Still ‘about grammar’, not grammaring skills? – Part 2

Those who haven’t read my previous post on this topic can find it here. It is well worth reading, but not necessary (I hope) to follow the ideas in this one. For those who haven’t read it, it will suffice to know that I finished it by mentioning Marianne Celce-Murcia and Diane Larsen Freeman’s tridimensional model of grammar.

In that model 1The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course, Third Edition, Marianne Celce-Murcia, Diane Larsen-Freeman, 2016, Celce-Murcia and Freeman add a third dimension, the dimension of use, to the already well-known dimensions of form and meaning. The idea is that, since we are considering grammar teaching and learning “…with a communicative end in mind, …”, we’d better go beyond form and meaning, and consider Pragmatics, i.e. when and why speakers make certain choices, in certain contexts, when other choices with apparently the same meaning are available. For instance, why do speakers choose would instead of used to or the Past simple in the context of reminiscences since all three might be used to mean “…repeated actions in the past…” ? Analysing this dimension of the grammar structure you have chosen to teach will help immensely with the choices for the presentation/input or freer practice stages of your lesson, regardless of the approach you favor.

To further illustrate my point, let’s look at the Past Progressive, using this tridimensional model.

Dimension 1: Form

Analysis of form will will reveal:

  • Statements: S + auxiliary be (was, were) + (not) + main verb base form+ing
  • Questions: auxiliary be (was, were) + S + main verb base form+ing
  • Pronunciation of weak forms of auxiliary be (was, were)
  • Pronunciation of main verb base form+ing
  • Spelling of main verb base form+ing
  • Stress on the main verb, not be etc.

It is already clear how vast the considerations must be when planning a lesson. And only to cover the dimension of form! Of course I don’t mean one should teach all of this at once or even overwhelm learners with too much information, but not knowing what needs covering leads to poor choices on the part of the teacher. For institutional reasons or lack of time, perhaps, teachers tend to focus on areas that are easy for students (and themselves) to manipulate, ignoring pronunciation for example, which is also form.

Dimension 2: Meaning

Analysis of meaning results in:

  • The event happened before now (in the past, if you prefer).
  • It was in progress in reference to a point in time (before now).
  • It was not complete: compare I did/ I was doing.
  • It was temporary, limited by the moment it started and the moment it stopped happening, interrupted or not.

Unsurprisingly, not many teachers go beyond these two dimensions in presentation and practice. Some won’t even leave the first, concentrating on partial information during presentation and controlled practice exercises. And it is perfectly understandable, given the complexity of the task. If you are a teacher who goes beyond form and meaning, well done!

Going beyond form and meaning here means moving on to use, the most difficult of the three dimensions for teachers to reach.

Dimension 3: Use

Analysis of use 2 See Teaching Tenses, by Rosemary Aitken in the case of the Past Progressive, would produce something along the lines of:

  • It creates a time period within which other actions take place: Describing the background to a story
  • It fills a period of time: Police enquiries
  • It crosses a time point: Describing an interrupted action in the past etc

Not much effort is necessary to see how complex teaching a single structure can be, if one is to take all three dimensions into consideration and consider all of them one must.

This particular view of grammar has important implications to lesson planning, particularly to the way you stage a grammar lesson and the choices of presentation, practice tasks and activities you choose for it. Let’s look at why the dimension of form still has a huge influence on teachers’ choices and why we must insist on moving beyond in my next post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *