past simple verb forms.) 

2. DARTs

Directed Activities Related to Text (DARTs) provide an alternative to traditional comprehension questions and assessing text understanding and can have an explicit focus on grammar and grammar patterns.  

  • Highlighting grammar patterns: In a subject lesson, ask learners to highlight a repeating aspect of grammar or grammatical pattern seen in a text. For instance, these could be all the verbs in past simple tense in history (e.g., conquered, surrendered), passive voice structures in science (e.g., is formed, are observed) or imperative verbs in cooking lessons. 
  • Gap fill: Typically, missing words/information in gap fill/cloze activities are to do with subject content key words or key concepts. For learners using EAL, remove words from one grammar category. For instance, you can remove all the adjectives or all the adverbs or all the prepositions.  

3. Graphic organisers

Graphic organisers, sometimes also known as key visuals, are a way of presenting information visually, and can focus on grammar.  

  • Fishbone diagrams can be used to present a number of causes leading to an event or an outcome. For example, the fishbone diagram below presents causes of the outbreak of World War One.  

    An example of a fishbone diagram

You can see that the learner can follow the subject-verb-object structure. They have been provided with some verbs to choose from and can create full sentences such as “The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand [subject] led to [verb] the outbreak of World War One [object]”. More synonyms for led to or contributed to could be provided if needed. The learner could fill in the cause boxes based on their history knowledge. 

4. Word order activities

  • Jumbled up sentences: One of the easiest ways to practise word order is to jumble up words in sentences. For instance: “1564 Shakespeare in born in died William was and 1616.” is a jumbled-up version of “William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616.”  

How focusing on grammar patterns works

Activities focusing on grammar patterns will be effective in the classroom as long as they are set up with the particular needs of learners using EAL in mind and as long as they serve access to the curriculum and are not used to teach English grammar in isolation. Below are some suggestions for how to set up some of these activities in the classroom: 

Highlighting grammar patterns:

  • It is useful to provide one or two highlighted examples for them before they start, as a model. 
  • It can be useful to tell the learner how many instances of a particular grammatical/linguistic item there are in a text they are working with (for example, there might be 12 past simple verbs in a text) so they know when to stop scanning the text and when they have been successful. 
  • With learners who are New to English, it is advisable to ask them to search only for individual words (e.g., adjectives, nouns or one-word verbs), but learners at higher bands of English language proficiency could engage with some sophisticated grammatical structures. 

Gap fills:

  • For learners at bands A or B, gap fills should be shorter, with fewer gaps, to avoid cognitive overload. For those learners, consider issuing them with a bilingual dictionary or provide access to Google Translate if needed. 
  • It will often be important to do some prior work on vocabulary, for instance provide a glossary, a picture-based dictionary, or a word mat to ease the challenge of a gap fill. 
  • If pairs of learners receive copies of the same text but with gaps in different places, the activity could be turned into a barrier game, where they ask each other questions about the missing words, phrases, or sentences to complete the text together. For example, if learner A’s sentence is “Rosa Parks sat in __ _____ ______ on the Cleveland bus”, their question for learner B could be: “Where did Rosa Parks sit on the Cleveland bus?” 

Fishbone diagrams:

  • Aim to support only one grammatical tense or structure when using graphic organisers; for instance, only the passive voice; otherwise, you risk overloading both the graphic organiser worksheet and the learner! 
  • Graphic organisers are visual and thus EAL-friendly; however, do not assume that every learner will know how to work with them: some initial modelling of how to use them might be required. 

Jumbled up sentences:

  • Cut up a series of sentences into individual words/phrases or groups of words on card. Learners can work individually or in pairs to reassemble them into grammatically correct sentences. 
  • If cutting up card is too long a task, there are online tools which can be used to print worksheets with jumbled up activities such as The Scramblinator. 

Top Tip

Before your lesson, look at texts that you ask your learners using EAL to read or listen to with the grammar focus lens. If certain grammatical structures stand out and occur frequently throughout the text, use activities or tasks centred on those structures.

Why is focusing on grammar patterns a Great Idea for learners using EAL?

Paying explicit attention to English grammar and its patterns is helpful since learners using EAL typically do not acquire these structures in early childhood. Not making these structures explicit when teaching learners who use EAL can limit their chances of succeeding at structuring sentences in the new language. Pauline Gibbons (1993) maintains that teachers need to look at language (which includes grammar), i.e., focus their attention on it, rather than through it, meaning teachers need to draw learners’ attention to language and not only focus on meaning and content.  

The importance of metalanguage

Focusing on grammar is part of the broader concept of “metalanguage”, which is the ability of a language to comment on itself (Creese, 2005); for instance, stating that “in English sentences, verbs usually follow subjects” would be an example of such metalanguage. The development of such metalanguage gives learners tools to articulate their understanding of language.

Enhancing content knowledge through language

NALDIC (1999) suggests that learners need to have their attention drawn to language and how it is used to express content knowledge instead of focusing solely on the topic alone so that they can take note of the language itself (since it is English language that poses a barrier for them to access the curriculum). Cameron (2003) uses the term “language resources” to mean the different ways (such as through vocabulary and grammar) in which English language can be utilised to express meaning. This research implies that the more-versed learners are in grammar, the more competent they will be at expressing complex knowledge about subject topics.  

Supporting communicative skills

While Cameron discusses the benefits of focusing on grammar in relation to developing writing skills, Long (in Ellis, 2015) writes about its benefits for communicative (speaking) purposes: he argues that second language learners have a limited capacity to process a second language and experience difficulty in attending to meaning and form (grammar) at the same time. For this reason, it is crucial to find ways to explicitly teach forms of grammar during communicative activities (such as the ones that are suggested above in this article). 

Leveraging multilingual skills

Focusing on grammar patterns is also useful because of the bi-/multilingual skills that learners using EAL bring. Cummins’s dual iceberg model (in Washbourne, 2013) illustrates how concepts can be transferred from one language to another; when teachers focus on grammar in the classroom, learners will often be able to draw on their prior linguistic knowledge - awareness of grammar in their home language - and apply it to English. 

References

Creese, A., 2005. Teacher Collaboration and Talk in Multilingual Classrooms. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 

Cameron L., 2003. Writing in English as an additional language at Key Stage 4 and post-16. [pdf] Available at: https://www.naldic.org.uk/Resources/NALDIC/Teaching%20and%20Learning/Writing%20in%20English%20as%20an%20additional%20language%20at%20Key%20Stage%204%20and%20post-16%20(PDF%20format).pdf  [Accessed on 10 November 2022].

Gibbons, P., 1993. Learning to Learn in a Second Language. Portsmouth: Heinemann. 

Ellis, R., 2015. The importance of focus on form in communicative language teaching. Euroasian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 1(2), pp.1-12.  

NALDIC, 1999. Working Paper 5: The distinctiveness of English as an additional language: a cross curriculum discipline. Reading: NALDIC. 

Washbourne, A., 2011. EAL Pocketbook. Airesford, Hampshire: Teachers’ Pocketbooks. 

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