How Can We Make Grammar Brain Friendly?

How Can We Make Grammar Brain Friendly?

By: Rachel Paling

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One of our major endeavors in regard to grammar is to help our learners understand it as quickly as possible, and we can only do that when we change the way we deliver it, creating a more relaxed, curiosity arousing, association provoking, interactive process. In other words, we should strive to make talking about grammar enjoyable for both the educator and learner.

The advances made over the last 30 years in neuroscience and our fundamental comprehension of how the brain functions, learns, and reacts can now assist the way that grammar is delivered, creating the necessary bridge from theory to the practical application of neuroscientific principles, transforming traditional grammar instruction through what could be called brain-friendly coaching conversations. This involves not only applying principles from neuroscience, but also changing our delivery style through the use of professional coaching skills. One of the major differences between conventional teaching and coaching conversations is that the conversations are non-directive and based on a Socratic approach, with the fundamental philosophy that a coach is a facilitator rather than a ”sage on the stage” who perpetually explains.

PACT PQC is a new coaching model which lays down the pathway for the coach to conduct such conversations. The objective of the conversation is to direct the brain through focus, stretch learners beyond their current knowledge, consolidate what is already known, introduce new material wherever necessary, and spark new connections relating to the target language.

The initials of the model stand for: P – Placement; A – Assessment; C – Conversation; T – Teach; PQ – Powerful Questions; and C – Clarification. Normally the conversation would start from P and A, but after that it is flexible in the sense that any part of the model may be used at any time.

Example PACT PQC coaching conversation in action

Background information: Roger is a B2/C1 English speaker (Spanish is his native language). He is quite fluent but there are some recurring mistakes in his present tenses.

Coach: Roger, we had talked about your goals in our initial session and one of your mechanical goals is in fact to really consolidate your present tenses in English, so that you feel much more confident and the differences between the two tenses become more automatic language for you. How would you feel if we pick up this particular goal in this session today and explore a little bit? (P)

Placement means signposting or “placing” the learner in the conversation. When we deliver presentations, the idea is to constantly connect the audience to what is being presented. In these grammar conversations, it is absolutely essential to indicate exactly what parts of the grammar we are talking about at a given time, and the coach should have a clear idea of where he/she is at every stage and keep signposting this to the learner. In addition, along the way, the coach will also summarise and then signpost the next part. In this way, both the coach and the coachee are constantly at the same point in the conversation and the attention of the coachee will be maximised.

Coachee: That sounds good. You know I have quite a few problems with the differences between the present tenses. So yes, that would be good to come a little bit more into this.

Coach: Great. I know that you are extremely fluent and definitely you know a lot about the present tenses, but I suggest we take it step-by-step and build it up so that we can really identify where it is you have maybe some confusion or maybe even things that you had not realised before. Is that okay with you? (P)

Coachee: Yes that sounds interesting.

Coach: Super. Then, Roger, what can you tell me about the present tenses in English? (A)

Assessment means that the coach, instead of launching into immediate explanations of grammar, first asks the learner what he or she knows about the rules and theory of that grammar area. This is absolutely essential as every learner will have a different starting point and the coach must discover where that particular learner is at with the topic. Often, teachers do not explore what the learner already knows and, in fact, it could be that our learner knows more than we ssume, so in this way we actually ascertain already acquired knowledge and we avoid any repetitions of theory that could lead to our learner feeling bored or frustrated due to repetition. Once the coach realises that the learner knows a certain part of the grammar, then there is no need to go into it and the coach can swiftly move into other parts. If, at this point, it is clear the learner does not know something, then we would proceed to T – Teach.

Coachee: Okay, well, I know there are two ways to express the present in English. One is the progressive and the other is the simple. I know that the progressive is the ing ending and this is similar to the Spanish that we have, I mean the ando and the iendo endings, and the other is just the simple form of the verb, like “I eat.”

Coach: Excellent, well done. Now, how about we take each one of those separately and we just go through the formation, the use and the words that indicate to us that we are in fact in one of those tenses. So, let’s just take the present progressive at the moment and focus in on this. (P) You mentioned the formation, so what in fact are the elements that form the present progressive? (A)

Coachee: Well, we take the verb “to be” and then we take the verb with the ending ing. “I am eating,” “I am drinking,” or “I am thinking.”

Coach: Okay. You mentioned before that the ing ending is similar to the Spanish gerund ending, so may I ask, do you also form the present progressive with the verb “to be” in Spanish? (PQ)

Powerful questions are native/target language comparison questions used to provoke connections/associations leading to “aha” moments of insight, assisting the brain with patterning, or awareness of false friends, or non-existent parallels between the languages. Examples of these could be “how is that in your language?” or “what connections can you make between this and your native language?” In addition, coaching questions relating to learning strategies, such as “what could help you remember this?” or “how could I help you consolidate this?” are also examples of powerful questions.

Coachee: Yes, you’re right. We do. We say “Estoy comiendo, estoy bebiendo” and we use the verb “Estar” in Spanish.

Coach: And may I ask you, do you use this present progressive in Spanish in the same way that we use it in English? (PQ)(A)

Coachee: You know, I never really thought of it like this, but yes, we do. We use it for something that we are doing now and I think this is exactly the same in English. We use this for what we are doing now, so “I am eating” means in this moment.

Coach: Yes, well done. So, I’m hearing that you understand the formation and generally when we use it. May I just ask you to bring it into a bit of a conversation with me, using the affirmative, the question, and the negative, just so that I can hear that you’re using it in the right way? (C)

Conversation means that the coach, after ascertaining what the coachee knows or after introducing new information, will then push into a conversation or into examples from the learner, so as to fully ensure that the learner is in fact is utilising what he or she said they knew in the assessment part, or is immediately putting the new information into practice. Using relevant, real and personal situations will help the learner to apply the grammar in context. The coach will be able to hear if the learner is actually putting into practice what he/she had explained in the assessment part of the language coaching session or, if it has been a newly acquired grammatical feature, whether the learner is instantly able to apply it.

Coachee: Yes, sure. Well, I’m talking with you right now and we are discussing the present tenses. I’m not eating anything and you are not drinking anything. I’m thinking hard what to say and I’m not feeling very concentrated. Are you listening to me?

Coach: Well done. That was super. You are definitely using it well, and, just as a final question regarding this tense, you have mentioned the word “now” to indicate that you are in this tense. What other key indicator words could you use? (A)

Coachee: Okay, so you mean “at the moment,” or “currently,” or “in these moments”?

Coach: Absolutely. In fact, may I add some additional information? All the expressions that bring in that feeling of “now,” almost like a wider window of time reflecting now, could mean this week, this month, even this year. (T)

Teaching happens whenever the coachee demonstrates a lack of knowledge of or confusion regarding a grammatical area. A coaching style is used to introduce new material. That means a nondirective approach prevails, using permission, to ensure the learner’s limbic system remains calm, to ensure proper functioning of the rational analytical part of the brain and ensure the learner is open to receive and directly apply the new knowledge. The native language could also serve as the springboard to introduce new information, by creating an example from the native language and then explaining how that would then be in the target language and asking the coachee to create other examples together with the coach.

The remaining step, Clarification, may be used to clarify at any point “am I hearing xyz?” “Is this what you mean?” “can I just check with you, you mean xyz?”

In essence the PACT PQC model will allow going through any grammatical topic in a flowing, non-threatening, and extremely enjoyable coaching conversation. The skilled coach will move in and out of all of those parts of the model to really provoke “aha” moments, connecting the learner directly with the grammar in such a way that there is instant application and comprehension. The fundamental characteristic of these coaching conversations is to provide a safe and trustworthy environment for the language learner, so that the limbic brain remains calm and the amygdala is not aroused. If our learner goes into a fight, flight, or freeze response, there is the danger that the executive functions, plus the hippocampus involved in memory formation, become compromised and the learner will not be in an optimal learning state. So, the coaching approach involves a constant checking in with the learner’s emotional state.

Rachel Paling: BA Honours in Law/Spanish, MA in Human Rights, MA in Applied Neuroscience, qualified U.K. Lawyer, plus 35 years language teaching experience and an ICF (International Coaching Federation) Professional Certified Coach. Creator of Neurolanguage Coaching® and has trained over 700 language teachers certified and accredited by the ICF.

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