Grammar Practice:
Mechanical and Communicative
Andrew Wright ILI International Languages Institute

Copyright not Copy Wright
These notes are copyright not Copy Wright.
If you would like to use them with your own students, please do so without telling me. If you would like to publish them or part of them then email me and tell me about it. I am almost certainly going to say, Yes!
But you must agree to acknowledge my name and website. If you don’t, it is plagiarism, unfair and theft of my intellectual property.
andrew@ili.hu
http://www.teachertraining.hu

‘Communicative grammar practice’, means: focussing on a grammatical point and using it
purposefully, appropriately and accurately.

Mechanical or communicative?
Mechanical
The st thinks about the form much more than the meaning.
Communicative
The st thinks about the meaning more than the form.
My opinion
Students need both…sometimes it is a relief to just concentrate on the form. Cf football training or musical instrument training…both make use of ‘mechanical training’. But we need to experience the new language as well. Cf football…regularly play a real match.

Examples of traditional mechanical practice activities
1 Multiple choice (choose one of several choices)
2 Gap filling (fill in the gaps in a text)
3 True/false (read or listen and decide what is true and what is not true)
4 Asking questions etc but not really bothering about what the st says only how he/she says it. (This is phoney communicative practice)

Example of phoney communicative practice which is really mechanical
Teacher: What did you do last weekend?
Student: I swim across Lake Balaton.
Teacher: I swam across Lake Balaton. Repeat.
Student: I swam across Lake Balaton.
My opinion
If the teacher appears to be asking real questions but doesnt show any interest in the content of the answer then it is a mechanical practice activity.
My opinion is that it is better to do purely mechanical activities than phoney communicative activities.

Finding communicative activities which focus on a grammatical point
(This article will not refer to mechanical practice again)

The art of communicative language teaching
…is to introduce as many genuinely communicative activities as possible which, at the same time, give good practice in the grammatical point.
How can the teacher do this? In this article there are several families of ideas for getting communicative activities going in the classroom so that the teacher and students can be teachers and students of English but also human being sharing experiences together through English.
Five criteria for judging a communicative activity:
1 Does it engage the students?
2 Do the students experience the language in use? Do they care about the content?
3 Do all the students take part?
4 Is it easy for you to organise?
5 Is it easy for you to prepare?

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Twelve sources of communicative activities
In these notes I have noted down 12 sources of communicative activities which might set your mind going. I hope you find them practical!
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1 Real life situations
You have been given a topic and a language item or skill to teach…
First of all, think of yourself as a person with people rather than as a teacher with students.
What might you all enjoy doing together related to the topic you have to take and activities in which language has a key part to play?
Brainstorm lots of activities. If you don’t find any which involve the language item you are supposed to work on then it is either because you have not brainstormed enough OR because that topic and that language item do not collocate!

Questions and answers (and other exchanges) in which the teacher shows genuine interest in what the st is saying.
Teacher: What did you do last weekend?
Student: I swim across Lake Balaton.
Teacher: You swam across Lake Balaton? But that is amazing! How long did it take you? Have you done that before?

More serious discussion

Spending time with other people is a wonderful opportunity to exchange experiences, ideas and feelings (and that includes working with children!) Clearly the students have a lower language proficiency level than in their mother tongue and from this point of view the exchange of ideas will often be more difficult and probably limited. However, mutual enrichment CAN take place in spite of language limitations and it is worth doing: the students experience hte language and do not merely study it.

Examples of daily dramas in which language plays a key part
1 Recent tightening of airport security…we had to take off our shoes…a mother had to drink half the baby’ milk to prove that it was not bomb making material…we couldn’t even take a book on board…we couldn’t take a bottle of water on board…
2 What to do in an emergency…leads to imperative forms…you must…then…
Hearing about an accident…have you ever been in an accident…what happened?
3 Entering a lottery…leads to ‘would…if…’
4 Comparing prices in two countries…in H 1 kilo of bananas cost x and in E they cost y….more/less expensive
5 Guinness Book of Records: comparatives and superlatives plus past simple and a time marker.
6 Trying to identify something which is difficult to identify: I think it might be/is probably…
7 You have a different perception of time to another person…do some experiments trying to judge the passage of time: I think it took/was about 9 seconds. Ditto guessing distance, quantity, weight, colour, number, etc.
8 Some people are good at using maps and some are not: you go down to the first cross roads and then turn right…drawing maps and comparing them…
9 Talking about changes in society or in a town: this town used to be a small market town but now it is dormitory town of the capital……this street used to be on the edge of town so they put the cemetery there.
10 Looking at a holiday brochure and talking about where to go: would/wouldn’t…because…I think my parents might like to….
11 Looking at a tourist brochure and talking about choosing, designing and writing the images/information given: I wouldn’t have chosen x …I would have chosen y. If I designed a brochure for Manchester I would…
12 Discussing a healthy diet: I usually eat/drink/etc. I should really….
13 Discussing England: It is not one thing…on the one hand x but on the other hand y…
14 Comparing daily habits: I get up at about x…so while I am getting up you are still sleeping.
15 Making someone relax: Use imperatives to tell them what to do. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Relax your legs. Feel your chest relaxing. Etc.
16 Mail order catalogue: what would you buy? Which one would you buy? Which would your mother buy/like to have. If you bought your partner a present which one would you buy?
17 Unexpected, ambiguous, unpleasant phone call: who might it have been…why might he have said such things…what might I have said…
18 A glimpse of someone through the classroom window (or a magazine photo): Who might he be…where might he be going…what might he be thinking about/worrying about….what has he been doing…what will he do next…
19 Photo of an unspecified place or happening. Speculating about where it might be and what might be happening or have happened: might be/could be…probably…definitely…on the other hand…
Where would you like to be if you were not here? …inviting your companion to share day dreams.
20 What is your day like? Showing interest in someone else’s life…What time do you get up/go to work/arrive at work, etc.
21 Godollo (the town where I live) is changing so quickly! It used to be…There used to be…An office block has been built…the old road to Budapest was constructed in…the blocks of flats were built in…the Sony factory was built in…3000 workers are employed by Sony…The university has been made into the biggest university in Hungary…it used to be…The palace was given to the Hapsburgs in 1865…it was loved by Sissy…Sissy was loved by the Hungarian people…
Personal feelings and experiences. Tell the students a precise date in the last five years and ask them to tell each what they were doing. Ask your students to say what they would do if they lost their job/learned that they must have a serious operation/quarrelled with their best friends.
22 Personal interests. The student talks about a topic that you and/or the other students don’t know so much about.
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2 Surveys
The same set of questions can be used again and again with the intention of collecting information for a survey. Eg What’s your favourite colour? Whats your favourite music? Do you feel there is any hope for the world? What are the main threats to our existence, Etc. Providing this is a survey into an area of interest to the students, it is communicative.
Note that my examples range from the limited in both content and language and the startlingly unlimited in asking huge questions! What do you want to do?
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3 Games
My new revised edition of ‘Games for Language Learning’ has more games and variations in it than any other collection of games! If you can take one book when you go to teach in China then take ‘Games for Language Learning’!
Here are a few of the 400 games and variations in the book…
Is it true?
The st talks about things he/she did last weekend and the other students decide which were true and which were not true.
Miming
One student mimes and the others guess what he/she is doing. Are you swimming, etc.
Twenty questions
One st thinks of a subject and the others have twenty questions to find out what it is.
What’s the sketch
A st sketches on the blackboard and the others try to find out what it is by asking questions.
Add a word
St A says a word. St B adds a word. St C adds a word. The aim is to make a sentence and then to build up a story. Very good for general revision but particularly for word order.
(For a wide variety of games to use see: Games for Language Learning, CUP. Also Five Minute Activities, CUP.
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4 Challenges
The student is challenged to:
Identify something which is difficult to identify (a picture flashed at great speed)
Find a connection between two bits of information (two texts or a text and a picture)
Find a way of grouping various bits of information
Put various bits of information into an order of value
Put various bits of information into a developmental sequence
Remember various bits of information
The teacher and other students respond to the content of the challenge and not to the form.
Many activities based on challenge offer intense grammatical focus without taking away from the communicative intent.
My book, ‘Pictures for Language Learning’, published by CUP offers 415 activities using pictures based on the idea of ‘challenges’.
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5 Dialogues
Basically two approaches:
1 Repeating and/or adapting a dialogue you give them.
2 Inventing a dialogue based on some kind of starting point which you give them.
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6 Drama
There are many drama games given in ‘Drama Techniques in Language Learning’, published by Cambridge University Press.
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7 Writing poetry
You may think I am out of my mind in suggesting the writing of poetry related to grammar practice! Oh no! Not at all! The opposite! Rich stuff for grammar practice!

Writing poems which are based on a key sentence pattern.
1 I used to…but now I ….
2 First of all I saw the sea
Then I heard the waves on the shore
Then I saw you lying on your towel
Then I heard your song.
Then I felt the wind on my cheeks
And tasted the salt sea air.
3 pres simple and continuous
Usually I work in an office.
I get up at six o’clock,
Put on my suit,
Have breakfast,
Get to work by eight o’clock.
But today!
Today!
I am dancing!
And singing!
And kissing!
And drinking delicate wines!
And …living.

Check out:
Inward Ear published by CUP
Creative Poetry Writing by OUP

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8 Telling stories and making stories
This is a very rich family of activities mainly open communicative fluency but it can have something of a grammatical focus eg use of past tenses.

See my books published by OUP:
Storytelling with Children
Creatiing Stories with Children
See Rinvolucri and Morgan published by CUP
Once Upon a Time
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9 Songs
Songs are engaging, have a fixed text which is repeated every time the song is sung. Some publishers have commissioned songs exemplifying grammatical points. See Carolyn Graham’s, Jazz Chants published by OUP (mainly for young people)
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10 Pictures
Pictures are stimulating and potentially full of information and potentially emotionally moving.
If you want to use pictures and want some ideas then check out my two books:
Pictures for Language Learning. CUP
Essentially, in this book, I give 415 ways of using pictures guided by the idea of Challenges (see above)
1000 Pictures for Teachers to Copy. Longman
This book is meant for photocopying or for supporting your own drawing. There is a concise summary of ways of using pictures in the introduction.
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11 A medium eg paper
Paper, string, blackboards, windows, doors, tiles, the sun…things in your environment…can all offer subjects for language teaching.
Paper
Paper can be folded, cut, torn, glued, coloured, etc.
Paper/cards: matching sentences/phrases or LI/L2 words or L2 words and pictures.
Paper fortune teller (perfect for contextualising and practising future tense forms)
See my folding paper devices in Pictures for Language Learning, CUP.
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12 Teaching English by Magic
Magic tricks certainly engage people and language can have a crucial role. The demonstration of the trick presents the new language items and then the explanation of the trick and the student practising doing the trick acts as a wonderful form of drill practice in which meaning matters but the language remains the same.
I am finishing the list of sources with magic because I would like to share the idea that anything which is interesting and involves language is potentially language teaching and learning material.
Example (text only…trick demo in the workshop)
I’m going to pick up the coin but I’m not going to pick up the paper.
Kaboom!
Have a look (stooge lifts the paper)
I picked up the coin but I didnt picked up the paper. She did.

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Other things to think about…
My dear colleagues! Maybe you can’t cope with thinking about anything else…nevertheless the fact is that there are lots of other issues…
1 Learnng styles.
In the last ten years a lot has been said about the different ways in which people learn best. The teacher as an individual has his/her preferences which may not coincide with those of some/all of the students preferences.
The teachers job is to provide a balanced diet of activities catering for these different learning styles…
Different sts need different things…
see things (pictures, diagrams, the written word),
hear things (different voices, tapes, music),
feel things (word cards, real objects)
move (mime, standing up, feeling rhythm)
analyse and hypothesise (speculate about grammatical points before being told)
be told clearly and authoritatively (listen to and study grammatical explanations)
create and play with language (combine similar sounding words, make poetry, make stories)
have a go with language and clear up mistakes later
get the grammar point right first and then have a go
work by themselves
work with others
first have a global experience and then go into detail
first study detail and then experience a bigger situation
2 Motivating the learners to want to listen/read and speak/write
Be interested
in them and show it. (Their experiences, feelings, ideas. You show your interest with your body and face and, of course, by your verbal responses to what they say and do)
Invite them to share experiences, feelings and ideas and respond as full human beings.
Challenge them. (Can you identify x? What is this strange object?)
Offer useful information. (Best place to buy airtickets, etc. How to make better use of their memory)
Astonish them with amazing information.
Provoke them with assertions. (Women drivers! Alphabetism is unacceptable! Spiders are wonderful!)
Provoke them with questions, mysteries, dilemmas.
Stir them with drama and stories.
Invite their natural ability to hypothesise rather than just be told.
Offer a wide range of types of experience. (visual, audial, kinaesthetic, abstract, naturalistic, serious, funny, holistic, details, analysing, creating)
Show your delight in your cup being half full not glumness that it is half empty.
Foster self esteem and independence. (The learners should not feel dependent on you for their development…they should know how to learn)
3 Class management re practice activities
Teacher asks the class a question…chooses one st to answer.
Teacher asks the class a question and tells the sts to tell their neighbour the answer…then asks for answers from several sts.
Teachers ask a question…indiv sts write down their answer…then compare with one neighbour then compare with another pair…then have class discussion.
Get st to take over the Ts questioning role.
4 Correcting student errors
If an activity is genuinely communicative YOU will give respect to what the st is trying to say. Normally you will not correct him/her while he/she is speaking. You may do it just by repeating what he/she has said but in correct English.
5 Different dialects of English. What is correct?
My opinion

We should teach the dialect which the sts need in order to achieve what it is that they want. For example, the correct English might be the English of the examiners and examination board they are planning to submit themselves to. It is highly unlikely that the correct dialect is the regional dialect from where the teacher happens to come from in the UK…according to this criterion.
6 Teachers Resource Books
In the last 30 years a huge number of resource books, filled with grammar practice activities, have been published. Amazingly some teachers don’t seem to know anything about them! It is a bit like a professional cook sticking to salt and pepper and ignoring the potential of all the other herbs and spices!
Resource books cost roughly the same as 1/2 hours teaching time but provide 100/150 activities you can use for years! They are incredibly inexpensive if you value your time.
By all means use the text books and also create your own materials but to ignore the existence of resource books is like not buying a map or a tourist guide of places to see.
7 Here are my own resource books which are still in print
Games for Language Learning. CUP
Pictures for Language Learning. CUP
Five Minute Actvities. CUP
Storytelling with Children. OUP
Creating Stories with Chidlren. OUP
Art and Crafts with Children. OUP
1000 Pictures for Teachers to Copy. Longman
Creativity in the Classroom. ILI Godollo
8 Here is a quick selection of others I recommend
Penny Ur. Grammar Practice Activities. CUP
Mario Rinvolucri. Grammar Games. CUP
Mario Rinvolucri Grammar in Action Again Prentice Hall
Mario Rinvolucri. Dictation. CUP
Jill Hadfield. Communication Games. Longman

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Postcript
But mechanical activities in which the content is not important for the students ARE also useful, part of the time. Just sitting in the car and feeling the clutch and the brake…or just putting the car into gear and not having to be on a public road and think about the traffic, is a relief! But the idea that someone should get their driving licence without driving on a public road is ridiculous!
We need both mechanical and communicative activities.

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