Teaching grammar and meaning

Should I focus more on grammar or meaning?

Language teachers introduce students to both the form of the language (that is the structure of the sound and spelling system, and the grammatical rules of the language) and how to understand and use the language (that is how to make meaning and communicate in the language).

Students need to understand the form of the target language. It's important for them to learn the patterns and rules for using the language accurately. It will be quite different from English. For example, here are some words and sentences from
Ash, Giacon, & Lissarrague (2003) Gamilaraay-Yuwaalaraay Dictionary (p. 268-269) which show that in this language, as in many Australian languages, word order does not affect meaning the same way it does in English:
bigibila echidna
buurrngan ant
dha-li eat-WILL
-gu ACTOR suffix
The following sentences all mean, the echidna will eat the ants. Although the word order changes, all of the sentences are grammatically correct. Changing their position just changes the emphasis.
Bigibila-gu buurrngan dha-li.
Bigibila-gu dha-li buurrngan.
Buurrngan bigibila-gu dha-li.
Buurrngan dha-li bigibila-gu.
Dha-li bigibila-gu buurrngan.
Dha-li buurrngan bigibila-gu.

Sometimes teachers explicitly explain differences such as these to students (especially older students) so that they can develop skills to analyse the structure of the language. Often these explanations are given to the students in English. That is, the teacher talks to the students in English about the language.

Although the grammar and form of language is important, language is also a social process in which speakers engage with each other. They have an endless number of reasons for communicating with each other, for example greeting, introducing self and other people, exchanging personal information, seeking and giving information, instructing, giving commands, directing, apologising, asking permission, allowing, refusing, requesting, offering, inviting, accepting, declining, describing, joking, expressing sympathy, apologising, explaining, complaining, negotiating, discussing, complimenting, accusing, denying, identifying, reporting, recounting, retelling, narrating, entertaining, gossiping, arguing, insisting, promising, agreeing, disagreeing, suggesting. Teaching programs for languages are often partly organised around such language functions and purposes for communicating.

The text below was created by the Wiradjuri Council of Elders and is used in both spoken and written forms. People incorporate it into their Welcome to Country speeches and the Dubbo College Stage 4 Wiradjuri program is built around it. Through the text the Elders are giving advice, guiding, recommending and challenging.
Widyunggalu-ndhu wi-gi?
How are you going to live?

Gariya yaambul yala. Dhulubul ya-la.
Do not tell lies. Speak the truth.

Ya-l-mambi-ya mayiny-galang. Marun-bunmi-la-dha.
Teach the people. Love each other.

Marraga-la-dha. Walan-ma-ya mayiny-galang.
Hold together and empower the people.

Marun-bunmi-ya mayiny-guwal-bang-gu.
Be kind and gracious to strangers.

Winhanga-gi-gila-dha.  Ngu-ng-gi-la-dha.
Care for each other. Share with each other.

Yindyama-la Mayiny-galang-gu.
Give honour and respect to all people.

Cause quarrelling to stop.

Gulbala-dha murraya-la marrum-bang-gu.
Speak up for justice and peace without fighting.

Nga-nga-dha garray-gu bila galang-gu.
Look after the land and the rivers.

Yandhu garray-bu bila-galang-bu nga-nga-girri nginyalgir.
Then the land and the rivers will look after you all.
Effective language teaching leads students to use their knowledge of the form of the language to develop skills for talking and listening to each other, reading and writing to each other. Language teaching includes both grammar and people interacting in meaningful ways. It is a balance between correct grammar and using language to communicate. Keeping in mind language functions and purposes (such as the ones above) is one a way to ensure your teaching program includes communicating in the language.

Should I teach the components of the language or take a whole language approach?

There are two broad ways to think about how to teach language. One is a synthetic approach, in which the teacher begins with the smallest components of the language (the sounds and spelling) then moves to individual words, then to phrases, utterances/sentences and finally to longer spoken or written texts. In this approach it may be several months or years before students are introduced to spoken or written texts in the target language.

There is something about the order that seems logical, as if you are building up the blocks of language. It appeals to people for this reason. It is important for language learners to understand these separate components of the language, but it is not the best or only way to start to teach a language. Language teachers also take an analytic approach. That is, the teacher often turns the order on its head, and presents a whole spoken or written text to the students first up. All components of the language are presented together in context, even though the students may not understand every word at first.

An analytic approach allows students to hear and read language in a more natural form. If the teacher has chosen the text carefully (or constructed it), to match the students' level, they will be able to work out the general meaning. At the same time they can develop skills which help them to analyse the parts of the text they are unsure of. For example the students will be able to guess some of the meaning from the title, people, things and events in the whole text. If a written text is accompanied by pictures, and if spoken text is accompanied by actions and gestures, these provide clues to help the students to work out the meaning. If the students have the opportunity to listen to or read the text a number of times, each time they will be able to understand a bit more of the detail. Students can also learn how to use dictionaries, word lists and other resources to find out about words in the text they are not sure of.

This analytic approach is based on
spoken and written texts which give students access to language in meaningful contexts.

Is accuracy or fluency more important?

Students need to develop both accuracy and fluency in the target language. Teachers balance development of their students' correct use of the language with their confidence in using the language. Some activities focus on getting it right; for those activities accurate use of the sounds, word and grammatical structures of the language is important. Other activities focus on getting the language 'out there' even if the students make mistakes; for those activities communication is more important than perfection.

What is the place of grammar?

Some Australian revival languages programs don't grow and progress because the students are only ever given the opportunity to learn single words (usually nouns) in isolation. Programs can sometimes get stuck on family and body part terms, animal and plant names. Although these are very important words, communication in the language can only begin to happen if the teacher develops their own understanding and use of the grammar of the language so that they can build up these skills in the students.

Using grammar involves knowing about various levels of the structures of the target language:
Since the students are second language learners, they need to be taught the grammar of the target language, and ways it differs from English, for example in a series of sentences such as the following:
The boy is at the river.
The boy is at the river fishing.
The boy is at the river fishing with his cousin.
The boy is at the river fishing with his cousin for black bream.
The boy is at the river fishing with his cousin for black bream with a line.
While English has prepositions at, for and with, those meanings would be expressed in Australian languages in suffixes added to the nouns (river, cousin, black bream and line). When teachers highlight patterns such as these, students can understand and begin to use the grammatical structures in the language they are learning. The set of sentences above could be an oral language game (with students sitting in a circle and adding to the length of the sentence) or designed as a reading and writing activity in a teacher-made worksheet or interactive white board exercise. Language teachers are mindful of their approach to teaching grammar.

How can I incorporate grammar into my teaching?

Once teachers feel more confident about the grammar of their language they can begin to incorporate it into their teaching.

Teachers devote parts of lessons to explaining patterns and rules in the language, for example grammar can be taught explicitly through controlled practice exercises. However, unlike older approaches to grammar teaching, these days the students are taught grammar in ways which enable them to participate in interactive activities. Teachers select and focus on specific grammatical features in particular lessons, and present examples of those structures to the students. They design activities in which the students have the opportunity to see and learn the patterns and rules in the language. Students then manipulate those structures to communicate meaning and express ideas.

The following example is featured in the Board of Studies NSW (2003) Aboriginal languages K-10 assessment for learning in a standards referenced framework CD ROM. The students' task was to work in pairs to construct a dialogue in Gamilaraay-Yuwaalaraay using a number of language structures they had been taught, e.g. what and where questions, verb suffixes for present tense and continuous action, first person subject and possessive pronouns. The students' dialogue is based on the language patterns they have just learned. They are also able to incorporate vocabulary they have learned in previous lessons.
Student A:  Yaama dhaadhaa. How are you grandfather?
Student B:  Gaba birray, nginda? Good boy, and you?
Student A:  Gababula. Minyanda gimbildanha? Good too. What are you doing?
Student B:  Yinabildanha ngaya. I am fishing.
Student A:  Minyaaya baagii? Where is grandmother?
Student B:  Wii wiimaldanha nguu. She is making a fire.
Student A:  Minyaaya walgan ngay? Where is my aunt?
Student B:  Dhuwarr yilamaldanha nguu. She is cooking bread.
Student A:  Minyaaya wambanhiya ngay? Where is my cousin?
Student B:  Gaawaaga gubiylanha nguu. He is swimming in the river.
Student A:  Minyaaya baawaa ngay? Where is my sister?
Student B:  Wii nguu dhiyamaldanha. She's collecting wood.
Student A:  Minyaaya garruu? Where is uncle?
Student B:  Dhaldanha nguu. He is eating.
Student A:  Minyaaya dhagaan ngay? Where is my brother?
Student B:  Giirr dhanduwiylanha nguu, ngarragaa birray. He is sleeping, hopeless boy!
Student A:  Yanaawaanha ngaya gundhigu. I am going home.
Student B:  Ngaayaybaay birray, gaba yanaaya. Okay boy, go well.
Student A:  Baayandhu ngarralay ngali. Bye.
Grammar can be taught through songs which repeat a language structure over and over, e.g. the Dhaga wambuwuny song below in teaches locative suffix patterns in Wiradjuri. It is from the Wiradjuri language songs book created by Stan Grant Senior and John Rudder:
Where is kangaroo?
Where is kangaroo?
In the grass. In the grass.
Kangaroo's in the grass.
Dhaga wambuwuny?
Dhaga wambuwuny?
Buguwinydya. Buguwinydya.
Wambuwuny buguwinydya.
Where is koala?
Where is koala?
In the tree. In the tree.
Koala's in the tree.
Dhaga barrandung?
Dhaga barrandung?
Madhandha. Madhandha.
Barrandung madhadha.
Where is emu?
Where is emu?
At the nest. At the nest.
Emu's at the nest.
Dhaga dhinawan?
Dhaga dhinawan?
Ngurangga. Ngurangga.
Dhinawan ngurangga.
Where is platypus?
Where is platypus?
In the water. In the water.
Platypus is in the water.
Dhaga biladurang?
Dhaga biladurang?
Galingga. Galingga.
Biladurang galingga.
Running dictation can be a fun way to teach grammar. The teacher chooses a short passage and pins just one copy up on the wall at the front of the classroom. The class is divided into teams of 3-4 students. The first student in each group runs to the passage, memorises the first sentence, runs back and dictates it to the scribe in their group. A student may need to run back and check if s/he hasn't been able to remember the whole sentence. The second student in each group runs to, memorises, runs back and dictates the second sentence; and so on until each group has completed the passage. The teacher then gives each group a copy of the passage so that they can compare how accurately they have written it down. The repetition in this activity gives the students an opportunity to revise the vocabulary and structures they are learning.

Grammar can be taught through speaking, listening, reading or writing activities. It can also be taught incidentally, for example in the middle of a class students may notice, or the teacher might point out, a certain pattern in the language which is found in the spoken or written text the students happen to be using or analysing. On a daily and weekly basis teachers also give students oral and/or written feedback on the accuracy of their use of the language.

This page was first published on November 22, 2013 and was last updated on January 24, 2022. All material is copyright to the individual authors unless indicated otherwise.