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Using Content and Tasks to Address Grammar More Effectively
by Sara Gramley and Heather Mehrtens

Traditional grammar instruction strongly focuses on rules and practice. However, cognitive science shows that this method is not the best means to acquire language. This article provides a rationale for using content-based instruction (CBI) and task-based instruction (TBI) to address grammar in a language classroom and demonstrates how to address grammar within language lessons that follow CBI and TBI principles.

Principles of Traditional vs Content- and Task-Based Instruction

In a traditional grammar lesson, the teacher introduces a structure by explaining rules and providing examples; students practice the rules through guided exercises; they are then expected to produce the structure in writing and speech. However, many have questioned the efficacy of this approach. In fact, research confirms that this “present, practice, produce” method is not the best way to develop language skills as it promotes explicit over implicit knowledge (Ellis, 1995, 2003). Moreover, cognitive science shows there is a clear limit to how much information students can retain from such instruction (Ellis, 2003; Kennedy, 2006). CBI, in which language is taught in tandem with meaningful topics, and TBI, in which students must use the target language to collaborate and complete tasks with specific outcomes, are more effective alternatives.

CBI is based on several communicative principles. Larsen-Freeman and Anderson (2011) explain that in this approach to language teaching, communication is both the means to and the end goal of learning: Students simultaneously learn language and content, using each to learn the other; language learning is viewed as a social process, requiring interaction among the learners; and errors are addressed through recycling language and content, self-correction, peer review, and teacher feedback (pp. 139–142). Unlike the traditional approach in which a grammatical structure is both the topic and the objective of a lesson, CBI treats grammar as the means to meaningful communication.

Sequence Lessons by Topic

For students, learning grammar this way has cognitive advantages. Kennedy (2006) asserts, “Emotions drive attention. Attention drives learning and memory” (p. 479). This simple observation astutely describes what we, as learners, all know: We are more likely to engage with and remember a topic that resonates with us more than an arbitrary rule. For instructors, teaching grammar through CBI means rethinking the way in which we organize our syllabi and lessons. Instead of presenting students with a unit of grammatical structures, we should introduce a unit sequenced by topics. The grammar will, of course, still be part of the lesson and sequenced in a meaningful way; the difference is that the students will view the unit with regard to the ideas, not the underlying structures.

Provide Opportunities for Real-Life Language

In addition to teaching grammar through engaging content, TBI provides another effective means for grammar instruction. In TBI, students engage in a variety of tasks with clear outcomes; they work together to accomplish tasks and solve problems. Instead of being front and center, the teacher provides the initial input for a lesson and then constantly evaluates students as they complete tasks with respect to task outcomes and language use (Larsen-Freeman & Anderson, 2011, p. 156–157). In contrast to traditional grammar instruction that focuses heavily on rules, TBI treats grammatical structures as the tools required to complete a job. Rather than doing repetitive exercises unreflective of natural language use, students practice grammatical structures by using them to collaborate and receive focused feedback on their own usage. This interaction is a key reason why TBI is so effective; that is, it forces students to use real-life language.

Encourage Critical Thinking

Another important feature of TBI is that it requires students to think critically. Kennedy (2006) explains, “As a result of participating in small-group activities that promote practice by doing, and verbally working through meaningful problems, students are able to retain 90% of newly acquired knowledge” (p. 479). These results suggest that retention is significantly improved when the brain is fully engaged; in other words, if students are asked to use their minds with the target language, they are more likely to remember the vocabulary and the grammatical structures that they learned, such as by analyzing a text or debating with a partner on an interesting issue.

Implementing Content- and Task-Based Instruction

To implement these methods successfully, planning is critical.

Choosing Materials

A teacher must consider proficiency level when selecting texts and audio so that they suit the students’ needs. An effective source will be one that presents the chosen topic at a level comprehensible for the majority of the class and includes multiple examples of the chosen grammatical structure. It is often necessary to review several sources before finding those that satisfy both content and language requirements. Once appropriate sources are chosen, examples must be chosen purposefully. Choosing sentences or clips in which the structure is apparent and clear will make it easier for students to understand the structures and start forming a basis for the rules surrounding its usage. Once this understanding is established, more complicated or irregular examples can be analyzed.

Reversing the Classroom Model

A salient feature of teaching this way, especially in comparison to traditional grammar instruction, is that the order of the lesson is reversed: The content and tasks come before the language focus. Instead of learning a rule and then practicing it, students are exposed to examples of grammatical structures in context, given tasks to perform with these grammatical structures, and then asked to analyze the structures and patterns they observe. The teacher supports students in making these observations with guided questioning and provides corrections as needed. Students are very active in the learning process and thus pushed to find and to articulate patterns in usage, as opposed to passively listening to a teacher. Additionally, critical thinking is activated, benefiting both the learning and retention of grammatical structures.

These opportunities to think critically about issues in the target language and to connect emotionally with them are what distinguish TBI and CBI from traditional instruction. Marzano, Pickering, and Heflebower (2011) articulate the significance of this difference:

When students are asked merely to regurgitate information in a repetitive fashion, they will not see the relevance of the information they have learned….When students are challenged to use the information they have learned to solve problems, make decisions, conduct investigations, and create hypotheses regarding real-world issues, they are much more likely to see what they are learning as important. (p. 14)

Language learners are not all linguists at heart; it is much more likely that they will become invested in topics that are relevant to their lives, such as genetically engineered food or political elections than adjective clauses or demonstrative pronouns. Shifting the traditional language class into content- and task-based classes allows the students to learn the structures they need to communicate successfully. It simply turns an explicit grammar lesson into a stealthy one.

Sample Unit

The following set of articles and materials serve as an example content- and task-based unit for intermediate English language learners. First, we chose the topic of genetic engineering; after reading multiple articles on the topic, we selected three. We sequenced them according to length and difficulty, beginning with the shortest and most direct text.

The lessons address pronouns; final –s; and the prepositions in, on, at. These are not the only structures that could be addressed but were chosen purposefully as they are common sources of errors among learners. Each structure is used repeatedly in its respective text and is appropriate for the target proficiency level.

Each lesson moves through a progression of tasks with specified outcomes and interaction: partner, small group, whole class. The students begin with vocabulary, because words are the building blocks of understanding ideas. From there, they check their comprehension of the text’s main ideas. Once they have a clear and common understanding of the ideas in the text, they are ready for higher order thinking, which takes place in a discussion. After all of these tasks, when they have not only an understanding of the content but also opinions about it, they are ready to analyze the grammatical structures.

Topic: Genetic Engineering

Lesson 1
Content: “Dino Drumsticks
Language focus: Pronouns
Worksheet (.docx)

Lesson 2
Content: “UF Creates Trees With Enhanced Resistance to Greening
Language focus: Final –s (plurality, possession, tense)
Worksheet (.docx)

Lesson 3
Content: “Around the Country, Organic Farmers Are Pushing for ‘GE-Free’ Zones
Language focus: Prepositions (in, on, at)
Worksheet (.docx)

The methods discussed in this article are supported by research and effective in practice. In our experience, students are more engaged in using English and attentive to its structures when learning them in the context of an interesting topic or task.  It is helpful to remember that language cannot be separated from content; by addressing language and content in concert, grammar is taught and learned more effectively.

References

Ellis, R. (1995). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Kennedy, T. J. (2006). Language learning and its impact on the brain: Connecting language learning with the mind through content-based instruction. Foreign Language Annals, 39(3), 471–86.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Anderson, M. (2011). Techniques and principles in language teaching. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D., & Heflebower, T. (2011). The highly engaged classroom. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research.

Sample Unit Content Sources

Dizon, J. (2016 March 15). Dino drumsticks: Scientists grow dinosaur legs on chicken embryos for the first time. Tech Times RSS. Retrieved from http://www.techtimes.com/articles/141033/20160315/dino-drumsticks-scientists-grow-dinosaur-legs-on-chicken-embryos-for-the-first-time.htm

Harvey, C. (2016 January 4). Around the country, organic farmers are pushing for “GE-free” zones. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/01/04/around-the-country-organic-farmers-are-pushing-for-ge-free-zones/?utm_term=.c4dafddd21b7

Wilmoth, K. M. (2015 November 23). UF creates trees with enhanced resistance to greening. UF News. Retrieved from http://news.ufl.edu/articles/2015/11/uf-creates-trees-with-enhanced-resistance-to-greening.php

Download this article (PDF)
and the worksheets

 


Sara Gramley holds a master’s degree in TESOL from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently the English language learning specialist for graduate students at Brown University. Previously, Sara worked with English language learners at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, DePaul University, FISK Centro de Ensino in Brazil, Uncommon Charter Schools, Boston University, and Harvard University.

Heather Mehrtens holds a master’s degree in TESOL from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently serving as an English Language Fellow at Kamala Nehru College and Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India as well as a faculty member at the Maryland English Institute at the University of Maryland College Park. Previously, she taught at Boston University, Harvard University, Georgetown University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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