I would like to convey my deepest gratitude to Dr. Paul Horness, who has not only deepened my knowledge of linguistic philosophies, but also introduced me to another perspective on grammar. Teaching grammar is never easy and grammatical mistakes in students’ work happen all the time, no matter if you are teaching a General English or an EAP/ESP class. Perhaps many of us often find ourselves facing the situation of “This is not right (or they are different), but I just can’t explain why it is so to the students… right away.” Does the problem lie with the teacher’s knowledge of grammar, or is it more to do with the way we teach grammar?
One of the courses that I took in a TESOL program was on pedagogical English grammar. It was in this course that Dr. Horness introduced the approach of using consciousness-raising tasks to teach grammar. According to Ellis (2002, p. 168), a consciousness-raising task have the following five characteristics:
1. There is only one specific grammatical rule to be learnt.
2. Sufficient language inputs are provided to the learners to illustrate the application of the grammatical rule.
3. Learners are required to use their cognitive skills actively to analyze and make sense of the language inputs which would translate into a specific grammatical rule.
4. In the event that the learners meet difficulties, misinterpret, or fail to establish a complete understanding of the grammatical rule, clarification will be provided to the learners in the form of additional language inputs, description, or explanation.
5. Learners may be required to state the grammar rule in written or verbal form by describing the grammatical structure.
Although the characteristics of a consciousness-raising task are so clearly written and easy to understand (as you can see above), creating a lesson plan based on consciousness-raising is not as simple as it appears to be. To me, the most challenging endeavor is Step 2 where I have to constantly think of creative ways to illustrate the application each time a new grammatical rule is to be taught in an unambiguous yet intriguing way.
In order to fulfill all five characteristics, a minimum of three tasks is usually necessary to provide sufficient scaffolding for students to uncover one grammatical rule. For example, in the case of teaching the first conditional (assuming a class of CEFR-A level students), the first task should be made as simple as possible, such as matching a pair of sentences based on logic or common sense.
Task 1: Match the sentences.
If he cycles to school, you will not be able to catch the TV show.
If you return home after 8pm, I will be able to catch the bus.
If I start walking now, he will reach school in time.
and so on.
Each correct pair of sentences should be straight-forward such that there is no alternative answer. I have also intentionally put in another clue, i.e. matching pronouns (he, you, I) for students to find the correct answers. Creating sentences that students can relate to their lives is always something I keep in mind in my task creation. The purpose is also to encourage the students to apply what they have learnt outside of classroom for day-to-day communication.
The second task is to pose a brain-teasing question to the students. Using the same target structure as above, the second task would be for students to think about the relationship between the first half and second half of the sentences. Again, the task difficulty has to be calibrated carefully to ensure students are slowly building up their abilities to reach the final goal of uncovering the grammatical rule. Similarly, there should only be one answer or interpretation and the other options may serve as possibilities which are commonly misunderstood by the students. Coming up with these options does require some thought and creativity on the part of the teacher.
Task 2: Examine the first half and second half of the sentences. What does each half of the sentence describe? Circle the correct answer.
2. possible result
As for the final task, students will apply their previous learning and explicitly state the grammatical rule for the teacher to do a confirmation check on the students’ understanding. To fully maximise the classroom time invested in these tasks, students are to work in pairs or groups which transforms the paper tasks into communicative activities!
Task 3: Fill in the blanks using your answers from the previous tasks. Identify the correct tense for the “action verb” and the “possible result,”
and so on.
There is no teacher’s guidebook to tell you how to create such tasks and the way I have learnt to do it is through lots of practice. As part of the course, I had to create and “execute” 12 different lesson plans (which is equivalent to teaching 12 different grammar rules) on Flipgrid by applying the concept of consciousness-raising. Dr. Horness provided constructive feedback on what was done well or wrong and also suggested what else could have been considered to make the lesson plans better, especially in terms of the teacher’s instructions. I was fortunate to create and execute a real consciousness-raising task for teaching grammar to a class of about 35 undergraduate students in Thailand in August 2022, as part of an exchange program between my university and a university in Thailand. The lesson was a great success! This would not have been possible without the mentorship of Dr. Horness.
What I like about a consciousness-raising task is that it brings in the element of excitement and active involvement as learners are engaged cognitively to discover the hidden grammatical rule behind the illustration. Discovering the grammatical rule by themselves gives learners a sense of achievement and retains the knowledge better. If you ever find yourself at a loss for teaching grammar one day, why not create a consciousness-raising task for your students? You may be surprised, not just by your students but at yourself, too.
Ellis, R. (2002). Grammar teaching; Practice or consciousness-raising? In J. C. Richards, & W. A. Renandya (Eds.), Methodology in language teaching, 167-174. Cambridge University Press.