What is grammar? It can refer to either the structure of a language as it is used by its speakers and writers (descriptive grammar), or the structure of a language as certain people (most often teachers) believe it is or should be used (prescriptive grammar). It is perhaps best described as ‘this structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves. The more we are aware of how it works, the more we can monitor the meaning and effectiveness of the way we and others use language… all teaching is ultimately a matter of getting to grips with meaning’ (Crystal, 2004:24).
The focus of this chapter is on grammar, and the activities included here aim to show teachers how technology can support the attempt by teachers and learners to get to grips with meaning. What can a technology-supported approach to grammar teaching and practice offer learners and teachers? Specifically it can offer support for both descriptive and prescriptive grammar through:
- Engagement and motivation: Grammar does not have to be dull, and technology can help the teacher vary the way grammar is both presented and practiced.
- Access to data: The Web has an enormous collection of texts of different types, which means teachers and learners have access to a wealth of real-world examples of grammar.
- Description. Declarative knowledge of grammar is readily available online in the form of rules, often illustrated by examples.
- Noticing/awareness raising. Learners can discover rules from examples of features found in texts on the Web, helping input become intake as they notice patterns and organization of real language use.
- Feedback. There are some tools (especially spellcheckers and grammar-checkers) included in word-processing software, or available online, which give feedback on errors.
- Opportunities for practice. Technology can be used in different ways by learners to help them practice grammar. Some examples can be found in the activities in this chapter.
It is worthwhile for teachers to spend some time becoming familiar with, and introducing learners to, the various ways that grammar can be supported by technology, as mentioned above. The tools are not just useful classroom tools. Many of those presented in this chapter are used by people every day to check their own grammar knowledge and support their writing. These include those found in browsers (e.g. the ‘find’ feature), online tools, such as automatic-translation websites, and tools embedded in word processors (spellcheck and grammar-check tools), which learners may or may not be familiar with, but which can be very useful to them, both when they are learning a language and in their daily life.
Apart from day-to-day needs, grammar is also important to learners who want to pass exams, and exam practice is looked at here, with Activity 4.3 asking learners to produce their own cloze tests. This is a way of helping learners become more familiar with the kind of features found on language exams.
The activities in this chapter are organized according to level. The chapter starts by giving teachers some alternatives ways of practicing grammar with learners. Some of these ways suggest using learners’ own writing or error correction, as the basis of the activity. Using real-world texts for noticing grammar, and raising awareness, is the focus of activities 4.8 – 4.10 and 4.12.
Teachers often follow the same format when presenting grammar, writing structures on the board and then asking learners to look at examples, more often than not contained in a text they have to read. There are activities in this chapter that suggest looking at authentic examples of grammar found in texts on the Web, a more descriptive approach- and activities which focus on a number of different prescriptive grammar sites- and require the learners to take a critical approach to what they find there.