Form vs. meaning

checklist-1919292_960_720I’ve recently caught myself doing something very strange while teaching; throughout the lesson, in my mind’s eye, I check if the activity we are doing is predominantly focused on meaning or is more towards the grammar end of the spectrum. In other words, I’m the observer of my own lesson and I mentally tick off boxes as it proceeds. I think the reason behind my somewhat obsessive behavior is my previous posts on teaching principles.

Over years I’ve noticed that young learners will do whatever you want them to do if it’s interesting enough and fun. So if you start analyzing grammar in a humorous way, for example, they will listen. And they may even remember something from your talk. Still, most of them will be the happiest once you leave the domain of grammar and let them chatter away freely.

In September, I got a new group of teenagers. Since then I’ve already had plenty of time and opportunities to notice some of their strengths as well as weaknesses. They are hardworking, enthusiastic, and cooperate very well with me and one another. They have a decent knowledge of grammar (probably because their instruction was predominantly grammar focused in the past), but they aren’t very confident in speaking. They do chatter away happily when in pairs or groups, but sharing ideas in front of the whole class is a bit of a problem, especially if it is to be a coherent monolog.

I feel my job now is to non-violently lead them from the grammar end of the spectrum towards the other end, so to speak. But I don’t think I can achieve this abruptly – by abandoning grammar totally, for example. This would probably make them feel very unsafe and frustrated.

So first, I usually provide them with some solid base they can build on – vocabulary as well grammar – and then we gradually leave the ‘safe ground’ and start focusing on meaning and free practice.

Last time we talked about quantifiers. Most of the students were already familiar with this topic from their previous courses so I gave them a simple handout (see below) and threw them in at the deep end. I made the handout myself so that I was absolutely sure that there was only one answer correct (I gathered that at this stage, coming across exceptions would probably cause confusion, which I really wanted to avoid). I asked the students to complete the gaps and to consider the incorrect alternatives as well. I thought that by being able to decide which answer is correct and why the others are not, they would be able to fully grasp the grammar.

Circle the correct answer. There’s only one correct answer for each sentence. 

  1. I’ve got ….. friends. (some_any_a little_much)
  2. Have you got …. pets? (some­­_any_a little­_much)
  3. There isn’t ….. milk in the fridge. (any_many_a few­_some)
  4. There are ….. supermarkets in the town. (any_ a few_a little_much)
  5. I’ve got …. money. (much_a little_many_a few)
  6. I had …. problems at school. (a little_a lot of_any_much)
  7. Why do you have so …. mess in your room?! (some_much_many_a few)
  8. It’s a boring town. There isn’t …. to do here. (many_some_much_a few)
  9. We have so …. great teachers at school! (much_a little_many_any)
  10. There are …. good night clubs. (a little_any_some_much)

Then I elicited the rules and put them on the board. At this stage, the students looked happy and content because they had something tangible to hold on tho. This was only the first stage, though. Knowing the rules doesn’t mean one can apply them in meaningful communication. On the screen, I projected the following statements.

  1. Few people like poetry.
  2. Many Czechs are fat.
  3. A lot of students in this class listen to classical music.
  4. Some people in the class are very good at sports.
  5. It’s better to have no brothers or sisters.
  6. Teenagers shouldn’t get any pocket money.
  7. Pupils should get little homework at school.
  8. There isn’t much to do here in Šternberk.
  9. A few people in the class love maths.
  10. There’s a little pollution here in Šternberk.

I paired the students up and asked them to discuss the statements (agree-disagree). At this stage, in order to be able to complete the task, the students needed to understand the meaning of the sentences and the quantifiers themselves – not just how they work from a grammatical point of view. However, that was not the main goal; the main goal of this activity was to get students speaking. In some cases, they were forced to substitute the qualifiers, particularly if they wanted to disagree with a statement. The exercise was tailor-made to this particular group of students so I hoped they’d find it engaging. And they did. From my perspective, we had a lovely, meaningful, personalized discussion at the end of the lesson and I could happily tick off one of the boxes in my mind’s eye.

I’d like to add that with a different class, I might switch the order of the two activities and the timing would also be different. But with this class, I felt it would work best this way.

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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4 Responses to Form vs. meaning

  1. Great post as always, dear Hana! What I love doing with quantifiers is play with the difference in meaning between “little/ a little” and “few/a few” by using the same sentence and then asking my students to come up with extra sentences to make the difference in meaning clearer to others. For eg. I’ve got few people in my life I can rely on. (my sentence) That’s why I always feel I don’t have anyone to share my problems with (student sentence). / I’ve got a few people in my life I can rely on (my sentence) That’s why I feel fortunate to have people I can trust (student sentence). Then, we expand on the sentences by creating mini role plays where students either give each other advice or talk about the things they’re grateful for.
    Another activity I love doing is writing the quantifiers on slips of paper and then asking them to imagine they’re all together somewhere (usually a party) where they’re having a terrible time! They should talk in turns to each other by picking one piece of paper and making a comment about the party using the quantifier they can see e.g. There are so many people here I can hardly move!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Joanna Malefaki says:

    Hey Hana!
    Great Post and idea!! While I am following your blog, I am not getting email notifications about when you post :(. I do not know why. Any ideas?

    Liked by 1 person

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