Teaching Grammar Interactively:
A Talk on Language Teaching Methodology
South Asia Studies Department
This talk is meant to be accompanied by a videotape of the actual
demonstration of teaching grammar interactively to a class in Indonesian,
held at SEASSI 1993 in Seattle, WA.
In this demonstration, I use an interactive
approach to teach the syntax of noun phrases in Indonesian. I
begin with a review of English grammar, eliciting from them whatever explicit
knowledge they have of the grammar of English noun phrases, and summarize this
on the board: what emerges from this is that English noun phrases contain
nouns or pronouns (we define them in a `schoolbook' way as name of a
person, place or thing,) adjectives, numerals and other quantifiers,
demonstratives (this, that), definite and indefinite articles, and some people
even mention gerunds. We establish several things:
- In the syntax of English noun phrases, the noun is on the right (as we
face the sentence) and the adjectives or other modifiers are to the left.
- There is a direction of modification; everything modifies to the
right, and not to the left. This may seem obvious, but in other languages
(e.g. French, most SEAsian lgs.) this may not be the case. (In the cards
I use for each lexical item, they are also marked with an arrow that
points in the direction of modification: or
Text of some sort is printed on the arrow.
- Modification needs to be established as a kind of dependency.
Modifiers are focused on the `head' that they modify. There is a hierarchy
(gasp!) of constituents in the noun phrase (and the sentence in general). The
order of constituents is not democratic.
- Adjectives in English have no morphological marking that tells us that
they are adjectives, but possessives do---they are marked in pronouns with
stem alternates, or with the Saxon genitive (apostrophe 's)
After this brief recap of what the students know/remember about this subject,
I ask for volunteers to represent the constituents of an English noun phrase.
I have prepared large cards with nouns, adjectives, and other modifers on
them, and they have to organize themselves into an acceptable Noun Phrase
They do this with some reluctance and rolling of eyes etc. because at this
point they see it as childish. However it does require them to cooperate
in producing an acceptable Noun Phrase, and it reminds them that the order is
not free---the adjectives are closest to the Noun, the quantifiers in front of
the adjs, the demonstratives before that, etc. They begin to realize that
there is something here we haven't discussed, and which may have never been
known explicitly by them up to this point---that the order of constituents in
a Noun Phrase is not random. The cooperative aspect leads them to learn this
experientially, rather than from the grammarian speaking ex cathedra.
On the reverse side of each card with English on it I have written its
Indonesian equivalent. The received knowledge about Indonesian Noun Phrase
syntax ... is that it is the mirror image of English Noun Phrase syntax,
i.e. `just put all the stuff over on the other side.' At this point I tell
them that we are going to convert the English Noun Phrase into an Indonesian
Noun Phrase; I have the modifiers turn their backs, link arms, and pivot
around the noun into positions on the right of the noun. Everyone flips
their card, and the Indonesian Noun Phrase appears.
However, it turns out that this is not correct. I have deliberately included
a numeral in the lineup, and Indonesian cardinal numerals are not found on
the right of the Noun, only ordinal numerals. To make a cardinal
numeral ordinal, a prefix ke- must be added, i.e. tiga `three'
must be converted to ketiga `3rd'. But this may change the meaning of
the sentence, so we have to decide what we want. If we want to retain the
meaning `3', we have to send the numeral back to the other side.
In this demonstration here, I also do an explicit activity involving a
`possessive' Noun Phrase, i.e. `my child's teacher's name' since there is the
difference that English possessives are morphologically marked, but Indonesian
possessives are not. When a phrase like English `my child's teacher's name'
is converted into its Indonesian equivalent, the syntax is the mirror image
of English, i.e. nama guru anak saya, but there is no marking of
possession; this business of stringing out a series of nouns or pronouns tends
to throw English speakers for a loop when they first encounter it, and also
because saya means both `I' and `my', depending on the syntax. That is,
it is the syntax alone that indicates possession here; if a Noun follows a
Noun in Indonesian, the relationship is one of possession, i.e. A + B means
`B's A'. English speakers expect some kind of marker of possession
(stem-alternate pronouns I/my, apostrophe s). I emphasize this point because
it is a sticking point---the constituents are indeed in the mirror image order
in Indonesian, but that's all you get.
At this point I ask for volunteers to organize some noun phrases using cards I
have prepared, or to prepare other cards. I ask for a volunteer to represent
a noun, who is then expected to recruit some other modifiers to form a
sentence. Again, some reluctance and eye-rolling, but when the students are
on their own, things may sort of fall apart unless they cooperate. I remind
the noun that she is in charge; it's her Noun Phrase, and she needs to
organize it (reminding them that this is not a free-for-all, there is a
hierarchy). This she does, and the others have to cooperate by lining up
Then we convert the Noun Phrase to an Indonesian Noun Phrase, and as I had
hoped, there is a problem. There is a quantifier banyak `many, much'
which has gotten onto the wrong side, and it must be sent back. But wait; the
teacher in this class points out that banyak MAY occur on the right, but
with a different meaning: here it would mean THE many ... Here we have
another insight about Indonesian Noun Phrase syntax that is not usually
explicitly taught. Another problem is that one cannot have a long string of
adjectives in Indonesian comparable to English `the many large blue expensive
cars' etc. When there are multiple adjectives in Indonesian, relative clauses
must be employed using yang etc.
The students are beginning to get serious now; they realize that this process
reveals things that they did not know (their teachers know it, but don't
explicitly teach it), but has not been explicitly dealt with in the grammars,
the teaching materials etc. of Indonesian. They stop acting silly and begin
to think about what is going on. There is a discovery process going on;
they are discovering things they did not know, and we are leading them to that
Pedagogically, now, we need to build on this realization process here by
continuing to have students make up a few more Noun Phrases. One could
- Choose someone to represent another Noun, have him/her recruit
constituents and arrange them.
- Following this, another activity might be
introduced: the teacher divides the class into teams and gives them some
`incorrect' Indonesian sentences to correct; first team to finish `wins' (this
introduces some competition).
- Another activity: give out scrambled
Noun Phrases (everything in the wrong order) and students have a fixed time to
decipher and unscramble the Noun Phrase.
- Working in pairs, students could be
given a portion of an Indonesian dialogue/story in which all Noun Phrases have
been put in the wrong order (e.g. English order) and they first have to fix
their sentences, and then work with other students to see how their sentences
fit together into a coherent dialogue. Everyone cooperates to produce the
final product. This could be done with a dialogue they know;
- Follow up with a similar dialogue they don't know.
Why Not Just Do Chalk-Talks?
The question typically arises here as to why this is better pedagogically than the
usual `chalk-talk' grammar session, where the teacher writes things on the board and
lectures to the students. After all, someone will be sure to mention, `the content
is exactly the same.' This is absolutely true. However, when I use this approach I
notice the following:
- Attention Students pay attention when this kind of demo is going on.
There is an
element of tension and surprise; they don't know what will happen next. In a
`chalk-talk' grammar session, many people act bored, go to sleep, or at best
try to pay attention but don't get it. One has to repeat the same explanation
over and over, to the same students, forever.
- Remembering Students remember their `part' in the demo weeks or months
and one can call on this memory to remind them, e.g. `Where were you when you
were an English ADJ, and where were you when you were an Indonesian ADJ?" In a
CTGS, one is relying only on visual and auditory channels for learning, and
there are abstractions that may be clear to the teacher but not to the
student. Many students expect to be mystified by grammar, and consider it a
- Learning Channels In this kind of demo, another channel for
learning is open; I am not sure what this is cognitively, but perhaps they
remember the `motion' or the spatial relations (where they were standing with
regard to others) when they might not remember what they got through the
visual/auditory channel. With motion there may be EMOTION; they remember how
it felt to be moving around, etc.
- Chalk-Talk Grammar Sessions. In Chalk-Talk Grammar Sessions, I
think there is a kind of unwitting `slight-of hand' that takes place with the
eraser and the chalk: one deletes this, moves that, crosses out this; things
disappear and are never heard of again (and in fact are not accounted for).
In this approach, no constituent that is deleted can be ignored; if you are
teaching relativization, and deleting anaphoric nouns, they have to go
somewhere and wait. I will put them in a special corner of the room (call it
the Lexicon, or Limbo), and remind the students that they haven't been just
deep-sixed. Or I send the Noun out to recruit a relative pronoun to replace
her, and she goes into Limbo; this process gets remembered where a chalk-talk
won't be. I capitalize on the melodrama of the deletion process to ham it up
a bit---evoke some pity for the poor deleted Noun; or use a sports metaphor
and send the constituent `to the showers'; whatever evokes some `emotion' will
- Action If one thinks about the way children learn language, it is
clear they seem to learn action verbs by doing the action. They won't
learn the verb `jump' without themselves jumping.
The motions children go through to internalize the meaning of these words
seem to be remembered by them in ways that are unlike using the auditory and
visual channels. There is no evidence that this facility is lost as one
ages, and that only auditory and visual channels are operative. Yet we act
in much of our university teaching as if it is. One can
capitalize on this natural desire to move and be active by having students act
out what they are representing; action verbs and verbs of motion can be acted
out (sitting, reading, standing, running) while psychological or stative verbs
can dramatize the passivity of their experience. Adjectives can act like the
state they represent; one can even get fancy and have costumes or disguises
(masks etc.) to show changes of state: Now you're the nominative case; put on
this wig and you're the dative case; go into a phone booth and change from
active to passive, whatever.
- The Vanity of Grammarians Grammarians have to face the fact that
they are often enamored of their knowledge and erudition and love nothing
more than to talk endlessly about grammar, and to build abstract models. They
have to live in a world, however, where many people have no use for
grammatical discussions. Perhaps grammarians' long grammatical explanations
are only serving their own needs; if students are not learning what is placed
in front of them, perhaps a different strategy needs to be employed. An
interactive approach forces the teacher to get away from the abstract
grammatical explanation and make it more concrete; it also must follow a
script more closely (because of the props) and it cannot wander and deal with
too many levels of things at once. It constantly forces the teacher to think
about each issue being dealt with, and what to follow it with. The teacher
has not abdicated the teaching role; s/he is still covering the same material;
but she has abdicated the lecturing role.
Nothing in this approach requires us to throw out our reference grammars and
syntax handouts; they are a good way to summarize what has been presented, and
may be useful for some students who wish to actually look up some point of
grammar. These students are in the minority, however.
One final point; why do I start with English word order and not just skip to
- Firstly I believe that students, given no other information, will
construct sentences in the word order they think is natural, that of their
mother tongue. They may not explicitly be able to describe the syntax of
their mother tgongue, but they know it intuitively, and will use it. I begin
by getting this information out into the open, and then make them do, by
acting out the constituents, what they do mentally anyway: start with
English word order and convert it to Indonesian. In the process problems
arise, and we can then deal with those problems.
- Secondly, if we ask students
to start with Indonesian, we are starting with their explicit knowledge, and
typically only the `good' students will volunteer the information, while many
others will keep silent.
- Thirdly I also want them to realize that there is
structure in their language, and terminology for describing it, that they
haven't thought about, so that when structure of an Indonesian Noun Phrase is
described, they won't think of it only as a property of Indonesian. People
who teach grammar to American learners of other languages often complain that
American students don't know any grammar or any of the terminology. This is a
way to `review' and elicit this knowledge without lecturing them about it.
- When I demonstrated this lesson to a group of Indonesian teachers, it became
apparent to me that the fact that there is a problem with numerals and
quantifiers is not usually explicitly taught in Indonesian classes. The
Indonesian teachers knew implicitly, of course, that the numeral was wrong on
the right, but didn't immediately think of the solution of sending it back to
the left; they opted for a solution which preserved the syntax, but changed
the meaning, i.e. converting tiga `3' to ketiga `3rd'.
Cooperatively, however, we decided to solve the problem by correcting the
syntax rather than the morphology, because we did not want to create the
illusion that one can solve this problem by converting tiga to
ketiga; it makes the phrase grammatical, but it is an ad hoc solution.
last modified October, 2007