Teaching a foreign language at secondary school can be quite a challenging task but there is one aspect that would make the lives of teachers and MFL pupils easier, lead to more enjoyable lessons and also improve pupils’ grades: teaching less grammar.
The research over the past 20 years in second language acquisition has shown that (explicit) grammar teaching does not necessarily lead to better outcomes or more proficient pupils; A heavy focus on grammar can actually hinder a pupil’s development in the language.
As one cannot expect all MFL teachers to be experts in second language acquisition, here are 10 tips for teachers seeking to improve their pupils’ proficiency. If you decide to make any of these changes to your teaching, remember to do it at the cost of (explicit) grammar teaching.
- Find a way to make your pupils enjoy the language.
- Teach content that is actually interesting to your pupils as this will increase their motivation and facilitate language learning. The curriculum gives you enough flexibility to do that.
- Make them listen to songs or have them watch video clips/films/TV series in the respective language. Focus on content/form/cultural aspects, and make sure you do not do it as a purely passive task.
- Integrate cultural aspects in your lessons as culture is an integral component of any language and can keep pupils interested in learning the language.
- Integrate more speaking exercises into your lesson without focusing too much on form. Focus on content, let the pupils exchange information (information-gap activities) and let them make mistakes so that they can gain confidence and a sense of accomplishment in their speaking ability.
- Give pupils lots of (authentic) input and less of artificially manufactured and constructed language.
- If you teach a grammatical structure, show the pupils the structure in authentic resources and not only in individual sentences before you give them any rules. Keep the explanations very brief and focus on the main aspect of a grammatical feature. Try not to use pattern drills or teach paradigms but instead contextualise the structures and have pupils practice using them creatively. Do not teach any exceptions before your pupils are confident in using the main aspect of the grammatical structure. Do not be concerned when pupils seem to have forgotten how to use a grammatical feature correctly after a new feature or new aspect of the same feature has been introduced. It simply indicates that their brain is restructuring the information it has already saved in order to integrate the newly learned feature.
- Be patient, give your pupils time and show understanding for their different levels of ability and progress. It takes time to learn a language and every learner can only do this at their own pace. Make them focus on always trying their best and keep motivating them even if they have disappointing results.
- Don’t be afraid of (interlanguage) fossilization. It is a concept that has received too much attention in the context of language learning at secondary schools. So do not worry too much about your pupils making mistakes, especially in the beginning of their language learning process. Instead, have specific exercises during a lesson where you focus with them on form, but do not be frustrated if they do not get it right. Learning a language and its grammatical system does not happen overnight and your pupils need to make mistakes to get better in the language, they need to try and fail and try again, they need to be creative with the language and make it their own.
- Teach less (explicit) grammar as there is little scientific evidence that it actually supports learning the grammatical system of a foreign language; rather, see grammar as a means to an end and focus more on developing your pupils’ four basic skills (listening, reading, speaking and writing) by focusing on meaningful and contextualised language.
About the author
David is a secondary school teacher in Germany and the UK, where he currently works at a private school teaching EAL and German. In addition to his BA Hons degrees in English/EFL and educational science from Germany, he also holds an MA in German with a concentration in second language acquisition/language pedagogy from the USA. David has been teaching foreign languages for over 14 years in different educational settings in Germany, Brazil, the USA and the UK. His main goal as a teacher and educator has always been to motivate and support his students to make the best of their abilities. He has his own private tuition service www.dnktuition.com where he teaches English and German as foreign languages by integrating the findings of the newest research in second language acquisition and by focusing on the social and emotional well-being of his students, utilising the science of positive psychology.