I’ve been stumped by some pretty good questions over the years. The inquiries in my Student Stumper category usually target some aspect of the language that I need to consider further before responding. But lately the questions I’ve been asked by learners aren’t specific. In fact, they’re extremely broad. These questions challenge me in a different way.
It’s easy enough when someone asks me to explain how to use the modal verb should, but when someone asks, “What are modal verbs and how do you use them?” I have to pause. It’s not because I don’t know the answer. I just need a moment to form a concise answer and then direct the learner to a resource with more details.
I’ve gotten similar questions, like when to use infinitives and how to use past participles. The questions come from intermediate students who’ve studied enough to know terminology, but they have yet to learn how all the grammar pieces come together in communication.
Typical grammar lessons tend to pinpoint a very limited number of structures in order to allow us time to address meaning and use. But shouldn’t we at times pull back and help learners see the bigger picture? Students may be surprised to learn that infinitives can be subjects, for instance, because they usually think of subjects as nouns or pronouns. Perhaps they’d benefit from seeing a set of sentences with a range of subjects. Or perhaps they can look at a set of sentences with infinitives used different ways to understand the versatility of infinitives.
Learning grammar indirectly can be a bit like walking through a maze. You make inferences, and if you guess correctly, you move on. If your understanding is incorrect, you may find your path blocked, so you have to turn around and try another way. What if through direct instruction we pulled the learners out of the maze and gave them an aerial view of the puzzle? Then when they go back in (through interaction and exposure to English outside the classroom), they’ll have a kind of road map to guide their choices.
Here’s one short activity to help students recognize different subjects of a sentence: Identifying Subjects_handout.