March 2017
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Randa Taftaf, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA

Dialogic Pedagogy in Grammar Instruction

In contrast to the deductive approach in which teachers provide grammatical explanations to learners and the inductive approach in which learners analyze texts and infer grammar explanations for themselves, the dialogic approach is a constructive approach in which both the teacher and learners collaborate on and co-construct language and meaning together (Shrum & Glisan, 2000), using the target language itself as a mediation tool. Clearly Vygotskian, this approach recognizes the critical role of the teacher in mediating understandings of the new language while acknowledging the contributions and backgrounds the learners bring to the classroom (Donato & Adair-Hauck, 1992). Consequently, this understanding allows the teacher to assess student background knowledge, which enables the teacher to work within the learner’s zone of proximal development (ZPD; Vygotsky, 1978), subsequently fostering real learning. This approach distinguishes itself in identifying that dialogic interactions are fundamental to learning as they occur naturally in everyday life settings (Adair-Hauck, 1993). Clearly, the advantages to dialogic grammar instruction are numerous: Students are actively involved in their own learning, are given a multitude of opportunities to negotiate meaning, achieve an understanding of both form and use of grammatical structures, and so much more.

The PACE Model

A successful model of the dialogic approach to teaching grammar is the presentation, attention, co-construction, extension (PACE) model. It was created by Adair-Hauck and Donato as a model for contextualizing lessons about language through cultural stories or any other interesting text  (Shrum & Glisan, 2000). This model allows students and teachers to co-construct language through storytelling. After a few initial activities and interactions that help learners understand the text of the story, the teacher then turns learners’ attention to specific language forms and structures (Shrum & Glisan, 2000).

1. Presentation

The first step in PACE is Presentation. During this stage, the teacher prepares students for the grammatical feature to come, through an interesting cultural context. Since story telling is a great element to include in second language instruction due to its natural occurrence in our daily lives, this context could be a story, a folktale, a dialogue, a narrative, etc. It is important to choose a context where the grammatical feature in focus is well represented and used meaningfully in the chosen text and “that the story and target structure are appropriate to the learners’ actual and potential levels of development, as instruction in the ZPD suggests” (Shrum & Glisan, 2000, p. 224). In other words, to ensure success, the chosen text should be interesting, meaningful, within the level of the learners, and preferably contain repetition of the grammar function in focus. Once an appropriate text is chosen, it is presented orally in the form of a story or narrative to arouse interest. The presentation should be made comprehensible by creating interactive, meaningful oral activities such as questioning, group work, and TPR to get the students actively involved in the story.  The story is usually re-told in three different ways moving from a teacher-fronted narration to a more student-centered one. After the students fully understand the story, it’s time to move on to the next step. This phase usually incorporates a form of technology.

2. Attention

Attention is the second stage of PACE. After grasping the full meaning of the story, students can now concentrate on other elements of the story, such as the language used. The teacher draws attention to a certain aspect of the language of the story or highlights a specific grammatical feature. The teacher asks students to find patterns, repetitions, and/or examples of the featured structure by asking questions that direct attention to the grammatical structure or through the use of other various mediation tools such as the use of alternate colors to draw attention to the specific form.

3. Co-Construction

After the students have recognized a specific pattern in a grammatical feature, it is time for a grammatical explanation. In PACE, the grammar explanation is co-constructed, which is the third stage of the model. The teacher does not dictate an explanation of the grammar, but rather discusses the form and focus of the grammar with the students. Through a series of guided questions or in a somewhat structured conversation about form and meaning, students hypothesize and guess the use of this certain grammatical structure. This requires the students to use higher order thinking skills such as evaluation and analysis. This conversation is not a discussion in which the teacher asks all of the questions (i.e., the teacher doesn’t only inquire, but rather is an active participant in the conversation that can summarize, assist, guide, and question student hypotheses). At some points, the teacher may even offer an observation to model to students the process of reflecting on language. Teachers need to be aware that the assistance or scaffolding they provide is fluid and may range from brief clues about the target form to explicit instruction if needed (Aljaafreh & Lantolf, 1994). Through this give and take, by reasoning with the learner, and by closely monitoring the learner’s contribution, the teacher can assess the students’ ZPD and how much help the students will need to gain full understanding of the grammatical concept.

4. Extension

It’s finally time to ground the information through extension, the final stage of PACE. In this stage, students are given the opportunity to use their new grammar concept communicatively and creatively. The extension activity should be interesting, related to the theme of the lesson, and allow creative self-expression. In this way, students get the chance to actually use the new concept meaningfully and connect it to their existing knowledge. The extension activities can also address cultural perspectives embodied in the story (Shrum & Glisan, 2000, p. 229).

PACE: An Example

In order to emphasize the student perspective on the PACE model, the following example is a lesson prepared for a beginner Arabic as a foreign language class. Obviously, the model can be used to teach English, or any other language. For a beginner English class, the grammatical focus might be subject-verb-object word order or present simple verb forms.

Lesson Theme: An old traditional Arabic fable about an ant, a spider, a bee, and a worm. (A Middle-Eastern and North African cultural product.)

Grammar Objective: Students will be able to use the Arabic form “Ya to call or call the attention of someone.

Class Description: True beginner Arabic class of 10 students.

Preparation: Before the start of the lesson, the instructor introduces the new vocabulary and taps into students’ background knowledge to pave the way for PACE.

Presentation: The instructor provides two to three interactive activities in which the students learn the story.

  1. In the first presentation, the instructor acts out the story, which is illustrated in the form of a Prezi. The instructor tells the story while involving the students by distributing vocabulary cards: When the student hears a familiar word, he or she raises the corresponding vocabulary card.

  2. In the second presentation, the instructor distributes the story in the form of small slides. While the instructor reads or retells the story, the students work together in groups to put the slides in the correct order.

  1. In the third presentation, the students work together to explain one slide in the target language using each other and the vocabulary cards as scaffolds. By this point, students should be able to move on from single words to putting together simple sentences.

Attention: The instructor displays the text visually and showcases the repetitive lines of the story to draw student attention to the ya form. Ya is highlighted in these sentences to draw students’ attention to this new form.

Co-Construction: A dialogue about the grammatical form, meaning, and function takes place. The instructor asks the students questions about the form, function, and meaning, highlighting similarities while drawing the information from the students. They then discuss the use of ya in the story and in real life. They have a conversation about grammar and deal with any discrepancies, questions, or comments, as can be seen from Figures 1 below.

Teacher: So, ya is used before a name, right? Do you think we can use this form for names of objects, too?

Student: No. In this story, ya was only used before the names of the insects, not before the cake crumb.

Teacher: Do you think we could use ya before names of people, too?

Student: Yes. I guess so.

Teacher: But why do we need to use ya before names?

Student: I’m not sure.

Teacher: Can’t we just call a person by his or her name without ya?

Student: No. I don’t think so because in this story ya was used to call all of the insects.

Teacher: So what do you think the purpose of ya is?

Student: I think it is used to call someone or to ask for help.

Teacher: I think so, too. I also think we can call someone without ya.

Student: But I think ya grasps the attention of the listener, right?

Teacher: I agree.

Figure 1. The instructor’s goal is to have a conversation about the grammar and assist student learning by being an active participant in the conversation while offering personal observations, too.

Extension: The instructor asks the students to put what they learned to practice. This part usually allows room for student creativity. In groups, the students use the slide cards (used in the second presentation) to retell their own version of the story. They are required to use the new vocabulary and new grammatical function of ya.


A dialogic approach to grammar instruction encourages learning to be a social process rather than an individual process (Vygotsky, 1978). Through grammar conversations, dialogues, and social interactions students are more involved and responsible for their own language learning. Rather than presenting the grammar to the students (didactic approach) or requiring them to figure out the concept on their own (inductive approach), a dialogic approach allows students to engage in an analysis of the language that requires higher order thinking skills and guides them to understand the logic behind the construct of the language. In this way, students are no longer memorizing rules that they do not understand, but rather constructing and deconstructing the building blocks of the language itself and ultimately producing their own grammatically correct output of the language.


Adair-Hauck, B. (1993). A descriptive analysis of whole language/guided participatory versus explicit teaching strategies in foreign language instruction. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA.

Aljaafreh, A., & Lantolf, J. P. (1994). Negative feedback as regulation and second language learning in the zone of proximal development. Modern Language Journal, 78(4), 465–483.

Donato, R., & Adair-Hauck, B. (1992). Discourse perspectives on formal instruction. Language Awareness, 1(2), 73–89.

Shrum, J. L., & Glisan, E. W. (2000). Teacher's handbook: Contextualized language instruction. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Randa Taftaf is a senior instructor at INTO University of South Florida. Equipped with a fiery passion for languages and a master’s degree in foreign language education from the University of Pittsburgh, she is a seasoned foreign language instructor of 17 years and counting. She has domestic and international experience working with organizations such as UNHCR, AMIDEAST, and multiple international universities. Over the course of her career, she has managed and led exemplary ESL programs, actively trained ESL instructors, developed a curriculum for the teaching of Arabic as a second language, and much more. As an American of Syrian heritage, she strives to bridge the cultures of the East and West both inside and outside her foreign language classrooms.

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