Effective Grammar Practice

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
by ~Thomas Edison~

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Learning a language clearly requires us to learn how the language itself works. Many people believe that grammar study can help and in fact is even necessary. Whether it is necessary is not something that I wish to explore here. Instead, let’s have a look at what you can do to practice it, so it can become a part of your own use.

Clearly just studying grammar will not of itself enable you to use it. You really need to use it for that to happen. Just imagine studying to ride a bicycle. That will not get you far, will it? The way you learn language IS important. If how you are learning merely stays as rules to understand and to memorise, your success will be limited. Language is primarily a skill, not knowledge, so we need to use it, practice it.

Becoming skilled at differentiating useful practice from useless practice is going to save you a LOT of time, effort and disappointment in the long run. That is what this post is all about.

What is Effective Practice

Just think of practicing any “simple” practical skill, like riding a bike, driving a car or cooking. The key is wanting to achieve a result and the result centres around performing some skill fluently and easily. We can readily observe from the skill areas just referred to that practice that approximates real live situations is the best.

Artificial practice in any of those areas, just seems counter intuitive. Applying that to language, we could say that practice of grammar based around sentences that are not based on your immediate reality and perception is not really going to be beneficial, especially at the earlier stages. Practice that requires “all” of you to be involved, not just your mental faculties is the kind of practice that works the best.

Effective grammar practice is not something that is usually done well in language classes, nor by many language learners. The reason for this is that despite the fact that a lot is known about what makes for effective learning of languages, this understanding and knowhow has not found its way into teacher training institutions or into many schools. Instead, “a lot of time is spent on repeating what was done before, with minor adjustments.

This is one reason why the rates of school age kids and adults picking up a second language are so poor world wide. It is still very common to see 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 may have some merit, the reality is that its usefulness for most is limited.

Our brain works best when

  • we can identify with situations
  • there are links made to what is already known  
  • we can build on what we already not just know, but can do
  • the whole person is involved in the activity, including perceptions, feelings, intellect and so on.So, instead of what most grammar books might give you as random examples based on life in the UK, France or Vietnam, fishing, business etc, it is a really good idea to always personalise the examples and make them as “alive” as possible. Doing that, for a start, makes you more selective. That already is getting your brain to user higher order functioning to prepare itself.

Examples of Useful Practice

Talking about your own experiences (past, present or future) is a useful place to start. That of course can include books you have read, stories you may have heard as well as your real life experiences. If you are, for example, intending to go to the movies with a friend of yours, Grace, some sentences that could come from that would be:

  • “I am going to the movies this afternoon with Grace.  
  • She is going with me.
  • We are going together.
  • We are going to take a bus and walk the rest of the way.
  • Rob and Jo are not going with us as they are busy.”
    and so on

Let’s explore another area, distinguishing what you say from other time tenses that may be confusing you might be idea to explore here.

  • I have gone to the movies with Grace so I can’t help my brother”
    It’s important to be very clear, even visualise, where & when are you saying this….and who are you saying it to.
  • I am walking to the movies with Grace so I can’t help you”
    Be careful to do the same as what I just said..be very clear of the situation. By doing this you are creating links in your brain which will help you to be able to use it when you need to.
  • I will go the movies with Grace so I can’t help you”
    Answering questions like “Who are you saying this to and why?” again will help you take your practice to new levels.

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 situation for example.  When you have very clear examples, you are able to be more pinpointed with your research. As long as you stay general in your enquiries, like when can I use the present perfect, it is difficult to achieve mastery. The clearer and more personal are the examples, the more clear you can be about what exactly you are needing.

Practice using Listening

Another suggestion I have is that you put up your antenna so that when you are reading or listening to people  you listen more carefully to what exactly they are saying, in terms of meaning. Alternatively you can be really attentive to the forms they use. Either way, you are looking for more clarity.  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 feel, think, see and hear. Compare that to talking about the past! Very different perspective.

This way you are actively engaged in getting as a good a match in what you say to what you are thinking and feeling, at the same time as working on the forms of the language. This is making you work at the language is ways that can only help you to retain what you learn. Without memorising anything.

Of course you can check a grammar book, but learning to listen better (and the above are examples of focussed listening) and being more attentive will help you enormously in your quest to be able to use what you learn

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.

Conclusion

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 most books or courses. You need to ensure that the language you are speaking is your own! You need to make it as personal as you can, that way you will involve more of yourself. Do that and you will see a difference in not only your results but the satisfaction you gain from your learning.

(This is a significantly updated and improved version of a post I wrote here some 6 years ago)

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  • Michael

    Learners can learn grammar and practice each grammar point in communicative
    grammar exercises with real life content (with sentences that most
    likely can be used in real life situations).
    I prefer language courses
    that include (integrate) grammar material in thematic conversation and
    vocabulary practice activities (exercises) in each lesson. There
    are language courses built around conversation topics for learning and
    practising all four
    skills in each lesson (listening, speaking, reading and
    writing) alongside pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. Four skills
    (integrated skills) language courses include textbooks with audio
    recordings for
    all levels including for beginners and are suitable for self-study as
    well.

  • 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/

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.