There are many differences between ESL Literacy and mainstream ESL. One of them is that majority of ESL literacy learners do not have any previous grammar learning experience to build on. This certainly poses a number of difficulties and questions in grammar instruction to learners with interrupted or no formal education. Two questions that particularly have interested me is WHEN and HOW to teach grammar in the ESL literacy class?
According to Tricia Hedge, the timing and practice of the grammar acquisition is influenced by the idea that the 'intake and eventual automatization will only occur as and when students are ready'. It is also said that the 'premature practice can actually confuse rather than facilitate the intake of grammatical features'. Therefore, I personally support the arguments such as in Ellis in favour of 'delaying the teaching of grammar until learners have developed a basic communicative ability'.
While working with the ESL literacy learners and observing teacher trainees in my program, I have noticed what works and what doesn’t in grammar teaching. It is a fact that explicit grammar instruction is not something that Literacy teachers should begin with. I think that the best way to approach grammar in this context is to start with developing learners’ ability to notice language features in written or spoken texts, in other words, gradually build their language awareness. I am usually very optimistic about my learners’ potential to notice some similarities, differences and salient features of the language while reading as I believe that we are born with the natural ability to acquire grammar.
So this is how grammar discovery (at least an adaptation of it) looks like in our classroom. While learning to read, learners are exposed to a great deal of comprehensible input which, according to Stephen Krashen's hypotheses, is responsible for both fluency and accuracy. Although I am a huge believer in Krashen's theories about 'comprehensible input i+1', I do not support DE-emphasizing 'explicit learning of rules'. When the students develop the basic communicative ability and show the first signs of readiness to learn grammar, I proceed with the grammar discovery approach and top it up with the explicit teaching. I consider a good practice to provide additional explicit explanation of the grammar rules to reinforce the acquisition and benefit those who were not able to comprehend the form from the task.
Another question here is how the teacher knows that the learners are ready to acquire grammar. I know that this is a good time to proceed with grammar when students start noticing particular language features. For example, they notice and point out that 'he' refers to male gender, 'she' is used with female gender and 'they' refers to both in plural, or students start pointing out and asking each other about the difference in “I go...” and “she goes”, etc. As soon as tit happens, I design tasks focused on the form noticed by the learners. Usually it is a one page hand-out based on the story that we have been reading in class and focused on a particular language feature. Here you can see some examples. I also try to provide an opportunity for learners to revise grammar during hours in the computer lab. I used a combination of Quizlet flashcards for studying and Google forms for production. Some examples can be seen here: Possessive Nouns; Am, is, are; Personal Pronouns. All students enjoy the flashcards and learn from them in different ways (this is an advantage of the computer class; they can learn at their own pace and in their own ways). Certainly, not all of them are able to fill in the forms (the advanced can), but we are are working on it.
I think that grammar discovery approach is not only appropriate but also useful for beginners. Provided that the learners are ready, they will be able to compare or contrast different structures, notice the difference and similarities and come up with a grammar rule by themselves. I believe that ESL Literacy learners need to start reading to learn as soon as they start learning to read.
More ideas regarding some techniques that I have been using in class are in pictures below. These are just some ideas that can be used with a variety of topics. Let your imagination go wild!