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Bridging the grammar gap

Ted Neather has tips for smoothing the path from GCSE to A-level

It has become something of a cliche to speak of "bridging the grammar gap" between GCSE and A-level courses in foreign languages. Not only does A level require a more extended knowledge of grammar than GCSE but there is also a wide range of ability among students starting courses. So the following points may be made.

First, the course must be prepared to start from scratch and cover basic grammar again. Second, because not all students have the same level of knowledge, teaching of grammar must be differentiated and individualised to avoid boredom and lack of motivation. Third, grammar teaching must maintain a practical, "fun" element so that students are not overloaded with a mass of undigestible rules.

Authentic texts and receptive grammar

An authentic text is one that was originally written for a native speaker of the language and has not been edited in any way. Teaching from authentic texts raises problems for both teacher and student, because such a text will contain a variety of structures and lexis. So the teacher must first decide how best to focus on a specific point of grammar and ensure that the first phase is concerned with receptive rather than productive grammar.

It is perfectly possible to develop a reading knowledge of grammar, where key points such as inflexions and tense usage are recognised, even though the reader may not yet have the skills to speak or write the foreign language using those grammatical forms productively. The principle that recognition comes before production is important. Students should first work with the grammar of texts by doing tasks which raise grammatical awareness, eg:

* underline or highlight connectors and discourse markers

* indicate links between words such as pronouns or demonstratives and the specific nouns they refer to

* focus on plural markers or case endings to establish links between words

* replace punctuation in a section of text where it has been removed

* reassemble a text that has been cut up

* match halves of sentences selected from the text and jumbled up

* work with a gapped text and fill the gaps by drawing from a list of items.

Such tasks are usually seen as developing reading skills. The point to emphasise here is that they also form part of the process of raising awareness of grammar.

Productive language and meaningful grammar practice After the recognition stage comes a phase where the grammatical item concerned is isolated from the context, explained and practised.

This requires a carefully graded sequence of activities, starting with controlled tasks and moving through meaningful drills to free sentence composition. Finally, the grammatical item is re-used in the context of written composition or oral discussion.

Preparing students for exam tasks The sequence of teaching suggested above is mirrored by the requirements of tasks set in the ASA-level exams. These may be of three kinds: 1. Tasks requiring recognition of structures but no production; (eg, TrueFalse; find equivalents in text)

2. Tasks requiring more precise recognition of structures andor some production; (eg, gap-filling and sentence completion).

3. Tasks requiring controlled or free production; (eg, completing sentences, rewriting sentences in your own words, free composition).

Teaching and learning grammar does not mean a return to the dark-ages of meaningless reciting of rules.

An awareness of grammar and the way in which the patterns of language shape meaning and understanding is central to the study of language at any level and particularly for students preparing for A level.

Ted Neather was formerly senior lecturer in education at Exeter University and chief examiner for French and German A level for OCR

Further discussion

The issues raised here are explored in Ted Neather's new Advanced Pathfinder title Getting to Grips with Grammar (pound;9, CILT, the National Centre for Languages). This book considers how communicative and grammatical competence can be brought together in the teaching and learning process post-GCSE, considering key issues including:

* what do we mean by "grammar"'?How should it be taught post-GCSE?

* practical concerns of bridging the gap between GCSE and A-level * raising awareness of grammar in authentic texts * meaningful grammar practice and learner autonomy * AS and A2 assessment.

Chapters are supported by case studies of innovative practice.

Order from Central Books, Tel: 0845 458 9910

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