I’m teaching two sections of a Preparation for College English course. These courses are designed for students whose first language is not English, and whose level of written English is too poor for them to manage in a 101 course.
At the end of the course, in addition to other assessments, they need to complete a grammar test involving mostly error correction. We therefore need to spend time doing grammar exercises.
Now, I like grammar exercises. To me, a grammar exercise is as much fun as a crossword puzzle, and much less cryptic. During the years I studied French in university, I never resented having to do grammar work.
But I don’t really believe that doing grammar exercises is the best way to improve one’s writing. I’d rather be integrating the grammar work less obtrusively into more holistic reading and writing activities. However, beyond doing writing exercises that apply the rules we’ve been studying, I’m not sure how to do this. What’s more, the grammar test looms large, so they have to have practice doing exercises, because they will be tested on their exercise-completing skills later.
Regardless of how much I enjoyed studying grammar, I did have some terrible grammar teachers, and some good ones; when I first started teaching ESL years ago, I strove to be one of the good ones, and I thought I had succeeded. I lectured energetically and humourously on grammatical rules. I demanded active student participation and encouraged debate about complexities, exceptions and oddities. In time, I had an enormous wealth of grammatical knowledge and was able to communicate it in ways that got through to students. And we applied the principles by playing games and doing writing exercises that were not only enjoyable but effective.
This semester, it all seems to be falling flat.
One of my classes is quiet and diligent. They always seem to have their homework done and they participate without hesitation as we work our way through the lectures and exercises. All but the most polite, however, have glazed eyes.
In the other class, grammar time is snore time. Half the students sleep openly on their desks as soon as I flick the lights off to show an overhead projection. I literally have to wake them up to get them to read out a sentence or write on the board. They make no bones about telling me that they haven’t done the homework and so “can’t write the answer;” I reply that if they know the material so well that they didn’t need to do the exercise, then surely they can just answer on the fly; they groan and write something, anything, in order to return to their seats.
Some of the students know some of the material pretty well already, and they do fine on the tests (although they don’t necessarily apply the principles well in their own writing). But some of the students really need to do this work, because they’re struggling. Some of these struggling students are attentive at grammar time, but some of them are not.
How can I make grammar, if not necessarily fun, at least engaging and challenging?
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