When we plan to focus on a new TL pattern (a new linguistic structure, a new grammar point etc.) there are several points to keep in mind. We must think of the most effective ways to introduce this new linguistic information, to grade the level of difficulty of the tasks according to our learners’ needs, to decide whether to focus on form/meaning and to make sure that our students will be able to not only grasp the meaning of the new patterns but will also be able to practice it appropriately and incorporate it in their speech/writing. This blog post will focus on some key factors to consider when introducing our EFL learners to new linguistic structures in order to promote language learning and at the same time keep our students’ motivation levels up.
Focus on form/meaning
When presenting new language we need to highlight both form and meaning. Form refers to the bits of which the piece of language is made up. For example the regular past tense is formed with the base form of the verb + ed (eg. she worked) and the present perfect is made up of the auxiliary have + the past participle (eg. She has worked). But what do these examples actually mean? What is the underlying meaning behind these structures? It is possible to imagine someone recognizing and even repeating them without actually knowing any details about their use or the message they want to convey. It is vital, therefore, to shift our attention not only on teaching the form of such structures but also the meaning, i.e. the different concepts a structure denotes (for example she has worked means that she worked at some time in the past but within a time frame that includes the present). It is also important to stress here that the same structure can sometimes have many different meanings.
The use of concept questions
One important technique when introducing new language is to use concept questions. To do this, we need to break language structures up into their component concepts, using language that the students will already know. With concept questions we actually take away all the unnecessary components and focus only on the necessary information our students need to fully absorb the meaning an usage behind the newly introduced structures. The way we will decide to use concept questions in the language classroom will vary depending on our students’ level, age and specific needs. The use of concept questions will activate our learners’ previous schemata and relevant knowledge and will help them discover the meaning behind the new language/structures through discovery and not just explicit exposure to the rules that underlie it.
It is important to remember that concept questions should focus only on the essential meaning of the structure. These questions could have a simple yes/no answer or very short answer. Normally two or three questions should suffice for students to understand the underlying meaning of the new structure. We should also always remember to use language that is simpler than the structure being focused on.
In his book Learning Teaching (p. 126), Jim Scrivener presents an example of a task followed by a whole class discussion that focuses on the use of concept questions:
Situational presentation of new structures- creating a context
When presenting learners with a new TL structure, creating a context to attach that pattern to can be very beneficial in language learning. Students need to associate this new information with a specific context, with something they can relate to. Teachers can use pictures, realia, board drawings or simply narrate a story that will help activate the learners’ schemata and previous knowledge. Relevance and appropriacy are important concepts to consider here, as the context we will choose needs to be adapted to our classroom’s level and our learners’ specific needs and interests.
Scrivener (1994:132-3) proposes the following stages for this popular technique for presenting new structures:
The role of noticing
The importance of noticing in successful language learning has been highlighted by many linguists and SLA researchers (Skehan, Long, Harmer, Thornbury). There seems to be a general consensus among them that some form of attention to input is necessary for effective learning to take place. Noticing is considered to be successful when it leads to language acquisition, when our learners’ attention is shifted towards a TL structure, which is then acquired, internalized and eventually becomes part of their TL output.
The key, therefore, is not just to make our students notice linguistic patterns in the TL. Something that has ‘grasped’ our attention could easily be forgotten after a while. Our goal as teachers is to create the appropriate circumstances in order to raise our learners’ consciousness, to help them successfully acquire this new knowledge and to begin to actively use it by turning input into intake and then into successful TL output.
Noticing mainly has to do with our learners being able to understand and grasp the meaning from the input they receive in terms of a newly introduced structure or grammar point. Successful learning will take place when they notice this ‘gap’ between the target language and their interlanguage and will actively try to incorporate the new structures in their TL output.
Input enrichment and task authenticity
Our main aim is not for our students to merely notice a new grammatical point or lexical pattern. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to expose them to linguistic input but to also provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking.
By loading the input we give to our learners with the target forms we want them to notice, we facilitate the learning process and give them the necessary clues they need in order to process and eventually absorb the new knowledge. Variety and authenticity in tasks is also important here as learners have the opportunity to reproduce the grammatical patterns in many different scenarios and for different communicative purposes.
Promoting learner autonomy
Active involvement is key to a successful learning environment. In addition to focusing on our learners’ active involvement when introducing new language structures, we must also encourage independent thinking. This learner autonomy needs to take place outside the lesson hours too, during individual study. To boost our students’ successful self-development, we must teach them the strategies they need to use (listening strategies, reading strategies, organization, etc.) to be in charge of their learning and make conscious decisions about it. They must be trained to identify the new linguistic patterns using contextual clues and to learn to notice and discover the usage and meaning behind this new information. This of course greatly depends on our learners’ age and level and involves a great amount of effort from the teachers’ part as well in order to effectively guide and train their learners towards success.
Learners as discoverers
Cultivating the anticipation of discovery should be one of our main tasks in the language classroom. We must activate our learners’ schemata and previous knowledge by having them guess what the topic and aim of the lesson are through brainstorming, through authentic and engaging activities that trigger our learners’ minds and imagination. We must train them to expect the unexpected. The teacher is there not feed them with input and instructions but to provide the stimulus and let the learners give the response and be actively involved in the learning process.
Ur (1996:169) stresses the positive impact to language acquisition of the ‘journey of self-discovery’ through imaginative writing/speaking. When students find the task and the topic interesting, challenging and relevant to their age, they will ‘strive’ harder than usual to ‘produce a greater variety of correct and appropriate language’ in order to express their ideas.
Blending the activities to satisfy our learners’ preferences and needs
It is important to maintain a continuum from explicit teaching to implicit learning when it comes to grammar in order to cater for all of our learners’ needs based on their specific learning styles and preferences. Some learners prefer to be explicitly taught the rule that underlies a structure. Others learn through exposure to the context and by making the necessary connections and assumptions themselves. Some like bullet points, others prefer drilling. In order for effective learning to take place, we always need to keep these in mind and adopt a variety of teaching strategies by either explicitly teaching them the language structure or by guiding our learners to discover it themselves.
We should never forget the role that motivation plays in successful language learning. If our students do not feel the need or the enthusiasm to pick up new knowledge then language acquisition will be too hard to be achieved. Teachers need to find ways to transfer their love for languages in the classroom and to be raw models for their students. Diversity and authenticity in the tasks, using topics that are relevant, meaningful and interesting to our learners and giving them the opportunity to freely express themselves and participate in the lesson play a key role in boosting our learners’ motivation levels.
To sum up, noticing and understanding the newly introduced TL patterns will successfully take place once our learners are alert and ready to absorb the new linguistic information we expose them to. In order to achieve this, we need to Improve their attention span and create the ideal learning conditions that will boost their intrinsic motivation and will make them eager to participate in the language lesson.
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.
Harmer, J. (2003). Do your students notice anything? Modern English Teacher, 12(4), 5-14.
Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann
Thornbury, S. (1997). Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote ‘noticing’. ELT Journal, 51(4), 326-335.
Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press