Can you teach grammar with tasks?

In this article, I’m going to discuss a topic that I know is one of the most problematic, both for teachers in general and for those who are preparing for the concorso ordinario and straordinario.

I am talking, of course, about how to teach grammar.

Teaching grammar with Grammar Translation (?)

We know that Grammar Translation, with its deductive teaching, memorisation and continuous writing and translation exercises, was not only unengaging but it also contradicted what we know about grammar learning from SLA research.

I know this is an interesting topic for teachers: indeed, I got asked about grammar teaching and Grammar Translation in Italian schools in a Q&A a while back:

Tasks vs. grammar

I was speaking to some of my teachers who are preparing for the concorso ordinario recently. They had prepared a presentation with a lesson plan, which included a speaking activity. The teacher described the activity as a task in a TBLT framework: in groups, the students had to debate the pros and cons of two social media platforms to create a school profile and then decide which one they preferred. In doing so, they were asked to use functional language for agreeing and disagreeing, e.g. “I fully agree/I’m not sure I agree” etc.

Now, here is the issue: if the instructions had stopped before the last sentence, this would be a task. However, asking students to use specific grammar structures automatically makes the task… not a task.

Why, you ask? Because in TBLT, learners should largely have to rely on their own linguistic resources to complete the activity and there is a clearly defined outcome other than the use of language.

In short, this means that asking learners to use specific structures or vocabulary to complete a task using TBLT.

The view from the CEFR (2020)

Although the CEFR (2020) is very clear that it does not prescribe a specific method, its action-oriented approach definitely develops the rationale behind the use of tasks:

“ The CEFR takes an innovative stance in seeing learners as language users and social agents, and thus seeing language as a vehicle for communication rather than as a subject to study. […]

The methodological message of the CEFR is that language learning should be directed towards enabling learners to act in real-life situations, expressing themselves and accomplishing tasks of different natures […]
This is not educationally neutral. It implies that the teaching and learning process is driven by action, that it is action-oriented. Above all, the action-oriented approach implies purposeful, collaborative tasks in the classroom, the primary focus of which is not language. If the primary focus of a task is not language, then there must be some other product or outcome (such as planning an outing, making a poster, creating a blog, designing a festival or choosing a candidate).
(CEFR 2020, pp. 28-29)

What does this mean for teaching grammar and for those of you doing the concorso? To summarise a complex matter, it means that if you claim you’re using tasks in the TBLT sense, you can’t really prescribe what language learners should use.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t prescribe what language learners should use: if you use a PPP lesson framework, for example, chances are that you will be telling students what target structures or vocab they will use. If this is your choice, that’s fine as long as you can justify it (and some people, like Jason Anderson, have done this!); however, be careful not to call it TBLT and be aware that this contradicts recommendations in the CEFR.

So how can I teach a grammar structure with tasks?

Strictly speaking, you don’t set out to do a TBLT lesson with the explicit purpose to teach a grammar structure.

What you can do, however, is:

  • make hypotheses about the grammar structures that might be needed to perform a certain task. For example, it is indeed plausible to expect that the task of discussing pros and cons and choosing the best social media might involve the functional language of agreeing and disagreeing;
  • monitor what the students are saying (i.e. their emergent language), make notes about it and then use it to focus on the grammar. This is what Mike Long calls Focus on form: you build on the students’ existing knowledge and help them fill the gap between their language production and the target language production. So for example, if you heard “yes, you have right but I’m agree with Carla”, you might put this on the board, elicit how to phrase it differently and then add some more examples and language. This way, you will help the students notice the grammar.

Helping students notice the grammar: the case of advertisements

One perfect example of using authentic language to help students notice grammar is advertisements. I recently read this excellent article by Bruno Leys in which he gives loads of examples of ads and how you can use them to prompt students to notice grammar structures, including the imperative, present tenses, comparatives and superlatives.

Here are some examples from Bruno’s article:

How can I learn more?

If you’re studying for the concorso, you will know that the CEFR’s action-oriented approach, TBLT and grammar teaching are among the most common topics in recent concorsi.

If you want to find out more about these, you can try our dedicated self-study course Designing Activities and Lessons for free:

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