Should Teaching Syntax Be So Taxing?

Both in private lessons and on my community forum I face the challenge of helping students learn syntax in English. Simply correcting their written errors is never enough. I try to promote discovery and reflection, but learning syntax is a two-part process. Sure, there’s the output. After all, to become a better writer, one must write. That’s why we ask students to practice writing, apply feedback, and revise. The other part, however, is the input. Students must read. This exposes them to good models.

The question then is how should students read? How can we help them work with a text so that it can begin to influence their own output? How can we help students internalize some of the structures they read? What’s your approach? Do you have any special noticing tasks or reconstruction activities? Please feel free to share your ideas.

In the meantime, here are just a few of the exercises I’ve been asking students to do lately.

1.  Sentence scrambles. After reading an article and discussing it with students, I like to take complex sentences from the text and scramble them in chunks for students to unscramble. In other words, I do not separate a sentence into individual words. I usually keep phrases together or sometimes I deliberately break up a logical phrase, and then I challenge students to recall the original word order as well as any other acceptable word order. Variations are discussed. For example:

their best efforts / little / there was / despite / to stop the destruction / they could do (One variation: Despite their best efforts, there was little they could do to stop the destruction.)

2. Multiple vocabulary encounters. I like to include at least two forms of practice with key vocabulary from an article. Each time I try to keep the same grammar in place. For instance, if we read about diminishing arctic ice (See VOA article.) and encounter detriment, I continue using the whole phrase that the journalist used in the article: “to the detriment of (low-lying areas).” I know I’m not the first to promote learning language in chunks, but I really do think it helps students construct their thoughts more accurately. It’s certainly easier to build a 25-piece puzzle than a 100-piece puzzle, right? In the case of to the detriment of (something), I might pose a question using the same structure but in a new context: Some people regularly take work home and have little time for relaxation. What other things do some people do to the detriment of their own health?

3. Sentence completions. On my forum, I like to take a structure, create a sentence gap with it, and invite students to complete the sentence with their own thoughts. They read one another’s ideas and my feedback, learning what works and what doesn’t and why. I try to make the statement lend itself to discussion. For example, to practice use of despite, I could post: Despite ___, there is little ___, in my opinion. Students are free to agree or disagree with posted statements. This activity could be done with structures students were exposed to in recent texts. You might do this in class or on your own online forum.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. TravelnLass says:

    Excellent notions, Jennifer! I shall file these for use w/ my own students when I get back to teaching here in Dalat, Vietnam.

    1. Wonderful. Please let me know if you come up with your own strategies. I could always add more to my “toolbox.”

  2. really a very interesting post..

    1. Thanks. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on teaching syntax.🙂

  3. Very good article on learning language. I like very much the exercises described. Thanks.

    1. Glad it may be of use to you!

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