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“If you're not failing every now and again, it is a sign you are not doing anything very innovative. Woody Allen”

Effective Grammar Practice

Effective grammar practice is not something that is usually done well in language classes, nor by language learners themselves. This is one reason why the rates of school age kids and adults picking up a second language are so poor world wide. I have seen so many people practice grammar with such phrases like “I am going to; she is going to; he is going to; they are going to” etc .  Whilst this has some merit, the reality is that its usefulness for most is limited.

The human brain works best when it can identify with situations and when there are links made to what is already known.  So instead of the above or what grammar books might give you as examples, it is a good idea to always personalise the examples.

For eg, “I am going to the movies this afternoon with Grace.  She is going with me. Rob and Jo are not going with us as they are busy.” etc

The other important consideration for you to maximise the chances of learning language so you will be able to use it, is to distinguish it from other tenses that may be confusing you.

“I have gone to the market with my friend so I can’t help you”

(Where/when are you saying that….and who are you saying to?)

How is that different to:

“I am walking to the market with my friend so I can’t help you”

(Where/when are you are saying that….and who are you saying to?)

“I will go the market with my friend so I can’t help you”

(Where/when are you are saying that….and who are you saying to?)

If you are not sure of the differences, you can get clarity about your problem when you are VERY clear what you are trying to solve. Like the above problem for example.  These are very clear examples which you can do research on.  My suggestion is that you put up your antenna so that when you are reading or listening to people  so you hear these forms. Be very observant of the context and listen very carefully to the meaning. This way you can become more effective in your grammar practice as the language you use attempts to be a reflection of what you think, see and hear. This way you are actively engaged in getting a good a match as you can, at the same time as working on the forms of the language.

Of course you can check a grammar book, but learning to listen better ( and the above is an example of focussed listening) and being more attentive will help you enormously in your quest to become a better language learner.  

If you want to look at other examples of how you could improve your practice there are other examples I have provided here as  well as in a post on I wrote on how you could improve your grammar by reading. The important thing to remember is that to make your grammar effective you need to do a whole lot more than do the kinds of grammar exercises you see in books or courses. You need to make them your own!

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  • Michael

    I’ve discovered the following website for conversational practice of various English grammar points. Please let me know your opinion about this kind of grammar practice. I find it quite useful as it contains really practical questions for learners of English:

    http://www.eslconversationquestions.com/english-conversation-questions/grammar/

    • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

      Thanks for sharing that site Michael. I am sure many readers will be appreciative. What is good about them is that they are focused and personal that people can relate to them from their own experience. They also have to bring what they have to the questions.
      I believe they can have a place for learners working to solidify what they are learning. Their use is at that level. For some sentences/structires a bit more exploration might help the learner..really depends who they are and where they are at. Speaking always helps as well, rather than just a written exercise.
      With people I work with, I seldom work at the level of sentence after sentence after sentence. I get them to explore each example(sentence) more thoroughly, getting them to put themselves into the example by explaining why, when, how, etc.

  • Michael

    Andrew, your insightful thoughts on language learning issues help me develop my own ideas on language learning and teaching issues.

    I believe not all kinds of grammar exercises are equally productive
    for learners of English. I prefer English grammar exercises with helpful
    useful communicative real life content for potential practical use
    (with sentences that most likely can be used in real life situations).

    At your own discretion
    you can choose the most important sentences as to content from English
    communicative grammar practice books to prepare your own more useful
    grammar materials. In addition you can make up your own sentences for
    each grammar point.

    If learners feel that the content of
    sentences in grammar exercises is based on real life situations, interesting, creative,
    practical for them, they will be more interested in grammar learning
    considered to be hard and boring.

    • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

      Yes you are right Michael. I would go a bit further and say that as teachers we can go further and seek to create exercises which are not only communicative, personal, practical and interesting in their own right but also ones which evoke the meanings we are seeking to teach.

      Consider the sentences:
      “I have 3 pens. If I give him one, I will have 2.”
      “If we go to Pete’s Pizza, we’ll see Mary”
      While the second might appear to be more personal and interesting (and is one in fact which I lifted from a well known grammar text and modified a little), the other one is crystal clear and evokes the meaning in a way that is hard to miss. It also provides a practical hands on aspect that can help the learners when they are speaking and seeing the results there and then.

  • Michael

    In my opinion, in order to make
    a grammar point easier understandable an adequate number (not just one
    or two) of daily life usage examples (sentences) with potential types of
    occurring patterns for that grammar point could be provided in listening, reading, speaking
    and writing practice. For example when learning English verb tenses,
    different types of sentences (especially declarative and interrogative ones) with affirmative and negative verb forms,
    and all personal pronouns (I, you, she. he, it, we, they) and other
    kinds of potential subjects (as doers or agents of actions) can be
    included as examples to show all types of potentially occurring patterns
    of use which must be dealt with sooner or later anyway.

    • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

      Yep agree, more examples can help the learner. However a critical aspect to that is that the learners put themselves into the exercises, as I have mentioned before in a comment above, rather than just treat them as intellectual exercises to “crack”.

      Good learners imagine themselves in the example and put themselves in the example. Hence the kind of examples provided become critical. Some examples I have seen are too bland or not clear enough for the learner.

      For eg.
      “I went there to help my sister”
      is of itself a far poorer example of the past tense than
      “I went there yesterday to help my sister”
      However for more advanced students markers become less important as the context becomes more important.

      Other issues with exercises sometimes is that they jump around from Paris to fish to children, etc. This actually works to undermine the learner in their attempts to put themselves in to the examples as they have to move around too to understand what is going on.
      It is hard to talk in generalities about exercises as some I have seen do go from topic to topic but the sentences are so evocative that it is fine.

      More of course could be said.

  • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

    Great question to bring up Michael.
    Dialogues and texts are certainly far better than the traditional, flat, intellectual type of grammar exercises that has been the mainstay of traditional language teaching in the past…and in fact continues to be used to the present day.

    Effective language learners can transform any input into meaningful value laden learning. The trouble is that most language learners are not like that. Many learners think that by doing an exercise/dialogue/etc they will learn. They might but then it is more hit and miss. Such an attitude leaves out something which is THE crucial factor.

    That goes something like – What do THEY bring of themselves to the situation. Or, how do THEY work at integrating what they are doing into what they already know or don’t know.

    The learners who figure out that is what needs to be done will progress no matter what they do, and the ones who don’t will struggle to transform what they do into learnings that manifest as increased confidence and oral proficiency.

    Hope that helps…

  • Michael

    Learners of English should be encouraged to make up
    their own sentences on each grammar point taking into consideration
    their personal daily life activities (thus using English grammar for
    their potential relevant needs in realistic situations). Imagination and
    creativity play a major role in this practice as learners prepare for
    potential use of English grammar for their needs.

    • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

      Thanks for bringing this up Michael.. imagination and creativity are important tools for every successful language learner. Something in fact I was going to write about more in depth at a later date.