Teacher's Tips: Online Grammar Teaching and LearningCaroline Ho Mei Lin
homlc [at] am.nie.ac.sg
National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)
Originally Published in
'Society for Reading and Literacy (Singapore) News magazine',
3rd quarter 1997, Vol. 9 No. 3, p.11-12
These may easily entice and attract teachers to the Internet (or Net) with its plethora of resources and teaching materials. Not only is the amount of information accessible on the Net extensive but the rate of growth of the Net since its inception has been unbelievably rapid. Indeed, the Word Wide Web (or Web) with which the Net is most commonly associated has itself grown since 1993 with the introduction of the graphical web browser software. The number of pages on the Web has doubled on the average of every 3 to 5 months since then. It is no wonder then that the growth of the Web is regarded to be `unparalleled in the entire modern history of spoken and written communication' (Maddux, 1996, p. 64).
- The access to a wide range of resources
- The ease and speed of getting information to large numbers of students
- The attractive layout and graphics
- The links to numerous other sites
- The students getting feedback without teachers having to mark their work
Grammar Resources on the NetThe available resources for grammar on the Net can broadly be categorised into two main types: information-based and teaching resources. These are sites which provide: information on grammar items including lists of grammar items, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on correct grammatical usage, online grammar clinics/help centres/forums inviting questions with responses assured and also explanations of grammar rules with appropriate examples and teaching resources including lesson plans, worksheets and activities, tasks or exercises.
I would like to focus on the second area, namely, the teaching resources or materials available for grammar teaching and learning and share some pointers on the use of these resources, in particular, for individualised instruction and independent learning by students.
A careful selection and adaptation of available resources needs to be carried out in order to ensure that students learn to put to appropriate use their understanding of grammar to communicate meaningfully, appropriately and fluently. The onus is on teachers to integrate the available resources into their present instructional programme. The general approach and underlying principles shaping the nature of the content of sites vary. There may be a structured series of individual, uncontextualised sentences in a number of so-called grammar `quizzes' for easy and fast review or practice. These could include multiple choice, matching, word ordering, changing word forms, classification, fill-in-the-blank, sentence/clause/phrase manipulation, sentence completion and creation. Other sites, however, offer tasks requiring more independent student research where the responses are essentially student-generated. For instance, students have to search the Web as a corpus for available data in where they collect and analyse examples of words or phrases used in authentic communication.
The purpose of using the resources available is of central concern: whether for remediation or as enrichment and extension activities. Ultimately, teachers need to exercise discretion in the appropriate selection and adaptation of resources or materials so as to maximise the potential of the resources on the Net. The resources should provide for flexible, self-pacing opportunities in order to meet the specific needs and address particular areas of weaknesses of students. The sites may provide for language tasks from a range of competence levels and different entry points.
There is a need for teachers to select self-directed tasks and programmes that teach students how to work independently, explore, discover and learn to make choices. Increasingly as the new millenium approaches, there is a shift from meeting students' needs in terms of `learning prescribed subject matter' to one of `learning to learn and wider empowerment' (Hackbarth, 1996, p.255). The challenge is thus for us to empower our students, not just to provide meaningless drills, nor to control them in their choice of responses made. Only then can a greater ownership of classroom activities and responsibility for students' own learning be developed.
The quality of feedback to responses given is crucial in determining the usefulness of resources for independent learning. Feedback can be used to provide information to learners about their performance to enable them to use the information to correct their errors. On some sites, encouraging feedback and the necessary explanations to aid in understanding are given if not almost immediately, at least transmitted within a few days or so. There is sufficient support and guidance given in the form of elaboration and appropriate examples to aid students in their understanding of the grammar item in focus. However, in some sites, incorrect answers given may also not always have adequate explanations to help students' understanding.
Students also need opportunities to sufficiently challenge them and to stimulate their thinking skills as they engage in discovery activities which help them deduce grammar rules through appropriate activities. The degree of challenge and difficulty level of tasks from various sites differ markedly. The structured, isolated exercises are more predictable, being repetitive in nature with a more limited range of variety and do not necessarily challenge students to the same degree. The degree of interactivity provided by the sites whereby students are led to explore and think through their choices in coming to a decision is to be considered. Skills which develop students' thinking that include the following: induction and deduction, classifying, abstraction and rationalisation and justification are offered in some sites where opportunities for deduction, induction and constructing support for responses are provided. We need to work towards providing students the opportunity to discover and deduce grammar rules for themselves from the guided tasks given with appropriate notes and comments.
The use of a range of stimuli from text, graphics and sound (where available) in resources is to be carefully integrated in order to provide not only a variety of learning experiences but also cater to a range of learning styles and approaches to language learning. Some students require a visual stimulus in the form of graphic illustration which may be present as a trigger or stimulus for response to the text. Others may prefer a format of filling up tabular forms or in the form of a chart.
A knowledge of the linguistic terms and grammar rules alone does not necessarily imply an ability in knowing how to use the language appropriately and effectively. Tasks which merely engage students in scoring in purely structured tests or quizzes do not necessarily help develop students' proficiency or ability in using language effectively and appropriately in a communicative context . There is a need for materials or resources with a certain degree of authenticity and realism that parallel as closely to real life as possible the use of language. Sufficient contextual information and background material need to be included.
There is a need to consider if the online resources merely test or teach students grammar items. Not all sites consistently provide quick diagnosis and prompt feedback given to responses. Related to the issue of teaching through providing an enjoyable and worthwhile learning experience is the motivational factor that prompts the use of the resource, namely, whether there is the `value addedness' of the material in helping students acquire a better understanding and use of language as compared to existing print and audio-visual resources.
ConclusionThe Net has broken down the walls of time and space, giving every individual the ability to be a lifelong learner. We need, through teacher selectivity, monitoring, and appropriate adaptability or modifications, to provide opportunities and sufficiently prepare our students to work independently. Students, as research has shown, learn best through exploration. We, as language teachers, must consider how to expand their space and opportunities for learning. When students become actively engaged in discovering information for themselves, they will be able to solve problems and learn on their own. Then only can we say that we have effectively used information technology to expand and enhance independent learning in our classrooms and made it an integral part of classroom instruction.
- Hackbarth, S. 1996. The educational technology handbook: A comprehensive guide. New Jersey:Educational Technology Publication, Inc.
- Maddux, C.D. 1996. The state of the art in web-based learning. Computers in the schools, 12(4), 63-71.
The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, No. 12, December 1997