You could plan a lesson to teach verb tenses by defining the tense, giving examples in sentences, and then passing out a worksheet for your students to practice. This may be a very familiar grammar instruction technique for many of your students. But grammar instruction can, and should, be more than perfunctory. You want to teach language, after all, and language is so much more than knowledge of grammar rules, right?

Benefits to using a communicative approach to grammar teaching

Using communicative approach calls for teaching your students grammar so that they remember it and understand its relationship to other grammatical forms; then they can use it autonomously and in unique situations. Communication! For this I propose teaching grammar in a relevant context, using a Guided Discovery approach with an emphasis on top-down processing. For you and for your students, this will be a more memorable, and effective, learning experience.

What is Guided Discovery?

Guided Discovery is an approach that removes you, the teacher, from the main role of “explainer” and extends to the students the opportunity to question and discover the target grammar. When they have done that, they can then construct their own knowledge of what it means and how it is used.

How does this approach work?

For this to concept to work, you have to create materials and a setting that places the target grammar in a context that is relevant and interesting enough for the students to care about. When their interest is piqued, they have a task to accomplish that can only be done by actively engaging with the language. While they are engaged in the task, you take on the role of “monitor,” remaining outside the activity until you are needed (for example, if communication breaks down). If you have set up the activity well, students will work toward the goal while relying on each other for practice and to get feedback.

When you start with whole language (e.g. an article) and the students have to discover the language and how it works (i.e. the rules, the standards, the exceptions, etc.), you are incorporating a top-down approach to language enquiry.

Example of a simple grammar lesson using Guided Discovery

Have students read a brief, interesting newspaper article. Give them a graphic organizer (a visual display that demonstrates relationships between facts, concepts or ideas) with four sections labeled: present | past | future | I don’t know. After reading the article for comprehension, students must work collaboratively to organize all verbs from the article into the categories on the graphic organizer. They can reference grammar resources.

When they are done, have each group list three things they notice about the verbs in each category. Share the lists. While monitoring, you will clearly see problems students are having. After addressing all comments and questions, you can dive into direct instruction in order to differentiate between the forms they found, by explicitly teaching each form. But now that the students have spent time analyzing and discussing the grammar, they will be more highly motivated to learn from your direct instruction so that they can confirm or deny their ideas and those of their classmates.

Now you’re not just teaching grammar rules; you’ve used a Guided Discovery approach to help students see the connection between grammar concepts they already know, and build on those connections in a proactive, communicative way.

Want to learn more teaching strategies for the English language classroom? Click to read other articles with teaching tips from BridgeTEFL instructors.